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FROM NICE LAST TUESDAY, when clouds reigned, I took a half-hour bus ride up into the hills above the coast (itself worth it for the views). I was headed to Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, where the Baroness Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild, between 1905 and 1912, built a fanciful pink villa overlooking the Mediterranean, surrounded by a series of thematic gardens. They are spectacularly beautiful, as are the views of the sea.

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I made short work of the villa, full of Sèvres procelain, Gobelins tapestries and Old Master paintings; I was too eager to be outside. But the audioguide filled me in Béatrice’s early marriage to an associate of her father’s, the banker Alphonse de Rothschild; their eventual separation; and how, after the creation of these artful and enduring gardens, she spent the last decades of her life gambling at Monaco.

But that’s neither here nor there. The gardens are very much here (thanks in part to Culturespaces, the French equivalent of Britain’s National Trust), and available to visit year-round. There’s an atmospheric tea room that shares the villa’s decor and vistas, so no worries about lunch.

There’s a Spanish garden, below

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and a Florentine garden, below, both of which instantly evoked those places for me.

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There’s also small Japanese garden; an Exotic or cactus garden, with specimens I had never seen; a Rose garden, barren at this time of year; a wild Provencal garden that was the least structured of them; and the more formal French garden nearest the villa, which contains music fountains that spew water and Mozart every twenty minutes.

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THE SUN CAME OUT on my last full day in Nice, and so did the people. On the streets, in the cafés, on the beach, even, in full-on sunbathing mode — it’s as if a switch was thrown somewhere that changed a sleepy city into a lively one.

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I wasn’t languishing in cafés or on the beach, of course. There was too much I wanted to do. This morning I headed to the Vieux Ville (Old City) again, because I hadn’t really had time to grasp its extent on my Monday visit to the antiques market.

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Today, Wednesday, the flower market was in full swing, above, in the same space, Cours Saleya, as it is several days a week (Saturday is the largest of them, I’m told; on this day, there were about twenty vendors). There were blooms that are hard to come by in New York, at least in the quantity and range of colors found here: mimosa, freesia, anemones. All well-priced, seemed to me.

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Then I let myself get a little lost in the back streets, where they really do hang laundry out to dry from the windows of 500-year-old dwellings.

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Nice was part of Italy until the mid 19th century, and that became apparent to me as I looked into beautiful churches and visited a small gem of a historic house, Palais Lascaris, below. It’s a wide, yellow-painted townhouse on Rue Droite, one of the narrow streets of the old town, a nearly intact example of how a noble urban family lived in the 17th century.

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The vaulted ceilings and frescoes of the central stairwell and the elaborate plasterwork throughout are incredible enough, but even more striking are the painted ceilings, done in the late 1600s by artists of the Genovese school.

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There are furnishings and tapestries of the 17th and 18th centuries, and an important collection of 500 antique musical instruments, above.

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I climbed steep flights of steps in the Vieux Ville and emerged eventually on Place Garibaldi, the city’s oldest square, below. Built in 1773, it’s ringed with yellow-painted arcaded buildings, whose startlingly uniform window moldings turn out to be, on close inspection, trompe l’oeil (and they really do).

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Below, in the Café Turin, a venerable seafood place on Place Garibaldi.

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I forged on, determined to try socca, the thin chickpea pancake that’s a Nicoise specialty. I arrived at Chez Pipobelow, before the place even opened, at about 11:30, so I got to watch the first batch of the day being made. The chick pea flour is pressed into a big round pan and put into an open wood-burning oven, then turned constantly with a long metal tool until it’s done. It’s served in hot slices. Was it good? Yes. Was it worth walking halfway across town for? Well… yes, for the experience.

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And what a day for a walk. My socca search had taken me into the old port area, and as I looked back at the distinguished red and yellow buildings encircling the port, below, an unoriginal thought occurred to me: “This is really a beautiful city.”

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The only thing remarkable about that thought is that I hadn’t had it in the prior three days of gray rainy weather. To revel in itself, Nice needs sun.

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By 2 o’clock, I had walked more than five miles and was exhausted. I went back to my hotel, Villa Victoria, where I’ve been exceptionally comfortable for three nights, to recoup. But at 3PM, I popped up again: I wanted to get to the Musée Matisse, above, in the Cimiez district, a neighborhood of immensely grand apartment buildings perched in the hills above Nice’s downtown. A public bus would take me there, but the stop was several long blocks away, and I decided to splurge on a taxi.

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Twenty minutes and twenty euros later, I was in yet another Genovese-school 17th century villa, next-door to the deteriorated but evocative remains of a Roman arena, above (in which locals were playing petanque), where Matisse spent the last three decades of his life.

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I’d seen the big Matisse paper cut-out show in New York in January and thought perhaps I was Matisse’d out, but this was a different view of his work. Far from comprehensive and lacking many of the great paintings, which are in other museums worldwide, it is a more intimate side of Matisse, spanning his career from his youthful efforts of the 1890s, when he copied classical works, to bronze figural sculptures I’d never seen, to sketches that reminded me how Matisse was the master of expressing gesture and feeling with just a few lines.

