The capital of the Riviera and fifth largest city in France, NICE
scarcely deserves its glittering reputation. Living off inflated property values and fat business accounts, its ruling class has hardly evolved from the eighteenth-century Russian and English aristocrats who first built their mansions here; today it's the rentiers
and retired people of various nationalities whose dividends and pensions give the city its startlingly high ratio of per capita income to economic activity.
Their votes ensured the monopoly of municipal power held for decades by the right-wing dynasty, whose corruption was finally exposed in 1990 when mayor Jacques Médecin fled to Uruguay. He was finally extradited and jailed. Despite the disappearance of 400 million francs of taxpayers' money, public opinion remained in his favour. From his Grenoble prison cell, Médecin, who had twinned Nice with Cape Town during the height of South Africa's apartheid regime, backed the former Front National member and close friend of Jean-Marie Le Pen, Jacques Peyrat, in the 1995 local elections. Peyrat won with ease.
Politics apart, Nice has other reasons to qualify it as one of the more dubious destinations on the Riviera: it's a pickpocket's paradise; the traffic is a nightmare; miniature poodles appear to be mandatory; phones are always vandalized; and the beach isn't even sand. And yet Nice still manages to be delightful. The sun and the sea and the laid-back, affable Niçois cover a multitude of sins. The medieval rabbit warren of the old town, the Italianate facades of modern Nice and the rich, exuberant, fin-de-siècle residences that made the city one of Europe's most fashionable winter retreats have all survived intact. It has also retained mementos from its ancient past, when the Romans ruled the region from here, and earlier still, when the Greeks founded the city. In addition, its bus and train connections make Nice by far the best base for visiting the rest of the Riviera.
It doesn't take long to get a feel for the layout of Nice. Shadowed by mountains that curve down to the Mediterranean east of its port, it still breaks up more or less into old and new. Vieux Nice , the old town, groups about the hill of Le Château , its limits signalled by boulevard Jean-Jaurès , built along the course of the River Paillon. Along the seafront, the celebrated promenade des Anglais runs a cool 5km until forced to curve inland by the sea-projecting runways of the airport. The central square, place Masséna , is at the bottom of the modern city's main street, avenue Jean-Médecin , while off to the north is the exclusive hillside suburb of Cimiez .