Insight Guides: Explore Nice & the French Riviera (Insight Explore Guides) (2015)
EXPLORE NICE AND THE RIVIERA
From Nice’s Belle-Époque promenade des Anglais to Romanesque cathedrals and medieval hill villages, the French Riviera offers a beguiling mix of the grandiose and the intimate along with a variety of architecture waiting to be discovered.
It is the colours you notice first: stucco houses of all tones from cream via amber to deep russet; the white limestone crags of the Alpes-Maritimes against the blue of the Mediterranean Sea; and the red sandstones, grey schists, green serpentine and cork oaks of the Var. Together with the Riviera’s luscious vegetation, vibrant flowers, green-grey olive trees and diverse vegetables overflowing from market stalls, these elements create a brilliant palette of hues - offset by the southern sun - which has inspired Signac, Dufy, Matisse and countless other artists over the years.
The hill town of Èze, with Cap Ferrat in the distance
GEOGRAPHY AND LAYOUT
The routes in this guide first explore Nice (capital of the Alpes-Maritimes département), then they focus on the coastal strip between Menton by the Italian frontier to the east and Cannes in the west, before heading inland to Grasse and Vence in the Pre-Alp foothills, and westwards as far as St-Tropez and the rugged Massif des Maures in the neighbouring region of Var.
The Riviera’s history and climate have largely determined the layout of its towns. Most are characterised by an Old Town in the centre, where a tight maze of medieval streets and stairways often grew up around a church or defensive keep, and tall houses and narrow streets ensured shade and relative cool even in summer.
From the 19th century, New Towns developed around them; these were characterised by neoclassical, Belle Époque and Art Deco terraces and villas, whether laid out on a grid as in Nice’s New Town or romantically meandering as in Nice’s Cimiez district and Cannes’ Croix des Gardes.
Beyond often lies a sprawl of modern public housing estates and suburban apartment blocks and houses. The demands of both permanent residents and mass tourism have sometimes led to seemingly uncontrolled construction, where, beyond a few exclusive peninsulas, the dense bétonisation (concreting-up) of the coast has in places turned the Riviera from an idyllic destination into an urban nightmare of strip development.
A Mediterranean climate of hot dry summers, mild winters and sun that shines for more than 300 days a year has always been one of the area’s attractions, although dramatic thunderstorms in late summer and in autumn, when torrential rain occasionally causes flash flooding, are not unknown. Global warming and overdevelopment have contributed to fears of rivers drying up, shortages of water and the risk of summer fires. While the French Riviera is now chiefly a summer destination, Nice is a great city to visit all year round. In winter or springtime, museums are less crowded, the arts season is in full swing, hotels and restaurants remain open and sunshine is still almost always guaranteed.
Nice’s famous promenade des Anglais
HISTORY AND ARCHITECTURE
Prehistoric cave dwellers, Phocaean traders, Roman garrisons and medieval monks and warlords have all left traces. However, the French Riviera’s architectural heritage was largely shaped by power struggles between French-ruled Provence and the Italian-dominated Comté de Nice - which has given such an Italianate flavour to Vieux Nice - as well as battles for control of the Mediterranean between France, Spain and Italy.
The 16th and 17th centuries saw the construction of citadels at Villefranche-sur-Mer and St-Tropez and the star-shaped fortifications of Antibes. The Wars of Religion and Counter-Reformation backlash have left the area peppered with ornate Baroque churches and chapels full of starbursts, loud marble and cherubs intended to reinforce the Catholic faith. Outside Vieux Nice, the city reflects first the planning ambitions of the kings of Sardinia-Piedmont, with the elegant, classical, arcaded place Masséna and place Garibaldi, and after 1860, of its new Second-Empire French rulers, with its grid of streets, train station and the busy thoroughfare, avenue Jean Médecin.
But the area’s history has also been moulded by its visitors, leaving a legacy of cheerfully eclectic Belle Époque seaside architecture evident in flouncy palatial hotels, extravagant villas, neo-Gothic Anglican churches and exotic domed Russian Orthodox churches, as well as remarkable gardens, created by the green-fingered who introduced an extraordinary array of tropical plants.
If a lot of recent seaside apartment blocks are remarkably banal, clearly caring more about balconies with sea views than aesthetics or innovation, there is also some exciting modern architecture to discover, such as the Musée Chagall and along the new promenade du Paillon in Nice, and Menton’s new Cocteau museum designed by Rudy Ricciotti.
