Driving into the blue on the Côte d’Azur
Imagine the love child of Apple and Reliant Robin and this is what you get. Nice-Cars are groovy, open-top, blue three-wheelers, each with an iPad-style screen tacked to the dashboard. Using this simple tech, drivers can follow a pre-programmed GPS tour of the entire Côte d’Azur.
Granted, these open-top dodgems have the pulling power of a scooter (49cc to be exact, 20 times less powerful than a Fiat 500). Yet they emit a magnetic appeal. Maybe it’s the shark teeth painted on the bumper. Maybe it’s the motorbike handlebars on which I’m gripping for dear life. But as I cruise past the Hotel Negresco on Nice’s Promenade des Anglais, a bevy of ladies coo and cheer. Little matter that they’re in their 80s. I’m sexy. And I know it.
It may also help that Martin Ilias, the roguishly handsome founder of Nice-Car, is riding shotgun. His fleet of seven vehicles are currently on other self-guided GPS tours along the French Riviera, from Cannes to the Italian border. “When a driver returns from Monaco they tell me they got more waves than a Ferrari,” says Ilias. He’s not wrong. We pass a group of 60 joggers training for Nice’s Ironman event, all of whom wave and shout. Is that a record? I think it is.
The Hotel Negresco on the Promenade des Anglais (Shutterstock)
We park at Ilias’s showroom behind Le Meridien Hotel for the Nice-Car lowdown. Harnessing the soul of a scooter, each bubble car body is fitted with motorbike handlebars for steering. The right hand doubles at a throttle (there is no reverse gear). Plus one brake for the front two wheels; another for the rear wheel. That’s it. Both passengers also receive a pair of sexy blue shades that match the bodywork.
Drivers can select a pre-planned itinerary in one of four languages, with audio piped from the waterproof speakers in the dashboard. There’s a €35 (£30) blast around Nice’s top sights, from the Chateau hill down to the hip Port area; or a €70 three-hour trip to Monaco that takes in Casino Square and the Grand Prix route. Do many guests discard the digital tourist itinerary and simply take their buggy for a spin? “Most do,” concedes Ilias. “They are just so much fun to drive.”
With a bespoke €90 half-day tour programmed into the screen, I’m off. My requested itinerary takes in a dozen arty hotspots within a 30-minute drive from Nice. I pound along the Promenade underneath Henri Matisse’s old mansion, where a crocodile of schoolchildren smile at me in unison. Then around the Port corniche that Raoul Dufy painted, where tourists on Segways cheer me on. And before cruising into Jean Cocteau’s former hometown of Villefranche, an entire wedding party does a communal wave. I’ve turned more heads than Kim Kardashian in a Lamborghini. This rocks.
Still, I’m nervous about parking in Villefranche’s Parking Wilson (free for the first 30 minutes). As the Nice-Car has no reverse gear, I’m required to push it physically when I back up. However, it’s early, and I manage to luck out with a drive-through space then trot two minutes along the seafront to the Chapel St-Pierre. In the 1950s, Cocteau redecorated this waterside church with mystical scenes from the life of St Peter. Local fishermen were used as models for his dreamscape (muscle-bound, doe-eyed, half-naked pêcheurs flying through the ether). Many were less than pleased with the result.
Cap Ferrat has seven public beaches
I power out of Villefranche towards Cap Ferrat. My blue wheels receive waves from an Italian Vespa club and a professional dog walker (chihuahua being the local breed of choice). This coastal road, the Basse Corniche, which ribbons all the way to Italy, is the fastest part of my course. The seas of Villefranche shimmer from cobalt to topaz below, as Monaco glimmers on the horizon. My motor’s top speed is a heady 50km/h. But with wind in my hair and the engine vibrating like a Spitfire, it feels like I’m doing 200.
Cocteau is synonymous with Cap Ferrat. In 1950 he was invited to the Villa Santo Sospir on the end of the peninsula and ended up staying 11 years. With the help of friends including Pablo Picasso and Jean Marais, Cocteau frescoed the entire property with life-sized mythological visions. The villa’s current owner, Carole Weisweiller, graciously allows Cocteau fans to wander in her seaside home (tours guided by her housekeeper Eric cost €12). It’s like being ushered inside a private Cocteau gallery on Europe’s glitziest stretch of coast.
Cocteau fresco at the Villa Santo Sospir
After a spin around Cap Ferrat’s seven public beaches (I have no time to stop and swim, tempting though it is), I race over Mont Boron to Nice’s haughty suburb of Cimiez. This plush quartier lords it over the seaside city below and it is the one place where my three-wheeler gets a few dismissive stares. The sentiment seems to be “Del Boy? Mais non!” Matisse once lived in Cimiez’s Palais Regina, and the nearby Matisse Museum astounds, though I’m more interested in the Marc Chagall Museum – designed by Chagall himself – where colourful oversized canvases adorn the bright, light-filled space.
Alas, my four hours are up. I bomb beachward to drop off the motor. Ilias tells me his dream is to see his open-top vehicles for rent in London. “But I do worry about the weather,” he muses. Minutes later my heart skips as another Nice-Car putters past. I wave wildly, but there’s no response. My magic’s broken. I may have zipped around the Riviera like Steve McQueen on a budget, but my mojo’s gone.
The writer was a guest of train specialist GRJ Independent (01904 521 936; greatrail.com/grj-independent), which offers a three-day trip to Nice’s Hotel Gounod, including high-speed train travel from London St Pancras and BA flight home, from £455pp.
Nice-Cars (nice-car.fr) offers one-hour car hire from €35 and full-day customised tours from €130.