Like many towns and cities stretched along the Mediterranean, Nice, the most populous town of the French Riviera, has a long and colourful history. Invaded and overrun on numerous occasions, ‘Nikaia’ was colonised by the Greeks in 600 BC and then conquered by Augustus for the Romans in 1 AD. Marauding barbarians sacked the city which was only rebuilt in the 14th Century when Nice was put under the protectorate of the Comte de Savoie. The medieval city, rich in baroque treasures, survived attacks by the revolutionary armies and is still intact today. Tourists from Northern Europe arrived as early as the 18th Century, firstly the English aristocracy, followed by wealthy Americans and more recently these have been joined by Germans, Dutch, Scandinavians, Italians, with the most recent arrivals being Arabs and Russians. These not only invaded the beaches and filled the hotels and restaurants, but also colonised the surrounding countryside where olive groves have given way to villas and high-rise apartment blocks.

Of course, Nice today has now developed into a vibrant modern city which hugs the coastline of the Mediterranean and stretches inland far back into the foothills of the Alps. A natural gateway between Italy and France, Nice only became part of France in 1860. Many family names are still boldly Italian and the local patois distinctly Italianate. The climate is temperate enough to encourage an abundance of subtropical plant life; wisteria, bougainvillea, mimosa and the ubiquitous palms and eucalyptus. It is a town I visit several times a year and while the speed and recklessness of its drivers can be terrifying, and the smells of the ancient alleyways of the old town, ‘le Vieux Nice’, are alarming, the beauty of the Baie des Anges, fringed by the bustling Promenade des Anglais and the general sense of well-being make the city an interesting and attractive one.

However, something new is happening in Nice; dolls are taking over. Of course, there have always been dolls of a kind in the annual Carnival Parade. One of the oldest Carnivals in Europe (its origins go back to the 13th Century) the Carnival of Nice, generously supported and promoted by the City, competes with other traditional Carnivals such as those in Venice and Cologne, parading elaborate Carnival floats laden with leering, bloated figures whose doll-like significance has been lost in the mists of their history. However, the real dolls in Nice today are more attractive and more varied in their forms.

The whole area around the old port is alive with antique shops and here one can find genuine and perfectly preserved antique dolls, some over a hundred years old. The best shop seems to BERGASCO in the rue Emmanuel Philibert, where the patronne is a keen doll collector. She tells me she keeps the best ones at home and cannot part with them but she allowed me to photograph those on show in the shop. I must add now that I am not a doll connoisseur and my knowledge is very limited but the delicate porcelain heads and fully movable joints look genuine indeed. The prices vary from around 700 to 1,500 Euros and are, I suppose, for true collectors. Apparently there is a growing demand, and with it an increasing supply of these lovely dolls which have been enjoyed by generations of Nicois. For any doll-lovers visiting Nice, I believe the best supplier to be a Russian woman, Ann, with a stand at the weekly antique and brocante market on the Cours Saleya in Nice.

But it is in the maze of the medieval Vieux Nice’ where a true doll invasion is taking over. In these narrow alleyways where the shop buntings overlap from one side to the other, the scent of fresh roses and mimosa compete with heady smells from barrels of ginger and cinnamon, saffron and tumeric. The morning fish market is full of glistening multi-coloured Mediterranean fish and the myriad of tiny stores sport stacks of clothing, carpets, pottery, herbs and materials. And the dolls are there. Cute chubby girl dolls dangle from the ceiling of the butchers, glamorous Cote d’Azur girlie-dolls peep out from the shelves in the dress shops, and baby dolls tumble out of baskets in the sweet shops. Ghoulish witch dolls appear at Halloween and innumerable folklore dolls in traditional costumes tempt the tourist at every comer. Some shops are so packed with decorative dolls, cascading from the ceilings and fighting for place in the cramped shop windows that it is difficult to know just what the shops sell. However, the most recent arrivals are a series of over-sized doll-like figures which were set up on the newly restored pedestrian area of the Promenade des Anglais. This famous five- kilometre long road and footpath was first built by the English who settled in Nice in the mid 18th Century and is now a bustling route from the busy airport to the town centre. The dolls immediatel;y became a photo opportunity for tourists and a tempting challenge for children to climb on and clamber around. The ‘dolls’ have now been moved to a new site around the Museum of Contemporary Art but a chubby blackamoor has found his natural home at the entrance of the palatial Negresco Hotel, the Nice stop-over for stars and millionaires- his boldly contemporary design causing a culture shock besides the delicate wedding-cake look of the Negresco, all candy pink and white.

I was back in Nice again this autumn and happened to see the forthcoming programme for the resident ballet company at the Opera House. Guess what they’re performing? ‘Coppelia’ – the story of a doll which comes to life !

Christina Gallea Roy 2003