French Riviera: Uniquely Chic
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time it's yachts, casinos and fancy villas — fun in the sun on the French Riviera. Thanks for joining us.
The quintessential image of luxuriating on a beach in Europe is here on the Côte d'Azur or French Riviera. And, after we've soaked up more than our share of sun, we'll see how this glittering stretch of France's Mediterranean coast offers more than just a first class beach break.
But don't get me wrong. We will enjoy the beach, from high-end resorts to hidden jewels of the Côte d'Azur. We'll wander the gardens of a 19th Century Villa, zip up the Corniche to see a trophy of the conquering Romans, reflect on the light and color of modern masters, go posh with the glamour set, relax in Antibes, and then feast on bouillabaisse
When Europe heads for the beach, it often ends up on the south coast of France...the Côte d'Azur. We'll start in Nice, check out Villefranche and Cap Ferrat, race over to Monaco, visit Cannes and finish in Antibes.
In the 19th century, aristocrats from London to Moscow flocked to France's sunny Côte d'Azur, or blue coast. Much loved for its blue seas and blue skies, this was the place for Northern Europeans to socialize, gamble, and escape their dreary weather.
Whether you're rich or not, Nice, with its eternally entertaining seafront promenade and fine museums, is the enjoyable big-city highlight of the Riviera. In its traffic-free old city, Italian and French flavors mix to create a spicy Mediterranean dressing. Nice may be nice, but it's hot and jammed in July and August. We're here in early June...beating the serious heat and crowds.
The broad promenade des Anglais (literally "walkway of the English") was paved in marble for blue-blooded 19th century English tourists who wanted a safe place to stroll and admire the view without getting their shoes dirty or smelling that fishy gravel. Today it's a fun people's scene with a bike and roller blade path that leads all the way to the airport.
The beach, while pebbly, is popular. Whether you're looking for an adrenalin rush or just working on your suntan, this beach has it all. Tan lines can be hard to find, as Europeans are relaxed about topless sunbathing. While major stretches of the beach are public, much of it is private — where you pay to rent a spot, complete with mattress, lounge chair, and umbrella.
For a particularly scenic lunch, you can eat on the beach. I'm having a salade niçoise — the hearty local standard with anchovies, tuna, hard-boiled eggs and tasty Nicoise olives.
Graceful buildings from the turn of the last century lead inland from the beach — reminders of the belle époque. Literally the "beautiful age," when the world seemed to revolve around the upper class and indulgence with abandon was a lifestyle. Nice's' grand Opera House illustrates the beautiful extravagance of this era. Imagine this opulent jewel buried deep in the old town of Nice back then. With Europe's elite wintering here, the rough-edged town needed some high-class entertainment.
A prime example of belle époque luxury is the majestic Hôtel Negresco. It offers some of the city's most expensive beds and a chance to step back into that age of extreme refinement. The exquisite Royal Salon combines belle époque grace with engineering by the great French architect Gustav Eiffel. The chandelier is made of 16,000 pieces of crystal. It was built in France for the Russian Czar's Moscow palace... but, because of the Bolshevik Revolution, he couldn't take delivery.
Many of Nice's early visitors were Russians and the city's Russian Orthodox Church claims to be the finest this side of the Volga.
Five hundred rich Russian families wintered in Nice and needed a worthy Orthodox house of worship. Czar Nicholas II gave this church to the Russian community in 1912. A few years' later, Russian comrades — who didn't winter on the Riviera — shot him.
Here in the land of olives and anchovies, the church's proud onion domes seem out of place. But, I imagine, so did those Russians.
The interior is filled with icons and candles. The icon wall divides the temporal world of the worshippers from the spiritual world behind it. The angel with red boots and wings is the protector of Russia's ruling Romanov family. The hammered-copper cross commemorates the massacre of the Czar and his family in 1918. The icon of the Virgin and Child is decorated with silver and semi-precious stones. A priest here told me that, as the worshipper meditates, starring deep into the eyes of an icon, "he enters a lake where he finds his soul."
Nice was born on its easy-to-fortify hill. From there — and inland from the beach — spreads its colorful old town. The old town squares feel more Italian than French because until 1860, Nice was ruled by an Italian king. Until the mid-1800s, the people here spoke an Italian dialect — street signs are still in two languages and pasta is still a favorite. Nice's Italian rulers lived in this palace.
As the modern nation of Italy was being created, this region was given a choice: join the chaotic new country of Italy or join wealthy France (which was enjoying good times under the rule of Napoleon III). The vast majority of the people voted to go French...and voilà!
