My Trip To The French Riviera
My Trip To The French Riviera
La Côte d’Azur polarizes opinion like few places in France. To some it remains the most glamorous of all Mediterranean playgrounds; to others, it’s an overdeveloped victim of its own hype. Yet at its best – in the gaps between the urban sprawl, on the islands, in the remarkable beauty of the hills, the impossibly blue water after which the coast is named and in the special light that drew so many artists to paint here – it captivates still.
From Marseille to Cannes & from Nice to Monaco, let me take you on a fabulous trip where history and glamour intertwine.
Were it not for the great metropolis of Marseille, just 30 km south, Aix-en-Provence would be the dominant city of central Provence. Historically, culturally and socially, the two cities are moons apart, and for visitors the tendency is to love one and hate the other. Aix is more immediately attractive, a stately and in parts pretty place that’s traditionally seen as conservative. The proudest moment in its history was its fifteenth-century heyday as an independent fiefdom under the beloved King René of Anjou, while in the nineteenth century it was home to close friends Paul Cézanne and Émile Zola. Today, the youth of Aix dress immaculately; hundreds of foreign students, particularly Americans, come to study here; and there’s a certain snobbishness, almost of Parisian proportions.
Known as Vieil Aix, the tangle of medieval lanes at the city’s heart is a great monument in its entirety, an enchanting ensemble that’s far more compelling than any individual building or museum it contains. With so many streets alive with people; so many tempting restaurants, cafes and shops; a fountain-ed square to rest in every few minutes; and a backdrop of architectural treats from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it’s easy to while away days at a time enjoying its pleasures. On Saturdays, and to a lesser extent on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the center is taken up with some of the finest markets in Provence.
The ancient city of Marseille possesses its own earthy magnetism, while right on its doorstep there’s swimming and sailing in the pristine waters of the Calanques national park. Here, true Mediterranean magic is also to be found in the scented vegetation, silver beaches, secluded islands and medieval perched villages like Grimaud and La Garde Freinet. You can escape to the wonderful unspoiled landscapes of the Îles d’Hyères, with some of the best flora and fauna in Provence, then contrast the beachcomber charm of La Croix Valmer with the flashy ebullience of its over-hyped neighbor, St-Tropez – unmissable if only for a day-trip, though you need to be prepared to contend with huge crowds during summer time.
Founded by the Greeks some two and a half millennia ago, the most renowned and populated metropolitan area in France after Paris and Lyon has both prospered and been ransacked over the centuries. It has lost its privileges to French kings and foreign armies, recovered its fortunes, suffered plagues, religious bigotry, republican and royalist terror and had its own Commune and Bastille-storming. It was the march of Marseillaise revolutionaries to Paris in 1792 that gave the Hymn of the Army of the Rhine its name of La Marseillaise, later to become the national anthem. Occupied by the Germans during World War II, it became a notably cosmopolitan place in the postwar years. Undoubtedly one of the cities you cannot skip visiting!
With its immaculate seafront hotels and exclusive beach concessions, glamorous yachts and designer boutiques, Cannes is in many ways the definitive Riviera resort, a place where appearances count, especially during the film festival in May, when the orgy of self-promotion reaches its annual peak. The seafront Palais des Festivals is the heart of the film festival but also hosts conferences, tournaments and trade shows. Despite its glittery image, Cannes works surprisingly well as a big seaside resort, with plenty of free, sandy public beaches. You’ll find the non-paying beaches to the west of Le Suquet towards the suburb of La Bocca along the plages du Midi, though there’s also a tiny public section of beach on Plage de la Croisette, just east of the Palais des Festivals.
Alternatively, you can explore the old aristocratic suburbs La Croix des Gardes and La Californie, once populated by Russian and British royals. Just offshore, the peaceful Îles de Lérins – Ste-Marguerite and St-Honorat – offer a sublime, easily accessible contrast to the frenetic town, while further out are the towns of Vallauris, with its interesting Picasso connections, and Grasse, famed for its perfume.
The capital of the Riviera and fifth largest city in France, Nice lives off a glittering reputation. Far too large to be considered simply a beach resort, it has all the advantages and disadvantages of a major city: superb culture, shopping, eating and drinking, but also crime, graffiti and horrendous traffic, all set against a backdrop of blue skies, sparkling sea and sub-tropical greenery kept lush by sprinklers.
Popularized by English aristocrats in the eighteenth century, Nice reached its zenith in the belle époque of the late nineteenth century, and has retained its historical styles almost intact: the medieval rabbit warren of Vieux Nice, the Italianate facades of modern Nice and the rich exuberance of fin-de-siècle residences dating from when the city was Europe’s most fashionable winter retreat. It has mementos from its time as a Roman regional capital, and earlier still, when the Greeks founded the city. The museums are a treat for art lovers, and though its politics are conservative Nice doesn’t feel stuffy; it has a highly visible lesbian and gay community and spirited nightlife. Of late Nice has been smartening up its act with extensive refurbishment of its public spaces and the construction of an ultra-modern tramway. Conservative it may be, but Nice does not rest on its laurels.
La Principauté de MONACO
Viewed from a distance, there’s no mistaking the cluster of towers that is Monaco. Postwar redevelopment rescued the tiny principality from economic decline but elbowed aside much of its previous prettiness – not for nothing was Prince Rainier, who died in 2005, known as the Prince Bâtisseur (“Prince Builder”). This tiny state, no bigger than London’s Hyde Park, retains its comic opera independence: it has been in the hands of the autocratic Grimaldi family since the thirteenth century, and in theory would become part of France were the royal line to die out. It is home to six thousand British expats – including Roger Moore and Shirley Bassey – out of a total population of around 36,000. Along with its wealth, Monaco latterly acquired a reputation for wheeler-dealer sleaze. On his accession in 2005, the US-educated Prince Albert II set about trying to get the principality off an OECD list of uncooperative tax havens, declaring he no longer wished Monaco to be known – in the words of Somerset Maugham – as “a sunny place for shady people”.
The oldest part of the principality is Monaco-Ville, around the palace on the rocky promontory, with the Fontvieille marina in its western shadow. La Condamine is the old port on the other side of the promontory; the bathing resort of Larvotto extends to the eastern border; and Monte-Carlo is in the middle.
One time not to visit is during the Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix in May – no viewpoint is accessible without a ticket and prices soar to ridiculous levels.
Despite all the “pecuniary particularities” one cannot simply resist the charms and allure of La Côte D’Azûr… And, if you cannot go there, one quick research shall show you all the marvels and wonders the French Riviera does hide from the mere mortals – from natural delights to paladian pumps and glories.
Post Scriptum: Another great excuse to visit La Côte or simply France… the gastronomy and gourmandises! Believe me, they are worth the trip.