Nice’s Promenade des Anglais or the Avenue of the English in the 1800s

First called the Camin deis Anglés (the English Way) by the Niçois, it was rechristened Promenade des Anglais or the Avenue of the English in 1860. Its origins began in the eighteenth century when rich English aristocrats began to winter in Nice for their health. Water cures were popular at the time and people thought of Nice as a haven for these types of treatments. In fact, in 1865, it was known for “curing” such complaints as “Indigestion, Scrofula, Nervous Affection, Paralysis, Neuralgia, all Lymphatic Maladies, and disease peculiar to females.”[1]

Promenade des Anglais or the Avenue of the English in the 1800s

View of Nice from Montboron. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

English visitors to the area also found the weather mild and more enjoyable than the cold climate in England. Indicative of Nice’s year-round pleasantness was a description provided by an 1823 encyclopedia:

“It is impossible to find a happier climate than Nice, both for summer and winter. Reaumur’s thermometer, in 1781, never fell more than three degrees below the freezing and that only for two days … The month of May is rarely so fine in France as February at Nice. The summer is not so hot as might be expected. The thermometer never rises more than 24 degrees (86⁰ Fahren.) above temperate in the shade; and there is always an agreeable sea breeze from ten in the morning till sunset, when the land breeze comes on.”[2]

Another reason the English were drawn to the area was its beautiful lush landscape and Nice’s panoramic views. It had a lot of natural vegetation that was typical of a Mediterranean climate and although trees were scattered throughout it, they often formed dense forests. The Scottish poet and author, Tobais George Smollett, found Nice a veritable feast for the eyes when he traveled there in January of 1764:

“When I stand upon the rampart, and look around me, I can scare help thinking myself enchanted. … The small extent of country which I see, is all cultivated like a garden. Indeed, the plan presents nothing but gardens, full of green trees, loaded with oranges, lemons, citrons, and bergamots, which make a delightful appearance. If you examine them more nearly, you will find plantations of green peas ready to gather; all sorts of salading and pot-herbs in perfection; and plats of roses, carnations, ranunculas, anemonies, and daffodils, blowing in full glory, with such beauty, vigour, and perfume as no flower in England every exhibited.”[3]

Tobias George Smollett. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Smollett’s report of his travels to Nice was what started the wave of English visitors to the area in the late 1700s and early 1800s. English visitors also found that they could live peacefully in Nice and settle primarily west of Old Town near the Croix de Marbre (Marble Cross), which had been erected in 1568. The cross commemorated the Peace of Nice, a treaty initiated by the intervention of Pope Paul III and signed on 18 June 1538 by Charles V and Francis I. In 1823, the following description of the area stated:

“[There are] three suburbs. 1st, That of St John, which conducts to Cimier, about three leagues north from Nice, & c. The promenades this way are very delightful and may be enjoyed in a carriage. 2nd, That of the Poudrier, 3rd, That of the Croix de Marbre, or Marble Cross. This suburb is new and the English almost all lodge in it being very near the town. The houses are commodious, facing on one side the great road which leads to France, and on the other a fine garden from each other: the company hire them for the season, i.e. from October till May. Apartments may be had from 15 to 250 louis. The proprietors commonly furnish linen, plate, &c. … The situation is delightful, and warmest in winter, being entirely covered from the north wind, and quite open to the south.”[4]

View of Nice from olive trees. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

English visitors of the early 1800s loved the area, but they also wanted to promenade alongside the seaside, which was impossible because the seafront was rocky and marshy. In addition, at about the same time, a harsh winter in 1820 and two years of crop failures resulted in many unemployed people in the area. The situation in Nice was made worse when the unemployed were augmented by an influx of beggars hoping to acquire cash from rich English tourists.

At the time, charity was unheard of and the English were not about to hand over their hard-earned pounds to people who were capable of working but begged instead. It was turning into a crisis when a local Anglican priest, Reverend Lewis Way, hit upon a brilliant plan that would solve the problem for both sides. He suggested beggars and the unemployed be put to work building a promenade that would be funded by English visitors and members of his Anglican Church.

