A Rough Guide to the South of France : Things to Do in Antibes
A medieval fort, line-upon-line of luxury yachts, Picasso, killer whales, dolphins, sunshine, beaches, colourful gardens and lots of Jazz with all the summer cool of the Cote d'Azur. There are so many things to do in Antibes.
All these wonders and delights await you in the beautiful 'Le Sud' of France where the Mediterranean laps the shorelines of one of the richest and most exotic areas of Europe.
Beloved by jet-setting celebrities, indulgent millionaires, carefree backpackers and tent-dwelling campers alike, Antibes-sur-Mer has it all and so much more.
Antibes is a town of pine groves and colourful flowers aside the sparkling, clean waters of the Mediterranean. Most of the beach space is covered in pebbles but this discomfort is of course compensated by no unwelcome sand in your sandwiches or stubborn grittiness between your toes.
However just outside the walls of the old 16th century 'Fort Carre' next to the Old Town there is indeed a little sandy cove, quite sheltered and a perfect place to take the children. The water is calmer and the sand provides a seaside playground to build those ephemeral castles, rivers and dams which children love to create.
It was also encouraging to hear one long-haired and heavily suntanned native cry out "Gardez la plage propre!" as he picked up pieces of litter while exhorting the sunbathers to do the same. And all around the area there are rocky coves which are ideal for snorkelling enthusiasts to explore the shallows and the depths.
Top 5 things to do in Antibes
1. Chill out on the sunshine beaches and swim in the Mediterranean.
2. Splash out on the excitement of the Marineland whales and dolphins.
3. Take relaxing strolls among the flora and fauna along the coastal walks.
4. Marvel at the beauty of the local cathedral and the church interiors.
5. Visit the charming towns and village of the hinterland mountains.
There is a train station in the centre of town and it's part of the main line along the Cote d'Azur. Therefore you can easily visit other famous places by the waters in reasonable time.
Nice is only 20 kilometres away and less than a half hour train ride if they're not on strike. The French Tinseltown of Cannes is even closer at only 11 kilometres or 20 minutes by train if they're still not on strike.
Head for the Hills
If you wish to vary your holiday experience then you can easily take a day trip to the hinterland. There are regular bus tours available to the mountain top villages of places like Biot, Gourdon and St Paul de Vence whose medieval stones and colorful vegatation attract the artistic.
There is a fantastic restaurant in Gourdon which is perched on the edge of a cliff for those who don't have extreme vertigo on the menu.
While you eat you can enjoy fantastic mountain views. They stretch all the way to the sea which you can see through the heat haze. The perfume capital of Grasse is also not far away and there you can discover how they research and manufacture those famous French aromas.
The old part of Antibes has many wonderful little shops where you can buy many interesting items. It's far unlike the bland homogeneity and cloned sterility of the multinational chain-store.
Instead here you will easily discover the charming, the idiosyncratic and the unusual on the shelves of Antibes. Ornaments, clothes, souvenirs or even ordinary household items rise above the ordinary. They are sprinkled with a touch of that quirky French style that sets them apart from the mass-produced disposables.
Get Down to the Markets for Early Trading
In the summer there is a daily food market every morning and also a craft market in the afternoon which runs till midnight every day except Monday. They both wind down in the winter but still run throughout the year, albeit not daily.
There are also clothes markets and second-hand bric-a-brac markets at various locations in the town. So Antibes caters for all tastes.
Every April there is a large Antique Fair in town called the Salon Antiquite Brocante. It's one of the largest in France and attracts thousands of enthusiasts.
The Ancient Regimes in Antibes
The name of the town actually comes from ancient Greece when it was called Antipolis which means the 'city across'.
It had been colonised by Phocaeans in the 5th century B.C. They had travelled from another local colony they had settled called Massalia which became modern Marseilles.
Later the Romans took over and today you can still see relics and artefacts of walls and aqueducts from their 500 year rule which began in 43 B.C until the fall of their empire in 476 A.D.
Then the Barbarians siezed the area and a long period of turbulence ensued until the 15th century when King Loius XI of France brought some regal law and order to the proceedings.
But after that Antibes never quite held the same importance again in the region both strategically and commercially.
Nevertheless the diminutive, medieval fort on the seafront tells how the military role of the town still continued to some extent.
Built on the orders of King Henry II of France in the late 16th century it's situated 26 metres above sea level and offers a 360 degree view of the surroundings.
The old town has many fascinating buildings and even the more modern areas surrounding it offer a pleasing selection for the eye.
