The Côte d’Azur polarizes opinion like few places in France. To some it remains the most glamorous of all Mediterranean playgrounds; to others, it’s an overdeveloped victim of its own hype. Yet at its best – in the gaps between the urban sprawl, on the islands, in the remarkable beauty of the hills, the impossibly blue water after which the coast is named and in the special light that drew so many artists to paint here – it captivates still.
The ancient city of Marseillepossesses its own earthy magnetism, while right on its doorstep there’s swimming and sailing in the pristine waters of the Calanques national park. To the east the family resorts of La Ciotat and St Raphaël, sedate Hyères and Roman Fréjus hold their own in the face of huge media hype, while true Mediterranean magic is to be found in the scented vegetation, silver beaches, secluded islands and medieval perched villages like Grimaudand La Garde Freinet. You can escape to the wonderful unspoilt landscapes of the Îles d’Hyères, with some of the best flora and fauna in Provence, then contrast the beachcomber charm of La Croix Valmer with the flashy ebullience of its overhyped neighbour, St-Tropez – unmissable if only for a day-trip, though you need to be prepared to contend with huge crowds in summer.
Once an inhospitable shore with few natural harbours, the seventy-odd kilometres of the Riviera between Cannes and Menton blossomed in the nineteenth century as foreign aristocrats began to winter in the region’s mild climate. In the interwar years the toffs were gradually supplanted by new elites – film stars, artists and writers – and the season switched to summer. Nowadays, the Riviera is an uninterrupted sprawl of hotels, serried apartment blocks and secluded villas, with liner-sized yachts bobbing at anchor. Attractions remain, however, notably in the legacies of the artists who stayed here: Bonnard, Picasso, Léger, Matisse, Renoir and Chagall. Nice has real substance as a major city, while Monaco intrigues visitors with its tax-haven opulence and comic-opera independence.
The months to avoid are July and August, when room prices soar, overflowing campsites become health hazards and locals get short-tempered, and November, when many museums, hotels and restaurants close.
Graham Greene, who lived in Antibes for more than twenty years, considered it the only place on this stretch of coast to have preserved its soul. And although Antibes and its twin, Juan-les-Pins, have not escaped the overdevelopment that blights the region, they have avoided its worst excesses. Antibes itself is a pleasing old town, extremely animated, with one of the finest markets on the coast and the best Picasso collection in its ancient seafront castle; and the southern end of the Cap d’Antibes still has its woods of pine, in which some of the most exclusive mansions on the Riviera hide. North of Antibes is lovely Biot, with its fascinating Fernand Léger connections.
One block from the sea, the morning covered market overflows with Provençal goodies and cut flowers, the traditional and still-flourishing Antibes business. In the afternoons a craft market takes over, and when the stalls pack up, café tables take their place.
Juan-les-Pins, less than 2km from the centre of Antibes, had its heyday in the interwar years, when the summer season on the Riviera first took off and the resort was the haunt of film stars like Charlie Chaplin, Maurice Chevalier and Lilian Harvey, the polyglot London-born musical star who lingered here until 1968, long after her fame had faded. Juan-les-Pins isn’t as glamorous as it once was either, though it still has a casino and a certain cachet, and the beaches are sand.
Juan’s international jazz festival – known simply as Jazz à Juan and by far the best in the region – is held in the middle two weeks of July in the central pine grove, the Jardin de La Pinède, and square Gould above the beach by the casino. A Hollywood-style walk of fame immortalizes various jazz greats at la Pinede, set into the pavement.
Lording it over the Antibes ramparts and the sea, the sixteenth-century Château Grimaldi is a beautifully cool, light space, with a terrace garden filled with sculptures by Germaine Richier, Miró and others – some on long-term loan. In 1946 Picasso was offered the dusty building as a studio. Several prolific months followed before he moved to Vallauris, leaving his Antibes output to what is now the Musée Picasso. Although he donated other works later on, the bulk of the collection belongs to this one period: there are nudes, fauns and still lifes plus sculpture and ceramics made at the Madoura workshop in Vallauris. Temporary exhibitions focus on particular aspects of the collection, which also includes anguished canvases by Nicolas de Staël, who stayed in Antibes for a few months from 1954 to 1955.
Between Antibes and Nice, the Baie des Anges laps at a long stretch of undistinguished twentieth-century resorts. The old towns, such as Cagnes, lie inland. Cagnes is associated with Renoir – as is St-Paul-de-Vence, which houses the wonderful modern art collection of the Fondation Maeght. Vence has a small chapel decorated by Matisse, and is a relaxing place to stay.
