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The Palais Massena - image courtesy of Cayambe for Wikimedia Commons

On paper it looks fantastic. A 23-room Italianate villa occupying pride of place of the Promenade des Anglais. The Hotel Negresco neighbours to the right. The Hotel West End sits to the left. If this former private home ever came on the market it would be the most expensive property in Nice. 

But that’s not going to happen. The Palais Masséna may be the grandest villa in town, but it’s now a public museum dedicated to the glamorous history of Nice. Mere mortals like ourselves may sashay up the marble staircase all day long. And for free too. More importantly for those investing in Nice, it offers a salutary lesson in local real estate.

Here’s the story.

André Masséna was born the son of Niçois shopkeeper in 1758. During the French Revolution this impoverished solider rose to the top of the aristocracy, as a Duke, a Prince and a Marshall of France. He left his name on Place Masséna, Nice’s classiest city square. And he left his family loaded in the process.

It was left to his grandson, Victor Masséna, to blow the lot on a rococo seafront residence in 1901. Like the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild on Cap Ferrat, it took several years to build. The imperial architecture came courtesy of Hans-Georg Tersling, who designed the Hotel Métropole in Monte-Carlo. The English-style grounds were planted by Édouard André, who designed Sefton Park in Liverpool, one of the grandest gardens of the day.

Victor added a touch of nouveau-riche to his party pad. A fresco of his extended family in the entrance hall has the entire Masséna clan posing as Lords of the Manor. Classy. Upstairs, empire style salons with mosaic floors overlook the sea.

The bad news? The advent of WWI put paid to Masséna’s grand plans. As labour rates rocketed, having 60 staff was no longer considered cool. The days of socialism were dawning. The days of Downton Abbey excess were gone. Victor Masséna’s son, named André in honour of his great-granddaddy, offloaded the family pile to the Ville de Nice. A chronological memory of the city’s glitzy past – by way of vintage photos, ball gowns and opera tickets from the 1920s – now sits inside.

The good news? Although you can’t snap up Palais Masséna this year (and yes, of course you can afford it), you can content yourself with the purchase of a similar property on the Promenade des Anglais right now. With the new East-West Airport Tram in operation from 2017, it’s high time to invest.

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