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On a gloomy December day, it’s hard to imagine a place where winter stands for crisp air and bright sun, with the sky and sea competing to be the most intense shade of blue. Yet this is what the off-season looks like in Nice, capital of the French Riviera.
These exceptional conditions made the city the preferred winter destination for the European elite in the 19th century, and the hills surrounding the harbour are still dotted with stunning architecture that recalls that golden age – The Belle Époque.
Slightly inland is Mont-Gros, an area that is still mostly rugged land save for the white Coupole Bischoffsheim observatory, which stands out on the ridge against the azure sky. Louis-Raphaël Bischoffsheim, the son of a wealthy banker, commissioned the building in 1878 after buying the entire 35-hectare hilltop. Designed by Gustave Eiffel and finished in 1886, it has a 24-metre diameter cupola that accommodates the second longest refractor telescope in the world and is visible from villages as far as Mougins, 35 km away. Along with Hôtel Negresco on the Promenade des Anglais, this is one of Nice’s top two belle époque sites. But there are plenty of others, including grand palaces and villas that have become the ne plus ultra in Riviera real estate
Adjacent to Mont-Gros, Mont-Boron faces the Mediterranean and features the highest concentration of belle époque homes in town. On its crest are the silhouettes of Château de l’Anglais, Château de la Tour and Villa Beau-Site. The first, on the far right, dates from 1858 and was designed by Briton Robert Smith, who had a brilliant career in India. The castle – bright pink and in neo-gothic style – is clearly a reflection of his architectural experiences there.
The neighbouring villas are equally exotic. Château de la Tour can be identified by its cream-coloured tower with colonnade, while Villa Beau-Site is neo-classical with an Orient-inspired tower. The aspect of both villas is the work of Sébastien-Marcel Biasini, one of Nice’s most renowned belle époque architects. While Château de l’Anglais was divided into apartments after the second world war, Château de la Tour and Villa Beau-Site are still privately owned single-family dwellings.
On the same ridge, Laurent Benedetti of Agence Benedetti has a home for sale. “For villas with a sea view in this part of Nice, the prices range from €1.4m for 250 sq metres to €6m for 500 sq metries. For this one, 450 sq metres, the asking price is €6.5m but it is justified,” he says. “Wait until you see the view.”
The villa, called Brimborion, turns out to be to be the neighbour of Château de la Tour. Built in 1893, it was for several decades the home of Emile Mors, a pioneer in the automotive industry. The present owner renovated the interior, converted the service flat into a summer apartment and built a pool in the garden. The inside, done in sumptuous art deco style, is certainly impressive. But it is indeed the view from the garden that captivates. In the foreground is the infinity pool against the backdrop of the sea, the harbour and the entire Promenade des Anglais. And, on the left and right, are the Château de l’Anglais and Château de la Tour.
Haussmann Real Estate is another Nice agency with a belle époque villa for sale, lower on the hillside. Driving there, associate partner Dartcho Alman outlines the pros and cons of these properties. “Apartments often have no terrace,” he explains. “This is no problem for belle époque in Paris but it is a problem in Nice, where people live outside for more than half the year. Moreover, and this concerns all belle époque property, there is often no sea view and a lot of traffic noise. At the time, it was convenient to live near a road because this facilitated access. But then the only traffic consisted of carriages.”
Still, “when you buy belle époque, you have the impression of buying art,” he says. And “it offers volumes you won’t find in any other architecture. Ceiling heights of 4.2 metres are standard.”
Such space – in such a beautiful part of the world – is what seduces the Scandinavians, British, Irish and other big buyers of belle époque in Nice. The villa we visit is indeed spacious, 600 sq metres with a big living room, six bedrooms and a service flat, a 60 sq metre first floor terrace, an 18 metre pool and a 1,700 sq metre garden. It offers only a glimpse of the sea but is located in a quiet part of Mont-Boron. The owner explains that the house dates from 1896 and has been in her family since the 1950s. “My father-in-law bought it in 1952 from a French expatriate in Uruguay. My husband and I celebrated our marriage here. We’d invited friends from all over the world. Many of them stayed in the guesthouse and next to the pool a Brazilian band was playing.”
In spite of these fond memories, she and her husband, an international banker, travel too much to keep the house. She says she will miss the garden most, especially the orange trees (fruit are picked for fresh juice every morning), the avocado tree (which yielded 200 kg of avocados in 2005) and, hidden behind the pool, the vegetable garden with, as she puts it, “all the ingredients for the ratatouille niçoise”.
The hill of Cimiez rivals Mont-Boron for its belle époque interest. Divided up and built on in the second half of the 19th century, it is now studded with palaces originally conceived as luxury hotels for winter tourists but eventually converted into apartments. Called Alhambra, Winter Palace, Majestic, Hermitage, Riviera Palace or Regina, their mere names appeal to the imagination. And their façades live up to the promise. The most eye-catching is the Moorish-style Alhambra, with its two minarets, but Regina also glistens on top of Boulevard de Cimiez. Five storeys high, with a 150 metre frontage, it was built in 1896 for Queen Victoria. She spent three winters in the palace, occupying 70 rooms in its west wing. Its roof cupola is still decorated with a crown.
In November Haussmann Real Estate sold an apartment in the neighbouring Riviera Palace that had been priced at €720,000. At 150 sq metres, it’s best feature was a highly desirable but very rare terrace. (Only three out of the more than 80 apartments in the building have one.)
The city centre also boasts exquisite belle époque features. Next to Hôtel Negresco is a building, known as “le petit Negresco”, designed by the same architect, Edouard Niermans. Benedetti is selling an exceptionally luminous 214 sq metre apartment on the second floor, priced €2.4m. “It is owned by an Irishman, [but] his children have left and the flat has become too big,” the agent says. Still, he must have some regrets.
Almost all the rooms, from the salon, reading room and bureau to the three bedrooms and one of the bathrooms, have huge windows opening on to the Mediterranean. Even in the shower, one has a sea view. “In the morning,” Bendetti says, “the owner goes out in his dressing gown to have a dive into the sea.”
The Belle Époque might have ended a long time ago but in the properties left behind, one can still live a very belle époque today.
■Agence Benedetti, tel: +33 6-1995 4266; www.agence-benedetti.com
■Haussmann Real Estate, tel: +33 4-9200 4949; www.haussmannrealestate.com