Photo: Lee Carson/Flickr
1. It should really be in Italy
Nice has only been part of France since 1860, when Italy reluctantly gave her up to repay France for helping defend itself from the Austrians. The Mayor’s office likes to say that ‘Nice chose France’, but the truth is that the famous ‘vote’ was rigged: there were no ‘non’ ballots printed! This mixed heritage gives Nice its fabulous melange of French and Italian, as seen in its architecture, colours, cuisine and lifestyle.
2. The original Nike Town
During the Greek Empire in 500BC, the hill above the Old Town was named Nike, which is Greek for ‘victory’, making Nice the original Nike-Town. During its multi-century Italian period it was called Nizza, and since becoming French just 150 years ago, it is called Nice. The people of Nice are Niçoise, like the famous salad, and have their own dialect called Nissart.
3. A tourist hub for 400,000 years
Yes, it's true. An archaeological dig (which is now a museum) on the hill above the Nice Port found that Nice's earliest tourists arrived almost 400,000 years ago, and were transient cave-dwellers that came to Nice once a year to hunt woolly mammoths. And tourists have hardly stopped flocking (though the mammoths are a lot harder to find).
Riviera view: Photo: Michel Riallant/Flickr
4. The Heroine Laundry Lady of Nice
In 1506, this town of only 3,000 inhabitants was attacked by a flotilla of 20,000 Franco-Turks. After weeks under siege the town was still hanging on, and the attackers once again tried to scale the walls. With very few soldiers left to mount a defense, washer-woman Catherine Segurane climbed up on the walls herself and tried to beat back the attackers with her laundry bat. Incredibly, her blow killed a warrior, whereupon she impulsively grabbed his flag, lifted her skirt, and made a gesture like she was wiping her behind with it.
The attacking soldiers were humiliated; and the next day, weary and demoralized, the army gave up and Nice was saved. Segurane is considered emblematic of the Nice spirit, and there are small monuments to her throughout the old town including a cannonball from the siege suspended on the corner of rue Droit and rue de la Loge.
5. Secret passageways for Jews
In the Middle Ages, the town’s Jewish community was forced by law to reside on one gated street called Street of the Jews, where they were locked in each night. In response, the non-Jewish townspeople, having lived harmoniously with their Jewish neighbours up to that point, tunneled a network of passageways under the buildings with secret doors back out to the village.
You can still see the Street of the Jews (Carriera de la Juderia, between rue Rossetti and rue de la Loge), but it is now called rue Benoît Bunico, named after the Italian statesman who pushed through the legislation, 200 years later, giving equal rights to Jewish citizens.
6. Famous Brits on the “English” promenade
The Promenade des Anglais takes its name from these uppercrust English (Anglais) tourists, who would promenade along the sea with their parasols… a strange sight to the working-class Niçoise. Among the celebrated Brits were Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill, and dancer Isadora Duncan, whose dramatic decapitation took place in front of the Hotel Negresco, when her long scarf caught in one of the wheels of her convertible.
Sitting down in Nice. Photo: samtup40/Flickr
7. Lunch with a bang!
In 1860, Sir Thomas Coventry and his easily-distracted wife were living in Nice. Having become increasing frustrated by his wife’s lack of punctuality in presenting the noonday meal, he approached the Mayor’s office to propose a daily noon cannon shot, like back in his home village in Scotland, and offered to foot the bill.
Some years later, Sir Coventry returned to Scotland and took his little cannon with him, but by that time the locals were so used to their midday alarm that they petitioned the city to carry on the tradition, and it continues today.
8. Elton John calls it home (and he's not alone)
Modern celebrities include part-time resident Elton John, whose yellow hilltop villa above the Port can be seen from the top of the Chateau. Other notable Riviera Rock Stars include Tina Turner, Keith Richards and Bono… see photos of their digs here.
9. The Monster's Lair
After the war Nice, like the rest of Europe, was in bad shape. The Old Town was so run-down and poverty stricken that it was referred to as the “Babazouk” or The Monster’s Lair. Even in the 60’s most families in the Old Town didn’t have refrigeration and still bought ice chipped off the ice man’s cart. Laundry was still washed by hand in communal tubs and garbage was dropped from the windows into the rat-infested streets below.
10. The Great Nice Sewer Heist
In the 70s, a man named Spaggiare dug through sewage tunnels for months before robbing the Societe Generale Bank on avenue Jean Medecin of the equivalent of 29 million euros in cash and jewels.
The spectacular heist saw the bankers finally get into their vault, only to find the words: “Without hate, without arms, without violence”. Spaggiare made a “clean” getaway, too (well, as clean as possible considering the sewage”. Read more here.