Unearth the True Character of France’s Côte d’Azur

- June 1, 2016

Let’s face it: The Côte d’Azur, aka the French Riviera, has a reputation. It’s chic. It’s expensive. It’s, dare I say, overdone, with its glitzier-than-thou designer shops, star-studded events and Michelin-starred restaurants. If all this seems a bit off-putting to travelers who prefer their luxury not so over-the-top, it shouldn’t be. Scratch the surface of even its toniest hot spots — Nice, Cannes, Saint-Tropez and Monaco, for starters — and you’ll find the original bones of the region’s most picturesque villages that all the bling in the world can’t obscure. After all, while the Azure Coast, named for the famous turquoise waters of the Mediterranean Sea, has attracted wealthy international visitors since the British upper crust discovered it as a winter retreat in the 18th century, it was the artists who flocked to the Riviera who gave it its character and panache. Something about the quality of light along this coast, which runs roughly from Hyeres on France’s southeast coast to Menton near the Italian border, attracted artists like Matisse, Picasso and Chagall, all of whom lived and painted here at various times in the 20th century. These days, even casual art buffs can see their famous works at eponymous museums sprinkled along the coast. The tiny Marc Chagall Museum in Nice packs a punch, with paintings, stained glass and mosaics depicting religious themes, as well as lovely gardens designed by the artist. Also in Nice, the Matisse Museum pays homage to the artist who lived in the Hotel Regina for more than 30 years, displaying a beautiful permanent collection of paintings, sculptures and drawings.

The sculpture Nomade in Antibes, France

The sculpture Nomade in Antibes, France © GIANCARLO LIGUORI | DREAMSTIME.COM

Picasso left his mark here, and fans can check out the collection at the Picasso Museum in Antibes. Set in a historic building, the former Château Grimaldi, the museum houses nearly 250 works, including paintings and drawings. No discussion of art along the Côte d’Azur would be complete without a nod to the performing arts, especially the glittery Cannes Film Festival, celebrating its 69th anniversary this year. This event framed the city’s and the region’s modern reputation as meccas for not just players in the entertainment industry but players in general. The link between film and the Riviera kicked off in the 1950s with the star power of French actress Brigitte Bardot and her famous director husband, Roger Vadim, who put Saint-Tropez on the international map. Scenes of a bikinied Bardot presiding over the Hôtel Byblos Saint-Tropez and topless on the beaches seemed shocking at the time, and scandals about their joint film projects, most notably And God Created Woman, lent a dash of spice to the region that persists to this day. Iconic film director Alfred Hitchcock further glamorized the region with To Catch a Thief, starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, a 1955 film so lovingly shot on location it serves as much as a travelogue and valentine to the area as the crime drama and love story it’s supposed to be. Nowadays, the Palais des Festivals film center in Cannes often hosts more mundane conventions and international meetings, and the star-struck vibe takes a back seat to the subtler charms to be discovered by exploring the city on foot. A place to start is La Croisette, the boardwalk, for some of the best people-watching on the coast. You will likely see teens on roller skates and proud grandmothers with strollers sharing the space with dolled-up wannabes dressed to attract attention. Wander a few blocks inland to Rue Meynadier, a pedestrian street boasting some of the best boutique shops in Cannes. We’re not talking about Armani or Bvlgari — those stores are plentiful near the grand dame hotels — but instead divine chocolate from Jean-Luc Pelé or the dizzying array of cheeses at Fromagerie Ceneri. Early risers can stroll into the Forville Market where acres of tables groan under glorious fresh produce, cheese, seafood and flowers, and Michelin-starred chefs examine the wares with a discriminating eye. The olive vendor alone is worth the visit, with barrels of dozens of varieties of olives which, happily, he will let you taste. For stellar views of Cannes, climb to the top of the hill in the Le Suquet neighborhood to the monastery overlooking the sea. Or ferry over to Île Sainte-Marguerite, famous for serving as a prison for The Man in the Iron Mask. On Saint-Honorat, another tiny island visible from the beach and accessible via ferry, Cistercian monks have lived and produced wine for a thousand years. A perfect visit includes a tour of the picturesque ruins of an 11th-century monastery and a wine tasting set in the still-active vineyards. For a little more bustle, move up the coast about 20 miles to Nice. The capital of the Riviera, Nice offers its Promenade des Anglais, bordering the edge of Old Town and overlooking the Mediterranean. As with most Riviera beaches, there are public sections anyone can visit as well as private beaches for guests at the tony hotels that line the boardwalk; some even set up pop-up versions of their restaurants on the sand. Nice’s Old Town offers tiny, winding, cobblestone streets and cafés and restaurants serving local specialties like chickpea crêpes called socca, salade Niçoise and plentiful seafood. Boutique shops offer locally made olive oil and perfume, and an antique market draws crowds in the Cours Saleya every Monday. One of the most famous destinations along the coast remains Saint-Tropez, an unprepossessing fishing village until the 1950s. You are more likely to see topless beachgoers here than most places in the Riviera, although the custom declined in recent years. But while the storied beaches and nightclubs in Saint-Tropez are overrun with beautiful people in summer — including at the famous Les Caves du Roy club in the exclusive Hôtel Byblos — La Ponche harbor district offers a more authentic experience with tiny cafés and restaurants that overlook the boats bobbing on the water. Place des Lices hosts an outdoor market twice a week, on Tuesdays and Saturdays, with plenty of take-out food options.
Explore the narrow streets of Saint-Paul-de-Vence, a beautiful medieval fortified village.