The old town offers a cultural scavenger hunt of opportunities, from it's medieval market square with fresh seasonal produce to a pasta shop showing Nices' Italian roots, to the nearby Patisserie Auer. Its belle époque storefront brags that it's been run "From father to son since 1820." Queen Victoria satisfied her sweet tooth right here.
Socca — a thin chickpea crêpe, seasoned with pepper and olive oil — is a peasant stable pre-dating tourism that's still dear to local hearts. At this busy stand the socca arrives by motorbike hot out of the oven and is sold and gobbled up as quickly as it can be sliced.
Flowers seem to grow effortlessly and everywhere in this ideal climate. This has long been the Riviera's biggest flower market. Fresh flowers are a fine value in this otherwise pricey city. And with such an abundance of flowers, its no wonder perfume is a local industry.
The Molinard family has been making perfume from Côte d'Azur flowers for a century. Perfume is "distilled like cognac and then aged like wine." It takes more than 400 pounds of lavender to produce just one quart of pure essence. For the French, finding just the right perfume is a personal quest.
Because so many great 20th-century artists chose to live and work here, the Riviera is studded with world-class modern art museums. Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso and many others raved about the region's light and vivid colors. They were charmed by the simple lifestyles of fisherman and villagers.
The artist's colorful and semi-abstract works reflect the sleepy, more dreamy Riviera before all the development hit. They settled here in the sun, and painted with wide-eyed wonder.
The Matisse Museum offers a fascinating introduction to modern art inspired by the French Riviera.
Henri Matisse opened a window onto Paradise. Armed with the bright colors of the impressionists Matisse captured the radiant Riviera of the 1920s... seascapes, fruit, flowers, and curvaceous women. Matisse was the master of leaving things out — letting us fill in the rest.
Matisse painted the three-dimensional world as a two-dimensional pattern of vibrant colors. You don't look "through" Matisse art like a window...you look "at" it.
You can trace his work as it evolves. It became simpler with time. From detailed realism... to a colorful "impressionistic" style, to bold blocks of bright colors, to ever simpler forms...paring images down to two basic elements: line and color.
His series called Jazz, like the music, celebrates artistic spontaneity and the otherworldly beauty that art can create.
Matisse enjoyed a long and continually evolving career. In his 70s, fighting cancer and confined to a wheelchair, he traded easel painting for a new medium: paper cutouts.
The cutouts are a single color with a strong outline. Scissors in hand, Matisse said, "I cut straight into the color."
The Chagall Museum is nearby. Starting in the 1950s Mark Chagall painted a cycle of canvases designed for this building. Even if you're suspicious of modern art, this museum — with the largest collection of Chagall's work in captivity — is a delight. Seventeen Biblical scenes, make up the "nave," or core, of what Chagall called the "House of Brotherhood."
Each painting is a lighter-than-air collage of images inspired by Chagall's Russian-folk-village youth, his Jewish heritage, biblical themes, and his feeling that he existed somewhere between heaven and earth.
Chagall paints a world that's hidden to the eye — the magical, mystical world below the surface. He blends Personal imagery, particularly from his childhood in Russia. The Hasidic Jewish perspective he absorbed as a child — the idea that God is everywhere, in nature, animals and everyday things. Gravity-defying compositions, with lovers, animals, and angels twirling blissfully in mid-air. And childlike simplicity — simple, heavy outlines, often spilling over with Crayola colors.
Chagall saw the Bible as a synonym for nature. His brilliant blues and reds celebrate nature, and its creator. His couples are enchanting. To Chagall, humans loving each other mirrored God's love of creation. He wrote, "In art as well as in life, anything is possible, provided there is love."
The snug port of Villefranche — in spite of the luxury yachts glistening in its bay — offers travelers an easygoing slice of small-town Mediterranean life just minutes from the bustle of Nice and 'jet setty' Monaco. This town feels Italian — with soft orange buildings, steep, narrow streets and its pastel harbor.
When the original ancient port was overtaken by pirates, its villagers fled into the hills. Later, in the 13th century, the king wanted to re-inhabit — and therefore strengthen — his coastline. To encourage the villagers, he gave the town tax free status. And this place became ville (that's town) franche (without taxes)...Villefranche.
Villefranche was protected by an immense citadel. Today — because most of its 8,000 people call this their primary residence — Villefranche feels more like a real community than neighboring Riviera towns.
