I went on holiday to Nice to relax and extinguish residual anger.
I went on holiday to Nice because I had been there before and I loved it.
I went on holiday to Nice because I love France and I love French people.
I was delighted to discover that Bastille Day was right in the middle of my trip and that I would have a memorable day as a result.
It was memorable – but not for the reasons I expected.
The day started well. We woke up and had a stroll to a local café that served a lovely traditional French breakfast with croissants, pain aux raisins with coffee and jus d’orange. After that we returned to the hotel and decided to have a lazy day by the beach.
Pretty soon we crossed over Promenade des Anglais and settled down on the beach, reading a book, enjoying the sun (under the shade of an umbrella in my case to protect myself from sunburn) and occasionally dipping into the sea to cool off.
That’s when the day started to go wrong.
A lifeguard on the beach saw a young man in difficulty in the sea and raced in to rescue him. Sadly by the time he had approached the man’s position, there was no sign of him. The lifeguard called the coastguard and very soon a couple of rescue boats appeared, searching for the man. After about twenty minutes, one of the divers spotted a body and dived into the water. They dragged the unconscious man to the beach.
It was too late.
Ambulances and police arrived on the beach and despite attempts to resuscitate the young man, the man was declared dead. A lot of people were upset and we saw an Italian woman consoling a French woman in their only common language – English. Neither of them knew the victim but the French woman’s grief got the better of her.
We were fairly far away from the incident but we were still pretty shaken by it.
In the evening, we stopped at a small bar to have a drink or two before following the crowds back to Promenade des Anglais to join in with the Bastille Day celebrations. The promenade was packed with people and families of all ages and although most of the people were French we saw quite a few other nationalities waiting for the festivities to begin.
At just after ten, all eyes turned towards the sea as the first of a spectacular series of fireworks lit up the night sky. I’ve always loved fireworks and the look of glee on my face matched that of the children nearby. I could hear gasps of amazement and whoops and cries of joy as the black sky became a cascading kaleidoscope of colour accompanied by distant explosions from the sea.
When the firework display stopped, there was a huge cheer from the crowd and lots of applause. Just to our right, a small stage suddenly burst into life with live music as the Prom Party started. For a moment we were tempted to stay and listen to the music and watch the people enjoying themselves. I suggested that we head back to the Old Town for a night cap and Mrs PM agreed.
We left the promenade and walked past our hotel with the crowds. A work colleague of Mrs PM’s and his wife were also in Nice that week and we had been out with them a couple of times already. We bumped into them just outside the Palais de Justice and had a quick chat about the fireworks.
Suddenly, a crowd of people came running from the direction we had been in, bumping into us and screaming as they ran past.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” said Mrs PM’s colleague,” but they are all running – so should we.”
Without thinking any further I grabbed Mrs PM’s hand and we ran into the Old Town with the crowd into the narrow streets. People in the restaurants and bars began to panic and as we ran, the proprietors began closing their doors. I looked around and there was no sign of Mrs PM’s colleague.
Eventually, after a few minutes, we stopped as people ran past shouting into their phones, some people crying, others looking terrified.
We passed some stairs that led to a main road and saw a lot of people on the steps staring down towards the promenade. Without warning, there were screams and everyone turned and ran down the steps toward us. One older man tried to leap from the steps over a wall and tripped, landing on his knees. Adrenaline must have been coursing through his body because he jumped to his feet and ran away. We followed the crowd further and stopped again trying to ask what was going on.
A young woman spoke to Mrs PM, who speaks very good French. My French is poor and while I only understood a little of what she had said, her gesture of a man shooting a gun spoke volumes. She switched to English and said “Don’t stay here! Run!”
I grabbed Mrs PM’s hand again and we found the main road and ran towards Place Garibaldi, where we had stayed on our last visit. Mrs PM rang her mum as we ran, but she wasn't in, so she left a message saying that something had happened in Nice but that we were okay – at least for now I thought!
When we reached Place Garibaldi, we noticed that the number of running and panicking people had slowed down and people were standing around, talking to each other and ringing loved ones. I looked for a policeman or somebody else in authority but all I saw were a few emergency vehicles shooting past, sirens blaring.
Mrs PM stopped a group of older people and asked once again what had happened.
The woman spoke in English and told us that a lorry had hit the crowd on Promenade des Anglais but, she thought, there was no danger. At this point we realised that we were about ten to fifteen minutes’ walk away from our hotel. People were drifting towards the promenade area, slowly and at this point we assumed that there had been a tragic accident.
Mrs PM’s work colleague was staying very near out hotel and he sent us a message saying that they were back at their apartment.
“Come on, “ I said, “let’s hurry back.”
We walked as quickly as we could back the way we had come and thankfully there were no more hysterical crowds running towards us. We could hear sirens getting louder and eventually we reached our hotel. On the way we saw no open bars, shops or restaurants and our hotel was in darkness. We entered the hotel and the foyer was full of terrified people who had sought shelter in the nearest refuge they could find.
We arrived at our room and saw a young woman on the corridor.
“Have you come from outside?” she asked in English.
“Yes,” we replied.
“Is it safe now? We have strangers in our room who are terrified.”
We told her what we knew and entered our room to watch the news and search the internet for any hints about what had happened. In the next hour or two the full horror of what had happened dawned on us.
A psychopath had ploughed into the Bastille Day revellers, deliberately running people over and shooting people until eventually the police had stopped him by shooting him dead. If we had decided to stay on the Promenade des Anglais and join in the party we may have been in the firing line.
We heard sirens late into the night and drifted into an uneasy sleep.
The next day, the Promenade des Anglais was closed and the police presence was very evident. We saw television correspondents giving reports from the promenade as well as soldiers walking around alert. We had seen soldiers before the tragedy so this was no surprise. To me, however, the police presence was increased slightly, particularly around the tourist areas surrounding the Old Town.
However, I was relieved to see people going about their daily business with an air of defiance tinged by a little sadness. My feelings were exactly the same, as were Mrs PM’s, and despite one or two calls for us to come home, we decided that we were going to stay and enjoy our final few days.
And we did.
We have not been put off by neither Nice nor the rest of France by this and I aim to return to both soon.
The one thing this episode has done has strengthened my resolve somewhat. While we weren’t directly affected, we were both close enough to the attack and, if we had decided to join the party or move closer to where the incident took place, things may have been different.
For three days we stood shoulder to shoulder with France.
We will continue to do so.