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The Many Faces of the French Riviera
The French Riviera -- the very name conjures up visions of movie starlets stepping out of sports Mercedes, of shapely young women tanning topless on the beach, of elegant couples in dinner suits and evening gowns sitting at the Black Jack tables of small, stylish casinos, of multi-million-dollar megayachts tied up at glamorous marinas, and of holidaying crowds wandering along the Promenade des Anglais, the famous waterfront street of Nice. And all these images would be correct, for the Riviera can be all things to all people -- a dream destination where anything can happen (remember the movie Dirty Rotten Scoundrels?) and any wish come true.
But unfortunately many people visit the Riviera without knowing where to go and what to see, often missing out on some of the best and most fascinating aspects of this many-faceted jewel. Perhaps, then, you may wish to come with us and explore the more interesting and sometimes out of the way places that draw us back to the Riviera year after year.
A word of advice here. Avoid July and August when planning your trip. Not only is the weather a little too hot for comfort, but the whole of Europe seems to descend on the Riviera in those months, pushing down the standard of service, and sending prices rocketing. Insiders visit the Riviera in May and June or September and October. At that time the wall to wall crowds are still ... or already ... absent, the weather is balmy, and you don't need to queue up for restaurants. You can enjoy what is to many Europe's finest watering hole, without having crowds from France and what seems to be every tourist from Germany, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Britain, Scandinavia, Asia, America, Australia and more lately Eastern Europe breathing right down your neck.
As long as you don't linger too long in Nice, it's a good place to start. After all it's the major airport for the Riviera and international airlines are now starting to fly in also. There is no shortage of good hotels, and which you choose will depend on your budget as much as on your taste.
Stroll slowly along the Promenade des Anglais. This must be the world's best place for people-watching. If you are from the America or the Asia/Pacific region, and are used to golden-sand beaches that stretch for miles, you will be amazed how stony and comparatively uninviting the beach at Nice is. The backpackers and masochists seem to be happy enough to ignore this and spread towels out over the large pebbles. The hedonists and those prepared to spend the cash, luxuriate in the deck chairs provided on the wooden platforms that offer "pay as you tan" comfort.
Should the little white tourist train come past, hail it and take the trip. Yes, it's touristy and perhaps a little kitch, but it does point out the interesting spots in Nice, and its the sort of thing that's fun once and madness twice!
On a day when you are wearing your Sunday best, stop as you reach the red-domed Hotel Negresco, (Promenade des Anglais Ph: 220.127.116.11) and look inside. This is arguably the most stylish and most elegant hotel on the Riviera. Look at the Chantecler Restaurant, perhaps making a mental note to dine there for a most romantic ... but not inexpensive ...dinner. There is also a less expensive restaurant, based on the theme of a fairground carousel that most would also greatly enjoy.
Even if your budget does not allow you to stay or dine at this splendid hotel, look inside. The chandelier was ordered by the Tsar of Russia for his St. Petersburg Palace, but he was murdered before it was completed. That chandelier, made by the famous Baccarat Company was bought by the Negresco for The Salon Royale, to hang under the glass dome which was designed by Gustave Eiffel of Tower fame.
And if you are a male, and have your pocket camera handy, you may just want to photograph the mens' toilet downstairs. No! I'm not drunk or kidding when I suggest this. You may have seen some unusual washrooms in your life, but I promise you one that is quite remarkable here. The theme is Napoleonic, with half-helmets used as reflectors for the wall lights, and officers campaign trunks that open to reveal washbasins. I don't quite know the significance of the battlescene mural that rises above the urinals, but the whole effect is nothing if not brilliantly dramatic. Naturally, the other public rooms of the Negresco are less controversial, but they are equally original and truly splendid.
The Avenue Jean Medecin in Nice is another "must do" place, although I've never really found it all that exciting. It does, however, have some lovely shops and some excellent outdoor restaurants where dining is a lot of fun.
Shopping in Nice is fairly simple. One option is to start at the Place Massena and go down the main shopping street. Most people make their first stop the Galeries Lafayette, the biggest department store in town. They often have a 10% discount for tourists, but you must ask for this. Also remember that, if you spend more than 2,000 francs, you are entitled to shop and get your VAT ... value added tax ... refunded when you leave. Ask the English-speaking enquiry girl for details.
Don't miss the new Marks and Spencer store further along the street. Here M and S fans will find exactly the same range as in London at only a very marginally higher price. And I have a special tip for wine buffs. If you want to present any of your French friends with American, Australian, Chilean, South African or New Zealand wine, and show them how good these can be, you will not only find them in the food department of M and S, but at a price that is probably no dearer than these wines are in their countries of origin. And as for M and S clothing, many consider this the best value for money merchandise of its kind anywhere. And the street is full of temptations with names like Bally and many others well represented.
