Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2011/12 posted by hidden europe on

Come on, grab your camera and join us as we explore one or two spots along the coast this Easter morning. It is a stunning spring day, the blue waters of the Mediterranean seem an even deeper blue than yesterday, and the air is so clear that we'll be able to see right along the coast to Cap Ferrat and beyond. "Christos voskres." Yes, that's a phrase we shall certainly hear a lot today, especially as the Orthodox and Western celebrations of Easter coincide this year.

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Dear fellow travellers

Come on, grab your camera and join us as we explore one or two spots along the coast this Easter morning. It is a stunning spring day, the blue waters of the Mediterranean seem an even deeper blue than yesterday, and the air is so clear that we'll be able to see right along the coast to Cap Ferrat and beyond. "Christos voskres." Yes, that's a phrase we shall certainly hear a lot today, especially as the Orthodox and Western celebrations of Easter coincide this year. "Christ has risen." It's Russian of course, and it's a reminder that Russian influences are still very much part of Riviera life.

Russian churches on the Rivieria

Why don't we take in a Russian church or two? Today's a good day to do that, as there are half a dozen thriving Russian Orthodox communities, each with their own church, along the coast from Saint-Raphael to San Remo. Visitors to the Riviera flock to the grand Cathedral of St Nicholas in Nice of course, and rightly so, for it is a spectacular piece of Russian sacred art. It was the very first church outside the Russian Empire ever to be granted Cathedral status by the Moscow Patriarchate. That's a mark of the prominence of the Riviera in the imagination of Russia's pre-Revolution élites.

It may be grand but the Nice Cathedral is too forcefully assertive for our tastes. So come with us along to Menton where Father Milinko Puric last evening celebrated the Paschal Liturgy at 11.15 pm. The Russian church in Menton is a beautiful little spot, nowadays a haven of peace in the middle of an area where several buildings are being demolished. Thankfully not the church, which was designed by the Danish architect Hans-Georg Tersling.

A taste of Russia

Once we have popped into a Russian church or two, we could stop for lunch. The Transsibérien restaurant in Nice does great pelmeni. We were there last week and we think you might like it. It is an odd sort of place, tucked away in the back streets of the old Russian quarter. As the name implies, the restaurant is styled around an old Russian railway carriage and comes with a distinctive sound track: Glinka with the occasional passing steam train thrown in.

After lunch, we might pause at the Negresco where we can take a peek at the spectacular chandelier designed for Tsar Nicholas II. Poor chap. War and revolution intervened so the tsar never took delivery of his chandelier and today it still hangs in the Grand Salon of the seafront hotel in Nice that was once so popular with Russian royals. And there is so much more to see. The old Russian naval base at Villefranche deserves a look. But stick with us and we'll take you to our favourite Russian spots on the Riviera. The cemeteries along this blessed stretch of coast are magnificent. In the Russian cemetery in Nice, you see princes aplenty, not to mention Russian poets and politicians who spluttered their last on the Riviera.

The mix of Russians in the area today is itself interesting. Some are the descendants of Russians who fled the Revolution in 1917, but the French Côte d'Azur and the Italian Riviera are now hugely popular with a new generation of Russians who flock to a region that has so strong a thread of Russian life and culture. Actually, there's a thought. We should go to Nice station just after seven this evening. It is a good moment for a little bit of theatre, as the direct train to Moscow leaves. It is one of Europe's grand expresses, a 50-hour journey linking the Riviera with the Kremlin. It is a mark of the long tradition that connects this stretch of Mediterranean coast with distant Russia.

On our website, you can see a selection of our images of Riviera cemeteries, among them several pictures that tell tales of Russian life (and death) on the Riviera.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.