Only a few families still fish for a living. But huge yachts call this bay home. This stretch of coast is studded with the floating toys of multi-millionaires. Locals keep track of the world's biggest yachts and talk about them like they're part of the neighborhood. You never know whose stern line you may be catching. Here's the Lady Moura — Moura is an ex-wife of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd.
Some of the Riviera's priciest real estate stretches from Villefranche to Monaco. Cap Ferrat, an extremely exclusive, largely residential community, fills a park-like peninsula. While you'll never get past any of these gates, you can spend a delightful day here just strolling — and this ain't your average jogging trail. Following its well-groomed path you can stumble upon a hidden little beach... get a glimpse of David Niven's home, wander the ritzy port of St. Jean-Cap-Ferrat, and tour the ultimate Riviera mansion and gardens — the Rothschild Ephrussi Villa.
The extravagance of Venice, Versailles and the Côte d'Azur all come together in this villa. Its lavish belle époque interior offers a peek into the life of the rich and eccentric Baroness de Rothschild. Building this place, the Baroness went through ten architects. Her furnishings were fit for a queen. Imagine the correspondence composed at her personal letter writing desk.
Lady Rothschild's sense of style spilled into her back yard — a many-facetted garden. She drew inspiration from her travels abroad: a fragrant English rose garden, an exotic fantasy of cactus, a mysterious gothic stone garden, and a tranquil Japanese garden. Over-looking everything — the "Temple of Love."
This region's breath-taking coastline is traversed by three coastal routes — the Low, Middle, and High Corniche. The Low Corniche strings ports, beaches, and villages together. It was built in the 1860s (along with the train line) to bring people to the casino in nearby Monte Carlo.
The Middle Corniche comes with views of impressive villas... and the Grande Corniche caps the cliffs with staggering Mediterranean vistas. While hailed as Napoleon's crowning road-construction achievement, it actually sits upon the Via Aurelia, a road built by the ancient Romans as they conquered the West. A towering Roman ruin celebrates that conquest.
Caesar Augustus built "The Trophy of the Alpes" to commemorate his defeat of the region's many hostile tribes.
With this victory, the completion of the main artery connecting Italy and Spain was made possible. This opened the way for the continued expansion of the Roman Empire.
The inscription tells the story: It was erected "by the senate and the people to honor the emperor." Carved below is an inventory of all the feisty barbarian tribes that put up such a fight. And on either side are the vanquished in chains at the feet of their conqueror — a reminder to any who would challenge the empire.
Nearby, standing high above the sea, is touristy but magnificent Eze. The once-formidable town gate (designed to keep rampaging pirates out) leads into the medieval village. This self-proclaimed village of art and gastronomie mixes perfume outlets, upscale boutiques, cobbled lanes, and scenic perches perfect for savoring a drink.
The more adventurous can climb even further up to the scant ruins of the Eze Chateau. The paths leading there host a prickly festival of over a hundred varieties of cacti. Looking beyond the flowers you'll enjoy a commanding Riviera view.
Just below sits Monaco, with barely one square mile of territory it's one of the world's smallest countries. Of its 30,000 residents, less than 10,000 are true Monegasques as locals are called. Many of the rest call Monaco home because there's no income tax. Despite over development, high prices, and mobs of tourists, a visit here is a Riviera must.
And Monaco is a work in progress. The district of Fontvieille was reclaimed from the sea. It bristles with luxury high-rise condos. The new breakwater — constructed elsewhere and towed in — enables cruise ships to dock. And cars still race, as they have since 1929, around the principality in one of the world's most famous auto races, the Grand Prix of Monaco.
This miniscule principality has always been tiny. But it used to be less tiny. Around 1860 it lost most of its territory to France. But the prince built a casino and managed to connect his domain to the rest of the Riviera with a new road and train line.
Humble Monaco was suddenly on the grand tour map — the place for the vacationing aristocracy to play. Today, the people of Monaco have about the world's highest per-capita income, with plush apartments to match. Its famous casino allows the wealthy to enjoy losing money in extreme comfort.
If Monaco is a business; the prince is its CEO. While the casino generates only a small part of the state's revenue, its many banks — which offer an attractive way to protect your money from the taxman — earn much more. There is no income tax...but the prince collects plenty of money in value-added taxes, real estate taxes and corporate taxes.
Nearly all of Monaco's sights are packed in a Cinderella neighborhood atop its fortified hill. Its impressive aquarium, which proudly crowns the cliff like a palace, was directed by Jacques Cousteau for 17 years.