An historic and poignant touch is the Russian Orthodox Cathedral at 17 Blvd. du Tzarewitch just off Gambetta Blvd. The son of Tsar Nicholas had tuberculosis and was sent to Nice by the last Tsar in the hope that the young man would recover. When he died, instead the Russian Orthodox Chapel and Church were built here in the shape of the colourful onion-domed churches of Moscow fame. The other splendid attraction in Nice I would recommend is the Chagall Museum in Rue du Docteur Menard. This has some splendid works by this brilliant artist and is well worth a visit.
Culture vultures will also not want to miss the Musee Matisse, 164 Avenue des Arenes-de-Cimiez, Ph: 18.104.22.168 which features some of that artist's outstanding works. Alongside is the Musee Archeologique, with some brilliant exhibits of what life was like in the small ... population 20,000 ... Roman town of Cimiez, the predecessor of Nice, 2,000 years ago.
If you have stayed in Nice to this point, you have not needed a car. But to explore the rest of the Riviera, a self-drive car is virtually essential. And here's another tip. If you are coming from another country, you may get a very much better deal if you pre-book your vehicle with your local Hertz office or another large rental agency. Hertz is well represented on the Riviera and you won't need a large expensive car, especially with gasoline being two to three times the price you may pay in North America.
Those for whom budgets are not all that tight have a real treat in store for them. They will be the lucky ones who can enjoy what are some of the finest hotels in Europe. These ... with the exception of the aforementioned Negresco ... are out of Nice, but relatively close on what is, in my opinion, Europe's best road system. Here are some hotels that are the stuff dreams are made of. With the elegance demanded by the aristocracy for which they were built, the sheer class with which they have been maintained, a standard of impeccable service that has to be experienced to be believed and a cuisine which is a pacesetter for the world, the hotels of the Riviera I will tell you about here are a hard act to follow. Why stay there? Because they are possibly the world's best in their class. Sure, they're not for everybody. But they are built for those who can afford the very best and, as one retired American executive said to me, "There are no pockets in shrouds. And we're having the holiday of a lifetime here. My grandchildren don't know it, but they're paying for our holiday. When we die they'll just get that much less."
The hotels which fall into this class are the Hotel de Paris, Monaco; The Hotels Royal Riviera and La Reserve in Beaulieu-Sur-Mer, The Grand Hotel du Cap Ferrat at Cap Ferrat, The Hotel Saint Martin (Route de Coursegoules Vence Ph: 93.58.02.02) at Vence and The Hotel Byblos (Route de Coursegoules Vence Ph: 93.58.02.02) at Saint Tropez. Added to these must come two fascinating hotels that are part of the ramparts of 13th Century hill villages, the Hostellerie Chevre d'Or at Eze Village, and the Hotel Saint Paul in the artists' village of Saint Paul de Vence. All of these are at the top of their class, but more about this later.
Right now we'll start at the point closest to the Italian border, La Turbie and Peillon, just past Monaco and some thirty minutes from Nice by high-speed freeway on the high Corniche. There are three roads that take you to the Italian border from Nice. The low Corniche is the coast road that follows the sea, the middle Corniche is just atop the cliffs that rise vertically just inside the shore line and the high Corniche is further inland, and a breathtaking work of engineering of the sort for which both the French and the Swiss are justifiably famous. But few know that the original Grand Corniche was the Roman Via Aurelia, along which Roman Legions marched from Rome to the Rhone Valley and on to their outposts in Britain and Germany. In 1806 Napoleon built the first proper road that followed this path, but with breathtaking engineering and viaducts, the modern autoroute you travel on to Italy makes the journey incredibly easy.
Most people don't use the exit to La Turbie, but it is worth the effort, for in this charming village you will find one of Rome's grandest monuments, La Trophee des Alpes. This huge Roman monument was built by Emperor Augustus five years B.C. -- a 150 foot high monument on 120 foot square base that commemorates the subjugation of the 44 Ligurian tribes that had, till then, been a thorn in the side of the Romans, disrupting traffic between Rome and Gaul. The monument was, in fact, erected on the spot that marks the border between Rome and that province. It is one of the most imposing Roman monuments in existence, and well worth the visit.