The first portion of the promenade, an unpaved walkway 6 ½ feet wide, was completed in 1824. Over time it was enlarged and improved, and, by 1835, the city of Nice was overseeing it and responsible for its upkeep. As the promenade grew, so too did Nice. One twenty-first-century writer noted:

“By 1847, Nice had 40 hotels, including one on the Promenade des Anglais that is still welcoming visitors with a very English name, the West End Hotel. These hotels were becoming increasingly luxurious to accommodate a wealthy clientele.”[5]

Promenade des Anglais in 1892 by Edvard Munch. Public domain.

The growth of the area also resulted in a new influx of beggars. In fact, they seemed to be omnipresent along the promenade and throughout Nice. Although they had been temporarily thinned with the building of the promenade, beggars returned in greater force after its completion as noted by The Primitive Methodist Magazine:

“Beggars swarm in all parts of the city, attracted doubtless by the large number of visitors. Professional begging is, unhappily, one of the social institutions of all the countries bordering on the Mediterranean.”[6]

Fortunately, beggars were not the only people who inhabited the glorious avenue. In 1875, an American visitor provided a rather lengthy description of what it was like to visit the Promenade des Anglais that was larger than ever and laid out along the seashore facing numerous handsome villas and hotels.

“[B]arely removed from the delicate, curling, white surf … [was] a small patch of grass and trees, called THE JARDIN PUBLIC, [where] the fashionable people congregate to take the air, to admire and to be admired. Three times in the week there is music – on Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday. On the first two days one may see the most dress and style, but on Sunday there is the largest crowd, composed in a great measure of the town’s people. Last Sunday we sat in a sunny part of the garden and watched the crowd promenading along for two hours. … [O]n a bright Sunday one may see there many ladies of many nations, beautifully and most fashionably dressed, and many gentlemen fashionably, but not beautifully dressed; many little children with bare legs, and many little dogs in blankets. The puppies are more tender than the children apparently. And then there are beggars, some very fat and hearty and some very wretched-looking ones. I have not seen many consumptive people or many invalids – a few rheumatic old gentlemen are propelled in go-arts, but that is about all. Only once has my attention been caught by that sad sight so common to health resorts, especially in a warm climate. On a seat in the full, warm sunlight reclined a youth of eighteen or twenty years of age, upon whose wan features the approaching end was plainly written. BY HIS SIDE SAT HIS MOTHER, whose struggles to appear cheerful were easily traced in her forced, sad smile, which was more pitiful to me than the dying boy. … Many of the ladies … are very beautiful; but it is strange how few prepossessing people are to be noted in a large throng. … The drive is crowded with carriage and liveried drivers and footmen. There are also BASKET PHAETONS WITH ONE HORSE the jauntiest little things! The English horseman is there with his trotting nag, and with three inches of daylight between him and the saddle; and now and then a lady-trotter passes by, attended by a groom. But there is not as much riding as I expected to see.”[7]  

Caricature of promenading Englishmen. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The promenade was also not just for leisurely strolls, restful horseback rides, or languid carriage outings. A nearby public garden was regularly inhabited by musical bands so that melodious tunes drifted over the scene where thousands thronged. In addition, activities such as races occurred on the promenade on occasion. That was the case in 1869, although, unfortunately, the event resulted in unexpected injuries:

“At Nice, some velocipede races were taking place on the Promenade des Anglais when a sudden shower came on. A large number of the spectators climbed upon a stand, when the structure gave way. A scene of terrible confusion ensued, and for some minutes the shrieks of the women and children were most alarming. Thirteen persons were found to have been injured, three with severe fractures.”[8]

One danger that Nice and the promenade endured on more than one occasion was violent sea storms. A particularly heavy gale happened during the winter of 1857/1858 that affected the Promenade des Anglais nearly destroying it. Many newspapers reported on the inundation of waves and the destruction, with one noting:

“The chimneys howled fearfully in the storm; gusts of wind eddied into the room, filling them with wood-smoke. It was indeed an awful night; and to render the storm more terrible, an immense wave came rushing across the Mediterranean upon the shore, wrecking the fishermen’s boats, which had been hauled up high and dry upon the beach, and washing away portions of the rampart and of the Promenade des Anglais.

