Côte d’Azur, French Riviera, Costa Azzurra: it doesn’t matter which language you use, this iconic region is known throughout the world. But what exactly do we mean when we talk about the “French Riviera”?
The official name of our region is the PACA (Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur) region, but strictly speaking, the French Riviera, or Côte d’Azur, covers a more limited area. The term Côte d’Azur was first used by Stéphen Liégeard, a nineteenth-century politician and writer. Today, it is important to note that the borders of this geographical area are not precisely defined. Some say that the French Riviera extends from Menton to Hyères, while others include Cassis, a charming town near Marseille.
What is generally accepted is that the border with Italy constitutes the eastern edge of the French Riviera. But which towns and cities best represent this magnificent region? What are their unique features and what’s the best way to reach them?
Perhaps we’ll be accused of favouritism, but we can’t help starting out with our beloved Antibes. The city is known for the famous Fort Carré and Port Vauban, as well as its Picasso Museum and ramparts. The Provençal market in Cours Masséna offers a glimpse of the typical produce to be found in the region (fish, cheeses, honeys, charcuterie meats, fruits, vegetables, and so on). A walk on the Cap d’Antibes peninsula to admire the panoramic view in front of the Notre-Dame de la Garoupe chapel is a must – if the weather’s good, you might be lucky enough to see Corsica. Nearby is the small town of Golfe-Juan. Napoleon landed on the beaches here on 1 March 1815 after his escape from the island of Elba. If you have a car, follow the Route Napoléon to get an idea of the journey the Emperor and his troops made to reach the French capital while avoiding royalist towns.
Nice, the capital of the French Riviera, whose anthem is Nissa la Bella (Nice the Beautiful), will win your heart with its Bay of Angels, its pebble beaches and its famous Promenade (known locally as la Prom’), which runs from the airport to the Quai des Etats-Unis. This world-renowned avenue, which is seven kilometres in length and can be viewed from the heights of Castle Hill Park, will delight you for sure. It’s difficult to imagine that it was originally a simple path built at the behest of an English clergyman, Lewis Way! You can also take a walk around Old Nice and admire unforgettable locations like the Cours Saleya. The Palais Lascaris, a masterpiece of baroque architecture built in the seventeenth century for a rich local family, the Lescaris-Vintimille, is well worth a detour. After taking in all of the cultural attractions, don’t forget to taste some of the local specialities too. Try a pan bagnat (a Niçoise salad sandwich), poutine (the fry of sardines and anchovies, often served raw or fried in an omelette or fritter), socca (a chickpea pancake) and mesclun (a mix of local baby salad greens). A local Bellet wine is the perfect accompaniment.
Menton has been valued by citrus fruit growers ever since the fifteenth century, because its lemons are sweeter and less acidic than the traditional varieties. Renowned for its famous Lemon Festival and located a few kilometres from Monaco, Menton’s history is closely tied to that of Jean Cocteau, who decided to display some of his works in a small fort now known as the Bastion Museum. The artist, who gave us masterpieces such as Beauty and the Beast and Testament of Orpheus, fell in love with the town. If you go on a tour of the Town Hall, you’ll see the Wedding Room he decorated. Don’t miss the bell towers with their glazed tiles, the Saint-Michel esplanade, the Palais de Carnolès, the citrus groves and all of the Belle Époque (late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century) buildings.
The medieval village of Saint-Paul de Vence is the ultimate destination for artists. Ever since the 1920s, the village has been visited by great painters such as Raoul Dufy and Paul Signac. World famous for its Colombe d’Or hotel, Saint-Paul de Vence has also attracted poets like Jacques Prévert and actors such as Yves Montand, Simone Signoret, Lino Ventura and Charlie Chaplin. Fans of modern art will enjoy visiting the nearby Maeght Foundation, which boasts works by Chagall, Giacometti, Miró, Calder and Fernand Léger, among others. Here, you can admire the ramparts, which date back to François I, or have a drink at the Café de la Place.
While you’re staying on the French Riviera, don’t forget to take a trip out to the Esterel Massif. Those with a love of the region head there via the Corniche d’Or road – the almost 50-kilometre stretch from Saint-Raphaël to Théoule-sur-Mer features lots of beaches with stunning rocky inlets and breathtaking panoramic views. From the red of the porphyritic rock to the deep blue of the sea, it’s a veritable feast for the eyes! Attractions in Saint-Raphaël include a museum devoted to the actor Louis de Funès. A short distance away, Cap Dramont provides a view of the Ile d’Or topped with a Saracen tower. It is said that this was the famous Belgian cartoonist Hergé’s inspiration for Black Island, the setting for the seventh volume of The Adventures of Tintin.
Biot is a medieval village with a solid reputation in the field of artistic glassware. There are a number of studios where you can watch master glassmakers demonstrate their knowledge of bubble glass, a technique perfected by renowned ceramicist Eloi Monod. After wandering through the picturesque lanes, there’s nothing nicer than taking a stroll along the banks of the Brague, the river which runs through the village, followed by a visit to the Fernand Léger Museum – an absolute must. Whatever you do, one thing is certain: there’s never a dull moment on the French Riviera!