The best places to eat are in Haut-de-Cagnes. In early July Cagnes celebrates all manner of sea-related activities as part of the Fête de la Saint-Pierre et de la Mer; in early August there is free street theatre on place du Château and on the seafront, and in late August, there’s a bizarre square boules competition down montée de la Bourgade.
The fortified village of St-Paul-de-Vence is home to one of the best artistic treats in the region: the remarkable Fondation Maeght, created in the 1950s by Aimé and Marguerite Maeght, art collectors and dealers who knew all the great artists who worked in Provence.
Through the gates of the Fondation Maeght is a sublime fusion of art, modern architecture and landscape. Alberto Giacometti’s Cat stalks along the edge of the grass; Miró’s Egg smiles above a pond; it’s hard not to be bewitched by the Calder mobile swinging over watery tiles, by Léger’s Flowers, Birds and a Bench on a sunlit rough stone wall, or by the clanking tubular fountain by Pol Bury. The building itself is superb: multi-levelled, flooded with daylight and housing a fabulous collection of works by Bonnard, Braque, Miró, Chagall and Léger, among others. Not everything is exhibited at any one time, apart from what is permanently featured in the garden.
Portside posing and sunbathing aside, don’t miss a boat trip to the calanques – pristine fjord-like inlets that cut deep into the limestone cliffs between Cassis and Marseille, declared a national park in 2012. Several companies operate from the port; be prepared for rough seas. If you’re feeling energetic, follow the well-marked GR98 footpath from Port-Miou on the western side of the town. It’s a four-hour round trip on foot to the calanque, En Vau, where you can reach the shore. The water is deep blue and swimming between the cliffs is pure heaven. The fire risk is high; smoking and fires are prohibited and you’re advised not to attempt the walk in high winds. There are no refreshment stops, so take water.
The Côte really gets going with the resorts of the Corniche des Maures, where multimillion-dollar residences lurk in the hills, luxurious yachts bob in the bays, and seafront prices become alarming.
The Corniche itself is spectacular, with beaches that shine silver (from the mica crystals in the sand), tall dark pines, oaks and eucalyptus to shade them, glittering rocks of purple, green and reddish hue and chestnut-forested hills keeping winds away. No wonder the French president’s official retreat, the Fort de Bregançon, is here – close to Bormes-les-Mimosas.
Three corniche roads run east from Nice to the independent principality of Monaco and to Menton, the last town of the French Riviera. Each provides a superb means of seeing the most mountainous stretch of the Côte d’Azur. Napoleon built the Grande Corniche on the route of the Romans’ Via Julia Augusta, and the Moyenne Corniche dates from the first quarter of the twentieth century, when aristocratic tourism on the Riviera was already causing congestion on the lower, coastal road, the Corniche Inférieure. The upper two are the classic location for car commercials, and for movie car crashes. Real deaths occur too – most notoriously Princess Grace of Monaco – a bitter irony, since the corniches had been the backdrop to one of her greatest film successes, To Catch a Thief.
In 1895, Auguste and Louis Lumière filmed the first moving pictures in La Ciotat – the town’s main claim to fame. The world’s oldest movie house, the Eden Cinema, still stands today: it was carefully restored to coincide with Marseille’s stint as European Capital of Culture in 2013 and is once again a functioning cinema, with a varied programme that includes documentaries and film classics. The town has an annual film festival and the brothers are also commemorated by a monument on plage Lumière.
As part of Provence, the Côte d’Azur shares its culinary fundamentals of olive oil, garlic and herbs, gorgeous vegetables and fruits, goat’s cheeses and, of course, the predominance of fish. The fish soups – Marseille’s bouillabaisse, and bourride, accompanied by a garlic and chilli-flavoured mayonnaise known as rouille – are served all along the coast, as are fish covered with Provençal herbs and grilled over an open flame. Seafood – from spider crabs to clams, sea urchins to crayfish, crabs, lobster, mussels and oysters – are piled onto huge plateaux de fruits de mer, which may not reflect this coast’s harvest but do demonstrate the luxury associated with it.
The Italian influence is strong, from ravioli stuffed with spinach to thin-crust pizzas and every sort of pasta as a vehicle for anchovies, olives, garlic and tomatoes. Nice has its own specialities, such as socca, a chickpea flour pancake, pissaladière, a pizza-like tart with anchovies and black olives, salade niçoise and pan bagnat, both of which combine egg, olives, salad, tuna and olive oil, and mesclun, a salad of bitter leaves: consequently, Nice is about as good a spot to enjoy cheap street food as you’ll find. Petits farcis – stuffed aubergines, peppers or tomatoes – are a standard feature on Côte d’Azur menus.
