Ever since the turn of the previous century, the French Riviera has enjoyed a reputation as one of the world’s most alluring destinations. Follow a journey in a legendary region fortunate to be one of the most beautiful corners of Europe.
Beautifully-nestled between the Alps and the Mediterranean, Nice is France’s fifth largest city, Nice’s scenery, temperate climate and preserved past, rendered accessible by its international airport, has made it into one of the most sought-after European holiday destinations.
The city’s iconic symbol, the Promenade des Anglais, is a seafront-walk that curves gently over a five-mile stretch along the “Baie des Anges”. First paved to allow North European and Russian aristocrats to take their leisurely daily stroll in the warm winter sun, it is today busy with runners, bikers, skaters and walkers, all enjoying the great sights of the white-capped Alps on one side and of the blue Mediterranean Sea on the other, instrumental in shielding and tempering Nice’s climate.
Much of the old town of Nice dates back to the 17th Century and is a maze of narrow streets, lively cafes and restaurants. The flower and fruit markets on Cours Saleya (open 6am-12 pm) give way to antiques and “bric-a-brac” displays on Mondays. The heart of Nice’s lively city centre, Place Masséna and avenue Jean-Médecin are dotted with boutiques and cafés.
Nice’s museums play host to some terrific artistic treasures in a city where light and unrivalled sceneries have inspired many an artist in the likes of Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall.
The local cuisine, a mixture of French, Italian and Provencal, translates into such delicacies as, socca, pan bagnat, pissaladière and naturally, the world-renowned Salade Niçoise. Try the local “street food” called Socca, a chickpea pancake (Pipo Socca, 13 rue Bavastro, Nice) and choose among the over 90 flavours of Fenocchio’s legendary ice cream (2 place Rossetti, Nice).
Heading east out of Nice along the Basse Corniche and passing the magnificent Bay of Villefranche, a vast natural anchoring haven since antiquity and today’s France busiest Cruise-ship harbour, is Cap Ferrat, one of the most glamorous and romantic stretches of the coast and an essential ingredient in the making of the myth of the French Riviera.
Located half-way between Monaco and Nice, Cap Ferrat boasts an eight-mile walking path around its whole perimeter that is not only a pure delight for the senses but also home to some of the most spectacular and sought-after properties in Europe.
Situated in a seven-hectare park atop the Plateau du Centenaire, the pink Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild was built by the baron of Rothschild for his daughter Beatrice and her husband. The 1912-building duplicates those of Renaissance princes through its adoption of an Italianate style. The most striking feature of this property is a park subdivided into nine different breath-taking thematic gardens and a sweeping view of the Mediterranean.
Have a swim at Paloma beach with its opulent beauty or spend a lazy afternoon people-watching at café La Civette (1 Place Georges Clémenceau, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat) while enjoying the peaceful luxury of one of the world’s most prestigious peninsulas. Stroll down to the tranquil port and order a dish of wonderful Spaghetti aux Fruits de mer at the seafront restaurant Gourmet Italien (Nouveau Port, St Jean Cap Ferrat).
After climbing to the Moyenne Corniche and heading east again, perched on a tall narrow rock looming almost 1,500 ft above the Sea, Eze village will soon make its fable-like appearance. Anciently-founded by local fishermen, Eze understandably acquired the nick-name “Nid d’Aigle” (Eagle’s Nest).
The village is remarkable with its narrow cobbled streets hugging the rocky peak in a concentric fashion, culminating at the Exotic Gardens where ruins of a 14th Century Château can still be seen. At this pinnacle level, a 360-degree breath-taking panorama over both the coastline and the surrounding hills, awaits enchanted viewers, brave enough to overcome the steep climb.
Enjoy a light lunch or a drink at the terrace of the famous Château Eza Hôtel whilst taking in one of the most fabulous views of the Mediterranean (rue de la Pise, Eze Village).
A 10-minute downhill drive east again, will lead you to the second smallest nation in the world: the Principality of Monaco.
The Grimaldi, Monaco’s ruling family since 1297 have been instrumental in preserving this tiny territory’s independence thanks to brilliant political manoeuvres allying with major European powers as needed.
Though little tangible testimony is left of its past due to extensive construction activities to house the ever-increasing population (37,000 to date) culture is still one of Monaco’s main attractions. Over a surface of about 2 square km (the actual size of Monaco!) events famous the world over take place in quick succession. The Monaco Grand Prix, the Tennis Masters Series, the Rallye de Monte-Carlo, the Opera season, “Salle des Etoiles” summer concerts, an international summer firework competition, the Yacht Show and many other exhibitions, congresses and sporting events.
Don’t miss the grand Oceanographic Museum, as noteworthy for its Roman-Byzantine architecture as it is for its aquarium. Visit the Zen-like Maya Bay restaurant for some mouth-watering Japanese and Thai cuisine (Le Roccabella, 24 avenue Princesse Grace). For an insight into Monaco nightlife, stop by the always bustling Sass Café (11 avenue Princesse Grace).
Tourism and entertainment are not the only activities in this busy and congested country as, thanks also to favourable tax legislation, Monaco is making its mark as a major centre for Finance, Technology and Ship Management.
Heading back west onto the tunnel-ridden motorway, a 40 minute drive to the Cagnes-sur-Mer exit will then connect you to an inland road leading you to the enchanted village of Saint-Paul-de-Vence whose oval shape and intact outer walls on a hilltop can be seen from afar.
St. Paul is undoubtedly the Côte d’Azur most famous hillside village. It is traditionally associated with artists of the calibre of, Matisse, Chagall and Renoir who started to flock to St-Paul when village Inn, Colombe d’Or’ (1 Place Général de Gaulle, Saint-Paul-de-Vence) owner, Paul Roux, offered room and board to artists for some of their creations (today, patrons can admire unique art pieces while enjoying a meal). The village’s quaint cemetery is Marc Chagall’s final resting place.
Heading back west onto the motorway for another 30 minutes one reaches Cannes and its famous Croisette beachfront walk. Thanks in part to its International Film Festival held every year in May since 1947; Cannes is second only to Paris in terms of both congress hosting and media coverage in France.
Ever since the popularization of the Cannes Film Festival in the 1950s, the city’s pulse is especially intense and cosmopolitan during the summer months. The Boulevard de la Croisette is flanked with beach clubs on one side and luxury hotels and elegant boutiques on the other. Cannes has around thirty private beaches with top-class amenities, water sports and fantastic restaurants with its bay being a favoured summer-time anchorage for some of the world’s biggest yachts. A great alternative for beach-life is Zplage, Martinez Hotel’s private beach (73, La Croisette, Cannes).
However, there is much more to Cannes than just seductive starlets and flamboyant lifestyles. The Old Town of Cannes, Le Suquet, has steep streets that lead strollers to the Citadelle with its 12th Century castle and square lookout tower, offering magnificent views over the coast and Foreville, a traditional street market at the foot of the old town (open mornings only).
The “playground of the rich” reputation the French Riviera has acquired over the decades shouldn’t overshadow the complete range of prices and variety of activities the area has to offer.