During the middle ages, the French built their settlements on the Mediterranean hills for optimal protection against their foreign enemies. Today, their foresight makes the colorful, elevated villages both scenic and awe-inspiring for visitors to the French Riviera. From absinthe-tasting in 9th century cellars to viewing original work by Chagall or Picasso in unlikely places and luxury hotels, there are unexpected delights in every village. Here are some tips to navigate the diverse towns in this charming destination.
Cannes is the most well-known destination in the French Riviera due to the internationally acclaimed Film Festival that occurs each May. During the off-season, arrange a tour of the 30-year old Palais des Festivals, the official Cannes theater. Take in the grand stage where celebrities accept their awards or visit the famous handprints of stars around the Palais. The bustling Rue de Meynadier is the main shopping street, where you will find a mixture fish shops, boutique clothiers, and souvenir stores. In contrast, the glamorous La Croisette is the see and be seen luxury promenade in Cannes, and the origin of the Chanel #5 perfume (named after the Chanel store’s #5 address on the Croisette).
A popular departure from Cannes is to the serene and lush island of Île Saint-Honorat, located a mile from the shore of the city and contains both an imposing 15th-century- and a present-day monastery, the Abbaye de Lérins. The monks who reside on the island produce their own fine wine, which is so popular it was served at both the G20 Summit and to the jury of the Cannes Film Festival. For luxury accommodations, stay at the boutique, naval-themed Hôtel Splendid which overlooks the yacht harbor and the Carrousel des Allées, a vintage and antique market open every Saturday and Sunday. Hungry? Traverse a couple of winding, cobblestone alleys to arrive at the fine dining Le Mantel restaurant located on Rue St. Antoine. The pumpkin cream soy and grilled local cuttlefish are excellent choices.
I encountered many sensory delights in the small port destination of Antibes, where the Romans requested salted fish guts as a delicacy from the Antibes fisherman. Take a whiff of the medley of scents at the Quai des Pêcheurs fish market located on the marina or visit the colorful Cours Massena spice market, where you can purchase almost any spice you can think of, from black salt and rose salt, to different types of curry. Adjacent to the Cours Massena market is the Absinthe Bar, a former 9th century cellar, where they serve absinthe in the old school method of using a water spout, spoon, and sugar to dilute the strong spirit.
Tour the historic Musée Picasso, the location of Pablo Picasso’s workshop and home in 1946. Picasso left on deposit at the museum 23 paintings and 44 drawings, including La Joie de Vivre, Satyr, Centaur and the sea urchin wildlife trident. In the middle of Cannes and the Antibes center you will meet Juan-les-Pins, the resort area of Antibes known as the “millionaire’s row”. Stay at the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc, the most famous and exclusive hotel in the Riviera, where celebrities are known to escape the paparazzi during the Cannes Film Festival. For a nightcap, have a drink on the balcony of the Hotel Belles Rives, the former villa of F. Scott Fitzgerald and take in the same brilliant sunset that he marveled across the ocean.
St. Paul de Vence
St. Paul de Vence is located high in the lush, mountains of the Mediterranean, its isolated location making it a favorite hideaway of artists over the decades. For example, St. Paul de Vence was the home of American writer James Baldwin and his companion Bernard Hassell. It was in his Saint-Paul house that James Baldwin wrote his famous Open Letter to My Sister, Angela Y. Davis; a plea against intolerance.
Marc Chagall was also resident of St. Paul de Vence for 20 years, and is interred in a cemetery surrounded by centuries old cypress trees. Chagall’s work can be found at the 15th century Chapelle Notre-Dame de la Gardette. Visit the Place du Jeu de Boules Wednesday mornings for the Farmer’s Market and purchase Mediterranean specialties like honey, nougat, brioche, jams, teas, cheese, and olive oil. For wine tasting, the 14th-century Petite Cave de Saint-Paul allows you to sample and learn about Grands Crus from Burgundy and Champagne and rare wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Provence.
The main strip in Nice is the Promenade des Anglais, where you can visit trendy bars, hotels, and relax by the bay. The promenade is a favorite shooting place of films like To Catch a Thief, The Transporter, and Ronin. Also located on the Promenade is the five-star Le Negresco, where you can experience what it would feel like to sleep at the Louvre. There are five centuries of work throughout the hotel as the owner wanted her guests to be able to touch and sit on the centuries-old furniture. Relax in the Napoleon hallway in one of his armchairs or rich, canapé sofas, and choose to sleep in a room furnished in either art deco, French art, baroque or classical. Have dinner in the hotel restaurant, La Rotonde, which boasts a fancy carnival theme, complete with colorful, mechanical merry-go-round horses. Order the scorpion fish in caramelized fennel or opt for the ox cheek braised in white wine.
Although the beaches in Nice are quite rocky, the locals prefer these beaches over other places in the Riviera because of its clear water. After catching a Mediterranean suntan, take a leisurely stroll through the Cours Saleya, the flower market in Old Nice and purchase local crafts, flowers, and French milled soaps. Afterwards, tour the historic baroque Opéra de Nice, located across from the market. If you enjoy museums, you will be happy to know most of them offer free admission (such as the Fine Arts Museum, Museum of Modern & Contemporary Art, and the Museum of Archeology). Also, perfume lovers can make their own fragrance at Molinard located on Rue St François de Paule.
Known as the “best-kept secret” of the Riviera, Villefranche-sur-Mer is a vibrant seaside town with colorful sailboats dotting the marina and is also a top cruise port in France. The town also has a love affair with Jean Cocteau, and many brag about his mark left on a number of places, such as the Citadel, the 16th century Chapel Saint Pierre, and his residence at the Hotel Welcome. The Citadel is an impressive stone fortress built in 1554 to defend the old town; and today, it houses the four museums where you can discover films that were shot in Villefranche.
The Chapel Saint Pierre was decorated by Cocteau in 1957 in dedication to his ﬁshermen friends. The Hotel Welcome faces the Mediterranean Sea and boasts an elegant marina. A few steps away from the hotel is the famous family-owned seafood restaurant, La Mere Germaine, which opened in 1938, and has been a favorite of Hollywood A-listers for decades. The lobster salad is a must!
Èze is perhaps the most extraordinary village in the French Riviera, with its perched mountaintop location set at a staggering 1,400 feet above sea level. The area was first populated in 2000 BC and is described as being an “eagle's nest” because of its location overlooking a high cliff. There are only 14 permanent residents, which contributes to the intimacy and mystique of the destination. As you walk up and down the cobblestone alleyways, you may feel as though you are walking through a carved out mountain with its pale, jagged stones, curved corridors, and thick wooden doors. There are boutiques, galleries, and perfumeries built in the mountain, like Fragonard Perfumeries.
In Èze, I made a trip to the Jardin d’Èze (Exotic Garden), which houses an 18th century church, exotic plants, and sculptures by Jean-Philippe Richard. There are also advantageous lookout points for observing the sea and village below. Stay at Relais & Châteaux’s Château de la Chèvre d’Or, the former home of Prince William of Sweden. I enjoyed reading from my mini balcony and looking out at the whimsical clouds below. For dinner, amble up the small alleyway to the hotel’s restaurant, La Chèvre d’Or’, a gourmet restaurant with 2 Michelin stars. Be sure to try the succulent Coquilles Saint Jacques and the tender Filet de Poulet.
Adrienne Jordan is a fashion and travel writer based in Los Angeles....(Read More)