The best of the Côte wines come from Bandol: Cassis too has its own appellation, and around Nice the Bellet wines are worth discovering. Fancy cocktails are a Côte speciality, but pastis is the preferred tipple.
Fréjus – along with its neighbour St-Raphaël, 3km east – dates back to the Romans. It was established as a naval base under Julius Caesar and Augustus, and its ancient port – known as Forum Julii – consisted of 2km of quays connected by a walled canal to the sea (which was considerably closer then). After the battle of Actium in 31 BC, the ships of Antony and Cleopatra’s defeated fleet were brought here. Little remains of the Roman walls that circled the city, and the once-important port silted up and was filled in after the Revolution. Today you can see a scattering of Roman remains, along with the medieval Cité Episcopale, or cathedral complex, which takes up two sides of place Formigé, the marketplace and heart of both contemporary and medieval Fréjus.
The area between Fréjus and the sea is now the suburb of Fréjus-Plage, with a vast 1980s marina, Port-Fréjus. Both Fréjus and Fréjus-Plage merge with St-Raphaël, which in turn merges with Boulouris to the east.
Fréjus’ neighbour St-Raphaël became fashionable at the turn of the twentieth century, but lost many of its belle époque mansions and hotels to World War II bombardment. All the same, you may prefer to stay here rather than in Fréjus for its livelier, family-friendly atmosphere and easy access to the beaches, which stretch west of the port into Fréjus-Plage and east of the Jardin Bonaparte to the modern Marina Santa Lucia, which offers opportunities for every kind of watersport. When you’re tired of sea and sand, you can lose whatever money you have left at the Casino Barrière on Square de Gand overlooking the Vieux Port.
Hyères is the oldest resort on the Côte, listing Queen Victoria and Tolstoy among its early admirers. Set back from the coast, it lost out when the focus of tourism switched from winter convalescence to the beach. Today it exports cut flowers and exotic plants – the most important being the date palm, which graces every street – and it’s a garrison town. Walled, medieval old Hyères perches on the slopes of Casteou hill, 5km from the sea; below it lies the modern town, with its elegant villas in fanciful pseudo-Moorish styles; avenue Gambetta is its main north–south axis. At the coast, the Presqu’Île de Giens is leashed to the mainland by an isthmus, known as La Capte, and a parallel sand bar enclosing salt flats.
The wild, scented greenery and fine sand beaches of the Îles d’Hyères are a reminder of what much of the mainland was like half a century ago. You can stay on all three main islands, though accommodation is scarce, coveted and expensive. Visitors should observe signs forbidding smoking (away from the ports), flower-picking and littering.
The fire risk in summer is extreme: at times large sections of the islands are closed off and visitors must stick to marked paths. A haven from tempests in ancient times, then the peaceful home of monks and farmers, the Îles d’Hyères became, from the Middle Ages, the target of piracy and coastal attacks. The three main islands, Porquerolles, Port-Cros and Levant, are covered in half-destroyed, rebuilt or abandoned forts, dating from the sixteenth century to the twentieth, when the German gun positions on Port-Cros and Levant were put out of action by the Americans. There’s also still a military presence on Porquerolles and indeed ninety percent of Île du Levant is a missile testing range; the tiny bit of this island spared by the military is the nudist colony of Heliopolis, set up in the 1930s.
Cranes still loom over the little port of La Ciotat, where vast oil tankers were once built. Today, the unpretentious town relies on tourism and yachting and is less a place for sightseeing than relaxing, with a lively waterfront and good, sandy beaches on the eastern side of the port. The streets of the old town, apart from rue Poilus, are uneventful, though the increasing numbers of boutiques and immobiliers reflect the change from shipyard to pleasure port.
Between Hyères and Fréjus the coast’s bewitching hinterland is the wooded, hilly Massif des Maures. The highest point of these hills stops short of 800m, but the quick succession of ridges, the sudden drops and views, and the curling, looping roads, are pervasively mountainous. In spring, the sombre forest is enlivened by millions of wild flowers and the roads are busy with cyclists; in winter, this is the haunt of hunters. Amid the brush crawl the last of the Hermann’s tortoises, once found along the entire northern Mediterranean coast.
Grimaud, 25km east of Collobrières along the twisting D14 and more easily reached from St-Tropez or La Croix Valmer, is a film set of a village perché. The cone of houses enclosing the eleventh-century church and culminating in the ruins of a medieval castle appears as a single, perfectly unified entity, though the effect of timelessness is undermined by the glass lift that whisks visitors up into the village from the main road – handy, when it’s in working order. The most vaunted street is the arcaded rue des Templiers, which leads up to the Romanesque Église de St-Michel and a house of the Knights Templar, while the view from the castle ruins (free) is superb.
