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French Riviera: 10 hidden gems in Nice that tourists miss

Nice, on the French Riviera, is one of France's most-visited cities, but there's a lot more to it than the beach and the Promenade des Anglais. We asked author and Nice resident of 22 years Jeanne Oliver to share some of her favourite off-the-beaten-track spots.

French Riviera: 10 hidden gems in Nice that tourists miss
Thee's more to see in Nice than the beach. Photo by Valery HACHE / AFP

1. Villa Les Palmiers  

When Nice voted to join France in 1860, the celebration was held at this sprawling estate with Napoleon III in attendance.

Later, an English art dealer bought the property and redecorated with tons of imported marble christening it the Palais de Marbre. Now housing the Municipal Archives, the villa’s splendor is vividly apparent on the southern side where a vast manicured garden made up of reflecting pools and statuary recall the villa’s heyday. On the neo-classical facade is a loggia engraved with John Keats’ reminder that “A thing of beauty is a joy forever”.  

Stroll the shady path to the right of the garden and marvel at the ornate dovecote which served as a status symbol and also a source of fresh squab. 

7/9 avenue de Fabron

2. Musée International d’Art Naïf 

Nearby is this fun museum devoted to naïve art. Paintings, sculptures, drawings and posters trace the evolution of this popular and accessible art form through the works of its most famous painters: Henri Rousseau, Grandma Moses, Ivan and Josip Generalic and many others.

The museum is lodged in the former Chateau Sainte Hélène which once belonged to perfumer François Coty. Linger in the estate’s park marked by the colorful sculptures of Frederic Lanovsky.   

23 avenue de Fabron

READ ALSO 10 things you didn’t know about Nice

3. The Castle Hill Cemeteries

The two cemeteries on the northern slope of Castle Hill – Christian and Jewish – are a testament to the remarkable cultural, historical and artistic diversity of Nice. 

The 2,250 tombs in the Christian cemetery display an exuberant mixture of artistic styles from sober to bizarre. Wander through the busts, medallions, sad statues, crosses, angels and crying maidens to the Gastaud family tomb where the angel of death hovers over a tomb half-opened by stone hands. It’s hard to miss the 12-metre high Grosso tomb which displays his wife and two children topped by a benevolent angel.

The adjacent Jewish cemetery commemorates the Jews from Nice who perished in the Holocaust as well as local Resistance heroes.

Notice the unusual Asseo tomb adorned with train, plane, car and pine tree sculptures. It is the tomb of a seven-year old boy who asked his parents for his favourite items. Unable to comply with his dying request at the time, they honoured his wishes in death with this moving testament to parental love.

4. Saint Pons Abbey Church

The Saint Pons Abbey is one of the oldest abbeys in the south of France, built in the eighth century on the spot where Saint Pontius of Cimiez was martyred.

Although the abbey is now a part of Pasteur Hospital and is not open for visits, the adjacent church is proudly open to display the results of its recent restoration.

Dating from 1725, the church is a shining example of Nice’s baroque architecture. Highlights of the brightly painted interior include lateral chapels decorated with twisted columns, a painting behind the altar depicting the martyrdom of Saint Pontius, and an exquisite crypt that contains the relics of the martyred saint.

5. Gloria Mansions

Only steps from the well-known Musée des Beaux Arts, lies this Art Deco masterpiece, named a historic monument in 1989. From a distance the grayish facade looks like any other apartment building.

A closer look reveals that the tinted concrete glistens with encrusted oyster shells and the balconies curve like waves in the sea. On the top floor sculpted raptors, inspired by the Chrysler building in New York, guard the building.

Behind the magnificent entrance  gate (usually open) lies a courtyard with more stylish stuccoes and bas-reliefs. Peek through the building’s entrance to admire a mammoth glass-mosaic on the opposite side.

Just visible is a monumental concrete staircase supported by green-tinted columns that spiral up to a glass roof. From the bronze hand-crafted letter boxes to the intricate railings and marble floors, Gloria Mansions is the height of 1930s design.

123 rue de France

6. Chateau Valrose

Lucky are the students at the University of Nice who study at this castle-park turned campus. Built in 1870 for a Russian baron and financier, the castle exterior is a festival of spires, pointed arches and massive staircases while the inside boasts crystal chandeliers, frescoes and a 400-seat concert hall.

