The French Riviera has been a beach getaway since the late 1700s, which means a lot has already been written about the social goings-on along that famous azure-blue coast. So I’ll disclose up front that I haven’t got any fabulous stories about partying it up in St. Tropez with Roman Abramovich and his Russian oligarch posse (oligarchs are always Russian, aren’t they?), but I have notes about my trip to share just the same.
And if you’re craving more on the French Riviera, then I refer you to my favorite fictional scene set on the Cote d’Azur: in Book 2, Chapter 2 of the House of Mirth, our heroine, Lily Bart, is set up for a major social scandal by her adulterous hostess, Bertha Dorset. You know how villains in old movies always twirl their mustache? Well, I have a theory that villainesses in novels always come with an ugly name. Exhibit A: Bertha.
Back to the topic at hand – my trip – Jon and I were in the ‘hood for only three days, so we spent most of our time (going from West to East) at Cannes, Nice, Villefranche-sur-mer, Eze Village, Monaco and Menton. Although that sounds like a lot of ground to cover, it’s not. The towns of the French Riviera are small and close together, so you’re never more than a 10-minute-drive/bus ride/train ride away from the next little town.
Cannes: In preparation for the Film Festival (which starts next week), workers are busy putting up hundreds of peaked white tents (see bottom left corner of the photo above). I can’t say for sure what Cannes is normally like without all the scaffolding and infrastructure going up right now, but my best guess is that it’s not the prettiest town on the Cote d’Azur by any stretch. First, the harbor is obscured by what appears to be a giant boat parking lot, and the old town is small and overrun by tourist shops and restos. Second, the “new” part of town (where you’ll find your Chanel, Gucci et al.) has a boxy 1960s beach construction look.
Walking back to our hotel on Monday evening after the election results, we passed a loud concert-celebration for Sarkozy supporters, which was entertaining.All of which is to say that if you’re looking for small-town charm, then fly into Nice and immediately travel on to neighboring towns (Villefranche, Eze and Menton come to mind), but Nice is convenient and big enough to have a little something for everyone. Gaudy neon-lit casinos? Check. Sunny but uncomfortable-looking pebble beaches? Miles of it. Expensive stores, cheap stores, good food, bad food. You saw my point about two sentences ago, I know.
Jon and I stayed near the Place Massena, which put us less than 5 minutes from the Promenade des Anglais (the “English boardwalk”) and the Old Town. Although there’s heavy-duty construction going on to spruce up the Place Massena (slated for completion in 2008), every morning, we quickly wound our way through cyclone fencing to reach the warm, blue waters of the Mediterranean for a run on the Promenade.
The Promenade isn’t the most charming walkway I’ve ever seen (that honor belongs to the San Sebastian boardwalk), but the Mediterranean is gorgeous, and the Promenade is wide and smooth for miles, which is convenient.
Once on the Promenade, I had one of my favorite old-new moments: you’re running along this conveniently (but not attractively) tarmac’d path along the turquoise, sparkling water, and you’re dodging the cyclists, bladers and other runners while considering the original purpose of the Promenade, which was to enable the upper-class, 18th century English vacationers to take the air. I like imagining Edwardian parasols and bustles to contrast with all the spandex and speedos going by today on the Promenade.
The shadowy, winding streets of the Vieux Nice (Old Nice) are par for the course if you need your Medieval town fix. The buildings are in faded oranges and pinks; there are unexpected bursts of light when you stumble upon hidden-away squares; and for the most part, the feeling is sleepy and laid-back. I’d imagine the Old Town gets unpleasantly crowded during the summer, but during our stay, walking along Rue Droite to find Mark Bittman’s restaurant recs or the Cours Saleya for open-air-market charm was lovely.
Villefranche-Sur-Mer: We spent only a few hours here on a Sunday afternoon, and while I wasn’t a big fan of the cruise ship crowds that invaded while we were there (what’s my beef with cruises, you ask? Well, large, organized groups of people are intrinsically loud and overwhelming, especially when in small, old coastal towns), I left with the impression that the town is warm, colorful and cheery. The Sunday bric-a-brac market (see photo at top of this post) was festive, the breeze coming off the turquoise bay was calming, and the restaurants and shops looked inviting despite our mediocre lunch in town.
Eze Village: There are two parts to Eze – Eze sur Mer (Eze on the Sea) and Eze Village. The latter is the picturesque part, perched high on top of a mountain that Nietzsche allegedly hiked. The Number 83 bus runs regularly between the Eze sur Mer train/bus stop and Eze Village, so we skipped the 1-hour Nietzsche hike up to town and took the bus.It’s all uphill when you reach the end of the road at Eze Village. The town is pedestrianized, which you can understand once you start wandering the narrow, cobblestoned, Medieval streets (don’t wear heels!).
I was last in Eze in 1999 and remembered it being super quaint, and it still is, but now it seems things have gone high-end. The alleys are still picture-perfect, but the discreet signage seemingly around every corner tells you this is Relais & Chateaux country.
We passed a few inviting outdoor cafes squeezed into wide turns of the Eze Village streets, but our focus in town was the Jardin Exotique, which is essentially a bunch of cool-looking cacti that have taken over the ruins of what used to be a castle that protected the town. It’s not big, but for 5 euros each, we enjoyed amazing views of the Cote d’Azur – specifically, of St. Jean Cap Ferrat, which is a bit of the Riviera accessible only by car, yacht or helipad. Seeing it from the Jardin Exotique is probably the closest I’m ever going to get to the Cap Ferrat, unless one of my dear friends and readers happens to be a Rothschild in disguise.
One last note on Eze: avoid the main Fragonard store in Eze like the plague. The place is a cruise-ship-processing factory, and despite two best efforts, we couldn’t convince anyone to help us. What really shocked me is how poorly the Fragonard store treats its lifeblood (i.e., those cruise ship groups). The bathrooms for the groups are out back, behind the fancy sales floor, and I’ve seen facilities at gas stations nicer than what the Fragonard store offered its customers. I think the cruise ship groups should stage a revolt – not only are they herded through an expensive sales process (e.g., 3 bottles of perfume for $200 packaged as a deal), but then they get thrown out back for a prison-block-like bathroom experience? The indignity!
Monaco: Mark Bittman said it best when he called Monaco a seaside shopping mall (though to be fair, a high-end one) with a casino. We stopped by for less than an hour so Jon could experience walking into the casino and being asked for his passport before being allowed into the parts where people actually gamble. For those of you curious, Alain Ducasse’s 3-star Louis XV looked appropriately gilded and high-ceilinged.
Menton: The last of our stops on the Riviera, we traveled to Menton solely to eat at Le Mirazur (next and final post on food still to come). The east side of Menton also happens to be the western border of Italy, so you can actually walk across the French-Italian border once you’re in town.Menton, like all towns on the Riviera, has an old town, a new town, a casino, and a harbor. We didn’t see too much of Menton, but it looked quiet and walkable, though the harbor was, on the spectrum of sleepy to glam, on the sleepy side.