Sunshine and Spectacle Guaranteed on the Promenade des Anglais

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A multi-site exhibition in Nice celebrates the past and the present of France’s second most famous and most attractive boulevard

"sunshine and spectacle along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice"

The past is a foreign country, the novel “The Go Between” famously begins, and although we all know that “they do things differently there”, we are often insufficiently aware of the size of the gap that divides us from our forefathers.

Modern life, for better of for worse, really came into being with the industrial age – when not only technological innovations such as the mass media, cars and airplanes were invented, but also the ideas which provide the conceptual framework for the modern world.

The idea, for example, that time is the proper unit of measurement for work – without which there would be no such thing as a vacation, and consequently no “easy hiking holidays” and no Easy Hiker website either. The world would be a much poorer place!

Come to think of it, hiking itself – walking as a recreation, rather than as a method of getting from A to B – is also a modern invention. Admittedly, there have always been people who were fond of nature – in antiquity, certainly, and the poet Petrarch is said to have climbed Mont Ventoux in the 14th century. But hiking as popular entertainment dates no further back than to Romanticism. It seems that people only became free to love Nature when they were no longer ruled by her.

Urban walking is an even more recent phenomenon, dating back from the 19th century when it became fashionable in Paris and London. For most of human history, city streets were not only dirty and unsafe – only fools and madmen would have strolled through the streets of a medieval city “for fun” – but also thoroughly unattractive: there would have been little to see or to do, no street cafés, no fancy restaurants and no department store windows.

The rise of the bourgeoisie changed all that: the new middle classes (soon to become the new ruling class) claimed the public space for themselves and converted it to their purposes, into places for recreational walking and recreational shopping, into places to see and to be seen.

New “walking highways” were conceived and constructed, with the Grands Boulevards in Paris (above all, the Champs Elysees) leading the way. Smaller cities in the provinces soon followed suit, but only one of these cities managed to give the concept of “urban walking” – of promener or flaner – a unique twist: that was Nice.

"old picture of former Casino along the old promenade of Nice"

For one, because there was the Mediterranean element: the sun, the light, the bright colours. But more importantly, because the flaneurs on the Boulevard des Anglais were a different crowd from the bankers and small businessmen on the Champs Elysees: many of them were not French at all but from countries all over Europe, many of them were not “middle class” but aristocratic or at least severely rich, and there were also many who were neither but determined to get there in a hurry: soldiers of fortune, of either sex. Together, they made up a colourful bunch, and the Promenade des Anglais must have been a pretty interesting place in its heyday.

It is this Promenade’s heyday as well as its present – as the lively and multicultural focus of the entire French Riviera region – that the city of Nice is celebrating with a fascinating multi-site exhibition called “Promenade(s) des Anglais”.

Even the boulevard’s long-distant past – when the prospect of foreign tourists was a mere twinkle in its red dirt road surface …

"very old picture of the beach front of Nice"

… gets a look-in.

The “keynote exhibition” is staged by the Musee Massena (on Rue de France, around the corner from the Promenade) and features, as its centrepiece, a photographic “wall newspaper” with a brief portrait of every house on the Promenade, from no. 1 near the Garden Albert I all the way to the airport and the river Var. Fascinating stuff!

"exhibit in Nice showing the sunshine and spectacle to see along the Promenade des Anglais"

But on top of that, all of the city’s other museums (14 in all) are pitching in with a theme-related exhibition of their own – the Matisse Museum (that’s the easy one), the Chagall museum (a little less obvious already) …

"Chagall painting - part of the sunshine and spectacle in Nice"

… and even the Musee du Sport and the Archaeological Museum of Cimiez have found an angle to connect with the city’s most famous street and its promeneurs.

The exhibition closes on 4 October 2015. About half of the museums are closed on Mondays, the other half on Tuesdays, so you may want to avoid either of those days. You can find the full programme (in French) with all details here.

The exhibition, by the way, coincides with (has been designed to orchestrate) a campaign of the municipal administration to have the Boulevard des Anglais officially recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I wish them the best of luck, but frankly, the Promenade has been doing very well so far without this or any other form of official recognition. It has also adapted much better to the new world of the 21st century than its ancient rival, the Champs Elysees in Paris, which feels, by comparison, stuffy, lifeless and provincial. (It is the one street where Parisians almost never go.)

So when you go to see the exhibition: make room in your schedule for an hour-or-so-long walk down the Promenade, enjoying sunshine and spectacle. Your day will be all the richer for it.

"Promenade des Anglais Nice"

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