My farewell-to-Nice dinner was with new friends at Voyageur Nissart, a low-key place near the train station frequented by locals and tourists alike, and known for its Nicoise specialties like my red mullet with eggplant and tomato, below.

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Onward, now, to Menton, on the Italian border, for a night or two, and then into Italy itself. Must brush up on some new vocabulary.

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THE BRITISH UPPER CLASSES and Russian aristocracy, in search of sun, made the city of Nice, on France’s Mediterranean coast, their winter playground in the late 19th century. Most of the city’s pale or pastel-colored buildings date from that Belle Époque and from the Art Deco era, and there are few contemporary ones, giving its boulevards and squares a historic grandeur that distinguishes Nice from other beach resorts.

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I came to Nice primarily to revisit a city I had fond memories of from thirty years ago. That’s proving a tough act to follow. Nice has 300 days a year of sunshine, so they say, but the past couple have not been among them. I arrived in a downpour late Sunday, by train from Arles, and checked into the two-star B&B-type lodging I’d booked months ago, based on rave reviews on Trip Advisor. Don’t believe them, and don’t go by the pictures, which make it look more charming than it is. The Nice Garden Hotel is dreary, depressing and threadbare. After an uncomfortable night, I spent Monday morning looking for an alternative.

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That took me in and out of several faded grand dames, above, along the Promenade des Anglais, which had rooms available but which were either too expensive (Negresco, Westminster) or too embalmed-feeling (Le Royal, which was great from the outside, stuffy within), or both. I ended up at the New York Times-recommended four-star Villa Victoria, below, on Boulevard Victor Hugo, and made the switch.

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Ensconced now in much greater luxury (still for a reasonable 90 euros — only 15 more per night than the other — including breakfast and every possibly amenity, even female-sized terry cloth slippers and a pencil with a red rhinestone on it), I took in my first Nice museum, the Villa Massena, below, an over-the-top gilded private palace built in 1898, which the city has recently restored.

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The second floor galleries, with costumes and paintings of the city in its Belle Époque heyday (below, an amusement pier that extended into sea but no longer exists) interested me more than the sumptuous decor.

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Monday is the antiques market in Nice’s Vieux Ville (Old City), below. It’s a serious market, akin to Paris’, but I’m so over all that. There isn’t a poster or a piece of costume jewelry or a Quimper plate that I could rouse myself to buy these days. But it was fun to look at objects, people and, of course, buildings.

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Matisse lived in the yellow house, above.

For lunch, of all the many cafes lining both sides of Vieux Ville’s main drag, Cours Saleya, I chose Le Safari, below. It was bustling, warm (outdoor heaters), and smelled pleasantly of mussels and the other seafood for which Nice is known.

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While my first salad Niçoise in Nice, above, was ‘meh’ (unripe tomatoes), the people at the next table more than made up for it. An amusing British couple who come to Nice often and know its environs intimately, from the best patisserie to which buses to take to get to which gardens, I thoroughly enjoyed my first extended conversation in days. It continued when they invited me for drinks at the apartment they’re renting in a classic Niçoise building not far from my hotel. Drinks turned into a dinner spread, below (smoked salmon, quail eggs, exquisite cheeses) and I now have personal travel consultants for the rest of my stay.

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All of Nice’s twenty famous museums, including the Matisse and Chagall Museums in the Cimiez neighborhood, are closed on Tuesday, and the weather, though drier, is still gray. I’m heading to Ephrussi de Rothschild’s quirky garden in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, a half-hour bus ride away.

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ARLES IS CHARMING, funky and a bit rundown. Nearby Nîmes, on the other hand, which I visited for a few hours Saturday afternoon, is elegant and polished. That was a surprise when I stepped out of the train station after a half-hour trip from Arles. I literally gasped when I saw the broad boulevard ahead, lined with handsome 19th century limestone buildings with wrought iron balconies, and enlivened by the play of water in a series of pools and fountains. Was I in Provence or Paris? (Actually Nîmes is in Languedoc, but often considered part of Provence.)

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The sense of being in an utterly different, very sophisticated environment continued when I reached the traffic-free streets of the old city and saw the sidewalk brasseries with potted palms and red awnings.

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But the main attraction of Nîmes is not its classy shops or its Beaux Arts uniformity — it’s the 1st century Roman amphitheater, below, so well-preserved it most definitely cannot be called a ‘ruin.’ It, and Nîmes’ Maison Carrée (Square House), an “imperial cult” temple where emperors were worshipped like gods, may be the most intact ancient Roman buildings anywhere, the Maison Carrée second only in quality to the Pantheon in Rome.

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I visited the magnificent arena – so well preserved because it was used as a fortress, with homes built inside, during the Middle Ages. Napoleon began clearing the homes and restoring the momument in 1809. I climbed to nosebleed level for the view. Here in France, audioguides (in a variety of languages) seem to be included with the price of admission, and I listened with horror as the recording detailed the brutality that went on here in the name of entertainment – mostly spectacles involving man (some professional, some involuntary) and beast. “Pure murder,” in the words of the audioguide. While people and animals were dying in the oval of sand below, spectactors (some 24,000 of them) chatted, gossiped, and came and went to food and drink concessions.

