A Rough Guide to the South of France: Things to do in Cagnes-sur-Mer
Think of the South of France and you think of many things of taste and glamour.
The jet-set of St Tropez, the architecture of Nice, perhaps the movie-star tourists at Cannes or the Monte Carlo poker tables with the Royals of Monaco enthroned in the Pink Palace.
More modest resorts abound on the Cote d'Azur and have their more prosaic, less star-struck attractions and activities. Cagnes-sur-Mer is one such town along the sun-soaked coastline.
Here is what it has to offer the wandering francophile on any given summer day.
The population is under 50,000 so I suppose in a fortnight's holiday, if you've got your skates on, you can meet and get to know most of the town residents along its elongated stretch by the side of the Mediterranean.
There are 4 kilometres of pebble beaches and normally lots of space to sunbathe or indulge in some purposeless flinging of frisbees or footballs at each other. Whatever idles away your time you can do for free on much of the shoreline acreage.
However there are private areas if you would prefer to have some luxury and waiter service as you relax on your hired sun-lounger under the shade of a parasol.
The town itself is named after La Cagne which is the river that runs through it. A very logical choice of nomenclature it must be said so you can't argue with that, much as the French would normally enjoy a heated discussion.
There are also still the old vestiges of the fishing village 'La Cros-de-Cagne' full of hyphens and history and which dates from 1813. The old village slowly developed and eventually grew to a peak of around 100 boats in the early 20th Century.
Fishing no longer has an importance in the local economy as tourism now dominates. However you will still find a succulent taste of maritime history among some excellent sea-food restaurants in the area.
Top 5 things to do and see in Cagnes-sur-Mer
1. Enjoy the fine beach, Mediterranean waters and seaside activities
2. Wander the streets of the historic town on the hill in the hinterland
3. For a slice of history visit the Grimaldi Castle and the Renoir Museum.
4. Place your bets on your lucky horses running at the Hippodrome.
5. Walk along the promenade and stop to enjoy fine French cuisine.
There is a train station just north of 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 in reasonable time.
To the east Nice is only 15 kilometres along the coast and the main airport is even closer. Over on the west 'Le Hollywood' of Cannes is just over 20 kilometres away.
The town of Cap d'Antibes, with its 'Little England' community, is almost next door. Here the accents are sometimes more South of Watford than South of France and many people and businesses are involved in the yachting community.
A slow meander through the commonplace
But staying in town there is a fine street running through the centre of Cagnes-sur-Mer lined by a row of tall apartment blocks under which local shops ply their trade on the ground floor.
It's a boulevard in the classic French style with tall palm trees adorning the road offering a natural, majestic relief from the concrete surroundings.
The buildings of the shoreside part of the town are mostly unremarkable and lacking in individuality. For all the difference it makes you could be walking around in Spain, Italy or Greece. Utilitarian and functional rather than classically French.
However there are some attractive old churches that you can visit which have both architectural and artistic merit. The town also has a Mosque.
The seafront is dominated by typically mass-produced Mediterranean apartment blocks.These have long verandas protected or liberated by retractable shades.This depends on whether you want to bask in the sun or relax in the shadows.
Around 20% of the total accommodation in Cagnes-sur-Mer actually consists of non-permanent residences. So there are plenty of holiday homes available at 'raisonable' prices.
Nevertheless there are several buildings of note that are worth framing in the sights your digital camera or mobile phone.
Looking up into the past
The most interesting buildings are naturally in the old historic part which is called Haut-de-Cagnes. Like many old towns it's situated on the nearby hillside created during more turbulent times when the relative safety of the high ground was paramount in battle and seige.
It's definitely worth a visit and a local bus, the 'Navette Gratuite', takes you up there for free. It manages to squeeze through the narrow streets in the old town where the walls are just a wing mirror scrape away.
Bus trips are also available to take you high up into the mountains. There you can visit the historic villages like Biot, Gourdon and the celebrated St Paul de Vence.
You are also not far from the cosmetics capital of Grasse where tours and samples are available at the famous perfume factory.
If you do venture into the hinterland you can enjoy a spectacular alternative to the sun worship of the beach culture. In our case perhaps too drammatic as a thunderstorm struck, bringing with it torrential rain.
We took refuge in a local restaurant but after 10 minutes of incesssant rave music devoid of that special Gallic atmosphere you would associate with accordions and fresh garlic we were ready to take our chances outside.
Dodging among the lightning bolts in a daring feat of supercharged electric roulette seemed less damaging to the health.
But a polite request to the staff was favourably met and the electro-dance-trance or whatever you want to call it was immediately ceased.
Timeline of the historic town
Long before the devilish invention of the disco beat the historical records show that the first documented appearance of the old town was in the 11th century,
It later became an important border post between Provence and Savoy from the 14th century.
Conflict ensued in the 16th Century but a long period of calm followed under the reign of Louis XIII which was lucky for some. Unfortunately, as you would expect, invasions recurred during the subsequent tutelage of Louis XIV and Louis XV.
The old castle in Haut-de-Cagnes was once the property of the Grimaldi dynasty who ruled from 1309 under Raynier Grimaldi.
He came from Monaco unsurprisingly given his first name. Some things never change it seems. If the French royals like a name they like to stick with it.
The family rule lasted until the era of Madame Guillotine in the 1790s when the aristos were losing their heads and their houses. The Grimaldis therefore took refuge in Nice after the Riviera peasants came knocking angrily at the door.
During the 16th century Jean Henri Grimaldi had overseen the transformation of the architecture and there was a major restoration in 1875. But it retains that stocky, uncompromising appearance of more belligerent necessities.
But there is an impressive interior courtyard with attractive arches, galleries and a fine staircase. There is also a monumental fireplace and a elaborately painted ceiling to enjoy. You can also find historical artefacts and exhibits from the locality.
