If it’s been a while since you’ve read the Greek classics (or if you just never got around to it) no worries! There’s no need to pull out the books. In Nice, you can take a quick 13-step refresher course on a hilltop overlooking the sea, the city, and the port. This lovely park is called the Colline du Château or “Castle Hill” and, on the port side, you will find a short flight of stairs decorated with mosaics giving a quick review of Homer’s Odyssey.
You might wonder what all this “Greekness” has to do with Nice. Well quite a bit, actually. The Greeks settled on this very hilltop around the fourth century BC and called it Nikaia after the goddess of victory (the same one the Nike sports shoe is named after) and the name eventually evolved into Nice.
In the 1960s, when the city was renovating the park, they decided to add mosaics with a Greek theme as a nod to this hilltop’s Greek heritage. The results are lovely and you will see many mosaics scattered around the park, but for now let’s start on our own little odyssey.
Odysseus (or Ulysse as he’s known in French) in his army gear: He went off to fight the Trojan War which lasted 10 years. When it ended he got on a ship and headed home, but things didn’t go as planned. It ended up taking another 10 years and many adventures before he was able to return to his patiently waiting wife back on the Greek isle of Ithica.
Dolphins: Every other step shows dolphins in a swirling sea, representing the constant danger and problems posed by the treacherous waters.
The Cyclops: After the war, Odysseus left Troy on a ship with his fellow Ithicans. They stopped on an island where they were trapped (and some of them were eaten) by a giant Cyclops. Odysseus came up with a plan to blind the Cyclops and escape.
Circe, goddess of magic: They stopped over on the island where Circe lived. She entertained Odysseus and his crew with a feast… and then promptly turned them into pigs. Odysseus was spared by eating a magic plant that protected him from Circe’s spell. He won her favour and convinced her to turn his crew back into men. Then he stayed with her for a year. After a goodbye kiss and a quick trip to the underworld, Odysseus was back on the seas.
The Sirens: Next the sea-farers had to pass the sirens – those monster-women with beautiful voices. When sailors would hear their sweet song they couldn’t stop themselves from steering toward it and wrecking their ship on the rocks. The clever Odysseus had his crew use earplugs so they couldn’t hear the singing. But he had them tie him to the mast of the ship and leave his ears unplugged. This way, he could hear the beautiful song but couldn’t steer the ship toward disaster.
Charybdis: She is one of a pair of monsters that inhabited a strait through which Odysseus had to pass. On one side of the strait lived Charybdis, a monstrous whirlpool who would suck in the sea (and a ship along with it) and then forcefully spit it all back out. Odysseus had been warned to keep to the other side of the strait which meant passing by Skylla, the six-headed monster that gobbled up one man for each head.
Aiolos, god of the winds: He took pity on the weary travellers and took all the winds that would drive them off course and tied them into a nice little bag which he gave to Odysseus. Only the west wind was left free to guide them gently home. Unfortunately, Odysseus forgot to mention this little detail to his men who assumed the bag contained treasure and opened it. A hurricane was unleashed which blew them off course.
The Phaiakians: After problems with the sun god, the entire crew died in a storm. Odysseus tried to head home alone, but he was shipwrecked and washed up on the island of the nymph Kalypso who held him captive for 7 years. When he was finally allowed to leave, he had another shipwreck and wound up on the island of the Phaiakians who were kind to him. While there, he unwillingly participated in a discus-throwing competition in which he frightened everyone by his strength. When the Phaiakians discovered his true identity, they gave him treasure and a safe journey home. I think this mosaic represents the King’s daughter, Nausicaa.
Penelope, the patient wife: The steps are finished but the story continues. Where the path turns, you will see Penelope. During the 20 years that Odysseus was out on his adventures, she was home waiting. She had no word of him for at least 10 years and didn’t know if he was still alive. Every day her home was invaded by suitors who wanted to marry her and take over Odysseus’s wealth. But Penelope tricked them. She was weaving a burial shroud for her aged father-in-law and told the suitors that when she was finished she would decide who to marry. Penelope would weave all day long (all the while weeping for her husband). Then every night she would pick out the stitches, assuring that the cloth would never be finished.
Odysseus’s vengeance: Odysseus arrived home but was disguised as a beggar so he could check out what had happened during his 20-year absence. He saw all the suitors and learned that Penelope had given them a challenge. She announced that she would marry the one who could string Odysseus’s bow and shoot an arrow through 12 axe heads. She knew, of course, that no one would be able to do it. They all tried and failed; then Odysseus, still dressed as a beggar, gave it a try. He succeeded, revealed his identity, and then killed all the suitors to boot. After a little problem with the parents and relatives of the suitors that he had killed, the goddess Athena intervened and organised a truce to restore peace in the kingdom.
Now the next time the conversation turns to ancient Greek epic poems, all you have to do is remember these charming mosaics and you’ll sound like an expert!
The Homer’s Odyssey steps and other mosaics around the park were designed by Charles Catherin, the city architect, and assembled by Honoré Gilly. They are made of stones and other repurposed articles. You’ll see bits of roof tiles, pottery, marble, etc. – every piece was specially chosen by Mr. Gilly to fit a certain spot in his creation.
More from Margo: www.curiousrambler.com