Much Nicer in Nice

If you’re thinking of a European break, there are two kinds of urban destination to choose from; pristine cities where your every move is probably being monitored by people in uniforms, and lawless frontier towns where the hills are alive with the sound of squealing tyres. Geneva, Monte Carlo and the whole of Austria fall into the former category. Geneva is especially scary; never trust a city with more pipe shops than fantasy bookstores. Sure, it’s a great destination for all your urgent brooch and pocket-watch needs, but the eerily hushed hotels play selections from The Sound Of Music, the creeping waiters are like fin-de-siecle vampires and the main monument (visible from virtually everywhere in Geneva) is a very large spout of water, which must play havoc with cystitis sufferers.

Monte Carlo, that’s another story. Traditionally, it’s always been a shirt-and-tie kind of place, so the tourists in Mambo shorts and sport socks who snap gull-wing sports cars parked in front of the casino have no chance of glimpsing what really goes on. This tiny, densely built principality may look like Downtown stuck out of a cliff, but all that secret money and tainted glamour makes for a highly peculiar vibe. There are the parties, for a start: mindlessly vulgar nights out where fashion models parade white mink coats while you graze foie gras; Brazilian dancers (carefully clad in non-revealing bodystockings) somersault as you negotiate the champagne pyramids; and the only black people you see are holding drinks trays or brooms. Anyone caught spraying graffiti in this city is presumably beaten to death while the offending marks are coated with Edwardian terracotta tilework.

Monte Carlo, you see, is geared to amusing thin white rich people. At one venue, you enter through a runway of Hello Dolly-style waiters on a stage that silently folds flat while you’re seated, before the entire atrium starts glittering with starlit waterfalls, like Vegas without the token buckets. At another, an icy diamond of a bar virtually floats above the sea. It’s a convention town, not so much geared to generating cash — heaven knows, Monaco has enough of that — but to ensuring that the wealthy have fun in a scarily controlled environment.

Unlike Vegas, where anyone can join in, an invisible wall exists between those who are invited to Monte Carlo and those who peer in from the outside. At Christmas, the world’s poshest funfair is held in the harbour, where stalls let you throw a dart and win a designer wristwatch, and the fast food stands sell serrano ham baguettes. For decoration, giant chandeliers transform entire streets into ballrooms. It’s a safe bet that any park which has a framed photograph of Shirley Bassey in it isn’t going to have a basketball court. Baby Bentley licence plates carry the blue and white Monaco coat of arms, the police look like male models, bow-ties and strapless gowns are de rigeur for evening wear, and there are no homeless people.

Meanwhile, down in the bay, elderly couples watch TV on their yachts in the world’s most expensive floating trailer park. This is Old Europe at its richest and creepiest, attracting serious wealth while simultaneously fish-eyeing the tourist classes, whom the principality regards as street bums. Old Europe is infinitely crafty: after centuries of practice, it knows how to take your money while making you feel like a grateful, filthy little nonentity.

But things are finally changing; Monte Carlo is cultivating its own café society, with new bars and designer clubs drawing a younger, multicultural generation of trendies who once wouldn’t have been seen dead there at another time. As if in late recognition of its sterile status, the city is becoming almost — how to say it? — fun. New youth, colour, and creativity are gradually bringing the city to life. The old school bankers must be turning in their vaults, wondering who let the liberals in.

Meanwhile, at the lawless end of urban fun — in cities like Berlin, Naples and London — you catch yourself listening for gunfire at night. Cosmopolitanism flourishes under the same conditions that attract violence, teen drinking, and ladies wearing very short skirts. Curiously, such cities manage to combine both old and new European sensibilities. Life in the Cote D’Azur urban areas is never dull because there’s always an edge of excitement, of danger, of trouble, of sex, of long warm nights where the working population cuts loose whether they’re rich or broke.

For raffish charm and sheer good times, Nice is in a class of its own. It’s a city that embraces multicultural modernity at the expense of losing a little of its picture-postcard perfection, and is all the better for it. Back in 1930, Jean Vigo’s satirical short A Propops De Nice captured the elegant disgrace of the resort loved by everyone from Raoul Dufy to Queen Victoria, but the tone of the town had been set long before. In 1543, the Nicois warded off invading Turks by encouraging an ugly laundress to wave her bared buttocks at them from atop a ladder; naturally, she became the town’s patron saint. The English built its extraordinary coast road, the Promenade Des Anglais, where hookers in Barbarella outfits now cruise beside grannies, rollerbladers and petanque players. The mayor is attempting to solve the problem by opening more bordellos; a very French solution.

Nice gave the world a very healthy salad and the word “tourism”, but the rest of its pleasures have to be patiently uncovered. Visitors flock to the old town, but all the great bars and restaurants are in the new part of the city, tucked carefully out of sight. Unusual for a coastal resort, Nice is as much fun in mid-winter as mid-summer. Nothing is where you expect it to be. Searching for the Russian church that looks like a piece of old Moscow? It’s behind you, under the freeway. Can’t see the beach restaurants? They’re below the road. Can’t find the waterfall? It’s high above your head. This is the city I dream of most; slightly disturbing, slightly surreal, filled with the sensual luxuries of wasting time. Watching the sunset ferries returning from the South, one is so filled with the desire for tropical deceptions that it’s possible to not to see the MacDonalds, and only focus on the dome of the Negresco, reportedly modeled after the breasts of Josephine Baker.

The Cote D’Azur is also the home of old rock and movie stars. Once, this simply meant that David Niven and Grace Kelly could be spotted in cafes. Now, it means you can’t move for the crowd of dinosaur bands and forgotten novelty acts. In the small French village where I spend part of my year, U2 performs at the local bar — they are simply referred to as “The Irish” — while Julien Lennon and other subjects of parental talent trickle-down just . . . hang. I now know what Elton John’s hair really looks like from the back, because we’ve stood basket-to-basket in the local record store (yes, he buys his own music).

Perhaps New Europe has become the place to head when you’re too rich and recognisable to live anywhere else. After all, it’s obscenely expensive, and nobody here cares if you once opened for Oasis. There are plenty of restaurants that are only accessible by boat, and plenty of spots where celebrities can safely stroll alone in ill-fitting designer wear. Thankfully for us ordinary folk, there’s plenty of trash-life, too. The French love stadium-rock and dumb movies as much as anyone. Gallic movies aren’t all about art; there are plenty of crowd-pleasing local blockbusters, but they don’t sell to overseas distributors, because in theory audiences can’t relate to the idea of a trucks ‘n’ yuks actioner with subtitles.

Apart from movies (most European car chases are filmed here), French coastal areas are notable for their love of neon (even the smallest towns have art deco casinos lit in slender pink bulbs), and street weddings, where couples can be glimpsed through the clamour of families celebrating in a blaze of green and white petals. Coastal areas work like stage sets, of course. Behind the scenery is the machinery, but knowing the truth somehow doesn’t spoil the façade. The essential word, wherever you go, is promenade. It’s the key to allowing a little space into your life, time to watch a highly public world drift by. Café society is something still largely missing from London life, but from Barcelona to Mykonos it’s more than a hobby; it’s how you spend the hours of summer, and how to remember your life.