Once I see the red bell peppers almost as big as my head, I wish I could airlift the Cours Saleya market back to Chicago. For several car-free blocks, vendors line this street in Nice’s Old Town, where the signs are in Nissart, the local dialect, as well as French. On Mondays, Cours Saleya turns into a flea market, but during the rest of the week, it hosts a famous flower market alongside booths overflowing with gorgeous fruits, vegetables, spices and other foodstuffs. Though many vendors leave at 1pm, the area hums with activity all day, thanks to an array of cafés and restaurants.
Having scarfed multiple croissants for breakfast, I’m not hungry, but as I amble past piles of olives and cheeses, I fantasize about picking up ingredients for a picnic. If I didn’t find the olive oil and dessert of my dreams, I would walk a couple of blocks to Nicolas Alziari, an olive-oil shop founded in 1868—you can see its colorful containers on restaurant tables all over Nice—and Auer, the chocolatier across the street. It wouldn’t take long to find the perfect lunch spot on one of the public beaches on the Mediterranean, or on the Colline du Château, a hilltop park with a spectacular view of the Baie des Anges: Both are just a few minutes from Cours Saleya.
While the market is a tourist attraction, it appears as though most of the customers crowding around me are locals buying groceries. Paris is much bigger, but it sometimes feels like a stage set to me; Nice comes off as a real city. I see residents of all ages near Cours Saleya, including a gaggle of preschoolers. Until this visit, I had assumed only rich people could afford to hang out on the French Riviera. Wandering through the Old Town turns out to be pretty cheap, however. Our French guide, Myriam, explains that even when Nice became a 19th-century destination for European aristocrats, this neighborhood remained untrendy because the fishing industry still dominated the waterfront.
At the eastern end of Cours Saleya sits the ochre-yellow Maison Cais de Pierlas, a 17th-century building where Henri Matisse lived from 1921–38. (The artist is buried in Nice, near a museum devoted to his work.) Matisse came to Nice when he was suffering from bronchitis, hoping the Riviera’s warm climate would cure him. But he arrived during a rare rainy spell, Myriam tells us, and became so frustrated that he decided to leave. He changed his mind the next day when the weather cleared up, causing him to fall in love with the city. Though I smile when I hear this anecdote, thinking it’s a picturesque tale for tourists, after I get home, I discover it’s true. Matisse remained in Nice for much of the rest of his life, and on this sunny morning, the city’s colors—the bright blue sky, the darker blue sea that gives the Côte d’Azur its name, the buildings’ pastel yellows and pinks—help me understand his paintings in a new way.
Nice’s noon cannon interrupts my reverie. A winter visitor from Scotland supposedly began this ear-splitting tradition in 1861, firing the cannon to summon his wife home for lunch. I don’t believe this story, but it’s a convenient excuse to find a restaurant.
Get there Air France flights to Nice start at approximately $1,100. Flight includes a stopover in Paris. Prices usually drop during the fall and winter. At press time, the dollar-to-euro exchange rate was 1 to 0.7.
More to do
Where to stay
Artists designed the Hotel Windsor’s lobby, elevator and 28 of its 57 rooms, giving this family-owned boutique hotel idiosyncratic charm. Eat breakfast and dinner in the hotel garden. 11 Rue Dalpozzo. $128–$263 per night.
Where to see art
Nice native Yves Klein gets a whole room at the impressive (and free) Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain. Promenade des Arts.
Where to eat
Named for its Japanese-born chef, Michelin-starred Keisuke Matsushima serves innovative—and if you have the candied cherry tomato, explosive—interpretations of Mediterranean cuisine. 22 Rue de France. Prix-fixe dinners $50–$85.
Writer’s trip courtesy of the France Tourism Development Agency (ATOUT FRANCE) and Air France.