The peaceful village of La Garde-Freinet, set in forested hills 10km northwest of Grimaud, was founded in the late twelfth century by people from the nearby villages of Saint Clément and Miremer. The original fortified settlement sat further up the hillside, and the foundations of the fortress are still visible above the village beside the ruins of a fifteenth-century castle (take the path from La Planette car park at the northwestern end of the village). The medieval charm, easy walks to stunning panoramas and twice weekly market (Wed and Sun) make it an alluring spot, and many expats have bought property here. Happily, though, attempts to “do a St-Tropez” by making it trendy and expensive seem – thus far – doomed to failure.
Of all the Côte d’Azur resorts, Menton, ringed by mountains, is the warmest and most Italianate, being right on the border. In 1861 a British doctor, James Henry Bennet, published a treatise on the benefits of Menton’s mild climate to tuberculosis patients, and soon thousands of well-heeled sufferers were flocking here in the vain hope of a cure. Menton’s biggest event of the year is the Fête du Citron in February, when the lemon-flavoured bacchanalia includes processions of floats decorated entirely with the fruit.
Take a walk through the Parc du Mugel, with its strange cluster of rock formations on the promontory beyond the shipyards. A path leads up through overgrown vegetation to a narrow terrace overlooking the sea. Two stops before the park bus #30 to Figuerolles you can reach the Anse de Figuerolles calanque down the avenue of the same name, and its neighbour, the Gameau.
Facing St-Tropez across its gulf, Ste-Maxime is the perfect Côte stereotype: palmed corniche and enormous pleasure-boat harbour, beaches crowded with bronzed windsurfers and water-skiers, and an Art Deco casino presiding over the seafront. It sprawls a little too much, merging with its northern neighbours to create a continuous suburban strip up to Fréjus. But if hardly as colourful as St-Tropez, it’s less pretentious and the beaches are cleaner; though if your budget denies you the pleasures of watersports, you might find Ste-Maxime a little lacking in diversions. You can, at least, eat at reasonable cost, since there are plenty of crêperies, glaciers and snack places along the central avenue Charles-de-Gaulle. There’s also an Aqualand water park with all manner of ingenious water slides just off the D25 Le Muy road north of town, though this isn’t cheap, either.
As the summer playground of Europe’s youthful rich, St-Tropez is among the most overhyped – and in July and August overcrowded – spots in the Mediterranean. It remains undeniably glamorous, its vast yachts and infamous champagne “spray” parties creating an air of hedonistic excess in high summer. Alas, partaking of its designer charms can seriously dent your budget at any time of the year.
The origins of St-Tropez are unremarkable: a fishing village that grew up around a port founded by Marseille’s Greeks, destroyed by Saracens in 739 and finally fortified in the late Middle Ages. Its sole distinction was its inaccessibility: stuck on a small peninsula that never warranted proper roads, reached only by boat till the end of the nineteenth century.
Soon after, bad weather forced the painter Paul Signac to moor in St-Tropez. He promptly decided to build a house there, to which he invited his friends. Matisse was one of the first to accept, with Bonnard, Marquet, Dufy, Dérain, Vlaminck, Seurat and Van Dongen following suit, and by World War I St-Tropez was an established bohemian hangout. The 1930s saw a new influx, of writers as much as painters: Cocteau, Colette and Anaïs Nin, whose journal records “girls riding bare-breasted in the back of open cars”. In 1956, Roger Vadim filmed Brigitte Bardot here in Et Dieu … Créa la Femme; the cult of Tropezian sun, sex and celebrities promptly took off and the place has been groaning under the weight of visitors ever since.
The beach within easiest walking distance of St-Tropez is Les Graniers, below the Citadelle just beyond the port des Pêcheurs along rue Cavaillon. From there, a path follows the coast around the baie des Canebiers, with its small beach, to Cap St-Pierre, Cap St-Tropez, the very crowded Les Salins beach and right round to Tahiti-Plage, about 11km away.
Tahiti-Plage is the start of the almost straight, 5km north–south Pampelonne beach, the world initiator of the topless bathing cult. The water is shallow for 50m or so, and the beach is exposed to the wind, and sometimes scourged by dried sea vegetation and garbage. Bars and restaurants line the beach, all with patios and sofas, serving cocktails, gluttonous ice creams and full-blown meals. Le Club 55 on boulevard Patch is the original and most famous, while Nikki Beach, route de l’Epi, is the celebrity hangout.