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Nice - History

Nice History

People have been taking advantage of Nice's prime real estate for around 400,000 years. Prehistoric settlements have been unearthed at Terra Amata in present-day Nice. Between the 5th and 4th centuries BC, Greeks from Phocaea in Asia Minor founded a trading post called Nikaia (meaning victory) at the foot of the hill that's today known as Le Château. The Romans followed towards the end of the 1st century BC, building Cemenelum (Cimiez) nearby and making it the provincial capital. Between the 3rd and 10th centuries AD, invasions by Germanic tribes and Muslim warriors (Saracens) pushed much of the population down the Le Château hill, towards the sea, and Cemenelum's importance dwindled in favour of Nikaia.

In 974 William, Count of Provence, chased the Saracens out of eastern Provence and united the region. Provence joined the Holy Roman Empire in 1032, and its forestry, fishing, viniculture and maritime commerce flourished. The 12th century saw the region split in two: the north fell into the hands of the counts of Toulouse, while the Catalan counts of Barcelona gained control of the southern part. In 1229 Nice was incorporated into the Catalan Comté de Provence (County of Provence) by Count Raymond Bérenger V (1209-45), who thus gained better control of eastern Provence and the southern Alps. Following Raymond's death the county passed to the House of Anjou and enjoyed great prosperity. The death in 1388 of Countess Jean de Provence prompted a war of succession, which was settled by the incorporation of the Comté de Nice (essentially today's Alpes-Maritime department) into the lands of Italy's House of Savoy.

During the next 400 years there were only two brief periods of French rule: 1706-13, when Louis XIV occupied the city, and 1792-1814, when the new French Republic took control. Following the fall of Napoleon, the Comté de Nice was ceded to Victor Emmanuel I, king of Sardinia. It remained under Sardinian protectorship until 1860, when an agreement between Napoleon III and the House of Savoy assisted in the removal of the Austrians from northern Italy, prompting France to repossess Savoy and the Nice area.

During the 19th century Nice took off as a beach resort, and was one of the first cities in Europe to develop a purely tourist-based economy. The seaside destination was particularly popular with the English aristocracy, who followed Queen Victoria's example of wintering in the mild climate. Between 1860 and 1911 Nice was the fastest-growing city in Europe, and new rail links and roads opened it up to the rest of the continent. The city received an exotic facelift, with luxuriant palms, wattles and eucalypts imported from Australia, and fantastical belle époque buildings like the Nice Opera House and neoclassical Justice Palace. Artists such as Cézanne, Van Gogh and Matisse flocked to the area, attracted by the beautiful scenery and luminous light. The first guidebook to the region was published in 1887 by a lawyer-cum-aspiring poet who gave it its name: the Côte d'Azur (literally, 'Azure Coast').

Although southern France saw no action in WWI, soldiers were conscripted from the region and many lives were lost. In the 1920s the region became a mecca for artists and writers once again (including Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Aldous Huxley and Thomas Mann). The luxurious Train Bleu made its first run from Calais, via Paris, to the Côte d'Azur in 1922, and in 1927 the coast's first casino was opened in the Palais de la Méditerranée on Nice's promenade des Anglais. Jazz came to town and Nice's nightlife gained a reputation for being cutting-edge. Nice was included in the 'free' Vichy France zone during the first part of WWII, and became a safe haven from war-torn occupied France. Vichy France was invaded by Nazi Germany in November 1942, and Nice was occupied by the Italians. Allied forces landed on the Côte d'Azur in August 1944, and the region was liberated. It didn't take Nice long to bounce back, and the bohemian jet set soon returned. When Algeria negotiated its independence from France in 1962, Nice's population was further boosted by an influx of refugees from North Africa.

In the 1980s and early '90s politics in Nice was marred by corruption. The right-wing mayor Jacques Médécin was twice found guilty of income tax evasion during his 24-year mayorship (1955-90). In neighbouring Hyères, Yann Piat of the French National Assembly was assassinated by local Mafia.

Municipal shenanigans, coupled with economic recession and rising unemployment, fuelled the popularity of the Front National (FN) in the Côte d'Azur. The FN has never enjoyed the same degree of popular support in the rest of France. The current mayor of Nice, Jacques Peyrat, was formerly a member of the FN but is now aligned with the Socialist party (RPR). He was initially elected in 1995 and was re-elected in 2001.

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