Insight Guides: Explore Nice & the French Riviera (Insight Explore Guides) (2015)
The three Corniche coast roads abound in scenic views and offer exclusive residential peninsulas, Belle Époque resorts, Roman ruins and picturesque medieval hill villages along the way.
DISTANCE: 43km (27 miles)
TIME: One day if doing a loop back to Nice; two or three days if combined with the Monaco and Menton routes
START: Vieux Port, Nice
END: Èze Village
POINTS TO NOTE: This route follows sections of all three parallel Corniche roads: the Basse (Lower) Corniche M6098, Moyenne (Middle) Corniche M6007 and Grande (Upper) Corniche M2564. The Corniches have recently been renumbered, but you may still find road signs and maps indicating the N98 and N7. Part of this tour could be done by public transport; frequent trains between Nice and Menton stop at Villefranche-sur-Mer, Beaulieu-sur-Mer and Cap d’Ail. Note that Èze station is at Èze-Bord-du-Mer and not Èze Village; similarly, the nearest station for Roquebrune Village is Carnolès, followed by a steep uphill footpath.
East towards the Italian border, the white limestone Pre-Alps fall almost directly into the sea, creating some of the Riviera’s most dramatic settings and exclusive peninsulas.
The breathtaking view from the Corniche above Èze
From place Ile de Beauté on the Vieux Port, take boulevard Carnot (M6098), start of the Basse Corniche. This climbs eastwards from Nice around the suburb of Mont Boron; the villas along it get more extravagant as you go.
After about 5km (3 miles) the road reaches Villefranche-sur-Mer 1 [map]. Although now mainly a place for a meal out for the Niçois and a stop for cruise ships, it was founded as a ville franche (customs free port) by the Counts of Provence. For centuries, it was the main port of the Comté de Nice - and after World War II until the 1960s, a US naval base - thanks to its natural deep-water harbour.
Turn right off the Corniche, fork left down avenue Sadi Carnot and park on place Wilson between the Citadelle and the Port de la Santé.
Overlooking the harbour, where a few pointu fishing boats still sell their catch direct, is the medieval Chapelle St-Pierre (tel: 04 93 76 90 70; summer Wed-Mon 10am-noon and 3-7pm, winter Wed-Mon 10am-noon and 2-6pm, closed mid-Nov-mid-Dec; charge). Often simply called the Cocteau Chapel, it was decorated with frescoes of the life of St Peter, patron saint of fishermen and slightly risqué images of fishing folk by poet, artist and film-maker Jean Cocteau in 1957-8. Cocteau was a frequent guest at the Hôtel Welcome next door.
Up a few steps, place Amélie Pollonais is home to a flea market on Sundays, a crafts market on Mondays in summer and the pleasant brasserie Le Cosmo, see 1. Beyond the chapel, quai Courbet is lined with fish restaurants, including venerable La Mère Germaine, see 2.
Go through Portail de Robert to rue Obscure, which runs parallel to the quayside. This atmospheric, covered street dates from the 13th century and once sheltered townsfolk when the town came under attack; it is also where Cocteau filmed part of Orphée (1950). At the western end, climb stepped rue de l’Église to the 18th-century Église St-Michel (daily, hours vary). In front of the altar to the left of the main altar is a 17th-century wood sculpture of the Dead Christ carved from a single block of figwood; the church also has a fine organ.
Back at place Wilson, on the western side, the massive Citadelle (June-Sept Mon-Sat 10am-noon and 3-6.30pm, Sun 2-6.30pm, Oct-May Mon-Sat 10am-noon and 2-5.30pm, Sun 1.30-5.30pm; free) was built in 1557 by the Duke of Savoie to protect the town after the port had been occupied by Barbarossa’s Turkish fleet in 1543. It now contains the Town Hall, a congress centre and four minor museums: the Musée Volti, with voluptuous female sculptures by Antoniucci Volti; the modern painting collection of Musée Goetz-Boumeester; a room devoted to the regiment of Chasseurs-Alpins; and the Collection Roux, displaying model scenes of medieval life.
Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild
Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications
Return to the M6098, then shortly after, take the M125 right towards St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, a millionaires’ enclave. A side road turns left to Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild 2 [map] (www.villa-ephrussi.com; daily Feb-Oct 10am-6pm, July-Aug 10am-7pm, Nov-Jan Mon-Fri 2-6pm, Sat, Sun and school hols 10am-6pm; charge). The pink-and-white Italianate villa was built between 1905-12 for Béatrice Ephrussi, daughter of banker Baron Alphonse de Rothschild and wife of another wealthy banker Maurice Ephrussi, and an avid collector who filled her home with beautiful objets, including medieval and Rennaisance art, Gobelins tapestries, Vincennes and Sèvres porcelain and ceilings by Tiepolo. The highlight, however, is the themed gardens, complete with musical fountains, exotic cactuses, romantic roses and medieval statuary.
Return to the M125, which loops round the peninsula; soon after, to the right, a side road descends to the small but pleasant Plage Passable. Just beyond this turning on the right spot the gateway of Villa les Cèdres, the former residence of King Léopold II of Belgium. The road passes through St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, which consists essentially of a yachting marina and some upmarket restaurants, as well as Plage Paloma, another decent small public beach on the headland east of the Port along avenue Jean Mermoz. The restaurant at private Paloma Beach, for more information, click here, makes for a glitzy lunch stop.
Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications
The M125 continues along the seafront. Once a fashionable winter resort for crowned heads, palmy Beaulieu-sur-Mer has a sedate feel, with its pink Belle Époque casino, yacht harbour, grand hotels and gorgeous Rotunda building. On the waterfront, the Villa Grecque Kérylos 3 [map] (impasse Gustave Eiffel; www.villa-kerylos.com; daily Feb-Oct 10am-6pm, July-Aug 10am-7pm, Nov-Jan Mon-Fri 2-6pm, Sat, Sun and school hols 10am-6pm; charge) is an idealised reconstruction of a Greek villa, inspired by 2nd-century BC villas of the island of Delos and built between 1902-8 for wealthy German scholar Theodor Reinach. It is decorated with meticulous reproductions of antique statues, frescoes, mosaics and antique furniture.
Back on the Basse Corniche, Beaulieu merges into the seaside sprawl of Èze-Bord-de-Mer, from where you can glimpse Èze Village (for more information, click here) high up on the cliff.
Walking the Caps
The best way to get to see the Riviera’s exclusive headlands is along the Sentier du Littoral (Coastal Footpath). At Cap Ferrat, the path goes from the Plage Passable past the lighthouse around the end of the Cap beneath the gardens of the luxurious Grand Hôtel du Cap Ferrat to Port St-Jean. At Cap d’Ail, the path runs between Plage Mala and Plage Marquet. On Cap Martin (between Monaco and Menton) take the Sentier des Douaniers (Customs Officers’ Footpath) from Roquebrune station to Carnolès via the Mangano beach and Le Corbusier’s cabanon (cabin; tel: 04 93 35 62 87; visits by appointment); there are several places where you can bathe directly from the rocks.
Some 7km (4.5 miles) to the east, Cap d’Ail 4 [map] is at first sight an ungainly residential satellite for people who work in Monaco. Turn right off the main road, however, to discover Belle Époque gems, such as Villa Lumière, residence of the film pioneer brothers, and the former Eden Palace hotel, now apartments. To the right of the latter, a footpath leads down to Plage Mala, one of the Riviera’s most beautiful beaches, with little shacks, trendy Eden restaurant and gorgeous views of the bay and mountains above.
The Basse Corniche then continues through Monaco (for more information, click here). Take the Tunnel du Serrouville through Le Rocher to Port Hercule and follow signs for Menton, climbing up along boulevard des Moulins.
Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications
At the roundabout at the end of boulevard d’Italie return to France, entering Roquebrune-Cap Martin on the D6098. Unless you are continuing on to Menton (for more information, click here), fork left onto the D6007 and left towards Roquebrune-La Turbie on the D2564, or Grande Corniche, which was laid out under Napoleon and followed the route of the Roman Via Aurelia between Rome and Spain, also known in this section as the Via Julia Augusta.
Turn off right to Roquebrune Village 5 [map], clinging to the hillside with its square castle sticking up behind the orange church. Park at the foot on place Birigliano, from where steps climb up to place des Deux-Frères, with a big olive tree framed by two dramatic lumps of rock (the two brothers of its name).
Lunch in La Grotte, see 3, or smarter Les Deux Frères, see 4, and admire the panorama of tower-block Monaco, before exploring the tangled alleyways of old Roquebrune, some of them (such as rue Montcollet) cut into the rock itself.