Explore the narrow streets of Saint-Paul-de-Vence, a beautiful medieval fortified village. © SALVATORE CONTE |
DREAMSTIME.COM

Monaco, although arguably not the most scenic of the Côte d’Azur destinations thanks to serious lapses in zoning laws, remains a must-see destination because of its perceived glamor and fame. After all, Monaco is ruled by a prince and boasts a pink palace, complete with the changing of the guard spectacle, as well as Monte Carlo’s ornate opera house and casino, which featured in various James Bond films over the decades. By contrast, the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat offers a respite from the glitz with glorious gardens overlooking the sea, complete with temples and musical fountains. For a break from the beach, visitors flock to two lovely but touristy hill towns — Saint-Paul-de-Vence and Èze — both tough to navigate in July and August because of the crowds. That said, the tiny, pedestrian-only streets are charming and difficult to resist, especially for those who time their visits to the shoulder season. Visitors with a little extra time might venture into the lovely, more residential towns along the coast, notably Antibes, Saint-Raphaél, Juan-les-Pins and Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. Wealth and glamour thrive here, but not quite so boldly.

Côte d’Azur Info to Go

Domestic and international flights arrive at the main airport for the Riviera, Aeroport Nice Côte d’Azur (NCE), less than five miles from Nice city center. Bus, rail and taxi services also operate to Nice and environs. Expect to pay $30 for a taxi to Nice from the airport. Although Monaco and Cannes lie less than 20 miles from Nice, traffic on the main highway and the winding mountain roads make helicopter transfers popular (about $180 from Nice to Cannes). Most car rentals are available, and those who prize views over speed can tackle the three dramatic mountain roads: the Grande Corniche at the top, the Moyenne Corniche halfway down and the Basse Corniche closest to the ocean.

Where to Stay in Côte d’Azur

GRAND-HÔTEL DU CAP-FERRAT, A FOUR SEASONS HOTEL This 74-room, 5-star hotel puts on the star treatment for guests with fine dining, pool cabanas overlooking the ocean and a luxurious spa. 71 Blvd. du Général de Gaulle, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat $$$$$ HÔTEL BELLES-RIVES Once the home of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, this luxe property boasts a private beach and an elegant bar named for the writer, who penned part of Tender Is the Night here. 33 Blvd. Edouard Baudoin, Juan-les-Pins $$ INTERCONTINENTAL CARLTON CANNES Movie stars and paparazzi throng this 5-star hotel during the film festival, but mere mortals feel welcome. Come for the private beach and spa and stay for the people-watching. 58 Blvd. de la Croisette, Cannes $$$$

Restaurants in Côte d’Azur

LA CHÈVRE D’OR This 2-Michelin-star restaurant is famous as much for its glorious views of the Riviera as for the wine-pairing menu of Chef Ronan Kervarrec. Rue du Barri, Èze $$$$$ LE FOUQUET’S CANNES For a taste of Paris, Le Fouquet’s serves iconic brasserie fare with an elegant touch from a menu created by Chef Pierre Gagnaire. Hôtel Barrière Le Majestic, 10 Blvd. de la Croisette, Cannes $$$$ LE SAINT-PAUL RESTAURANT Snag an outdoor table at this tiny, flower-laden terrace at the Hôtel Saint-Paul, a 5-star Relais & Château property boasting the talents of Chef Richard Vicens. Hôtel Saint-Paul, 86 Rue Grande, Saint-Paul-de-Vence $$$$

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