At the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain in Nice
Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications
With a population of 34,450,000, Nice is France’s fifth city, and lies at the heart of a conurbation of nearly 5,900,000 of the département’s 109,856,000 inhabitants. These figures reveal a vast difference between the densely populated coastal strip and sparsely inhabited interior.
Young and cosmopolitan
Despite its dowager reputation, Nice is actually a surprisingly young city. Fifty percent of its population is aged under 40, with a growing student population. Some 26,000 students are enrolled at the Université Nice Sophia Antipolis, which has a growing reputation, notably for law, social sciences and scientific research. There are also huge seasonal variations in numbers. A resort like St-Tropez swells to over 80,000 in the summer and settles back to a villagey 4,600 in winter.
The population is also distinguished by its high proportion of incomers, reflecting not just France’s traditional immigration from North and West Africa, Southeast Asia, Portugal and Spain, or expat communities of Britons, Russians and Germans, but also by that from other regions of France. Italians are a large immigrant group, though they only come from next door and feel quite at home, owning many of the properties and restaurants around Nice and Menton, a municipality that has cross-frontier administrative agreements with its neighbour Ventimiglia. Nice’s most famous son is Garibaldi, founder of the Italian state, and the Italian flavour of the city is distinct.
Today, curiously, the Riviera’s foreign population is not unlike its composition at the end of the 19th century, with the return of Russians and Eastern Europeans and the numerous British who have brought property in Vieux Nice, Antibes or the Grasse hinterland, although its social make-up is not necessarily the same; young Britons are often here to work and the Russians represent not old aristocracy but new fortunes.
Open-air fruit and vegetable markets abound
Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications
The influx of all these immigrants and émigrés from both France and abroad has led some to say that there has been a dilution of local culture. True, the south is capable of doing Provençal stereotypes to excess: the garish print tablecloths and dirndl skirts you will find in souvenir shops and markets have little to do with the subtlety of the original wood-block indienne prints, and rows of chirping pottery cicadas and olive-sprigged jugs are far from the functional spirit of true Provençal pottery. Yet the area’s inhabitants remain firmly attached to local traditions: a game of pétanque; the herbs, anchovies and olives of the region’s distinctive cuisine and snacks; and festivities, some of which go back for centuries. St-Tropez has celebrated patron saint Torpes with the Bravades in May for over 500 years, even snooty Monaco continues to burn its boat for Saint Devota, and visit Nice or Menton at carnival time and you will find hundreds of locals participating in lively festivals that are not just put on for tourists.
A pétanque player in action
Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications
Although the official language is French, you may still hear snatches of Nissart and Provençal dialect, descended from Occitane, the ancient Low Latin language of the troubadours. Street signs in the Old Towns are often bilingual: look for the Nissart carrièra or Provençal carriero meaning rue or street, and castelét or castelar for château or castle.
Colourful façades, Nice
Don’t leave Nice & the French Riviera without…
Sipping a glass of rosé on Cours Saleya in Nice. Lined with bars and restaurants, this pedestrianised street in Vieux Nice where all life gathers is the perfect spot to enjoy the quintessential French Riviera drink. For more information, click here.
Taking in the views. Head to the Jardin Exotique in Èze Village, one of the French Riviera’s prettiest perched villages, for uninterrupted views across the sea and coast. For more information, click here.
Spending an afternoon on a private beach. Make like an A-lister and rent a comfy sunbed and parasol on one of the south coast’s many private beaches, such as Paloma Beach on Cap Ferrat. For more information, click here.
Watching the world go by from the Café de Paris in Monte-Carlo. Have a billionaire moment on the terrace of this legendary café while marvelling at the Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Bugattis driving past. For more information, click here.
Checking out the new Jean Cocteau museum in Menton. Opened in 2011, this striking museum exhibits works which provide a fascinating overview of the writer and filmmaker’s legacy. For more information, click here.
Admiring the super yachts in Antibes. Head to the east side of Port Vauban and check out some of the world’s biggest and most expensive private yachts, complete with on-board helicopters and submersibles. For more information, click here.
Strolling down La Croisette in Cannes. It’s most fun during the Film Festival but with designer shops and luxury hotels on one side and the sparkling sea on the other, this famous prom is a delight at any time of year. For more information, click here.
Finding out about perfume in Grasse. Whether you’re visiting the museum, a perfume maker or a flower grower, the world’s fragrance capital is an olfactory delight. For more information, click here.
