It’s a not-so-startling truth that the Côte d’Azur, which runs from the Italian border to St Tropez in the east of France, and commonly referred to by the English as the French Riviera, is a magnet for blue chip billionaires and yacht-owning royalty. They come from far and wide to make berth at Port Vauban, known to locals as Billionaires’ Wharf, in the town of Antibes, which lies between Cannes and Nice. But there’s much more to this coastal stretch on the Mediterranean than well-heeled playboys and floating palaces; it’s an area steeped in history and fiercely proud of its many cultural intricacies and artistic legacies. In other words, the locals won’t be repulsed when it becomes clear you’re not part of the high rolling, dripping in gold crowd. They’ll welcome you with open arms.
Founded by the Greeks way back when (around 500 BC for the pedants out there), Antibes is a good place to ease yourself in and get to grips with the area before hitting Nice, which is best left for shopping – a vital part of the holiday experience. As with much of Europe, Antibes saw a period of Roman rule, during this time they built fortified walls, which still stand today, and protected the town from disease and war for centuries. In the 15th century the town came under the protection of the French crown, and was discovered by European aristocracy as a holiday destination in the 19th century. To date, one of the most significant residents was Pablo Picasso, who was invited to live in the old Chateau Grimaldi – the former home of Monaco’s ruling family – today it is a museum devoted to the artist’s work.
It was Picasso who turned the region’s native sea urchin into something of a celebrity, depicting the creature in numerous paintings, many of which still hang today in the museum. The Spanish painter and sculptor is one of many famous and aspiring artists, who have used this backdrop as inspiration. All of which were supposedly drawn to the region by, as you will be told by anyone you may care to ask, ‘the light’. Like any savvy tourism board, those responsible for luring revellers to this part of the coast have come up with the Painters of the Côte d’Azur Trail, a series of around 70 lecterns with various prints on, set up at spots where artists such as Picasso, Monet, Bonnard and Chagall once sat to paint the originals. It’s a pleasant way to pass an afternoon and you’ll get a fair bit of exercise if you attempt to do even a fraction of the full walk, which crosses through numerous towns on the Riviera, from Cagnes-sur-Mer right up to Menton on the Italian border.
Known as ‘the heart of the Riviera’ Cagnes-sur-Mer sums up the romanticisms of the region, with its small, picturesque fishing port, a Medieval village with many of the original 14th and 15th century residences still very much inhabited and the Renoir museum, where the renowned artist lived out the last 20 years of his life. The latter, an incredibly peaceful, sprawling hillside estate is, like much of the region, filled with ancient olives trees, which stand almost exactly as they did in his paintings of the grounds and gardens from the very early 1900s. If you’re looking for a place to catch your breath, this is it. Park yourself up on one of the benches which look out over the valley before venturing back up to the museum, where you can explore the rooms the artist used to paint in once he was debilitated by arthritis and too sick to continue working outside or in the barn he had earlier converted into a studio.
Further along the coast, on the other side of Nice, lies Beaulieu-sur-Mer, home to another celebrated site on the Côte d’Azur. Positioned next door to the former home of Gustave Eiffel (architect of the Eiffel Tower), the Villa Kerylos is certainly one of the stranger museums you’ll visit. An early 1900s re-creation of an ancient Greek home, it was built by the architect Emmanuel Pontremoli at the request of the archeologist Théodore Reinach. While it can be appreciated for the painstaking attention to detail throughout the property and its cliff-edge location, there’s little else to absorb here, and against some stiff competition nearby in the form of La Turbie’s Trophée des Alpes.
A short drive from Beaulieu-sur-Mer, the hillside town of La Turbie overlooks the tiny (literally 2sq km) Principality of Monaco. The main attraction, however, is the Trophée des Alpes, also known as the Trophée d’Auguste, built between 6 and 7BC by the Romans to honour Emperor Augustus and his victory over rebel tribes in the Alps. Unfortunately, after the fall of the Roman Empire, the imposing white structure was largely destroyed, and suffered further blows much later in the 1700s when King Louis XIV ordered the fortress, built in Medieval times, to be bombed. Enough of the gleaming white creation still stands today so that tourists may be able to picture what it once looked like – though if you’re struggling, there’s a handily placed museum nearby, which features renderings and plaster models of its original form, and curators who are more than willing to give you a quick tour. Before you leave, climb the staircase up the Trophée – there aren’t many places in the world where you can go inside and literally touch ruins like this that sit amid breathtaking views of the coast and a medieval village built around the hill.
