Notebook: Rich get stung on the Cote d'Azure
As the wealthy keep to private villas and headlands, their former playground declines, and Nice really does now look like Llandudno
Take away the sunshine - as God briefly did last week - and it is difficult to see why anyone would come to the Cote d'Azure any more. It is expensive. It is crowded. It is polluted. (Cars in Nice after a shower look as if they have been in the Monte Carlo rally.) The older Cote towns, from St Tropez to Menton, have become interludes of car-choked grace in a 100- mile linear city of malls, apartment blocks and garish villas.
All that, and now jellyfish too. For most of the summer, the public beaches along the Cote have been flying orange flags, signifying "bathing dangerous but possible with care". The Cote d'Azure is going through what the authorities call, rather poetically, "une annee de meduses" (a year of the jellyfish).
In May and June, there were tens of thousands of them, mostly immature (ie, teenage jellyfish) of a sickly mauve colour and an aggressive disposition. The creatures are now much diminished along the beaches, but still lurk in huge numbers just off the coast.
The Nice hospitals say that emergency sting cases have been averaging three a day: rather more in June, when the jellyfish were at their peak. "It has been the worst year for stings that I can remember," said Dr Francois Bertrand, head of the Nice casualty service. "The authorities put out warnings at the start of the season but don't renew them for the new tourists, who arrive all the time."
It is one of those rare cases where it pays not to be too wealthy. There are still a few jellyfish attacks on the beaches but the more dangerous place to swim is off a private yacht or from a jetty on one of the headlands, fenced off as exclusive playgrounds for the rich.
Anne Toulemont, an expert on meduses at Monaco's Oceanographic Museum, says: "Off the beaches you can spot them and avoid them. But if you dive into deep water from a boat or jetty, they can rise up all around you before you know it. There's no escaping them then."
There has been talk on French television of a plague of jellyfish: an "invasion" on a scale previously unseen along this coast. There is also talk of a conspiracy by the local authorities to play down the menace, so as not to disturb the tourists.
This is mostly piffle, says Ms Toulemont, although she agrees that some Cote towns could do more to warn bathers. "There were actually far more jellyfish last year. The truth is that there have always been periodic eruptions of jellyfish along the Cote d'Azure. It is a question of wind and current, bringing them over from the African side.
"The present outbreak is a little bigger than we are used to, but not dramatically different. What is true is that there seem to be more jellyfish in the sea generally, because the pollution of the Mediterranean is retreating. And there are certainly more and more people in the sea to be stung."
I first came to Nice when I was 12, on a Belgian package tour. The year was 1962. The great days of the city had presumably already departed if Belgian package tours were turning up. To my English provincial eyes, however, it seemed a glittering city, by an implausibly blue sea; a city for very rich people, because my parents could not afford to buy more than one lemonade at a time.
My Mancunian father irritated my Belgian mother by insisting that Nice reminded him of Llandudno. The great sweeping capes to the south, he said, were no more impressive than the Great Orme. But we spent one evening gawping at the beautiful people entering and leaving the Negresco hotel, then still (or so we imagined) headquarters of the Smart Set.
The Negresco still belongs to an association called "The Great Hotels of the World" but it looks tawdry these days, like Nice itself, offering new clients the chance to pretend to be the clients it once had. The hotel's dome, which I remembered as being as white as the Taj Mahal's, is now lime-green and pink, like the kind of ice-cream you wish you hadn't ordered.
The price of a room - pounds 200 a night - still keeps out the riff-raff like me, but the Smart Set has long since gone elsewhere. The super-rich from the Gulf states have their own villas in Antibes or Menton. The clientele these days is the moderately rich from the Gulf and the dubiously rich from Russia.
On Monday night a Saudi Airlines wide-bodied McDonnell-Douglas MD11, searching for the airport, missed a block of flats by 30 feet and skimmed the rooftops of the city. The plane, built to carry 300, was reported by Nice-Matin to have been carrying a Saudi prince and 40 family and friends. To add insult to injury, the paper reported ruefully, none of the party entered the city that they had almost destroyed. They went to the 20 or so villas owned by the Saudi royal family in the Cannes-Antibes area.
In truth, Nice in 1999 has more to worry about than jellyfish, or rain. It has become much like other middle-market seaside resorts, with multilingual backpackers roller-skating down the Promenade des Anglais, bored-looking families in cycling shorts, jangling amusement arcades and tattoo parlours. Occasionally you come across an elegant old lady with a puzzled expression and a small dog, like someone who has strayed here from another decade.
Otherwise, apart from the topless bathers defying the receding plague of jellyfish in the implausibly blue sea, it could be Llandudno. My father would have been delighted. Vindicated at last.
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