Within the Grimaldi Castle there are two contrasting museums. One is ironically dedicated to Modern Art whilst the other is the Museum of Olives which contains giant presses once used to extract the famous Mediterranean oil.
The castle is also graced by an attractive square that leads to the entrance and you can enjoy a panoramic view out to sea stretching from Cap d'Antibes to Nice. On the other side you can look over the Var Valley to the mountains beyond.
Eventually, in 1939, the castle was bought by the municipality and once the Allies got Hitler out of the way it was eventually opened as a museum in 1946.
Fortunately nowadays the whole area of Haut-de-Cagnes is protected and preserved. It remains unspoiled by neither modern developments nor ancient insurrections. The oldest house in the medieval town dates from as far back as 1315.
Evidence has also been uncovered of a more distant history that existed at modern Cagnes-sur-Mer. Ceramics were found dating from the 1st to the 5th century A.D and which demonstrated North African and Agean influences. These reflect the overseas connections between historic Gaul and the Mediterranean lands of yesteryear.
Overall Haut-de-Cagnes offers that unbeatable mix of historical curiosity and rustic charm. Pastel coloured walls are punctuated by elaborate wrought-iron balconies and enlivened by the bright vivacity of floral decoration.
Small doors and idiosyncratic windows provide an antidote to the strict confines of modern architecture. Behind these diminutive entrances you may find cosy little restaurants almost undetectable from a casual glance but not to be missed. Take a wander through the tight lanes and under the arches to discover some intimate surprises.
Cultural attractions and sporting activities
Another attraction in the old town is the former house of the celebrated impressionist artist Auguste Renoir. He lived there from 1907 to 1919 when he retired to the town to help ease his arthritis. This museum is situated in the Collettes area atop the hill and contains 11 of his paintings.
The national census has uncovered even more ancient artefacts by revealing that the town has a higher than the national average proportion of the population who are over 60 years old.
No coincidence that it is the host venue for the World Championships of 'boules' very August. A more sedate, although gently exciting, sport you couldn't find anywhere else in the South of France.
By the seaside even the promenade demands prudence and calm by the imposition of a 10 km speed limit on cycling along the route.
Pedal hogs will be fined and presumably stripped of their bicycle clips while a belligerent mob of senior citizens wave their walking sticks feverishly in the air.
On the other hand Cagnes-sur-Mer holds the annual GDF Women's Tennis Tournament every year to provide a balance of exertion, sweats and grunts from the infernal racquets.
From the balcony of our holiday apartment we were overlooking the Hippodrome which sat directly in front of us.
This horse race track has existed since 1952 and is the most important venue for the sport along the Cote d'Azur. But it officially opened in 1960 and specialises in trotting races where the horse pulls the jockey in a two-wheeled cart called a 'sulky'.
There are two large meetings each year in summer and winter. They are popular with the potential 11,300 spectators that the venue can hold, including 6,000 in the large main stand.
Apparently the horses like the track too as the southern climate makes for firmer conditions than the heavier surfaces in the north.
There is also an open-air street market next to the arena which is not a typical tourist trap. Here you can join the locals and buy fresh produce, cheap clothes and local artefacts.
Entertainment and accommodation
As you would expect here are lots of great restaurants to choose from in Cagnes-sur-Mer. Not only offering southern French cuisine but also Thai and Vietnamese if you prefer.
There are far too many to mention here but you can find out more through this Trip Advisor link which has plenty of up to date information.
- The 10 Best Cagnes-sur-Mer Restaurants
Reserve a table for the best dining in Cagnes-sur-Mer, French Riviera - Cote d'Azur. See 8,571 reviews of 188 Cagnes-sur-Mer restaurants and search by cuisine, price, location, and more.
As for us our little group were quite content with a little takeaway snack of warm crepes and chocolate. We were taking a delightful evening promenade along the beach front near our flat when the sweet aroma wafted our way.
Accommodation can be found at a reasonable price if you are not slavishly devoted to the 5 star experience. We booked one week in our apartment for an affordable price and with plenty of space. The decor and furnishings weren't exactly state of the art and it did feel like stepping back into a 1970s vortex.
The bathroom especially was fairly primitive by modern 21st century standards. But all in all it was a fine place to stay with nice views and plenty of sunshine.
It's perhaps stretching the metaphors too far to mention that in 1949 Ingmar Bergman wrote the script for his film 'The Prison' whilst lodging in Cagnes-sur-Mer.
But assuredly the Riviera experience wasn't an inspiration for his canon of movies which were never really for the light-hearted.
The writer George Simenon also lived in the town in the 1950's. He is famous for the books about 'Maigret' the French detective who is still a popular character in modern fiction on the page or on screen.
Unfortunately there are no romantic sunsets over the sea at Cagnes-sur-Mer as the position of the resort facing south-east on the coast mean that sunset takes place behind the hills. The best you can do is rise before dawn and watch the glow spreading from the east.
In the not so far distance are the unusual Villeneuve-Loubet apartments with their stepped levels and unraveling design of twists and turns. They owe their odd shape to a computer programme that specially designed the architecture so that each apartment receives as much sunshine as possible during the day.
So, next time you venture south to enjoy that Riviera experience you might consider stopping by at Cagnes-sur-Mer.
History, culture, fun and games are all available and it's normally not as busy as the more crowded resorts such as Nice, Cannes and Juan Les Pins.
A relaxed and pleasurable time can be had away from the hustle and bustle. But at the same time you can enjoy more active pursuits either as a participant or a mere spectator.
Whatever you decide you should be guaranteed that marvelous combination of a sunshine Mediterranean holiday with that special French idiosyncrasy.