A medieval castle sat where Monaco's palace sits today. The palace guards protect the ruling Grimaldi family 24/7 and change with the pageantry of an important nation. Every day at about noon, tourists pack the square to witness the spectacle.
The Palace Square features a statue of François Grimaldi .By disguising himself as a monk, this renegade Italian captured Monaco in 1297 from a rival Italian faction
This first ruler of Monaco began the dynasty that still rules the principality. Today, over 700 years later, the current prince is his direct descendant.
Monaco's cathedral holds the tombs of centuries of Grimaldis. The most visited one...that of Princess Grace.
The glamorous romance and marriage of the American actress Grace Kelly to Prince Rainier added to Monaco's fairy-tale mystique. Grace Kelly came to Monaco in the 1950s to star in a movie. She fell in love with the prince, married him, and adopted the country. Tragically, Monaco's much-loved Princess Grace died in a car accident on the Corniche in 1982.
Exploring the Riviera by train is faster, less expensive — and safer — than by car. While traffic is exasperating and parking is costly, the region seems designed to be explored by train, with frequent trains linking nearly everything we're seeing in a scenic snap. We're connecting the east and west extremes of our visit — Monaco and Cannes — in just over an hour.
Cannes is famous for its international film festival. Its sister city, not surprisingly, is Beverly Hills.
This city has hosted the famous Cannes' Film Festival annually since 1946. Each May, as the world looks on, the city is packed with film producers, celebrities and paparazzi .
With exclusive hotels lining mostly private stretches of sandy beach — Cannes is for strolling, dreaming of meeting a movie star, and lounging on the seafront. Don't look for any actual sights to tour. If you missed the film festival, there's little to do other than shop... and enjoy the beach. While there is a public beach, the majority of its beaches come with a fee. The real Cannes experience seems to be paying to sunbathe without commoners mucking up your space.
While those enamored with lifestyles of the rich and famous flock to resorts like Cannes or the insufferably chic St-Tropez, I prefer Antibes. Nestled between Nice and Cannes, Antibes has a down-to-earth ambience — rare for this area. Its old town charms are wrapped in a rampart and watched over by twin medieval towers.
Antibes was "discovered" after WWI. It enjoyed a particularly roaring '20s, with the help of party animals like Rudolf Valentino and the rowdy-yet-very-silent Charlie Chaplin. They say fun-seekers even invented water skiing right here in the 1920s.
Before 1860, when Nice was under Italian rule, Antibes was France's last fort before the Italian border. The French king made sure the ramparts were strong and well defended. Today, the fort protects a priceless collection of Picassos.
In 1946, 65-year-old Pablo Picasso was reborn. World War II was over, and Picasso could finally escape the gray skies and gray uniforms of Nazi-occupied Paris. Enjoying worldwide fame and the love of 23-year-old Françoise Gilot, he moved to Antibes. He painted like a madman, swam in the Mediterranean in morning, partied with friends in the evening and painted again late into the night.
Ever-restless, Picasso had finally found his Garden of Eden - his joy of life - and he painted it. In his Joie de Vivre we see his flower-child — Françoise. She kicks up her heels and dances across a Riviera beach. Flute-playing satyrs, centaurs and fauns announce the newfound freedom of a newly liberated France and a newly liberated Picasso.
After decades in the city, Picasso rediscovered the joys of village life. Shopping at the Antibes market, he'd return home and turn groceries into masterpieces. With his distinct Cubist style, he captured sunbathers...and munching locals. He was fascinated with the simple life of fishermen. Picasso painted a pagan paradise, where civilized people could let their hair down and indulge in simple, animal pleasures.
For an edible Joie de Vivre, we're finishing back in Villefranche with bouillabaisse — the Riviera's most famous dish. This spicy fish stew is based on recipes handed down from sailors in nearby Marseille.
A true bouillabaisse must contain at least four types of fresh fish — though most have more. The fish is cooked in a tomato-based stock, flavored with saffron and white wine. The bouillabaisse is topped with a dollop of garlicky sauce and crunchy croutons.
Travel, like a fine bouillabaisse, is the happy result of good things coming together. For the French Riviera, take a variety of beach towns, spice with modern art, toss in a pinch of history, sprinkle in some glamour and let simmer under the Mediterranean sun.
All these tasty experiences coming together make the Côte d'Azur a corner of France any traveler can enjoy. I'm Rick Steves. Thanks for joining us. Until next time, keep on travelin'. Au Revoir.
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.