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Exploring the French Riviera

Riviera

I’d never really thought about visiting the French Riviera. I was sure it would be beautiful, and have lots of wonderful towns to explore and experience. I also thought it would be very busy, and I like visiting ‘different’ sorts of places – not always the big tourist draw-cards. However, this time, I wasn’t looking for a challenging holiday. A break in the sun exploring the Côte d’Azur sounded like a great idea. I was all too happy to give the French Riviera a go.

Haunt of the pale and unwell

French Riviera

Well, kind-of. Until the end of the 18th Century, the area was remote and impoverished. Its only claims to fame were creating perfumes (Grasse), and the citrus and fish items produced up the coastline. However, towards the end of the 18th Century, the area became a fashionable winter destination for the British upper class. When Henry Peter Brougham, a British Politician, bought a villa in Cannes in 1834, a small British enclave developed around it. Well-to-do Brits spent time in the warmer climate of the French Riviera during the cold winter months, on the advice of various doctors. One of these, Dr Bennet, published a guidebook recommending that British people ‘take the air’ on the French Riviera, and they began to flock to the area.

He believed he was dying and Menton seemed ideal for expiring in the sun. Within weeks he felt better, possibly even immortal. His book, Mentone and the Riviera as a Winter Climate, sped through six editions. The TB-ravaged upper classes rushed to test the miracle: see Menton and live! (The Telegraph)

After Nice became a part of France in 1858, a railway was extended along the coast. This made Nice and the Riviera accessible to tourists from all over Europe. By 1865, 100,000 people had visited the area.

Tourism takes off on the French Riviera

French Riviera

Around the mid-19th Century, French and British entrepreneurs saw the value of developing tourism facilities. The French Riviera soon became a popular destination for European royalty. Just days after the railway reached Nice in 1864, Tsar Alexander II of Russia visited on a private train, followed soon afterwards by Napoleon III and Leopold II, King of the Belgians. A Russian Orthodox cathedral was even built in Nice to honour exiled members of the Russian royal family. Queen Victoria visited several times, but was certain not to visit nearby Monte Carlo. She did not approve of the gambling taking place up the coast!

By the end of the 19th century the Côte d’Azur began to attract painters, may of whom had extended stays in the area. Among them were Renoir, Matisse, and Picasso.

The place to be in summer

French Riviera

Although originally a winter destination, after the First World War, tourists began to flock to the Riviera to experience its warm and sunny summer. A number of Americans started to visit the area, thanks to the low value of the Franc after the war.
An influx of writers made their way to the Cote d’Azur, including Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. After tans gained popularity in the 1920s, the French Riviera became the place to see – and be seen – over summer.

The Cannes Film Festival and post-war developments

French Riviera

The Cannes Film Festival was launched in September 1946, bringing French cinema to the world. Saint-Tropez and Juan-les-Pins became popular amongst the ‘jet set’ of the 1960s, and the marriage of Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly drew massive international attention in 1956.
Since the 1960s, tourism development has continued to grow, with excellent transport infrastructure allowing visitors to easily explore the coast over a day, a week or a month. The area attracts millions of tourists each year, who enjoy the French culture, food, beautiful Mediterranean scenery, and history. We found it exceptionally easy to get around the coast, and I’ve highlighted a few of our favourite spots!

Nice

French Riviera

We didn’t eat out much – food is surprisingly expensive on the coast. However, there are lots of lovely little bakeries with fresh bread and pastries to sample. The Vieille Ville, or Old Town, is a delightful maze of narrow streets, and there are lots of eateries and shops to be found in its winding alleyways. We loved Pasta Basta in the Old Town, which turned out to be the same restaurant Matt ate at on his layover in Nice! The Cours Saleya market runs everyday in the old town, and provides an ever-changing mixture of fruits, vegetables, meat, cheeses and flowers.
Make sure you take a walk along the Promenade des Anglais and admire the beautiful buildings lining the coastline. My favourite hotel is the Belle-Epoque Hotel Negresco, where Isadora Duncan got her scarf caught in the wheels of a convertible. Ouch.
A trip to Nice isn’t complete without a climb up La Colline du Château (Castle Hill), where you can see an amazing view over the Promenade des Anglais (English Promenade). Nice is a fantastic spot to base yourself for a week on the French Riviera, with most sites less than an hour away by the reliable (and easy to use) train system.

Antibes

French Riviera

Pretty little Antibes! This is what the French Riviera is all about. It’s actually the second-largest town on the Côte d’Azur, and it’s home to a fair number of magnificent looking yachts.
When you get off the train, head straight through town and to the coast. You’ll be greeted with a lovely old town overlooking the water. We spent lots of time exploring the alleys of the Old Town, and finding interesting courtyards and architectural elements. Antibes is where Picasso spent a bit of time, and there is a museum dedicated to him in the Château Grimaldi, where he had a workshop in the 1940s.
Antibes is a place I would love to sail back to, and it hosts the largest port in the region. While the beaches in Nice are rocky, Antibes hosts beautiful white sand beaches, and the Plage du Salis is lovely (albeit busy) public beach. Make sure you use the free lockers – theft is common.

Juan-les-Pins

French Riviera

Of course, the song ‘Where Do You Go To My Lovely‘ played in my head as we wandered through Juan-les-Pins. True to the song, this was where I caught my first topless sunbather! However, Juan-les-Pins was a little bit disappointing.
With such an exotic sounding name – and being the location where the 1960’s jet set used to frequent – I was expecting it to be a little more exciting. Basically, it’s just a strip of old beach clubs (with some of the bathers on old pontoons!), and plastic-fantastic looking hotels and apartments running parallel to the beach. Okay, but nothing special.
We wandered the boardwalk and grabbed an overpriced drink at one of the beach clubs. A great place to relax, but I wouldn’t bother going unless you are passing through (we actually walked from Antibes, and it took about 30 minutes).