Within a two hour hike across wooded mountains lie two medival villages. Peillon and Peillie are as yet almost totally unspoilt by tourism, their inhabitants making a livelihood from the cultivation of age-old olive groves that cover the hillsides. By car the trip from La Turbie is quite a roundabout one, but do take it! These villages have to be seen to be believed and are absolutely charming.
Back in the car, carefully wind your way down the zigzag road that leads to the lower village. Yes! You are right. That is the one that, according to locals, Grace Kelly (oops -- Princess Grace of Monaco) was killed on. But while care must still be taken, the road has been very substantially improved and is not the hazard it used to be.
If you want to stay in the make-believe world of Monte Carlo, then the best place to choose is doubtlessly the Hotel de Paris (Place Casino, Monte Carlo Ph: 22.214.171.124) right alongside the Casino. Once you've seen this hotel, it will come as no surprise to you when I tell you that it belongs to a company owned by the Grimaldis, the family of Prince Rainier. There's only one standard here, and that's perfection. The suites are almost solidly booked the year round, and when you look down from the windows at Monte Carlo's lovely, horseshoe-shaped harbour-marina, one can see the guests' mega-yachts, some with their own helicopters on top, at their moorings. I suppose one gets some indication of the clientele from the fact that, when we were there just recently, seven Rolls Royces were parked outside the front entrance.
And if you have come to France for a special celebration, a great place to have this is in the almost unbelievably splendid dining room: Restaurant Louis XV. Those who have always fantasised about being invited to dine at a Royal Palace don't need to use their imagination after dining here. This room is at least as elegant. And the cuisine is of a standard to match. There are only twenty chefs in the whole of France who have been awarded three Michelin stars, and Alain Ducasse is one of them. In a country where the dinner table conversation is as passionate when people talk about cuisine as when they talk about politics or sex, Ducasse is considered a national hero -- a Matisse of the kitchen whose palette of flavors can paint culinary canvasses of perfect taste and balance.
There is not a whole lot to do in Monaco, but it is a marvellous base for exploring the area. Before this, however, don't forget to wander around the marina and drool over some of the magnificent boats you will see there. Take your time exploring the Oceanographic Museum, considered by experts the best of its kind in the world. Play a round of golf at the Monte Carlo Golf Club. The concierge will arrange it. Visit the two large Casinos -- perhaps you too can become "The Person who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo."
Before you leave, ask the Concierge at your hotel what special events are on in town. The tax-exiles who make up most of the population here pride themselves on being culture vultures, and so Monte Carlo has an extraordinary number of world standard concerts, operas, performers and so on. And that's not all. When we were there recently, the Italian Army had sent a special regiment from Genoa that was quite remarkable. This regiment's history dates back to the time when both Genoa and the whole coast to Nice belonged to Savoy. So, for ceremonial occasions, this regiment dresses in absolutely authentic uniforms that date back to the times of the Prince of Savoy. And here they were in Monaco, marching through the side streets and, complete with a stirring band, precision marching in the square in front of the Monaco Palace. Marvelous!!! There is also the famous cactus garden, but we'll pass this up for another for which we will head as soon as we leave Monaco.
And to do this we head out, taking the new tunnel and following the signs up to Eze Village. In the 13th century, Saracen pirates had a rather clear run of the Mediterranean and some of them decided to stay, building a whole lot of fortified villages which the French now call "Village Perche" because these are built in such a way that they look as if they are glued on to the side, or on the top of, cliffs or mountain tops in the most precarious, but most easily defensible position.
By and large these villages were taken over by locals when the Saracens went home to North Africa, but after a while the locals found they were a bit hard to get to, so one after another they were abandoned. It was not until the 1920's, when technology allowed water to be pumped to these villages and roads to be built that they were re-settled. Today they are picture-post-card pretty, many full of delightful galleries of painters, sculptors and artisans who, along with smart boutiques, have made these villages 'res chic. The upper village of Eze is one of these.
Stop in the car-park, wander up the steep walking track into this beautifully restored village, and drool over the superb handicrafts and other knicknackery on sale in the Eze shops. Go right up to the top and visit the cactus garden which, to my mind, is even lovelier ... especially if you are an Indian Fakir ... than the one at Monte Carlo. When you have done all this, stroll back down to the Hostellerie Chevre d'Or, one of the two rustic hotels that I find so charming on this coast.
