Ever since the 19th century (and even earlier), France’s Southern Mediterranean Coast has been one of the most important tourist hotspots in Europe. Flooded by increasing numbers of visitors every year, desired by the rich and famous of the world and in the spotlight during the Cannes Film Festival, the Cote d’Azur has numerous signature landmarks and specificities – classically designed 5-star hotels, palm tree-ridden promenades -; the one we’re going to talk about today are the blue chairs(chaises bleues in French).
Found all over the luxurious promenades facing the Med, the blue chairs are loved by travellers coming to visit, as they provide a free-of-charge, romantic and relaxing resting place overlooking the sea. The origin of the chairs is in Nice. At the beginning of the 19th century, as the city grew to become France’s luxury hotspot, the municipality installed a few park benches on the Promenade des Anglais (the main street of Nice, going along the sea), in order to respond to the need of tourists for rest, but also for social status – it was a good sign to be seen on the Promenade in the evening.
The iconic blue chairs came to the Cote d’Azur around 1900. Fifty years later, the municipality ordered a more modern range. In 1966 the renowned French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte was commissioned to design a third-generation chair. As you can imagine, the model currently standing on the boardwalks is painted in sky blue to complement the azure waters of the Baie des Anges. Nice ordered about 2,000 of these very elegant chairs, but due to “misappropriation” only around 700 of them are left. In 2000, during the clashes between anti-capitalist demonstrators and the police (while the EU Nice treaty was being signed), dozens of the blue chairs had to be withdrawn from service after they had been hurled at riot police and damaged. In 2003 when the company responsible for their maintenance fell into financial difficulties, the Wilmotte chairs were placed in storage. When they did finally re-emerge they had been welded together in batches of 10.
Ever since they became famous in Nice, they have been adopted also by Cannes, the glamour capital of Southern France. The chairs can be used all year round except for certain special events (Nice’s annual carnival and flower festival in February).
After more than one hundred years of setting the bar in elegance, today the chairs are used by old ladies that sit in their finery on the blue chairs overlooking the bay, by men playing chess and by tourists eating hot dogs and ice cream from the tourist stands that line the beach. Quite a change, huh?