This iconic stretch of Mediterranean coastline continues to captivate travelers as much as artists, aristocrats and authors, says Ben Lerwill.
On my first visit to the French Riviera, I remember climbing up to the Colline du Chateau – the castle-topped hill above Nice – to look down on the palm trees and cream-colored facades of the city.
Cruising the French Riviera is an ideal way to see part of France that has captured the imagination of so many artists, authors and aristocrats as the Côte d’Azur. From the casino heritage of Monaco to the Brigitte Bardot links of Saint-Tropez, it’s a stretch of coastline that remains synonymous with jet-set travel. International visitors have been coming here for more than 200 years, drawn by the favorable climate, the languid five-star lifestyle and the beach-and-mountains scenery.
A few of the cities which make this region so unforgettable:
It may be the second smallest sovereign state in the world (behind the Vatican) but Monaco has its own monarchy, its own Formula One Grand Prix and its own cultural make-up – something influenced by the 30% of the population estimated to be millionaires.
The principality itself isn’t the most attractive spot along the coast, but it’s a fascinating one. The Casino de Monte Carlo, the destination’s 007-frequented gambling palace, often remains the top draw for visitors, although there’s plenty more to discover.Among its other attractions are an excellent Oceanographic Museum – complete with shark lagoon, turtle enclosure and eye-opening collection of marine memorabilia – and a cactus-studded ‘Jardin Exotique’, which grants great views over the coastline. The harbor itself is a rewarding place to cast a covetous eye over the assembled yachts, while nearby it’s also possible to visit the ranks of vintage cars owned by Prince Rainier III.
The artist Henri Matisse used to rave about the light in Nice, and it’s easy to see why – there’s an almost tropical feel to the place when the sun’s out.
It’s a big, bold city these days, but it retains much of the style and spirit that saw it become such a lure for wealthy travelers in the late nineteenth century. The palm-lined Promenade des Anglais is a photogenic spot for a beachfront stroll, while Vieux Nice (the old town) is still a baroque maze of classy places to eat, drink and shop.Art and culture have always figured prominently here, and one of the city’s most enjoyable features is the Musée Marc Chagall, a superb museum dedicated to the painter’s modernist works. Food is another big part of Nice’s appeal – you’ll find a range of Michelin-starred restaurants (there are, at the last count, 23 around the city) but save room too for the Nicoise specialty socca, a delicious salt-sprinkled chickpea flour pancake usually consumed on the go.
A fishing village turned energetic seaside town, the often overlooked settlement of Cagnes-sur-Mer remains a defiantly French proposition: you’ll find boules players on the central square, a daily fish market on the portside and the outdoor potential of the Alpes-Maritimes region on the doorstep.
It’s also the town which Pierre-Auguste Renoir chose to retreat to for the last twelve years of his life, and the Renoir Museum – set in his characterful old house – gives fitting testament to one of France’s greatest Impressionist painters. Cresting the town is the small medieval district known as Haut-de-Cagnes, which is topped by a sturdy chateau, while down at the seafront are more than two miles of pebbled beach. Swimming, sailing, fishing, water-skiing and wakeboarding are all options. Unsurprisingly, seafood-lovers are also well catered for – try the lobster or the catch of the day at La Cabane de L’Écailer, or have a real splurge on an out-of-town visit to Alain Llorca, where critically lauded Mediterranean cuisine is on offer.
Antibes & Juan-les-Pins
The twin towns of Antibes and Juan-les-Pins collectively form one of the most enticing stop-offs along the Côte d’Azur – an opinion shared by everyone from Pablo Picasso to F Scott Fitzgerald, both of whom chose to spend time living and working here.
It’s best known for being home to one of the largest marinas in the country as well as the exclusive Cap d’Antibes headland, where three miles of winding wooded shoreline give ample opportunities for swimmers and walkers.The old town, known as Vieil Antibes, is where to head to get a sense of the area’s long history – Napoleon returned to France via this region after his exile in Elba. These days the lanes of the old town are also a good spot for cafes and high-end boutiques. If you’re here over the summer, take note that the highly rated Jazz à Juan festival takes place in mid-July. John Coltrane and Miles Davis are both past performers.
Thrust into the world’s gaze in the 1950s when Brigitte Bardot filmed here, Saint-Tropez has spent the last sixty years largely living up to its reputation as somewhere that embodies the traditional perception of the high-class French Riviera.
Terracotta houses, honeyed beaches, ochre village-style streets and bobbing yachts are all much in evidence, and the international visitors that descend each summer are testament to its ongoing potency as a magnet for the moneyed.What to do when you’re here? The resort’s focal point remains Quai Jean Jaurès, where luxury boats and gourmet restaurants fill the scene, while the pick of the beaches are the lively Plage de Pampelonne and the far smaller Plage de la Glaye. If you really want to make the most of the headland scenery – mountains, ocean, woods and all – there’s also a long coastal walking trail, Le Sentier du Littoral, that provides treks that range from two miles to 20.
Daydreaming of your own French adventure?
Photos by Dennis Jarvis