Go into the Chevre d'Or (Eze-Village, Ph: 126.96.36.199) and have a drink on the terrace. This is undoubtedly one of the loveliest views in the world ...as long as you don't suffer from vertigo... To sit next to one of the two pools, look vertically down at the coast and cars that look like ants running along the coastal road, is one of life's great pleasures. It was here at Eze that Nietzsche wrote Thus spoke Zarathustra , and the late Walt Disney arrived for a two day holiday and liked it so much that he stayed two weeks. If your budget allows, linger here a day or two. If not, dine in the splendid dining room. And if you've spent too much money on your holiday already, then ask at the desk for their other less grand restaurants which are under the direction of the same top-notch chef and management.
Once down on the coast road at Lower Eze, drive towards Nice until you come to the pretty coastal village of Beaulieu-Sur-Mer. This is where you will find two of the other luxury hotels that, to my mind, make up the coast's most stylish establishments, the Royal Riviera (Avenue J. Monnet, St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat Ph: 93 01 20 20) and La Reserve (5 Boulevard Marechal-Leclerc, Beaulieu-Sur-Mer Ph: 93 01 00.01). When Gordon Bennett, the eccentric owner of the New York Herald who sent Stanley to look for Livingstone, built La Reserve in the 1870's, he was so enamoured with it that word spread fast about what he considered the finest hotel on the Cote d' Azur. Much of the current excellence of this hotel, and the adjacent Royal Riviera which is of equally high standard, is due to the personal supervision of Mr. Gilbert Irondelle, the former Resident Manager of Hong Kong's prestigious Mandarin Hotel. Irondelle's philosophy is simple -- settle for nothing less than the very best. And it shows. Whether you stay at the smaller La Reserve ... around 40 rooms ... or at the slightly larger Royal Riviera of around 70 rooms, you will be treated as if you were an aristocratic house guest. Both hotels face the Mediterranean, and both are as romantic as they are luxurious.
At Beaulieu-Sur-Mer you will also find one of the most attractive small marinas on the Cote d'Azur. Wander among the boats and dream about the destinations marked on their sterns. Lunch at one of the many restaurants that line the harbourside. For years we were regulars at the African Queen but more recently this restaurant has been most disappointing and we have switched to Le Madrepore next door which we find excellent.
If you like a small, intimate and quite elegant Casino, the one at Beaulieu is back in business, beautifully restored after being closed for several years following a succession of armed hold-ups that quite put the fashionable clientele off their Roulette. Take your passport and wear your best outfit. You won't get in without the former, and if you look the slightest bit disreputable your chances of entry also drop to zero.
Another "must do" at Beaulieu is to visit the Villa Kerylos. This amazing re-production of a 5th B.C. Athenian's home is authentic right down to the furnishings and the garden. It was built in 1908 by archeologist Theodore Reinach who, through his training, knew exactly how to decorate the villa in the style of 2,500 years ago. Only the modern wiring, plumbing, window glass and concealed piano were allowed to impinge on the original style.
Within walking distance of Beaulieu is Cap Ferrat, and no other piece of earth is more densely populated with famous people. Eiffel of Tower fame retired to Beaulieu. Charlie Chaplin came to Cap Ferrat each year for his holidays, as did the late Duke Connaught. Famous author Somerset Maugham lived and wrote his books here until his death in 1965. King Leopold II of the Belgians retired here as did David Niven and several of the Rothschilds. One branch of this family, banker Baron Ephrussi who had married Beatrice de Rothschild built an Italianate villa that features a Tiopoto ceiling, paintings by Doucher and a covered Andalusian patio which was used in many movies (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was filmed in this area, as were several James Bond movies). The Ephrussis left their villa to the French State in their will and it has now become one of the coast's best museums.
Almost at the tip of the Cap Ferrat Peninsula is another superb hotel -- the Grand Hotel Cap Ferrat (Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, Ph: 188.8.131.52). This is another one on my list of luxury gems. It would be hard to imagine a more stylish setting than this hotel set in huge grounds and with its own four-seater cable railway that takes guests down to the swimming pool and bistro by the sea! The Grand Hotel Cap Ferrat is a definite inclusion in the Riviera's best and those who come to the area should at least dine at its elegant restaurant.
There is lots more exploring to do before you leave the Riviera. In Part 2 we will explore Venice, and the artists' village of St. Paul, the third biggest tourist attraction in France after Paris and Mont St. Michel. Take the unbelievable drive along the Gorges du Loup, Gourdon and Tourette Sur Loup. Visit the picturesque village of Mougins where superchef Roger Verge rules supreme, and visit the Escoffier Museum at Villeneuve-Loubet. Take the coast road past France's biggest apartment block to stop at Antibes, Cannes and stop at the charming little bay of La Garoupe at Cap d'Antibes, where few foreigners are found, then go on to picture-postcard St. Tropez.
All these are great places you should also see, but that's another story!