No off-season for Nice, where cultural events abound

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NICE, France -- More than a century ago, English aristocrats made the French Riviera their summer resort of choice. Today, Nice remains a city of elegance on France's fabled coast.

It's the only one with nonstop flights from the U.S. (New York/Kennedy); it's the departure point for an ever-expanding Mediterranean cruise product, and it's a destination whose inventory of cultural attractions and festivals blurs the line between in season and off.

To get a taste of why many think Nice is just the nicest Riveria hangout anytime of year, start walking along the Promenade des Anglais, the broad boulevard paralleling the Mediterranean.

Carnival colors the streets of Nice, France in March. The Promenade is the meeting ground for local residents who saunter, sunbathe, jog and skateboard against a background of palm trees, gardens, palaces from la belle epoque days and some of the city's most legendary hotels.

Just inland from the sea, Nice contains the most pleasant of villages within a city: Old Nice, a district of both humble and ornate houses, painted in pastel colors, festooned with drying laundry and flowering grillwork balconies.

Exploring here calls for a walking tour along winding, hilly streets, often only arm-span wide. The way is sprinkled with shops selling fresh-made pasta; ice-cream parlors (none more famous than Fenocchio's on Place Rossetti), and olive oil boutiques (dispensed by hand for each customer at Alziari on rue St. Francois-de-Paule).

Strolling about Old Nice includes glimpses of baroque chapels and churches (the Chapelle de la Misericorde, the Chapelle de 'lAnnonciation, the Cathedrale Ste-Reparate).

Not to be missed is a tour of Nice's most important aristocratic residence, the 17th century Palais Lascaris, now a museum.

The old town flows down to the Cours Saleya, whose open-air market of Provencal produce -- flowers, fruits and vegetables -- spills brilliantly across the grand old plaza daily except Mondays, when one of France's most treasure-filled flea markets takes over.

Nice boasts at least a dozen noteworthy museums, including the Chagall Museum, the Museum of Naive Art and the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, a showcase for European and American avant-garde artists from the 1960s to the present.

Atop Cimiez hill are the remains of very early Nice (from 2 B.C.), with its vast complex of Roman baths and an amphitheater, all just below the Matisse Museum, which houses the personal collection of the painter who settled in Nice in 1917 and died here in 1954.

The white marble Museum of Asiatic Arts, with ancient and modern works, is the newest addition to the city's cultural scene. Designed by Kenzo Tange, its four cube-like structures, representing China, Japan, Cambodia and India, glow in the reflecting pool at the center of a flower garden.

Visitors to Nice can buy a Carte Musee for $12, valid for three days of consecutive museum hopping, or $23 for a seven-day card. The card is good for 60 museums in Nice and all along the Cote d'Azur and can be purchased at the tourist office at 5 Promenades des Anglais.

Two additional cultural attractions come to mind for the Nice-bound client this season.

Thanks to the generosity of Czar Nicholas II, the richly endowed Russian Orthodox Cathedral, sporting a bouquet of ornate onion domes, a magnificent iconostasis, frescoes and precious icons, is still worth a visit today.

Additionally, the Nice Opera, with a Philharmonic orchestra, choirs and a ballet company, is on stage from October to June.

Also through June, the city sponsors a program of Baroque music that features concerts held in the churches of the old town.

The French Government Tourist Office's travel agent hotline:(410) 286-8311.

Carnival 2000 theme salutes Web and a millennium of discoveries

NICE, France -- Tops on the good times calendar for clients headed to France this winter will be Nice's Carnival 2000, taking place Feb. 10 to March 7.

Place Massena, located in the middle of the city, will be the heart of the revelry.

Its buildings will be decorated with three-story-high cartoon silhouettes illustrating the Carnival 2000 theme: King of Odysseys.com -- a tribute both to centuries of discovery and the Internet.

This pre-Lenten celebration is a cousin to the New Orleans Mardi Gras and the Rio Carnival, but there the resemblance ends.

Nice's pre-Lenten gala is a visitor-friendly event that by day (Wednesday and Saturday) features flower-throwing processions of floats blanketed in blooms, as well as carnival parades on Sunday.

On Saturday and Sunday nights, there are illuminated parades of extravagant floats with costumed models, gigantic papier-mache characters, jugglers and marching bands.

Mardi Gras (March 7) is the final gala day, marked by a Grand Closing Parade at 2:30 p.m., a Bonfire Parade at 9 p.m. and fireworks at 10 p.m.

Tickets for flower processions and parades of lights on Saturdays, as well as the grand closing parade, cost $10 for entry (standing room), $20 for numbered grandstand seats. Carnival parades on Sundays and flower processions on Wednesdays cost $8.30 for entry, $16.50 for seats.

Clients can obtain tickets from hotel concierges on arrival, although they would be wise to request grandstand seats in advance.

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