When cruising the glamorous Cote d’Azur between Monaco to St Tropez. I had visions of a Audrey Hepburn movie moment, a silk Hermes scarf securely tied while sitting in a breezy, open-top sports car as the spectacular Mediterranean slid past. The coastline is indeed stunningly glamorous, our sturdy Peugeot sedan less so as we trace Mediterranean gulfs that have attracted the international set for more than a century. Synonymous with royalty, during the 19th century the French Riviera was the go-to place for Russian and English aristos eager to escape Europe’s damp winters. It even captivated dour Queen Victoria who spent 332 days of her long reign visiting the Cote.
THE FULL MONTE
Our first pit stop is Monte Carlo. At just over 2 sq km, Monaco may be the world’s second smallest independent state after the Vatican but it sure packs a lot into a small space including opulent baroque buildings coupled with shamelessly ostentatious displays of conspicuous riches. Europe banned gambling in the 19th century which provided Monte Carlo with a niche tourism opportunity. By legalising gambling, the Casino in a Principality the size of London’s Hyde Park has become a mecca for high rollers and the glitterati while entry for 38,000 local Monegasques is forbidden. To take a peak without raiding the piggy bank the Casino operates tours daily at 2pm but Monte Carlo has plenty of other low-cost attractions including
– visiting the ornate 500-seat Opera de Monte Carlo designed by Charles Garnier and a miniature of the Paris Opera Garnier.
– relaxing in the Princess Grace rose garden in Fontvieille, a scented cache of 300 rose varieties and the shady Jardins de la Petite Afrique near the Casino.
– witnessing pomp and ceremony at the daily noon-time Changing of the Guard at the Royal Palace in Monaco-Ville where the House of Grimaldi have ruled since 1297.
– strolling around the harbour filled with squillion-dollar yachts and the famous Formula 1 race track.
– inspecting dozens of aquarium tanks plus a 1776 submarine in the curious clifftop Oceanographic Museum.
–popping into the gorgeous Art Nouveau foyer of the Hotel de Paris
NICE AND EASY
Just 20 minutes along the coast, Nice Old Town nestles comfortably between the seafront and the city centre where Galleries Lafayette and galleries d’art co-exist. Nice is the cultural capital of the Riviera and heart of the Cote d’Azur art trail, but it’s not just the limpid light that attracted Matisse who lived and is buried here. Even for visitors, there’s a lightness of spirit that’s captivating. Losing ourselves amongst the Old Town’s narrow lane ways is a daily pleasure, particularly reaching Cours Saleya, a flower and produce market flanked by the seafront that’s open daily except Mondays. Popular with tourists, even posh ones – HRH The Prince of Wales and Camilla recently visited – it’s remains the daily fresh food market for locals and just the spot to order a socca, a chickpea pancake baked in a wood fire oven and the perfect paper cone lunch.
Arriving at the Promenade des Anglais for an evening stroll as a lively sea breeze sweeps the coast, it’s hard to ignore the Belle Epoque, pink-domed Hotel Negresco, an extravagant heritage-listed palace and museum as well as a luxury hotel. Beachside, we join the locals sitting on Nice’s signature blue slatted chairs to enjoy the long, lazy twilight over the Baie des Anges before the sunset spreads its rosy tint. Pin-pricks of light dot the 6km seafront where bars serve couples aperitifs and restaurants set-up for dinner. We dive into the Old Town’s back alleys to search out simple bistro fare and finding it (along with a chilled glass of local Rose) at Fine Gueule, a little corner bistro. Over the next few days, Le Hall’s scrumptious Asian food and Frog just a block from the waterfront become firm dinner favourites before following the music to bars where people dance like no-one’s watching.
Art aficionados will love
– the Musee des Beaux-Arts, a boutique museum collection of classic artworks
– the Musee d’Art Moderne for its bold, ever-changing adventures into modern art
– free entry into the Musee Matisse and an overview of the Fauvre maestro’s style.
– stopping at Villefranche-sur-Mer just 7kms away for one of the Cote d’Azur’s most habitually painted views.
Antibes is beckoning and after a hot drive, its small protected marina and petite sandy public beach is the perfect stop for a swim. Despite majestic yachts moored off-shore, Antibes has retained its 1950s Riviera chic and where bougainvillea-draped, sun-washed buildings inspired a coterie of highly impressionable 19th century painters. Cooling off in its delightful cove is such a welcome relief from Europe’s privately run beach club franchises
Local fishermen and elderly boules-playing residents appear oblivious to the oligarchs’ and oil sheiks’ seaside residences that nestle anonymously behind the flower-bedecked stone walls of Antibes and nearby Juan-les-Pins.. We stroll Antibes’ sea-beaten stone walls that frame the harbour, some dating to the 13th century, to a broad corner ring wall that’s dominated by a gleaming white 8m sculpture. Constructed from letters of the alphabet and coated in white inoxidable paint, “Nomade” by Jaume Plensa is of a squatting figure gazing sightlessly out to sea. Gifted by Musee Picasso in Antibes, this contemporary Spanish sculptor believes that “…letters have a potential for construction. They enable us to construct thought”.
Sitting inside the sculpture that opens to the sea like an enormous figurehead on a ship’s prow, at this time of great Nomadic movement throughout the Mediterranean, there’s plenty to think about…..
to be continued……..
Tags: Antibes, Baie des Anges, Belle Epoque, Boulevard de la Croisette, Camilla, Cannes, Cannes Film Festival, Carlton Hotel, Charles Garnier, Cote d'Azur, Cote d'Azur Art Trail, Cours Saleya, Fauvre, Fontvielle, French Riviera, Galleries Lafayette, Grimaldi, Hermes, Hotel Negresco, Jaume Plensa, JHardine de la petite Afrique, Juan-les-Pins, La Croisette, Mediterranean, Monaco, Monaco Formula 1, Monaco Royal Palace, Monte Carlo, Monte Carlo Casino, Musee d'Art Moderne Nice, Musee des Beaux-Arts Nice, Musee Matisse, Nice, Nomade sculpture Antibes, Oceanographic Museum, Opera de Monte Carlo, Palais des Festivals, Paris Opera Garnier, Place l'Ondine, Prince of Wales, Princess Grace, Promenade des Anglais, Queen Victoria, socca, Villefranche-sur-Mer