The park spreads over 10 hectares on Cimiez hill with a Gothic entrance gate on the eastern side to welcome Cimiez’s aristocratic 19th-century visitors. Until the Baron’s death in 1881, the finest musicians of the day performed at the Chateau. 

Although the chateau and park are usually closed to random visitors, the University of Nice hosts a regular cycle of concerts and workshops that are open to the public.

28 Avenue Valrose

7. Villa Paradiso

The stately Villa Paradiso and its vast gardens were built in 1881 when everyone with a title or a sizable bank account (preferably both) wanted to stay on the trendy boulevard de Cimiez. 

Later it became the residence of Baron Etienne Van Zuylen and his wife Helene, née de Rothschild, who created the Nice chapter of the Society for the Protection of Animals. 

After WWII the city of Nice acquired the estate, turning it first into the Conservatory of Music and then trying to sell it. An outcry ensued, the Mayor relented and soon this historic property will house a cancer institute. 

24 boulevard de Cimiez

8. Hotel Alhambra

Horseshoe arches and minarets seem out of place in Cimiez but Orientalism was all the rage at the turn of the 20th century. Built in 1900, the building is also unusual as the product of a female entrepreneur, Madame Emilie Gabrielle Sabatier.

This clever lady built her hotel in a neo-Moorish style as a way to attract an international clientele. Business boomed until the outbreak of WWI when it was requisitioned as a military hospital. Guests never returned in force and in 1947 it became an apartment building.

48 boulevard de Cimiez

9. Maison de la Treille

This captivating old house with a luxuriant vine cascading down the front may be the Old Town’s most Instagramable spot.

Treille means “vine” and this one has been here at least since the turn of the 20th century. At one time the buidling was a tavern and then it became a centre for Nice’s language and traditions. Around 1930 artist Raoul Dufy depicted the house in a painting, Le Mai à Nice which now hangs in the Musée des Beaux Arts. 

9 rue Saint Augustin

10. Archaeological Crypt

A visit to the archaeological “crypt” is a fascinating peek into medieval Nice. Before Nice’s walls were destroyed in 1706, the Old Town was protected by a system of gates, towers and bastions, none of which are visible today – at least not above ground.

When work began on Nice’s tramway in 2007, workers were startled to discover the intact remains of fortified Nice including a moat and an aqueduct. The crypt stretches over 2,000 square metres under Place Garibaldi with a system of walkways to facilitate visits. Visits must be reserved in advance and include a guided tour (in French). 

Place Jacques Toja

Jeanne is a veteran travel writer who has resided in Nice for 22 years. She’s the author of Nice Uncovered: Walks Through the Secret Heart of a Historic City and runs the travel-planning website frenchrivieratraveller.com. Her passion is exploring the many facets of Nice’s fascinating history and culture.

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FRANCE EXPLAINED

Bears, lemons and pig-squealing: 9 of France’s strangest festivals

From pig-squealing competitions to men in bear suits, these are some of France's most bizarre traditional festivals.

Bears, lemons and pig-squealing: 9 of France's strangest festivals

France is home to hundreds of festivals every year, from small local celebrations to internationally renowned events such as the Strasbourg Christmas market, Nice Carnival and the Lyon Fête des lumières. But there are other festivals that are, frankly, a bit strange.

Here are France’s 9 strangest festivals;

Fête du Citron

When life gives you lemons…create a festival involving over 140 tonnes of citrus fruit and invite about 230,000 visitors annually? That is pretty much what Menton, a town on the French Riviera did in 1928 when a hotelier in the region wished to increase tourism. Known for its delicious lemons, Menton has grown the fruit since the 1500s and shipped them all over the world.

The hotelier’s idea, which came into fruition in 1934 ended up becoming a world recognised three-week festival, where the city and its garden show off giant sculptures – some over 10 metres in height – made of lemons and oranges, amid parades, shows, concerts and art exhibits. 

Fête de l’Ours

Recently added to the UNESCO ‘intangible heritage’ list, the Bear Festival takes place in the Pyrenees, along the border with Spain. Stretching all the way back to the Middle Ages, the festival has some surprising components: it involves a man dressing up as a bear and chasing humans.

At the end of the festival, the humans catch the man in the bear costume, and ‘skin’ him (take off his bear costume) so he can become a person again.

READ MORE: What you need to know about the French bear festival recognised by Unesco

It is intended to be a celebration of the end of winter, and while it was practised in all villages in the region up to the 19th century, it still occurs in three villages in the Haut Vallespir, located in the Pyrenees-Orientales département.