But to escape the concrete and asphalt you can appreciate the creation of Gustav Thuret. In commune and partnership with Mother Nature he developed a Botanical Gardens in 1857 which are named after him.
The Sounds of the South
If you like Jazz music then Antibes is the place for you to swing your arms at the elbow and click your fingers to the groove. In fact all along the Cote d'Azur the old sound of New Orleans is very popular.
The town takes advantage of the annual festival which takes place at the nearby resort of Juan Les Pins every July. You can even walk between the towns across the Cap d'Antibes promontory as the distance is not too far.
Otherwise the tastes of the young and trendy will be served by the modern sound of techno. Many events are hosted by DJ's and the beat will be heard pulsating with exuberance from fashionable bars, clubs and discos.
It's definitely not a case Antibes Rock City. You may need to head further north for that. The guitar riff is not typical of the Mediterranean sound.
Unfortunately times have moved on and you may be hard pushed to hear some traditional French music from the old sea-faring years.
But you will hear religious harmonies in January at the Festival of Sacred Music which is held in the Cathedral. There is also a festival of classical music at the Villa Eilen Roc towards the end of July.
The School of Fish, Geese and Guinness
Nevertheless a tribute to the past still exists with the annual 'Festival of St Peter' named after the patron saint of fishermen.
On this occasion, every June, a colourful procession takes place in the streets of Antibes. This is followed by a charming flotilla of decorated fishing boats cruising along the coastline.
Needless to say the old town contains a popular Irish bar. Which European town or city doesn't these days? The Wild Geese have flown far and wide even though the Guinness doesn't travel that well.
There is also a little British colony now in Antibes. A throwback to the days of the 'Belle Epoche' of the 19th century when the South of France became popular with the higher class of ladies and gentlemen who visited and even built their luxury homes.
There is a yachting community of well-to-do types and a thriving business environment for the buying and selling of boats. Allied to this is the maintenance, repair and upgrading offered by local workshops and skilled artisans.
Antibes actually boast the biggest Marina in Europe. Port Vauban offers over 2,000 mooring places for the jaunty captains of the waves. This is absolutely perfect for the annual 'Voiles d' Antibes' which is a huge regatta for traditional sailing boats which gather there in June.
Local bars offer a slice of Old Brittania where ex-pats from the UK can gather and have a beer of the old country and mingle in the atmosphere of familiar English conversation and jovial banter.
The Scribbles of Art and Storytelling
Up at the fort is a little museum in a building called the Chateau Grimaldi. It is dedicated to Pablo Picasso as the famous legend of modern art lived in Antibes for a short time back in 1946.
While there he worked in painting, drawing and also with ceramics and tapestries.
Many of the pieces were given to the town and are now on display at the Chateau. In fact in 1991 Jacqueline Picasso added more works to the collection.
There is a modest entrance fee, although when we arrived it was almost closing time so we were allowed in for free. A quick 15 minute whirl around the exhibits was better than nothing.
Other famous artists such as Boudin, Monet Meissonier and Dameron have also been inspired to paint the town. Plus if you enjoy whimsical art with a touch of humour then there is the Musée Peynet in the Place National.
Founded in 1995, the museum displays the work of Raymond Peynet, a cartoonist who over a long 60-year career produced many lithographs, etchings and drawings. There are also temporary exhibitions presenting the work of other cartoonists.
The famous English writer Grahame Greene also features in the history of Antibes. The writer of great novels such as 'Brighton Rock, 'The Honorary Consul' and 'Our Man in Havana' also stayed in Antibes in his older years.
As did Nikos Kazantzakis the author of 'Zorba the Greek' which he actually wrote in the town when he lived in the Place du Safranier.
Both these literary giants followed in the exalted footsteps of Guy de Maupassant who visited way back in 1886.
Repositories of a Distant Past
There are several interesting musuems in Antibes. An Archaeological Museum on the Promenade Amiral de Grasse housed in the Bastion St Andre which is an old fortress dating from the 17th century. Inside it covers 4,000 years of local history and outside it also offers up great views over the sea.
The Naval Museum of Napoleon contains a collection of memorabilia from the era of the 'Little General' including items of his clothing and hats. In addition you will find maritime artefacts such as paintings and model ships.
There is also a local social history museum called 'La Tour' which chronicles the life of the town's inhabitants. Plus there is even an Absinthe Museum dedicated to the demon drink, with those blinding headaches and lost weekends being the ruin of many a poor man.
The Old-Time Religion
The baroque architecture of the rose-coloured Notre-Dame-de-la-Platea Cathedral is a centrepiece of the Old Town. It has a grand entrance with beautifully sculpted doors.