Villefrance-sur-Mer

Villefrance-sur-Mer is one of the most beautiful little villages on the French Riviera. It’s only about 10 minutes on the train from Nice, or 20 minutes from Monaco. Located right on the waterfront, it has sandy beaches, colorful buildings, and lots of restaurants and cafes to duck into. The port, the citadelle, the old town, and the gentle curve of the coast all contribute to the beauty of the village, which dates back to 130 BC.
There are several lovely churches in the town, that only takes an hour or so to explore. We grabbed a delicious gelato at Solea while wandering the hilly streets, and then grabbed a drink on the waterfront, watching the boats and people go by. Bliss!

Cap-Saint-Jean-Ferrat

French Riviera

We rented a little boat from Nice for a few hours – more on this later – and were advised to visit Cap-Saint-Jean-Ferrat. The suggestion sounded good to us – so we motored around. We head around past the lighthouse, and moored up next a super yacht (thanks for the music, guys!) in Anse des Fossettes.
It was a beautiful, quiet and sheltered area, and – as we learnt later – one of the most expensive areas of real estate on the coast. Prince Rainer III even used to have a house here, in the bay opposite Villefrance-sur-Mer. It’s also home to the ludicrously expensive Villa & Jardins Ephrussi de Rothschild. Not too shabby of a spot for lunch, really.

Menton

French Riviera

I knew nothing of Menton before visiting, except that it was close to the Italian border. I now know that it was once a part of Monaco, and then a part of Italy, and it was later ceded to France! It was also a town where Katherine Mansfield spent some time. If you look hard enough, you’ll find Avenue Katherine Mansfield, named in her honour.
We arrived at Menton in the mid-morning, and wandered along the pleasant waterfront towards the Old Town and port. Menton was the quietest town we visited on the French Riviera, and seemed to attract an older set. The coastline is dotted with, again, more amazing architecture, and once you reach the Old Town, its a cacophony of colour. We bought some baguettes and flan and dined on the (rocky) beach, admiring the ocean views.
Queen Victoria loved Menton, and today the area is famous for the Jean Cocteau museum and the Marche des Halles de Menton. If you’re looking for somewhere charming and quiet, a trip to Menton is well worth adding to your itinerary.

Monaco

French Riviera
If you’ve read my post on the Grimaldi’s, you’ll be familiar with Monaco. This tiny city-principality is jammed into the side of the hill, and a haunt of the rich and famous. We, remarkably, managed to not spend a cent in Monaco, with our train pass being the only cost associated with visiting. This was partially because we couldn’t actually find an ice-cream shop, but hey, it’s still quite a claim to fame.
If you’re interested in history, you can visit the Prince’s Palace, the Oceanographic Museum or the famed Casino – but we were happy to admire them all from the outside. Architecture is something that I found was a bit lacking in Monaco. The most beautiful buildings, with the exception of the Monte-Carlo Casino, were located around the Prince’s Palace or on the flat near the harbour. The rest of the city is home to a whole lot of 60’s style high-rises.
Make sure you don’t miss the short walk up to the Prince’s Palace from the port, which offers amazing view over Port Hercules and the various super yachts assembled there!

Cannes

French Riviera

To be honest, Cannes was the least interesting place we visited on the Riviera. We wandered around it on our first day there, and both of us came to the same conclusion… there might be some charm in Cannes, but we weren’t able to find it. Sure, there are a lot of fancy shops and expensive restaurants. Beach clubs line the coast. But we have beach clubs in Dubai, along with fancy shops and restaurants. The Old Town is a lot smaller than other cities on the coast, and it’s not that exciting. However, the good news is, we were there for a specific purpose – the Cannes Yachting Festival.
If you’re interesting in sailing, the Cannes Yachting Festival is a must-visit! It was incredibly hot the day we visited, so we avoided the superyachts altogether. Instead, we stuck to the sailing monohulls and catamarans. There were a massive number of exhibitors there, and we looked at boats from Hanse, Beneteau, Jeanneau, Dufour and Lagoon.

If I was ever going to return to Cannes, it would be for the day only, and probably just to head back to the festival. The only other highlight of our time there was lazing on the beach at La Plage Barrière Le Gray d’Albion Beach Club. Look for the stylish giraffe!

Want to see the Riviera from a different perspective?

French Riviera

We rented a little boat from Rent My Boat to see the sights. From Nice, a three hour boat rental cost 120 euros. In this time, we managed to make it out of the harbour of Nice, past Villefranche-sur-Mer, to Cap-Saint-Jean-Ferrat to anchor for lunch, and then around the bay to Bealieu-sur-Mer.

To rent a little 6HP putt-putt – like we did – you don’t need a license, although a basic knowledge of boating and markers is useful. Remember to watch out for divers! We packed a picnic and went for a swim in the bay at Cap-Saint-Jean-Ferrat, and it was teeming with fish. Bring a snorkel and enjoy the beautifully clear water.

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The 58th Floor is the travel and lifestyle blog of Belinda Birchall, based in Dubai. It provides advice and information on travel throughout Europe, Asia and the Middle East, as well as useful information for living in Dubai - and anything else of interest!
  1. Reply

    I don’t even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was great.
    I do not know who you are but definitely you’re going to a famous blogger if you are not already 😉 Cheers!

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