Of course, it’s not all sightseeing, and the region boasts numerous Michelin-starred restaurants, not to mention some excellent shopping opportunities in the city of Nice, the fifth most populous area in France. In part, the town owes its current status as a busy tourist destination to its popularity among the English aristocracy in the late 19th century, who flooded it when they realised its potential as an holiday destination thanks to the mild Mediterranean climate and attractive landscape.
Their legacy remains in the Promenade des Anglais, literally translated as the walkway of the English, named so due to the wealthy families holidaying in the area, who spent much of their time sauntering along the seafront stretch. But the Brits aren’t the only ones who’ve wielded influence over the area; the Italians have also had a go, and left behind a towns worth of examples. The Cours Seleya is one example, best known today for its fragrant flower market, but if you look up at the surrounding buildings, you’ll agree they wouldn’t look out of place in one of Tuscany’s town squares.
The Place Garibaldi is much the same (minus, of course, the tram which runs through the centre – a much newer feature of the landscape). Named after Giuseppe Garibaldi, a champion of Italian independence (and a delightful raisin biscuit), the square also boasts the distinct marks of Italian architecture, along with the Place Messéna, which lies just a few minutes walk from the Promenade des Anglais, and where you’ll find most of the town’s major shopping streets. Here there are a whole host of major department stores and multi-national chains, including a branch of the renowned Galeries Lafayette (though this may not incite much excitement now Dubai has it’s very own). Wander through some of Nice’s back streets, and kooky boutiques will soon reveal themselves.
Whatever your reason for visiting the Côte d’Azur, whether for shopping, sightseeing or simply lazing around the beachfront, it’s difficult to leave disappointed, and easy to see why so many have fought over this region for so many thousands of years.
Need to know
Fly direct from Doha to Nice Côte d’Azur Airport with Qatar Airways for QR2,830 return. www.qatarairways.com
Where to stay
Don’t expect to stay in the type of gleaming five star hotels that form a large part of Dubai’s leisure scene – things are a lot more low-key on the French Riviera, though rates vary wildly from season to season. So unless you’ve got a home away from home overlooking the coast, try the chic and cheerful Cap d’Antibes Beach Hotel, www.ca-beachhotel.com (on the Cannes side of Nice), or the famous Hotel Negresco, www.hotel-negresco-nice.com/en (in Nice). If you want to be a little closer to the Italian border, check out the simple but welcoming Hotel Napoléon in Menton, www.naploen-menton.com which has great views of the bay.
What to eat
Unsurprisingly, fish and seafood features prominently on menus across the region, with the main local catch being poutine (tiny fish, much like whitebait), which are so young most are largely transparent, plus scallops, and, of course, sea urchins. All are an acquired taste. Indulge in the finer things in life (this is France, after all), as you’ll find plenty of not-so-local items on the menu. Thanks to the area’s proximity, there’s a
real Italian influence at most of the restaurants, evidence of which you’ll find in the risottos and dried meats. Try Le Bastion in Antibes (www.restaurant-bastion.com) for a great example of these two culinary worlds colliding to mouthwatering and irresistible effect.
• Evidence of the earliest inhabitants in the region dates back to prehistoric times, roughly a million years ago
• Greek sailors built trading posts in the region around 7 BC, and by 8 BC the Romans had arrived, subsequently erecting the Trophy of Augustus monument at La Turbie
• A period of unrest began in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, continuing right up to the invasion of the Normans in the 9th century.
• In the 13th century, the House of Grimaldi – ancestors of the current Prince of Monaco – took over the region
• Much later, the region became a winter resort for wealthy British families and aristocracy, including Queen Victoria, in the 18th century, which prompted the influx of tourism which continues to this day