April 25, 2009
I’m ambivalent about Nice. For me, it’s one of those cities that repel and attract at the same time. Closer to the airport, the Promenade des Anglais, a long stretch of road hugging the shoreline, is packed with flashy casinos and mixed-era buildings showing signs of wear and tear. Even our hotel, the Le Meridien, despite being renovated inside with sleek wenge furniture and understated hues, can’t seem to shake off the last remnants of its Floribbean theme. The entrance still sports a large revolving door with red steel frames and glass covered with a thin film printed with green palm trees. It’s accompanied by the sound of cooing tropical birds as guests walk in.
Yet, if you look beyond the pink flamingo statues, the chunky jewelry that passes for resort-wear bling, and the beaches shamelessly named Florida and Miami, Nice has some truly beautiful topography that no amount of man-made tackiness can disfigure. Mountains sitting at its back, water in graduated shades of blue in front, a concave shoreline that draws and keeps fortune in, these are most ideal conditions for a site according to classical feng shui.
Also, as you walk the length of the Promenade des Anglais, the laid-back attitude can be infectious. Sunbathers bask on the beach while, on the wide sidewalk, rollerbladers practice maneuvering around chicanes made of plastic cups. Towards, the Cours Saleya, Nice’s famous flower market, the architecture becomes more genteel and old-world, a reminder of another century when Nizza was still part of Italy.
It’s warm but windy. Our goal is to find Chez Rene Socca. As the name suggests, their specialty is socca, a typical Nicoise snack. We follow the maze of alleys radiating from the Cours Saleya solely from memory, a hazy four-year old memory from our last trip. Finally, we stop to ask a woman for directions. Now, I remember. We’re on the right track, but should have kept on walking past the small square with the first socca shop we encounter. My landmark for next time is the succession of small butcher shops along Rue Francois.
When we get there, they are just in the process of making a new batch of socca. The lady scrapes bits of it from a large aluminum pan (think super-size pizza) for customers waiting in line. Thicker than a crepe but thinner than a pancake, socca is made with chickpea flour. The texture is like that of a mushy pancake but the taste is rather nutty and certainly not sweet. The pieces with the browned bits where the socca sticks to the pan have the most flavor. It’s hardly enough for a late lunch, so we also order some slices of pissaladiere, another Nicoise specialty of bread topped with caramelized onions, anchovies and olives, and other assorted pizza.
In the late evening, we favor more local Nicoise cuisine. Unfortunately, both La Merenda and Lou Pistou, two highly recommended hole-in-the-walls, are closed that evening. We go with our concierge’s recommendation, Rive Droite, a small family-run operation just across from the Musee d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain. We try the assiete de nicoise, an assortment of local Nicoise specialties like beignet de courgette (fried zucchini), pissaladiere, and the like. At the end of the meal, the waiter offers each of us a glass of marc de provence, a clear liquid flavored with thyme and verbena that is probably half alcohol. It goes down smooth but I feel my throat constrict for a moment.
Even at 10:30pm at night, the walk back is safe and uneventful. At the Place Massena, there are still many people milling around and enjoying their last day of dry weather. The seated glass statues that constantly change colors are new since our last visit. They are somewhat opaque and remind me of Daum’s pate de verre figurines. We are supposed to have inclement weather tomorrow. I wonder how they hold up in the rain.
• The Nice Airport has a shuttle that comes every 20 minutes and makes stops at most of the hotels along the Promenade de Anglais. It’s €4 per person vs €30 for a cab.
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