At the top, the Château (tel: 04 93 35 07 22; call for opening times; charge) was begun in 970 and enlarged by the Grimaldis of Monaco, who ruled Roquebrune until the town made its bid for independence in 1848, joining France in 1860. In 1910 Englishman Sir William Ingram began reconstruction, leaving the castle with a vaulted guardroom and rampart walk to the town in 1926.
Take rue de la Fontaine behind the Église Ste-Marguerite (daily 2-5pm) and go through the gateway, where the chemin de Gorbio leads up to the cemetery. Architect Le Corbusier, whose wooden cabanon on Cap Martin is an icon of modern architecture and who died when bathing off the Riviera in 1965, is among those buried here. In the other direction to the cemetery, a path leads down to the Olivier Millénaire, a gnarled olive tree which is over a thousand years old.
From Roquebrune, heading west, the Grande Corniche zigzags up between olive and pine trees and limestone outcrops for 8km (5 miles) to La Turbie, where the white marble columns of Le Trophée des Alpes stand silhouetted against the skyline. The road leads through the edge of the village, where the Café de la Fontaine, for more information, click here, is a superb place for a meal.
Park on the square and go through one of the remaining medieval gateways and up plant-hung narrow streets to Le Trophée des Alpes 6 [map] (mid-May-mid-Sept Tue-Sun 9.30am-1pm and 2.30-6.30pm, mid-Sept-mid-May 10am-1.30pm and 2.30-5pm; charge), built around 6 BC in honour of Emperor Augustus who had subdued 45 Celto-Ligurian tribes. Subsequently sacked by barbarians and pillaged for building materials, Le Trophée is still impressive, although the statue of the emperor that once stood on top has long since gone.
Église Ste-Marguerite, Roquebrune
Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications
Continue along the D2564, after about 2km (miles) turn left on the D45 and then, shortly after, join the D6007. This is the Moyenne Corniche, the most direct of the three roads, which was built in the 1920s. Park below Èze Village, which is accessible only on foot.
Perched on top of a rocky crag at 429m (1,407ft), Èze Village 7 [map] was a prized stronghold for the Celts, Romans, Saracens, Guelphs and Ghibellines, before becoming a possession of the House of Savoie until 1860. Èze was largely abandoned after the 1887 earthquake, but is now a little-too-well-restored tourist destination; the gift shops and tour groups that throng the narrow streets can be almost suffocating in summer.
Enter the village through La Posterne gateway and go up rue Principale to place du Planète, turning left to the Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs and passing Le Troubadour, see 5, and the 18th-century Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, which has a painted dome and lashings of fake marble. At the very top of the village, the Jardin Exotique (see www.eze-tourisme.com for opening hours; charge), on the site of the castle razed by Louis XIV, is a feast of cactuses and succulents, and is dotted with strange terracotta statues.
Continue for about 10km (6 miles) along the D6007 to return to Nice.
Food and Drink
1 LE COSMO
11 place Amélie Pollonnais, Villefranche-sur-Mer; tel: 04 93 01 84 05; daily B, L and D; €€
This friendly modern brasserie and cocktail bar has a big terrace overlooking the Cocteau Chapel and is good for inventive salads, steak tartare, pasta or catch of the day. Food is served all day in summer.
2 LA MÈRE GERMAINE
9 quai Courbet, Villefranche-sur-Mer; tel: 04 93 01 71 39; www.meregermaine.com; Christmas-mid-Nov daily L and D; €€€
Run by the same family since 1938, the most famous of the string of restaurants along the harbour (Cocteau was a regular) is a dressy place, known for its fine fish and shellfish.
3 LA GROTTE
Place des Deux-Frères, Roquebrune Village; tel: 04 93 35 00 04; Thur-Tue L and D; €
A semi-troglodyte café and pizzeria with tables in the cave cut into the rock beneath the château or out on the square.
4 LES DEUX FRÈRES
Place des Deux-Frères, Roquebrune Village; tel: 04 93 28 99 00; summer Tue D, Wed-Sun L and D, winter Tue-Sat L and D, Sun D; €€
The old village school is now an attractive hotel and restaurant. Inviting, updated southern dishes might include artichoke salad or red mullet in a herb crust.
5 LE TROUBADOUR
Rue du Brec, Èze Village; tel: 04 93 41 19 03; mid-Dec-mid-Nov Tue-Sat L and D; €€
A long-established spot serving classic French cuisine and Provençal specialities in an old stone building in the centre of the village.