It was [also] reported that one of the bathing-boxes had been floated some sixty miles across the sea to Corsica, and when it was opened that the corpse of a man who had crept into it for shelter from the storm had been found. Poor fellow, it was a wild night, and wilder death for him.”[9]

By the time of this storm, the value of the promenade was apparent. So, it was repaired, just as it had been when other damaging storms occurred. The walkway also continued to maintain its appeal to locals and foreign visitors throughout the late 1800s. One description of it in 1880 states:

“The most agreeable and fashionable drive and promenade is the Promenade des Anglais, extending for a mile along the shore from the right bank of the Paglione, and skirted on one side by elegant villas and hotels.”[10]

Another description a year later was also complimentary of the walkway.

“The ‘Promenade des Anglais’ is the great lounge of Nice. Here while we poor stay-at-home folk are shivering in November fogs, December snows, or the west wind of a British spring, the worthy denizens of Nice are sunning themselves amid a semi-tropical vegetation. … The [promenade] … is really most cosmopolitan in its features, as people of all nationalities may be seen there taking their afternoon stroll. There are numbers of invalids … and countless babies – often equally ill.”[11]

Caricature of returning English promenaders. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

A correspondent of the Parisian who visited Nice provided a description of a typical day on the promenade in 1881:

“Facing the sea is the well-known ‘Promenade des Anglais,’ lined with palm trees. It is most amusing to go there at three o’clock in the afternoon, when all the world turns out in such gorgeous costumes that would take sheets to describe them. It really is a pretty picture to see the hundreds of people of many nations sitting together in groups, enjoying the warmth of the brilliant sunshine, under the shade of their many-coloured umbrellas. There are most charming little carriages, with very small ponies, driven by a man who sits behind you, and numbers of these may be seen driving up and down the promenade, by the bluest of seas, over which innumerable sea-gulls are skimming.”[12]

Those who visited Nice in the 1800s found there were plenty of other things to do because despite the city’s small population, fetes and celebrations were as good there as in many of the larger cities of France. Nice’s active social life was also likely why one Victorian writer remarked, “During the season, Nice is, in fact, a little Paris, and from morning till night bustle and excitement prevail.”[13] However, Nice may not have become such a tourist destination if visitors had not been first drawn to it by the fashionable Promenade des Anglais that was always thronged with visitors and a continual buzz of enthralling activities.

References:

  • [1] W. P. Fetridge, The American Travellers’ Guides: Hand-books for Travellers in Europe and the East, Being a Guide Through Great Britain and Ireland, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Austria, Italy, Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Greece, Switzerland, Tyrol, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Russia, Spain, and Portugal v. 4 (New York: Fetridge & Company, 1865), p. 160.
  • [2] Encyclopaedia Britannica; Or A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Miscellaneous Literature v. 15 (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable, 1823), p. 2.
  • [3] T. G. Smollett and T. Roscoe, The Miscellaneous Works of Tobias Smollett (London: Bohn, 1844), 722
  • [4] Encyclopaedia Britannica; Or A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Miscellaneous Literature v. 15 (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable, 1823), p. 1–2.
  • [5] A. G. Danielson, A Traveler’s History of Cote D’Azur (SDP Publishing, 2012), kindle
  • [6] Primitive Methodist Church, The Primitive Methodist Magazine v. 63 (London: Conference Offices, 1882), p. 337.
  • [7] National Reublican, “Southern France,” February 10, 1875, p. 1.
  • [8] The Weekly Standard and Express, September 1, 1869, p. 2.
  • [9] Downshire Protestant, p. 4.
  • [10] Library of Universal Knowledge v. 10 (New York: American Book exchange, 1880), p. 603.
  • [11] The Graphic, “The “Promenade des Angalis,” Nice,” April 16, 1881, p. 8.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] English Guide to Mentone and Its Environs (London: W. Swam Sonnneschein & Co., 1882), p. 122.

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