La Pourcailhade (Festival of the Pig)

Every year the small village of Trie-sur-Baise in the Pyrenees hosts a unique festival dedicated to pigs. Throughout the celebration, you’ll see pigs in various forms – from piglets to pork and people in pig costumes. The Pourcailhade is known for one moment in particular: the pig squealing competition, where participants get on stage and attempt to give their best pig imitation. 

The festival first started in 1975, at the former home to Europe’s largest pig market, and it usually takes place in August, though the festival had a six-year pause and made its comeback in 2018.

There are also piglet races and competitions to see who has the best pig-costume, but the cri de cochon (pig squeal) contest is something to behold, as shown below.

The Underwear festival

Captain Underpants would fit right in to this village in the south of France, located the Lot département.

Started in 2016, this festival is meant to pay homage to a reporter who made the little town of Montcuq famous across France during a nationally televised segment in 1976. During the celebration, participants can compete with one another in games from sumo-wrestling to a race (in underwear).

The sausage and pickle festival

Andouillette might be one of the French foods that foreigners find least appealing, but its cousin, andouille, is perhaps a bit more appealing…though possibly not enough to join a contest for the fastest andouille and pickle eater.

READ MORE: Readers reveal: The worst food in France

Every August 15th, the village of Bèze, located in eastern France, hosts a festival celebrating the sausage. One key moment is the competition to see who can swallow one kilo and 200 grams of tripe as quickly as possible, all with their hands tied behind their backs. The festival also crowns a queen of andouille and a king of the pickles, and the proceeds go toward helping children with disabilities.

This is not the only andouille centred festival in France. Another one, the “Fête de l’Andouille” which takes place in northern France involves a very important step where the crowd tries to catch pieces of andouille thrown at them from a balcony.

Fêtes de Bayonne

Known as France’s wildest festival, the Fêtes de Bayonne are a five-day party celebrating Basque cultural identity, and they take place in Bayonne every summer. 

Starting in 1932, the Fêtes can be controversial because they have traditionally involved bull fighting, or corrida, which some French lawmakers have been working to outlaw.

READ MORE: Could bullfighting finally be banned in France?

Aside from the bulls, the festival consists of lots of singing, dancing, sports competitions, traditional dress, and crowd-surfing. 

Festival-goers wear red and white outfits to symbolise the northern Spanish province of Pamplona, though some purists wear the colours of Bayonne: white and blue.

One of the most notable parts of the festival is the paquito chocolatero – a type of crowd-surfing where a person is passed over a chain of people sitting on the ground. The Fêtes de Bayonne have beaten the world record for the longest chain of people several times, most recently in 2022, a chain of 8,000 people passed one person over the crowd.

The Historic Ladle Festival

In practice since 1884, the Fête Historique des Louches, this tradition takes place in northern France in Comines. The legend goes that the Lord of the town was imprisoned in a high tower, and to show his people where he was being held, he apparently threw a wooden spoon with his coat of arms from the tower.

The festival, which takes place each October, has plenty of other activities, including a pageant, but the most noteworthy part is the parade where wooden spoons are hurled at the crowd. The goal is to walk away with the most ladles, proving to everyone that you truly deserve to live in the town of Comines.

The Gayant Festival

Close to the border with Belgium, the city of Douai in France’s north engages in a festival to celebrate three large statues, representing a giant family. Called the “Gayants” – they symbolise the city and according to folklore, they helped the villagers survive battles, invasions and wars over the centuries. The procession involves a parade where the giant statues are taken around the city.

This is another French festival that was registered in the “intangible cultural heritage” list with UNESCO, specifically under the category of “Giants and processional dragons of Belgium and France.”

Festival of the Unusual Taking place in Finistère, on France’s western coast, this festival has been going on for almost three decades.

Every July 14th, villagers come to demonstrate one of their “unusual talents,” whether that be throwing an egg or demonstrating how long they can peel an apple. One highlight of the festival is the race – where contestants try to go faster than one another on bed frames with rollers. Some contestants use the festival as a way to show their prowess in the Guinness Book of World Records – one village member broke the record in bending beer caps at the festival.

While France’s many festivals might seem a bit odd to foreigners, they still pale in comparison to some festivals taking place in the anglophone world, such as the Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling event in the UK, where participants race down a 180 metre hill to try to catch the Gloucester cheese rolling down it. 

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