With its immaculate seafront hotels and exclusive beach concessions, glamorous yachts and designer boutiques, Cannes is in many ways the definitive Riviera resort, a place where appearances count, especially during the film festival in May, when the orgy of self-promotion reaches its annual peak. The ugly seafront Palais des Festivals is the heart of the film festival but also hosts conferences, tournaments and trade shows. Despite its glittery image Cannes works surprisingly well as a big seaside resort, with plenty of free, sandy public beaches. You’ll find the non-paying beaches to the west of Le Suquet towards the suburb of La Bocca along the plages du Midi, though there’s also a tiny public section of beach on Plage de la Croisette, just east of the Palais des Festivals.
Just offshore, the peaceful Îles de Lérins – Ste-Marguerite and St-Honorat – offer a sublime, easily accessible contrast to the frenetic town, while further out are the towns of Vallauris, with its interesting Picasso connections, and Grasse, famed for its perfume.
Grasse, 16km inland from Cannes and an easy day-trip from the coast, has been the world capital of parfumiers for almost three hundred years. These days it promotes a fragrant image of a medieval hill town surrounded by scented flowers, though in truth, the glamour of this friendly place is mostly bottled, and the perfume industry is at pains to keep quiet about modern, unromantic innovations and techniques.
Though the main purpose of coming here is to buy perfume, there are also several worthwhile small museums including the fascinating and interactive Musée International de la Parfumerie, a worthwhile adjunct to a factory visit, and probably far more informative. It displays perfume bottles from the ancient Greeks via Marie Antoinette to the present, and explains the perfume-making process.
There are thirty or so parfumeries in and around Grasse, most of them making not perfume but essences-plus-formulas, sold to Dior, Lancôme, Estée Lauder and the like, who make up their own brand-name perfumes. The ingredients that the “nose” – as the creator of the perfume’s formula is known – has to play with include resins, roots, moss, beans, bark, civet (a secretion from the cat-like civet), ambergris (whale vomit), bits of beaver and musk from Tibetan goats.
You can visit three local showrooms for free, which include overpoweringly fragrant shops and guided tours, in English, of the traditional perfume factory set-up (the actual working industrial complexes are strictly out of bounds). These are:
Fragonard 20 bd Fragonard
Galimard 73 rte de Cannes
Molinard 60 bd Victor-Hugo
The Îles de Lérins would be lovely anywhere, but at just fifteen minutes’ ferry ride from frantic Cannes, they’re not far short of paradise – though that very proximity means neither is exactly a desert island in peak season. Of the two, Ste-Marguerite is busier than its neighbour, St-Honorat, whose abbey is often used for spiritual retreats.
Île Ste-Marguerite is beautiful, and large enough for visitors to find seclusion by following the trails that lead away from the congested port, through the Aleppo pines and woods of evergreen oak that are so thick they cast a sepulchral gloom. The western end is the most accessible, but the lagoon here is brackish, so the best places to swim are along the rocky southern shore, reached most easily along the allée des Eucalyptus. The channel between Ste-Marguerite and St-Honorat is, however, a popular anchorage for yachts, so you’re unlikely to find solitude.
Owned by monks almost continuously since its namesake and patron founded a monastery here in 410 AD, Île St-Honorat, the smaller southern island, was home to a famous bishops’ seminary, where St Patrick trained before setting out for Ireland. There are a couple of places to eat but no bars, hotels or cars: just vines, lavender, herbs and olive trees mingled with wild poppies and daisies, and pine and eucalyptus trees shading the paths beside the white rock shore. The present abbey buildings date mostly from the nineteenth century, though some vestiges of the medieval and earlier constructions remain in the austere church and the cloisters. You can visit the eleventh-century fortified monastery on the water’s edge and the abbey church, see the chapels dotted around the island and purchase the abbey’s sought-after wines and liqueurs.
Pottery and Picasso are the attractions of Vallauris, an otherwise unremarkable town in the hills above Golfe-Juan, 6km northeast of Cannes. It was here that Picasso first began to use clay, thereby reviving the town’s traditional craft. Today the main street, avenue Georges-Clemenceau, sells nothing but pottery, much of it garish bowls or figurines that could feature in souvenir shops anywhere. The bronze statue of Man with a Sheep, the artist’s gift to the town, stands in the main square, place Paul Isnard, beside the church and castle.
In 1952, Picasso was asked to decorate the deconsecrated early medieval chapel in the castle courtyard; his subject was war and peace. The space, now the Musée National Picasso, is tiny, with the architectural simplicity of an air-raid shelter, and at first it’s easy to be unimpressed by the painted panels covering the vault – as many critics still are – since the work looks mucky and slapdash, with paint-runs on the plywood panel surface. But stay a while and the passion of this violently drawn display of pacifism slowly emerges. The ticket also gives admission to the Musée de la Céramique in the castle itself, which exhibits ceramics by Picasso and other artists and the Musée Magnelli, which exhibits works by the Florentine painter Alberto Magnelli, a contemporary of Picasso.