The Flower Market happens every day in Cours Saleya. On all days but Monday, the market is all about flowers and produce. On Monday, it is all about brocante. Brocante is somewhere between flea market and open-air antiques shop. We found stall after stall of silver, crystal, glass, paintings, porcelain, curios, linens, and, most appealing, used shoes.
A few weeks previously, in Carcassonne, we had visited the annual collective attic sale (vide-grenier, which is literally, empty the attic) along Rue Trivalle, just below La Cité. That Sunday, we found stand after stand of what truly were the contents of attics and garages from around town. The amount of junk — I mean, valued possessions — hiding behind the French facades was stunning. We didn’t buy anything.
But here, on a clear-sky warm autumn day, we found real vendors, with a mixture of quirky and fine items. There were quite a few labels saying Lalique, Baccarat, and Limoges. Not that we would be able to discern. But a lot of objects that we could picture in a upscale house 100 years ago.
It was fun strolling and looking, without much specific in mind. I would have liked to find a large dramatic porcelain bowl to sit in the center of our dining table. But the few candidates were just too expensive, even with a little negotiation. Mike was looking for a box to organize a collection of little things that need a tidy home. He did find a leather-covered box that the vendor claimed was from the time of Napoleon III. Yeah, right. But it is a handsome box that didn’t cost much. The vendor was charming and voluble. She right away launched into her story of working for an American company in sales, visiting Florida many times, having a brother who is a diplomat in the US, and more. She presented herself as a natural entrepreneur from a family of entrepreneurs. She loves how, in America, one can build a business so much easier than in France. Happily, the conversation never swerved into politics. When she asked where we had lived before France, and we replied, Hawaii, we got the usual moment of blank, then recognition, and then the look that says “Are you crazy to move here?!” We’re used to it.
We spent quite a while amid the enormous variety of stuff, which, of course, made us hungry. An airy café restaurant faced the tented brocante stands. We selected a little table on the front row, facing the parade of shoppers and tourists, and the stands. As we were enjoying our glasses of Provence white wine, Caesar salad with chicken and crispy pancetta, and gnocchi with bell-pepper cream sauce, we spotted two little chandeliers hanging from the tent beams above one of the stands. The chandeliers were the type with gathered strings of glass or crystal around a single light bulb. Perfect to replace a fixture at home that had been an expedient buy right after we moved in. After lunch, we walked over to the stand, and were immediately met by the two vendors. As we expressed interest in the light fixtures, they quoted an initial price, which they immediately discounted. We countered with an even smaller amount, and then we met in the middle. The final price was quite a bit less that what we would have paid for a new fixture of this style. The vendors put the chandelier in an old torn plastic bag. We strolled for a while amid the streets of Nice’s old town, with a small chandelier in a plastic bag. We love the idea of our new little light fixture, with its reminder of a sunny day at the Niçois brocante.
With chandelier covertly in hand, we went full tourist. A “petit train,” originally from the US Midwest, tools through NIce’s little streets, full of headphoned visitors. There is a similar Petit Train in Carcassonne. Everyone onboard looks vaguely silly, generally with serious expressions as they concentrate on whatever the narrative is presenting. Now we were they!
For the most part, the 45-minute drive around town was just relaxing, with occasional historical tidbits.
Matisse fell in love with Nice, lived and worked here for 37 years, and is buried here. The Greeks in the 6th century BC lived here, followed by Romans, “Barbarians,” the Counts of Provence, the Counts of Savoy (until as recently as the mid 19th century, and the French of course. Starting in about 1800, the high-born English discovered this sunny warm corner of France. It was such the fashion that their demand was met with an opulent supply of grand hotels, bathing and strolling beaches, casinos and restaurants. The main sea-front promenade is called Le Promenade des Anglais, for all those British people. Today’s form and attractiveness of Nice, and the Côte d’Azur in general, owes a lot to that British fashion.
One of the grandest squares in Nice is named Place Masséna, which is named for André Masséna, who was a French military commander during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Two notable and lovely works of public art animate Place Masséna. The most modern one is a collection of glowing crouching figures atop 12 meter steel poles.
At the time of the construction of the city’s modern tram line, the city of Nice commissioned Catalan artist Jaume Plensa in 2005 to invigorate this public space. There is one figure for each continent. But the intended significance is less interesting than the experience of wandering beneath and among these seemingly meditative naked figures. Are they too evolved to notice us? Are they protective? They seem bemused, a little lost, and quite content glowing and floating above us mortals.
The other public art piece holds court over Place Masséna. The narrative in Le Petit Train told us this story. An ambitious mayor of Nice commissioned La Fontaine du Soleil, the Sun Fountain, in the 1930’s. The turbulence of the 30s and 40s delayed the realization of the commission until the 1950s. Alfred Janniot, a well-known artist of the period, proposed a grand very naked statue of Apollo, surrounded by five dynamic figures that represent the Earth, Mercury, Mars, Saturn and Venus. The thing was that Janniot proposed an Apollo who was, well, very nicely endowed. He was a god, after all. Scandal and controversy! Sketches or maquettes were put up in various Nice neighborhoods so that the Niçois could comment. Prudery won out. As the narrative put it, his generous attribute was chiseled down to an acceptably modest dimension. (Nonetheless, Apollo’s two bronze male escorts didn’t need to compromise. The two female figures have almost rolling-eyes expressions that say, “Oh, dudes, get over yourselves!”)
After our train ride, we strolled lazily along the promenade. The air was warm and windy. The sea smelled good. Lots of people promenaded, biked, roller-bladed (yes, people still do that!), walked their dogs, texted, and stood watching the blue sea. But not too many people. (What must this place be like in high-season times? A zoo, probably.) Today, a true vacation day.