On a continent filled to the brim with exquisite cultural heritage, the French Riviera definitely earns a place on the podium.
What does cultural heritage – from prehistoric sites to art museums, monuments, architecture, and artisan trade – have to do with the future? Everything, says Christian Estrosi, the mayor of Nice, in response to the 2015 motto “Heritage of the 21st Century – a History of Future” of the 32nd European Heritage Days which will take place all across the continent on the weekend of September 19 and 20.
What began in France in 1984 with a Day of Open Doors, has since become a beloved annual institution across 50 signatory states of the European Cultural Convention. Now rebaptized Les Journées Européennes du Patrimoine, the event invites visitors to explore or re-discover the cultural treasures in their own towns that many take for granted, and also gives rare access to sites that are usually closed off to the public.
If all of Europe has a lot to write home about when it comes to cultural heritage, Nice counts as primus inter pares with an unparalleled wealth of historic sites and cultural offering. It is the site of some of the oldest preserved homo erectus settlements, dating back some 400,000 years ago. The place they chose back then to set up camp can still be visited at the Terra Amata museum, right in the heart of the city. Nice itself was founded around 2,600 years ago by the Greeks, who were succeeded by the Romans, and it has since had a more than turbulent history at the crossroads of commerce and wars. Sailors and merchants from the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea left their traces just as much as Christian martyr St. Reparate. Feuding rulers fought heated battles over territory and sovereignty, and nobility like the Lascaris dynasty introduced a sense of culture. During the late Middle Ages, industrious Italian tradesmen and artisans built and grew the burgh that is still here today, Old Nice. And for the past couple of centuries, artists like Henri Matisse or Amedeo Modigliani, dignitaries including Queen Victoria, and of course millions of tourists from all four corners of the planet have sojourned here.
They all, over the course of millennia, shaped today’s face of Nissa la Bella, and its immensely rich cultural patrimony bears witness to their passage. But of all the many places across the city that is a candidate as a UNESCO world heritage site, none links past, present and future more clearly than the boulevard along the sea shore built shortly after the first heavy influx of English tourists in the 19th century, and named after them… the Promenade des Anglais. When the French Ministry of Culture announced the future-facing theme this year, it was immediately clear to the City officials that La Prom’ would be the pivotal axis for the European Heritage Days. “Promenade(S) des Anglais”, a coordinated and interlinking exhibit spanning 14 exhibits across 13 museums across town, show off La Prom’ in all its facets and glory, from prehistoric times in the vicinity of one end to an entirely contemporary outlook close to the other, just next to the Allianz Arena. A journey over 400,000 years in just five miles.
But there is so much more to explore on the Heritage weekend. Along with Terra Amata, you may want to stop over at the other excellent archaeology museum in Cimiez with its near-intact Roman baths and arena. Or plunge into the entrails of Old Town, visiting the crypt. Temples of fine art like the Matisse and Chagall museums – the latter having just been voted one of the Top 10 French Sites to visit – showcase their treasures, and the Archives de Fabron throw their doors open to visitors. If you are more into cultural and artistic events, the two concerts by André Ceccarelli and the Corou de Berra are quite unmissable…. The list is endless, best to check out the full programme courtesy of Ville de Nice.
While Nice will keep you busy enough, do try to find time to also venture out to some of the small, idyllic, historic towns just a short hop away, each highlighting their particular claim to fame. The heritage weekend in Cagnes-sur-Mer for example is dedicated to its longtime resident Auguste Renoir, re-enacting the famous Luncheon on the Grass painting with anyone who cares to come in historic 1920s style outfit and equipped with a picnic basket. In the medieval hillside town of Tourrette-Levens with its magnificent XIIth century castle, well known for its artisans, restoration experts of various disciplines open their ateliers to the public to demonstrate modern techniques to bring antique furniture and paintings back to their former glory. And Cannes, avant-garde as ever, presents its newly opened “Suquet des Art(iste)s”, a communal work space for young artists on the site of the former city morgue.
An annual event not to be missed…. and should you find yourself out of town, there is no excuse not to go and check what 21st century, future-history-writing heritage Reykjavik, Barcelona, or Berlin present.
Lead image © RIVIERA BUZZ; Renoir picnic photos © Ville de Cagnes