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A Short History of Nice

French Riviera

The Early Settlers

The site of Nice has been inhabited for 400 000 years and the very first inhabitants of the town established their base at the bottom of Mont-Boron (at the Eastern end of the town) in a cave called the Grotte du Lazaret where they lived amongst elephants, ibex, stags and oxen.

Nice’s name can be traced back to the Greek name Nikaia - "City of Victory" and this culture-rich city has had its history created and shaped by successive invaders and visitors who occupied the eastern end of the Bay of Angels where the château now sits at the edge of the Old Town.

Roman Times

The Romans had some fun in Nice and vestiges of their time here can be seen in the Roman baths at Cimiez. Their occupation can be traced back to 14 BC, the start of the Roman Empire, when they built a second town, Cemenelum, on Cimiez hill which quickly became a strategic centre. The original town of Nice, close to the port and climbing up the Château hillside, lived in the shadow of Cimiez for the next few centuries

After the fall of the Romans, Nice became part of Provence until the late 13th Century when the Savoy House of Northern Italy (ruled from Turin) took over and Nice was to swing back and forth between the Italian side and the French side over the following centuries.

Nice's Patron Saint

Nice suffered invasions, plague and attack during these years and in 1543 a Niçoise laundress made her name by frightening of the invading Turk army by baring her bottom (quite a big one apparently) to them whilst threatening them with a carpet beater, thus scaring them so much they turned tail and fled. Catherine Segurane was thus adopted as the patron saint of the city and the road bordering the old town and the port has been named after her.

Baroque Architecture

The 17th century witnessed the flourishing of Baroque art in Nice and many of the buildings that you see on postcards bear testament to this. Façades were painted in the wonderful warm reds and yellows, ochre and burnt sienna that visitors to the town love; doorways and window sills were given contrasting colours and woodwork was painted in cold blues and greens.

The restoration of the façades over the last few decades has returned Nice to its former baroque glory, many notable examples being at the port and Place Massena. Other striking examples of this artistic tradition are the churches of the old town such as Sainte Reparate in Place Rossetti.

Nice becomes French

At the end of the 17th century, the French army twice destroyed Nice's defences and the château was destroyed leaving only the remains that you see on the site today. Between the French Revolution and the Empire (1792-1814), the Alpes-Maritimes region was created and annexed to France and at the same time Nice was returned to the French.

However with the fall of Napoleon, Nice again came under the sway of Sardinia, but the language and culture distanced it further and further from Italy. On March 24, 1860, Napoleon III and Victor-Emmanuel II, King of Sardinia, agreed that Nice would be handed over to France once and for all, a decision that met with universal approval from the Niçois.

The British aristocracy come to Nice

At this time the British aristocracy included Nice on their “Grand Tour” and as winter tourism became increasingly popular, so did Nice as people from all over Europe descended on the town to enjoy the mild climate. The later years of the 19th century and the years leading up to the First World War were Nice’s heyday, to which the prolific and luxurious Belle Epoque residences and hotels attest (all along the Riviera).

When the English aristocracy arrived they brought a prosperity that the Niçois had never before known, building houses and churches everywhere. However during the winter of 1821-22 there was an unexpected and unusual sharp frost which put a stop to more building and there was much unemployment. The English church in Nice demonstrated its practicality by raising funds and putting many of the unemployed to work to build a walkway by the sea and thus the famous “Promenade des Anglais” was born.

Throughout the early 20th Century, Nice was the exclusive winter playground of the rich and famous, but after World War 2 mass tourism grew and Nice took on the role that it still holds today - a summer holiday spot for sun-seekers who come to relax on the beaches and enjoy the luxurious Mediterranean lifestyle. The jet-set still come in their droves (usually on private jets or on their superyachts) but this fantastic town is now accessible to everyone, not just the fabulously wealthy!