The interior includes impressive art such as the 16th century painting 'Vierge du Rosaire' by Louis Bréa which depicts the Virgin Mary holding the Christ as a child.
There is also the Church of the Immaculate Conception which is a former cathedral but now downgraded to a mere church. However it is a medieval marvel with a wooden facade of intricate sculpture. Inside there is a crucifix dating from 1447 and a 1515 statue of the Madonna.
The Chapel Saint-Bernardin is a 16th-century church in the Gothic style built for the Brotherhood of the White Penitents. They surely weren't so sorry at the result. The astounding interior is decorated with frescoes from the 16th and 19th centuries and there is also an impressive 18th-century wooden altar.
Also worth seeing is the chapel of La Garoupe Sanctuary which is dedicated to the fishermen of Antibes. It contains interesting artefacts such as model ships but is in particular a tribute to the tragic loss of life incurred through this dangerous trade.
Carry on Camping on the Med
For families the large and well-run campsites are always a favourable option for the fun-loving socialites. These seasonal installations become international villages of pre-fab dwellings, atmospheric sounds and the smell of smoky barbecues in the summer.
Camp du Pylone and Camp Antipolis are the biggest and most popular and offer lots of activities and amenities as well as shade provided by plenty of trees. Natures leafy umbrellas will protect you from that hot afternoon Mediterranean sunsine.
The campsites are also a great place for children to mix and have fun with other kids from many other countries. You can also enjoy quality food at reasonable prices or even some bog-standard plain fare in local eateries that will suffice for the non-demanding.
Splashing out on the Main
Another great activity for children is the aquatic extravaganzas at 'Marineland' where they can enjoy the amazing stunts and tricks of well-trained dolphins and killer whales.
Other animals such as polar bears, sea-lions and penguins can be also be seen and hopefully they are well acclimatised to their decidedly non-Artic surroundings.
On the downside, on our visit we had to endure some tedious entertainment in the human form of dancers and trapeze artists. They merely served as fillers before the water-borne stars of the show made their appearance.
Plus, like many theme parks and festival sites, the only exit from the place is through the shop. Tears and tantrums from the excited little ones can spoil the end of a pleasurable, although expensive visit.
Flash Hotels and Fine Restaurants
As you would expect there are plenty of hotels to stay which range from basic to luxury. The high end of the market includes such places as the Cap d'Antibes 'Beach Hotel', the 'Hotel Imperial Garoupe' and the grand sounding 'Hotel Belle Rives', which was once the home of the exalted F. Scott Fitzgerald.
For those with only a few euros to splash about there are some nice budget hotels around. The 'Astor Hotel', with its studio apartments, offer self-catering holidays. In nearby Juans-les-Pins there are the 'Le Grand Pavois' and the 'Hotel Colbert' which are comfortable and are even pet-friendly hotels.
For delicious food the restaurants 'Le Vauban' and 'Le Restaurant Le 44' come highly recommended for French cuisine and are certainly among the best in town.
But there is also the celebrated 'Le Zinc' which is quite small so make sure you book in advance and 'Le Phenica' Lebanese restaurant for a taste of something different.
Flora and Fauna along the Shore
Beginning at the ramparts of the Old Town, there is also a 5km coastal walk from where you can enjoy the scenery at a relaxed pace. It meanders around the rocky coastline as far as the famous Cap d'Antibes with it's luxury villas beloved of international celebrities.
There you will also find the aforementioned 'Thuret Botanic Gardens' and the parkland of the 'Villa Eilenroc' built in 1867 and designed by Charles Garnier. Not only that but for lovers of nature there's even more as you finally arrive at the 'Sentier des Douaniers' with its landscaped gardens of many colourful flowers.
If you want to see the sun shimmering on the horizon then you'll need to get up early. Antibes postion facing south-east on the coast mean that sunset takes place behind the hills.
But you can be assured of joining the giant figure of the huge 'Nomade' sculpture created by the Catalan artist Jaume Plensa which depicts a man staring out to the sea. The French always have an amazing habit of startling with the unusual.
And so you have a holiday experience that is second to none and a place that is so easy to return. There is always more to see and do in the South of France and the town of Antibes-sur-Mer is a perfect hub for you travels.
But of course you don't have to be in the upper echelons of the high-class internationals to enjoy the fantastic experience and prestige of being in the waters of the French Mediterranean.
Taste the croissant, sip the wine and soak up the sun in this unforgettable Gallic paradise.