What to expect from Côte d’Azur? The Côte d’Azur stretches from Théoule-sur-Mer in the west to Menton on France’s border with Italy. Along the way it takes in Cannes, Nice, Antibes and even another country, the principality of Monaco. The mention of such names evokes the sun-drenched and easy-going lifestyle on offer along the French Riviera – the alternative name for the Côte d’Azur. Whatever you call it, the “azure coast” provides all the glitz and glamour you could wish for – as well as beaches, dramatic coastal vistas, medieval villages and untamed wilderness.
If you don’t like the crowds of summer, winter is an ideal time to visit because the warmth and light, which has attracted everyone from aristocrats to Impressionists, remains.
Where should I start?
The département’s capital, Nice.
The Hôtel Negresco is a venerable Nice institution, still favoured by the stars.
The city’s old town, Vieux Nice, is an atmospheric tangle of tiny streets lined with shutter-clad town houses and appealing restaurants. For further details contact Nice Tourism on 00 33 892 707 407, and visit www.nicetourisme.com.
Can I feel the Riviera breeze in my hair?
Yes: time to hit the road, preferably in an open-top car. Rental car agencies rents convertibles, such as the Peugeot 307 coupé cabriolet,. You can choose from three parallel and twisting coastal roads: the Haute, Moyenne and Basse Corniches, which wend their way in a ribbon along the coast between Nice and Monte Carlo. The Haute Corniche is one of the world’s most romantic roads with sharp bends and plunging views that make you catch your breath.
Has movie magic survived?
Yes. The most glamorous event of the Riviera’s calendar is, of course, the Cannes Film Festival each May, when thousands descend on this city to publicise, prance and party, but most of the real action happens behind closed doors in the five-star hotels or the many sleek yachts moored in the bay.
Can I move like Harlow in Monte Carlo?
Yep! Somerset Maugham may have described Monte Carlo as “a sunny place for shady people”, but its hedonistic formula of sunshine, casinos, high-rise apartments, ritzy shops and a yacht-filled harbour makes for an entertaining stay You can also try your luck in one of the principality’s casinos where you can break the bank – or not.
Following hot on the heels of the film festival in May is the Monaco Grand Prix, when the streets of Monte Carlo become a racetrack for the F1 champions to battle it out towards the chequered flag.
Some medieval magic?
The prize for the location with the deepest history goes to Eze, which occupies a magical spot 429m above sea level, just off the Moyenne Corniche and a short drive from Nice. Eze was one of the first settlements established by the Gallo-Romans. Its strategic position meant that it passed into different invading hands several times, with everyone from the Moors to the House of Savoy staking their claim. A wander around its labyrinth of streets, stopping off to visit its botanical gardens and generally soaking up the views, is a must.
I want to be alone
The Côte d’Azur may seem to be one long and crowded sun-and-champagne-soaked party, but there are plenty of places where you can get away from it all. Nine out of 10 of the Alpes-Maritimes’s one million inhabitants occupy its 120km coastal strip, so that leaves the rest – a stunning wilderness of snow-capped mountains, pine-clad valleys and undiscovered villages – to explore. A must for wildlife lovers and hikers is the u o Mercantour National Park. This diverse landscape of Alpine peaks, lakes, rivers and pine forests is home to over half of the 4,200 species of flora found in France, and fauna including eagles, peregrine falcons, ibex, chamois, wild boars and wolves. The park is also marked with 600km of walking trails.
Can I head off the beaten track?
Yes, on one of France’s most spectacular railways. The Chemins de Fer de Provence. It passes through breathtaking mountain scenery and calls at several stations, such as the pretty fortified village of Entrevaux.
Or you could escape to the peaceful Iles de Lérins, just off the coast near Cannes. You can visit eucalyptus-blanketed Ste-Marguerite and St-Honorat, which is home to a monastery dating from the 11th century.
A day at the beach?
Rocky headlands, shingle and golden sand: you can find it all on the Côte d’Azur. The Plage Mala, in Cap d’Ail, is where you’ll find the beautiful people, and where you can party and sip cocktails well into the night. On Cap d’Antibes, the Plage de La Garoupe found immortality in F Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, and is one of the most beautiful beaches on the coast.
How do I get around?
Renting a car gives a certain amount of freedom – but in summer the traffic congestion can be horrendous. An excellent alternative is the TER (Regional Express Trains) that connect all the towns and cities on the Côte d’Azur as far as Ventimiglia in Italy. The Ligne d’Azur offers a well-developed network of buses surrounding Nice, with destinations including Vence, Grasse, St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, Villefranche-sur-Mer and further inland.
Scent of the cote
Grasse is the capital of the world’s fragrance industry – many legendary perfumes, including Chanel No 5, were created there. Wander through fields of jasmine, tuberose and lavender at La Bastide du Parfumeur in Mouans-Sartoux on the edge of town. Opened in June, this botanical garden is filled with fragrant plants cultivated for the making of perfume. It opens 9am-5pm daily from October to March, 9am-6pm in summer. Most of the perfumeries are open to visitors, and Parfumerie Galimard, Parfumerie Fragonard, and Parfumerie Molinard, offer free guided tours in English. They also offer the chance to create your own perfume.
On the trail of the artists
“What I shall bring back from here will be softness itself, white, rose and blue all wrapped up in this magical atmosphere” – so said Claude Monet when he arrived in Antibes on the recommendation of Guy de Maupassant. Monet was just one of many artists who flocked to the Côte d’Azur to try to capture on canvas its elusive “luminosity”.
A new route, The Painters of the Côte d’Azur, leads you in the footsteps of some of the Riviera’s most celebrated creative residents and visitors, including Picasso, Chagall, Monet, Renoir and Bonnard. With the itinerary as a guide, you can visit the towns where they painted: Le Cannet, Mougins, St-Paul-de-Vence, Cagnes-sur-Mer, Nice, Villefranche-sur-Mer and Menton. Each point has a board erected on the spot where the artist set up their easel, a reproduction of the painting and accompanying information. The itinerary can be downloaded from the Riviera Côte d’Azur website, www.guideriviera.com.