This article first appeared in the Sunday Times SA on 23 September 2017
It’s almost summertime in Europe and the Cote d’Azur is calling. Synonymous with le good life, it’s typically upsold as the domain of rich and famous, but truth be told, that’s only the half of it. Because between the posh ports and mega yacht marinas lie a slew of unassuming little towns ready to soothe any glitz intolerant traveller. The disarmingly gorgeous coastline stretches a mere thirty kilometres between Nice and the Franco-Italian border, roughly forty minutes in a straight run, and one of the best ways to absorb it is on a classic road trip.
As the capital of the Alpes-Maritime départment, Nice is, after Marseilles, the second largest city in the South of France and its superb locale makes it the ideal base for anyone planning an adventure along the ‘blue coast’ in either direction. It has grace, charm and is a travel trove all on its own and with so much to discover in the city and Old Town. Spend at least 5 days there, walk its ochre tinted streets and ferret out the gems not always listed in guide books. Nice is also known as a city of art and culture and after Paris, has the most museums in France.
The Promenade of all promenades
I’m from Sea Point and love prom life, so taking an idle saunter down the famed Promenade des Anglais is mandatory. Built in 1820 by the English aristocracy who took to vacationing in the South of France in the mid 1800’s, the 7km trot spot is a cherished landmark and a magnet for citizens and visitors alike. The Promenade stretches from the airport (west) to Quai des Etats Unis (east, close to the Port de Nice), is really wide in sections and one has to be aware of all those who make use of it- cyclists, rollerbladers, and pedestrians. The iconic blue chairs, one of the symbols of Nice, facing the teal waters of the Baie des Anges and the beaches below and also face onto the prom and entice strollers to sit a while with a good book or a copy of French Vogue.
The Old Town
The Vieille Ville (Old Town) is a maze of narrow, dimly lit corridors that offer respite from the summer heat of the day and at night comes alive as the bars and pavement cafés fill up with customers tucking into traditional salad Niçoise and other fine fare. With the Italian influence so strong in the region, this is where you’ll find the best burrata in La France. For those who prefer a fancier feast with a South African twist, there is JAN, the single Michelin star eatery on Rue Lascaris fronted by celeb chef Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen who has curated a splendid menu that includes culinary curiosities like biltong lamingtons and other memorable tastes of the home country.
Architecture and heritage
Nice is très easy to navigate on foot and with Google Maps at your fingertips, locating beautiful public parks, monuments, rooftop bars, galleries, markets, boulevards and museums is a cinch. It is rich in artistic heritage and the Musée Matisse, an Italianate villa, is a must-visit. Like so many before and after him, the painter and avid canoeist was mesmerised by the city’s light, a luminescence that fascinated great creatives like Chagall and David Hockney and continues to captivate many a photographer by its radiance. Architecturally the urban offering is eclectic, from terracotta rooftops and handsome examples of La Belle Époque era, to the Gothic Cathedral of Notre Dame de Strasbourg, the Roman ruins of Cimiez and the Spinelli designed Place Garibaldi. On the more modern front, contemporary design is making waves with imposing buildings like Sacha Sosno’s La Tete Carrée, an epic sculpted blockhead covered in aluminium mesh that cocoons the administrative offices of the public library next door, both to be found at the end of the Promenade des Arts where there is plenty to sate a cultural appetite.
Villefranche is a tiny fishing village around the corner from Nice, 10 minutes away and tucked between Nice and Cap Ferrat, the epitome of a picturesque seaside hamlet, quaint and popping with colour. It’s said to be one of the few towns where everyone knows each other and many families are able to trace their ancestry back to 1830. The best things about Villefranche are its soft sandy beach, the 14th century Chapelle Saint-Pierre with a showy mystical façade created by one-time resident Jean Cocteau, and the eateries that entice passers-by onto their verandahs for sundowners and tapas overlooking the little harbour.
On towards Beaulieu-Sur-Mer & Eze
Leaving Villefranche, the D6098 motorway carves its way along the coast past Beaulieu-Sur-Mer, a secret hideaway flush with some of the world’s most desirable real estate and a showcase of jaw dropping scenery. Further along, Eze materialises in all its medieval glory, a tiny town that found favour with Friedrich Nietzsche in 1885 (there is a walking path named after him) and later Walt Disney, who drew inspiration from its fairy tale castle. The main pedestrian street, Rue Principale, winds up to the oldest monument built in 1306, the Chapelle de la Sainte Croix, and further up, perched on a rocky outcrop, lie the fortress ruins, an exotic cactus and succulent garden and unbeatable sweeping views across the Med.
La Turbie follows, another gem built over 2000 years ago by the Romans and dominated by the 35m-high Trophée Des Alpes that looms over the town, a tribute to Emperor Augustus’s victory over the Alpine tribes that once populated the area. Surrounded by nature, it’s a hikers paradise and like all the other villages along the journey, it has been well preserved with light and airy vaulted passageways linking the old provençale homes prettified with window boxes.
La Turbie’s simplicity fades as you steer along the twisty D37, the pass that that snakes down into Monte Carlo in the Principality of Monaco. It’s perhaps most well known as the pass where Princess Grace tragically lost her life in 1982.
The diminutive sovereign state is only half the size of Central Park, and while its haute status is undisputed, there’s far more to it than flashy tax evaders and Teslas. Beyond the intimidating extravagance are several things to do and see that won’t cost a centime. Explore ‘The Rock’ of Monaco on the headland above the port where it’s possible to tour the State Apartments of the Palais Princier, Prince Albert’s official residence, watch the Changing of the Guard and then wander the streets of the picturesque old town. The Monaco Cathedral, built in limestone from La Turbie, is the resting place of numerous members of the Grimaldi family including Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier and in humble contrast, the Sainte-Dévote chapel, also the name of the first corner of the famous Grand Prix circuit, offers a few moments of solitude away from all the glitz and grandeur, as does the Rose Garden, Prince Rainier’s memorial to Princess Grace that showcases eight thousand rose bushes in three hundred different varieties, best visited during autumn when the blooms are at their most spectacular. After all that, have lunch at Novak Djokovic’s vegetarian restaurant, Eqvita, surprisingly well priced, and then head for Larvotto Beach to work a tan.
In my opinion, the unheralded finale of the Riviera is Menton, the last stop before Italy and the complete antithesis to its ritzy neighbour. Nicknamed Perle de la France (Pearl of France) it’s known for its citrus and flavourful lemons, an easygoing enclave that offers a glimpse into what life on the Côte must have been like in earlier times. It’s low on notoriety, high on authenticity and full of surprises, like Mirazur, the two star Michelin restaurant and an excellent covered market, artisanal stores and the striking white Jean Cocteau/Séverin Wunderman Collection Museum. The Menton Music Festival, one of the most prestigious classical and jazz events in France is in its 69th year gets underway from 28 July to 11 August in the magnificent Baroque cathedral setting of the Parvis de la Basilique Saint-Michel Archange.
By the way we left our chauffeur in Monaco and took the train to Menton – on the return journey take the train all the way back to Nice – it’s
No matter the season, the French Riviera is a desirable destination that delivers beyond its haute hideout status and satisfies on multiple levels.
Accommodation: B11 Hotel (perfect location a few blocks from the beach)
Local simcard: Vodafone at Relay (Charles de Gaulle)
Train from Charles de Gaulle: book in advance – Rail Europe via World Travel in Joburg
E-bike tours: you need to be fit as there are a LOT of hills
Chauffeur Nice to Monaco: Mr. Ghali +33 7 82 96 73 25 / 50 Euros one way