The terror attack on Thursday night at the French city of Nice that left over 80 dead and scores injured -- seemed like a dark contrast to the joyful times that this writer had in the course of his trips to the region year after year for 27 years. Covering the Cannes Film Festival, first for The Hindu and now for Hindustan Times, one remembers the happy times on the French Riviera, the place where Nice is located with its quaint airport, and, of course Cannes, a 45-minute drive away on a road flanked by beautiful hills and the shimmering blue waters of the sea.
The Nice Cote d’Azur airport by itself is a beauty, and one remembers the first time one landed there. It was breathtaking to watch the plane touchdown on a runway which literally began where the sea ended. One felt nervous, what if the pilot were to make a small error and land on water! But no such thing ever happened, not to me, not to anybody else I know of.
Nice, which is called Nice la Bella or Nice the Beautiful, is the fifth most populous city in France with a population of just one million people. For the people of the city, the Bastille Day celebrations were bloodied on July 14.
Founded as a Greek settlement around 350 BC, Nice was originally called Nakaia -- after the Goddess of Victory. Nice changed hands several times in the course of its history -- till 1860, when France took control of it.
The city’s mild climate and exquisitely pretty natural beauty attracted the English upper classes in the second half of the 18th century, who sought Nice during winter to escape the harsh cold back home. Even today, it is a common sight at Nice and Cannes to see very old people sauntering along the beach promenade, most of them rich and still leading a luxurious life.
As the decades rolled by, Nice attracted the rich and famous from all over the world, who built their palatial bungalows, gambled away in the casinos there and also at the neighbouring Monte Carlo or Monaco . Why even Grace Kelly left her American home and family as well as the glitter of Hollywood to find marital bliss in the arms of Prince Rainier III -- whom she met at an innocuous photo shoot during the Cannes Film Festival. That the marriage was not hunky dory is now well-known. And Grace also died a tragic death in a road accident on the hills around Nice.
But sad times apart, Nice has been the inspiration for a whole lot of outstanding painters, such as Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, Niki de Saint Phalle and Arman, and their works still enrich some of the city’s most famous museums, including Musee Matisse.
Little wonder, then, that Nice attracts four million tourists every year, one of the most visited cities in France after Paris.
Of course, most tourists to Nice make it a point to go to Cannes, and the city explodes with people during the annual movie festival in May.
In fact, of all the years that this writer has been to Cannes, he has never seen the kind of fear that he saw this time during the festival. The 69th edition, which ended on May 22, was screened under the mortal scare of a possible terrorist attack. The kind of anxiety one saw at Cannes was unnerving -- the nervousness heightened after the March Brussels airport and metro station attack. France itself had been under siege and in a state of emergency after the terror killing of 11 editors/journalists/cartoonists in the Paris office of the weekly satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, in January 2015.
It was apparent during the first few days of the festival that Cannes was under a heavy security blanket, and this writer did see snipers on the roof of the Palace, the festival’s main venue, with heavily armed troops patrolling the streets. One was told that policemen had disguised themselves as taxi drivers, restaurant waiters and janitors to keep an eye on lurking terrorists. But the festival ran without any untoward incident, which sadly, it now appears, was waiting to happen at Nice -- a mere few weeks after Cannes had drawn its curtain down.
It may not be out of place here to mention that the French Riviera’s propensity for crime is well-known. Some years ago, a senior journalist from an Indian newspaper had her expensive mobile telephone stolen the day she landed at Cannes on her first ever visit to the festival.
In recent years, thieves have broken into well-guarded hotel rooms at Cannes and Nice to escape with costly jewellery that belonged to cinema stars.
In 2013, one remembers hearing gun shots on the Croisette, Cannes beach front, but nobody knew who had fired the shots. Nobody was killed or injured then.