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400-years of friendship makes Nice a very British city

Not for nothing is the most famous street in Nice called La Promenade des Anglais. As its mayor and Prince Charles pointed out during a royal visit, the links between the city and the British go back centuries, reports Oliver Rowland.

30 May 2018
By Oliver Rowland

Nice would not be Nice without the British, said the city’s mayor Chris­tian Estrosi on the occasion of an official visit by Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.

La Prom’ – the iconic palm-lined seafront which is bidding for Unesco World Heritage status – is the most obvious reminder of this Anglo-Niçois relationship, but not by far the only one.

Speaking at the Musée Masséna on the Promenade, Mr Estrosi said: “Welcome home... I know no city in the world that is so British without ever having been under British rule.” He made the prince an honorary citizen of Nice saying he should consider himself “a Niçois among the Niçois”.

Well-to-do Britons got a taste for spending winters in Nice in the 1760s and after the Revolution and Napo­leonic wars they returned following the restoration in 1814. Many had homes along today’s rue de France and avenue de la Californie or the Carré d’Or district (now behind the Ne­gresco Hotel). But what was lacking, they felt, was a promenade where they could have healthy walks admiring the scenery and inhaling sea air.

In 1822 Anglican vicar Lewis Way launched a fundraiser among the British to pay for a 2m-wide promenade along a seafront stretch facing the Carré d’Or. The ‘Coast Road’ was finished two years later and locals baptised it Camin dei Inglés (Path of the English, in Niçois). The then mayor renamed it in 1844 and enlarged and extended it.

Mr Estrosi said the name recalled “a long friendship, and gratitude – long because the first Briton of whom history tells came to live here at the start of the 17th century, though he was doubtless not the most respectable subject of the crown… a reformed pirate, a certain Peter Easton, who once he had made his fortune in the Atlantic came to share it with the Niçois. There were many more after him, and more respectable.”

Among them was Tobias Smollett, a Scottish doctor and writer, who wrote an account of his stay in Nice published in 1768, which Mr Estrosi said was “the first tourist tribute to Nice”.

Queen Victoria, who stayed five years running (1895-1899) after previous stays in Menton, Cannes, Grasse and Hyères, helped to put it on the map and a palatial hotel was built for her in 1897 with lawn tennis and croquet, called the Excelsior Régina.

It is still (now flats) a landmark in the Cimiez district to the north of the centre and has a large statue of the queen in front of it. History recalls the interest of the Ni­çois for her large entourage, including Indian servants and Scots with bagpipes and kilts. A teashop in the hills at Falicon, where she used to take tea – bringing with her an Indian servant to prepare it - is called Au Thé de la Reine. She often travelled around the area in a carriage pulled by a donkey called Jacquot and is remembered as generous - it is said she gave a girl a gold coin for flowers (her statue represents girls offering her flowers). As she lay ill in her last days, in January 1901, she said: “If only I were at Nice, I should recover.”

Generations of royals have visited ever since, Mr Estrosi said, adding that the homage Prince Charles paid to the victims of the 2016 Nice terror attack – laying flowers on a memorial – “is a proof of the continuing strength of this link and went straight to our hearts”.

He added: “Without the British of yesterday Nice would perhaps not be the large beautiful city it is today, its heritage would perhaps not be as dazzling, its renown, linked to the greatness of the British Empire, would no doubt be much less.

“Without the British, today and tomorrow so numerous, so present, so involved in the life of our city, Nice would not completely be Nice.”

Prince Charles spoke of “the shared experience and deep affection that bind us”. He said he had been honoured to meet some of those – families of victims and emergency workers – “whose lives were so cruelly ravaged by the barbarous attack, committed on the Promenade des Anglais”.

He added: “Certainly this corner of France has always been loved by the British, including by my ancestors – my great, great, great grandmother came nine times to the Côte d’Azur in her last years and Nice became one of her favourite places… On one of her last visits she wrote in her journal:

“Alas! My last charming drive in this paradise of nature, which I grieve to leave, as I get more attached to it every year. I shall mind returning to the sunless north, but I am so grateful for all I have enjoyed here.

“I can understand only too well Queen Victoria’s deep affection for this very special part of France... we will take with us such special memories and like so many of our countrymen who come every year, will leave determined to return before too long.”

Among the guests were a doctor and nurse couple, who helped the injured and dying in 2016 and were traumatised by having to choose which to treat, giving priority to children.

Dr Daniel Navarro told Connexion: “The prince and duchess showed humanity, goodwill and sincerity.

“The duchess spoke to us from the heart. It was important to us because we have to rebuild after the atrocity.”

Nathalie Na­varro said: “We’re both having therapy and when we saw them so full of kindness, it was extraordinary to see their love, respect and empathy, even though no Britons were killed; though it was the Prome­nade des Anglais, so it’s part of your history...

“We’re all attached to Franco-British friendship on the Riviera – how could we not be when we have such a beautiful place as the Promenade des Anglais.”

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