It’s been a week since I returned from my most excellent adventure in Nice. Déjà. (Already.) I miss you, Nice, mon amie. I miss your blue skies, the Mediterranean, your colorful walls, your olive trees and giant palm trees. I can’t wait to see you again.
Today I would like to tell the story of a favorite place of mine: le Cours Saleya. That street, as the French say, is “in-con-tour-na-ble” (not to be missed.) I did not spend a single day in Nice without walking along le Cours Saleya at least once. It was different every time. The light, the people, the colors, kept changing on me. Still, it felt oddly familiar by the end of my first weekend there.
Le Cours Saleya neighborhood has always been the heart of Nice. Ideally located, it sits by the Old Town, and a few steps away from the Mediterranean. It was built near the old ramparts (they protected the city and were dismantled in 1706.) The old walls were replaced by two rows of contiguous houses. Known as “les Ponchettes,” (*) they were originally small warehouses where fishermen stored their gear. Their roofs were flat, and as early as the 18th century, they started acting as terraces where locals and visitors used to stroll, admiring the Mediterranean nearby and those glorious Nice sunsets.
Le Cours Saleya developed next to them, replacing the former gardens of the old Ducal palace (today’s préfecture, seat of the region’s government.) On the following picture, you can see the two rows of “Ponchettes“, and the Cours Saleya market stalls behind them.
Elegant boutiques, restaurants and coffee shops soon opened on Cours Saleya, attracting more visitors. By 1839 the Visconti bookstore, complete with a terrace, became the intellectual center of Nice, the place to see and to be seen.
In 1861, the Saleya fruit and vegetable market, soon followed by the flower market, were born. Producers and wholesalers struck deals all week long. From there, flowers were shipped expeditiously all over Europe. The market kept growing. So did its reputation, and the crowds.
In 1873, the modern version of the famous Nice Carnival took place cours Saleya every winter.
Cours Saleya: the Fish Market (1900, Rose Calvino)
Today, Cours Saleya survives andcontinues to entertain and enthrall visitors. Is it the faded buildings with stunning façades glowing in the sunset? The sounds, the colors, the sheer energy of the place? The vendors calling out? The smell of spices, fresh herbs, and flowers? Hard to tell. All of the above.
The old terraces on top of “les Ponchettes” (*) are now closed. The Carnival has been moved to a different neighborhood. In 1980, Cours Saleya became a “pedestrian-only” area when a parking lot was built underground. A smart move.
Deals are still being made, though wholesalers have left. Merchants and visitors engage in friendly banter. The selection is varied and oh, so tempting. Flowers and herbs, fragrant hand-milled soaps and fresh produce in the mornings, except Mondays, when antiques (more of a flea market, really) take over. Jewelry and crafts at night, when restaurants and cafés sprawl out in the street, greeting diners.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Nowhere is it more true than at the Cours Saleya‘s market.
Cours Saleya market: Greeting shoppers during the day…
Cours Saleya: Welcoming diners at night
Monday is bric-à-brac day
Les jolis savons de Marseille
Zucchini flowers are used to make flower fritters, a local delicacy
These small courgettes are perfect to prepare “les petits farcis” (stuffed vegetables)
Fruit and vegetable are the market’s true stars, or are they?
Meet Thereza, the market’s self-proclaimed “Queen.” For years, she has been featured in many guidebooks and television. You might call her a local celebrity.
The colorful Thereza claims she makes the best Socca in Nice, you see. Socca used to be a snack for peasants and workers. It is the poor man’s food, if you will. Thereza charges 3 Euros for a generous serving of this very thin and soft pancake, served slightly crispy on the edges. Ingredients? Chickpea flour and olive oil. It is quite tasty, even if you are not hungry.
Thereza has been doing this for a long time. She is, as the French say, a “maîtresse femme.” In other words, you don’t mess with Thereza! Her husband cooks la Socca in a small shop located two blocks away from my studio in the heart of the Old Town. As soon as it comes out of the oven, he loads the big pan on his scooter, and rushes to le Cours Saleya where the formidable Theresa (and impatient customers) are waiting. Within seconds, a line forms and she wastes no time slicing and serving la Socca. It takes less than 5 minutes for the big dish to be empty.
People are waiting but nobody cuts the line: Thereza would not approve!
Whether Theresa (and her husband) do, actually, make the best Socca, remains to be seen. Does it matter? One thing is for certain: Thereza delivers one of the best shows in town.
Watch Thereza and her husband at work in this short video clip:
David Lebovitz once wrote about Socca. Note: In Nice, my favorite Socca comes from Chez Pipo, listed in the article.