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The stunningly classical Maison Carrée, above, on a square that also includes Norman Foster’s contemporary art museum, has been sealed up on three sides and turned into a 3-D film theatre for something approximating “The Nîmes Experience.” I skipped it and enjoyed what may be the last fine afternoon for a while.

The sky was beauteous, as skies in this region are said to be because of the mistral, the wind that funnels down the Rhone and keeps the air clear and dust-free. I haven’t felt much wind, but this time of year, there are often rains, which are in the forecast for the next few days. I can’t complain, as my weather luck has been outstanding thus far, but it looks like my travel to Nice today and my time there may be sans sunshine.

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A THEME IS EMERGING here. I didn’t plan it, but I seem to be following the Via Domitia — the road between Rome and its colonies in Gaul. Arles and Nimes (which I visited today; it will be the subject of a separate post) were super-important in the 1st to 4th centuries, with major monuments whose astounding size and engineering call into question just how much more advanced, if at all, our own architecture and construction is today.

Above: Arles’ 2,000-year-old amphitheater by night. This was only the 20th largest in the Roman empire, though it takes a good 15 minutes to walk around it. They still use the 2,000-year-old arena for Camargue-style bullfights, which don’t aim to kill the bull, but to remove tassels from his horns with a special hook. 

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For a change of pace, I’m spending three nights in one place. I’ve based myself in Arles, a small Provencal city of about 50,000, which has its challenges: first, pronouncing it (there’s gargling involved), and second, keeping cars out of my photographs. The photo ops are innumerable.

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Early morning view from my window, above

Yesterday I walked the streets of Arles in free-form fashion, easily seeing most of the highlights in a day. The 1st century arena is mere meters from my hotel, the Hotel Le Calendal, above. The hotel seems tailor- made for the convenience of travelers. There’s a would-you-believe 24-hour cafe and wine bar in the lobby, full-on free internet, reasonably priced laundry service, garden that it’s been too chilly to sit in but is lovely to look at, and even a steam room and small indoor swimming pool for the use of guests. (My room is 75 euros/night.)

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I checked out what’s left of the Roman baths. Below, as they look today and below that, in a model from the archaeological museum, as they looked in their prime:

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The Roman theatre, below, held 10,000 in its heyday.

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I visited the Fondation Vincent van Gogh, below, a contemporary art museum that aspires to display work of artists informed by van Gogh’s. I enjoyed the museum and the view from its roof terrace, but I think you have to speak the special language of art critics to understand the van Gogh connection.

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Above: A gloppily painted piano and another work by Bertrand Lavier

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Above: A painting by Yan Pei-Ming

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I’m frankly not feeling the spirit of van Gogh here in Arles, although the city makes much of the fact that he spent some 15 productive months (many of them institutionalized) and painted 200 masterpieces in the area. Many of the sites associated with his well-known works are gone, like the drawbridge and the house he lived in (a casualty of Allied bombs in WWII). I did pop in to see the garden of what’s now called Espace van Gogh, below, the asylum to which he was taken after his ear-slicing, and bought some postcards. The Fondation van Gogh has the sole original painting that the city owns, a self-portrait, below.

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In search of a meal, I headed to Place du Forum, below. The cafes around the square seemed touristy, especially the bright yellow one called Cafe van Gogh, whose claim to fame is not its food.

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I resigned myself to a mediocre meal, but then decided to take a chance on Chez Caro, below, a side-street hole-in-the-wall with a chalkboard outside. It turned out to be a stylish spot that would not be out of place in Tribeca, and soon found myself eating a salad with beetroot, greens and egg, a plate of incredible cheeses, the best-ever rolls, and a glass of white followed by a glass of red (27 euros, service compris).

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Saturday is market day in Arles, below, a mile-long stretch along the ring road that separates the old city from the modern one. Think Greenmarket combined with tacky street fair, plus paella and Provencal textiles, and you’ve got the idea. There were things I would have bought had I not had to carry them (notably some baskets), but nothing I truly regretted leaving behind.

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I was en route to Arles’ ultra-modern archaeological museum, below, which is justifiably proud of its outstanding collection of Roman sarcophogi, sculptures and other artifacts, including an intact wooden barge of about 50 A.D., raised from the Rhone ten years ago complete with cargo and navigation equipment (it sank in a flood and was buried in sand only a few meters below the riverbed). I spent a long time looking at the detailed models of the city in the Roman era, trying to get my head around what life was actually like two millennia back.

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Above: Roman amphitheaters had retractable canvas sunshades, called velum, strung on a spider-web like system of ropes. 

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The barge, above, 31 meters long, made its debut at the museum in October 2013. 

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Floor mosaic, just one of many at the museum from a group of villas along the Rhone. 

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I’m glad I stayed put for a while in Arles.

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