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The French Riviera: glamour is only part of the story

Updated on August 30, 2012

The "French Riviera"

Nice, Cannes, Monaco, St. Tropez…the names conjure images of the rich and beautiful in dinner jackets and evening gowns walking on the beach and sipping champagne.

Or topless sunbathers.

Well, as much as I am loath to disenchant those who have not enjoyed the sunny beaches, glorious weather and pulsating nightlife, it is all true.

But, that is not all there is to what Americans often call the French Riviera and the French call La Côte d'Azur, “The Azure Coast.” (It seems that everywhere you turn in other countries, people have a different name for everything as if they just want to spite Anglophones.) Although everything they say sounds like a foreign language, behind the glitz and glamour of the Azure Coast, are the people who live there year-round, year-after year.

Menton | Source

This is a very general overview for some hubs that will follow. As I mention certain places I will indicate if I have a Hub dedicated to them. Sometimes it hasn’t yet been posted, but think of the anticip—wait for it—ation. I will link them as they become available.

Île Sainte-Marguerite, in the Bay of Cannes(where The Man in the Iron Mask was imprisoned) from Haute Cannes.
Île Sainte-Marguerite, in the Bay of Cannes(where The Man in the Iron Mask was imprisoned) from Haute Cannes. | Source

A taste of Eden

I first visited the Azure Coast in the eighties, staying with the family of a young man who had stayed with my family in the States. I was relatively impoverished at the time (relative to now when my income is only slightly less than my expenses) and politely (I hope) declined their repeated invitations to visit them. Not only was a trip to the Riviera out of my budget, but I also have a serious aversion to staying overnight at anyone’s home. Of course, (Excuse me while I take to the couch for a moment.) I suppose that said aversion stems from my fear of, as Mum would have said, “putting someone out.”

However, when they sent me plane tickets at a time that they knew I was on vacation, I found myself rather excited about the prospect of visiting a region so exotic, so fabulous, so chic. Goodness knows there is nothing exotic, fabulous or chic about me so it should at least be interesting.

Briefly, I went, I stayed, I didn’t want to leave. And I have been returning pretty much every year since. Got over that aversion in a hurry, didn’t I?

Antibes and Juan Les Pins from Haute Cannes
Antibes and Juan Les Pins from Haute Cannes | Source

Magic within an arm's reach

First, I was somewhat bemused by the fact that the famous destinations of Nice, Antibes, St. Tropez and Monte Carlo are clustered within less than an hour of Cannes, which would become my center of operation. And, by the way, please don’t correct me when I say “can,” which is far closer to the way the natives say it than “co[n],” the usual correction by folks who mean well but

At any rate, I have visited the Côte d’Azure during, I think every month of the year over the past 25 years or so, and I am not terribly fond of the winter weather—or the summer, when the coast is the opposite of clear, browning bodies cramming the beaches and vehicles clogging the roads. The spring and fall are especially nice, but my favourite time to be there is May.

Vieille Grasse
Vieille Grasse | Source

Oh, to be on the Riviera, now that May is here.

In May, two major events occur, sometimes three, but surprisingly few people outside of the perfume industry are interested in attending the annual Concours de Nez in Grasse, a convention of professional—smellers. Un nez –a nose—is the appellation applied to a person whose sense of smell has been trained to distinguish every element in a scent. One doesn’t often find them in dairy barns or Park Service outhouses. At least not alive.

I have a Hub about Grasse, as well, so I will not belabor it here.

I do so digress.

The two major May events to which I allude are Les Bravades in St Tropez and the Cannes Film festival in...Well that one is rather a gimmee.

May 16, 17 and 18, the lovely town of St Tropez is free of the hordes of celebrities and celebrity-stalkers who make it impossible to find a table in a restaurant during normal times to take lunch or dinner. The weather is pleasantly warm and my favourite festival in the world takes place: Les Bravades. I have a separate Hub about Les Bravades (Probably translates best as a celebration of bravado or defiance), but suffice it to say that is colorful and exuberant celebration pretty well free of tourists, and the best time to roam the streets of St. Tropez without falling over a legion of gawkers. (Yes, I too am technically a tourist, but I fail to see your point.)

The other event, the International Film festival in Cannes, typically follows hard upon Les Bravades, the last week or so in May.

I have had the pleasure of attending the Film Festival enough times that I might be hard-pressed to count them. To the best of my recollection, I have never entered the Festival Hall, other than the tourism office on the ground floor to collect a map of the city.

That is not to say that I have not enjoyed it.

Having said how much I enjoy St Tropez when it is not a sardine-tin of touristas, it is only mildly incongruous to say that I love the glamorous gangs of celebs and beauties in high fashion—sorry haute couture —swarming along La Boulevard de la Croisette 25-seven. I also have a Hub about Cannes elsewhere. I enjoy watching the reporters and photographers swarming the celebrities as they approach and walk the red carpet.

I enjoy seeing film stars on the street and arriving in limousines, and the yacht parties and after-hour parties, even if only from afar.

I enjoy watching beach screenings of Festival entries from years past.

I enjoy the lights and the sounds and the crush of a glam event that pulls top stars together at one place for one period.

But that is about it for the glitz and glamour, and in fact, much like the love that settles in when amorous passion has gone, I love the homelier aspects of the Cote d’Azur on a much deeper level than I do the flash and flicker of the Film Festival.

Statue of traditional perfume peddlar in front of the perfume museum in Grasse
Statue of traditional perfume peddlar in front of the perfume museum in Grasse | Source

It's all in the nose of the beholder

For example, Grasse is considered the perfume capital of the world, its three great perfumeries Fragonard, Galimard and Molinard dominating the scene with billboards and satellite shops, but the old heart of the city, Vieille (Old) Grasse, is a gem, the church filled with magnificent art, the ancient streets largely unchanged since they knew the tread of Roman feet.

The undiscovered countries....

The same is true of Vieilles (old) Antibes, Nice’s Vieilles Ville (Old Town), the perched villages of Tourette-sur-Loupe and Vence, St. Paul de Vence, Gourdon and Eze....I find them all charming and alluring, so much so that my friends look for undiscovered villages to share with me while I am there.

For the art aficionado, The Fondation Maeght Foundation and the Chateau de la Napoule .

And, la piece de resistance....

And then there is the best part of the South of France: the people. Oh, Americans love to denounce the French as arrogant and rude, but, I am happy to say that—other than Parisian waiters—I have never, never experienced it.

I have visited many countries, and as much as possible I spurn grand hotels, preferring bed and breakfasts, family hotels, small inns. A Hotel Monaco is still a Hotel Monaco and a St. Regis is a St. Regis.a Four Seasons is a Four Seasons. And each could be any other. They are beautiful, and luxurious, they offer a superabundance of amenities—and usually only a nod to the region in which they are installed.

In Provence I have surpassed even the bed and breakfasts with the world’s greatest friends. Friends so dear that I sometimes refer to them as family--that I like. Through them, with them, I have not only explored some of the best restaurants—not necessarily most expensive, mind you, just the places the locals frequent—in Provence and northern Italy, but I have learned about Provencal customs and developed a network of good, close friends and family that make me more excited about travel than the most exotic destinations on my itinerary.

I hope that you will join me as I begin to fill in some of the blanks with more in-depth articles about some of my favourite places on the beautiful Cote d’Azur.


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