Wandering around the market in St-Tropez. One of the best open-air markets in the area is the place to go for the finest local produce, clothes and accessories like the ubiquitous straw shopping bags. For more information, click here.
Heading into the ‘back country’. The forests and villages of the Massif des Maures provide a striking contrast to the hustle and bustle of the coast. For more information, click here.
Whether it is on the beach in Nice, by the river in rural Collobrières (where it now features on the primary school curriculum), under the plane trees on place des Lices in St-Tropez or the gravelly allées de la Liberté in Cannes, an enduring love of pétanque should dispel any doubts that you are truly in the south of France. Indeed any patch of vaguely flat land would appear ample excuse for men - it is still a largely male pastime - to get together for a game.
Derived from ancient boules and the jeu provençal, pétanque acquired its name péts or pieds tanqués, meaning ‘feet together’ (as there is no run-up and players throw the ball from within a small circle), in 1910. The use of steel rather than nailed wooden balls became established in the 1920s. One of the game’s pleasures is that anyone can have a go - the Café in St-Tropez even lends balls to its customers - but tactics, throwing skills and mastering exactly the right expressions of doubt, confidence, bemusement and disbelief can take years of practice.
Boats moored at the Cap d’Antibes
ECONOMY AND POLITICS
However, tourism is a major component of the southern economy, with Nice boasting the highest number of hotel beds after Paris and more than 4 million visitors a year. Cannes is also a year-round luxury tourist destination. The region’s other industries include agriculture, wine and food processing, perfumes at Grasse, property development, advertising and science. Financial and banking services are important in Monaco, which smarts at being on the tax haven blacklist but continues to maintain a reputation for secrecy.
Although Nice faces many of the problems of a big modern city, such as the integration of its immigrant population and high unemployment, it is also a flourishing administrative centre and the leading congress town after Paris, thanks to France’s second-largest airport; the city’s 10,000 hotel rooms and the facilities offered by its Acropolis congress centre; and the emerging Arénas district near the airport.
Meanwhile, under dynamic new mayor Christian Estrosi, Nice continues to look ahead, with plans for a second tram line and the development of the Plaine du Var as an ecological zone, comprising a business district, football stadium and expanded port facilities, built according to the principles of sustainable development. Plans are afoot to extend the TGV line from Marseille to Nice, which is due to come into operation around 2020.
Family travel. If you are holidaying with children under 16 and want to explore the French Riviera, consider buying a Pass Isabelle Famille at the local railway station. This costs around €35 and allows two adults and two children unlimited travel for a day.
Eating out. It’s usually much cheaper to go out for a meal at lunchtime as restaurants offer good-value plats du jour or two-course menus. Also, to save money, order a carafe d’eau (tap water) instead of pricey bottled water.
Free apps. The main tourist office websites have free apps of guided tours while the departmental website (www.cotedazur-tourisme.com) has free apps for local entertainment, monuments, film locations and local transport.
Getting a good deal. If you are planning on arranging your own trip, visit a price comparison website such as www.trivago.com, www.expedia.co.uk or www.kayak.co.uk to make sure you are getting the best deal on hotels, flights and car hire.
Go skiing. If you’re on the French Riviera during the winter months, take the opportunity to go skiing in the Alpes de Haute Provence. You can get a direct bus from Nice train station to Isola 2000, which takes just over two hours and costs around €5 one way.
Enjoy a free tour. Greeters are a group of volunteers who offer free guided tours to visitors around particular themes, for example, architecture, food or antiques. Book at least a couple of weeks in advance at www.nice-greeters.com.
Cross the border. Menton is next to the Italian border and trains and buses on the French Riviera regularly go as far as Ventimiglia, the nearest town. The best day to visit is Friday as there is a large market on the seafront where goods are cheaper than in France.
The Côte d’Azur Card. Active families should consider buying this card which offers free access to more than 115 activities including entry to museums, fishing, vineyard visits and kayaking. It’s available for three or six days and can be purchased at the local tourist office.
On the beach. Many of the French Riviera’s beaches are shingle, which can be uncomfortable to sit on. Arguably the best sandy beaches are La Croisette in Cannes, Vieux Antibes and Pampelonne in Saint Tropez. Don’t forget to look after your valuables.
Dining alone. Solo diners might find it difficult to be given a table in high season. Ask for a table for two and if anyone questions it when no one turns up tell them your partner can’t make it. Take some reading material to keep yourself occupied.