By Rick Steves
For over a hundred years, celebrities from central and northern Europe and Russia flocked to France's and Italy's Riviera to escape the drab, dreary weather at home. Some of Europe's most stunning scenery lies along these beaches. Unfortunately, so do millions of sun-worshiping tourists. Even so, outside of July and August, the French towns of Antibes and Collioures and Italy's Vernazza offer a laid-back Riviera ideal for anyone working on a slower pulse.
Antibes' interesting old town faces its sandy cove. The fine Château Grimaldi, overlooking the beach and tiny harbor, was once the home of Monaco's ruling family and today houses a Picasso museum. Antibes's glamorous port glistens with luxurious yachts and quaint fishing boats. You're welcome to browse. The Old City of Antibes is quaint in a sandy-sophisticated way.
The well-worn resorts of the French Riviera line the beach like floozies on bar stools, promising tourists a good time. But Collioure, just before the Spanish border, aims its charms at its own people. It's the ideal small-town-without-the-glitz antidote to condo-city Riviera. Like an ice cream shop, Collioure offers 31 flavors of pastel houses and six petite scooped-out beaches — sprinkled lightly with beachgoers. This sweet scene, capped by Collioure's winking lighthouse, sits under a once-mighty castle in the shade of the Pyrenees.
The Cinque Terre, meaning "five lands," is five villages clinging to the most inaccessible bit of coast on the Italian Riviera. Established as pirates' hideouts centuries ago, the towns are still hideaways, virtually inaccessible by car. The Cinque Terre, between Pisa and Genoa, is now government-protected. Few new buildings are allowed. Villagers have almost no choice but to go about their business as if the surrounding vineyards were the very edges of the earth.
Vernazza is the Cinque Terre village I call home. Its one street connects the harbor with the train station before melting into the vineyards. Like veins on a grape leaf, paths and stairways connect this watercolor huddle of houses with Main Street. Every day is a rerun in this hive of lazy human activity. A rainbow of laundry flaps as if to cool the old men who line the bench. Like barnacles filling ancient doorways, local grandmothers watch life drift by. Little varnished boats are piled peely everywhere and sailors suckle at salty taverns. Kids play soccer on the breakwater while the sun sets unnoticed — except by tourists.