The Côte d'Azur between Nice and Menton is one of the most densely populated and most famous coast lines in the world. By the way the term Côte d'Azur and French Riviera are interchangeable: in French we always use the term Côte d'Azur, in English the term French Riviera (old fashioned) or Côte d'Azur (more in line with today's times).
Very, very expensive real estate lies here, a millionaires' paradise with gilded mansions, some tasteful, some of dubious architecture. Originally a favorite with holidaying European aristocrats, these days yachties and zillionaires mix with artists and trend setters, who are dutifully admired by busloads of tourists and second home honeypots. But this is probably the world's most democratic playground for the rich. There are many activities, secluded beaches with crystal clear water and plenty of sun and sea for everyone. Above all this is an area of outstanding natural beauty, pretty towns and villages with cafés, markets and seaside promenades. Everything fights for space here. Every inch of terrain is used. Roads are narrow, traffic heavy yet you find quite a number of quiet corners.
The key is to get the right type of accommodation: very difficult, but not impossible. Many hotels here are overpriced, service often less than optimal. Only a few B&Bs here we can recommend. We normally rent a vacation home or apartment in this region. Outside the summer school vacations this is more economical and more fun. Once you are set up everything else will fall into place and you will thoroughly enjoy the experience, especially during spring and autumn. This is about urban life, about watching and meeting people, relaxing on the beach, eating out. A bit different from the Provence heartland (the triangle between Aix en Provence - Arles - Vaison la Romaine) with its quaint countryside, ancient villages, historic monuments, lavender fields and vineyards.
Three spectacular coastal roads, the three Corniches, run 30 plus kilometers parallel to each other from Nice east to Monaco and on to Menton on the Italian border. Take your time and drive each one of them. You will be rewarded with stunning views, that is if you don't mind the heavy traffic and endless curves. Now, let's visit some of the towns and villages, driving on the Basse Corniche from Nice to Monaco, with side trips up the mountains to some of the old perched villages. We go from west to east, from Nice to Menton.
What a lovely location! Situated between Mont Boron to the west and Cap Ferrat Peninsula to the east Villefranche-sur-Mer is picturesque, entertaining and tres chic. The yacht harbor quayside is lined with brasseries and cafés with some providing restaurant-to-yacht shuttle service. There is a long sandy beach, the place to see and be seen during the warmer season. A lively town year-round: the Provençal market is held on the Place du Marché on Saturday mornings, the antiques market on Avenue Albert I on Sundays. Villefranche has few outstanding attractions, it is the town which is an attraction in itself. At the western end of the port is the Chapelle de St.Pierre des Pêcheurs. Originally used for storing fishing nets, it was covered in 1957 with lively frescoes by Jean Cocteau depicting the life of St.Peter. At the top of the old town is Eglise St.Michel, a handsome 18th century Italiante church. The church is open 9:30AM - 7:00PM daily. Take a look at the beautiful organ built in 1790 by the Grinda Brothers from Nice. Walk through the picturesque alleys west of the church to the 16th century massive Citadelle. Built by the Dukes of Savoy, it now houses the Musée Volti, showing some of the minor works of Picasso, Picabia, Miro and Hartung. The citadel is used for outdoor theatre and film shows.
Hard to believe that Villefranche was a US naval base until France withdrew from the military part of NATO in 1966. Today you see cruise ships anchoring in the bay, disgorging their passengers to the quayside. Villefranche's sheltered deep water harbor was already used in ancient times by Greeks and later by the Romans. Charles II of Anjou established a duty free port here in the 14th century, hence the name villa franca - Villefranche. Despite the chic and glamour the town's residents value their traditions. This is best embodied in the annual Combat Naval Fleuri on Monday before Ash Wednesday, when scores of fishing boats bedecked with flowers enter the port.
The Côte d'Azur's most desirable address: a pretty peninsula jutting out into the Mediterranean sea with lots of pictureque coves and beaches with turqoise water, one of its best kept secrets. Plage de la Paloma was voted as one of the 10 best beaches on the Côte d'Azur. We like also the Plage de Passable on the western side. The peninsula is studed with grand mansions and villas surrounded by exquisite gardens, pine trees and all. A place for billionaires: Roman Abramovich the Russian oligarch, Sean Quinn the Irish insurance magnate and Steve Allan of Microsoft have masnions here. You can drive around on the narrow roads, but there is little you will see because most of this splendour is walled off. It is more rewarding to park the car in the one town, St.Jean-Cap-Ferrat (the public parking space adjacent to the yacht harbour fills up quickly) and explore Cap Ferrat on foot. There is a coastal path running from Avenue Jean Mermoz past Plage de la Paloma to Point Hospice, with its 12m high Virgin Mary and Child (early 20th century) and small chapel (19th century). Back in St.Jean take the other coastal path to the lighthouse, which runs from Av.Claude Vignon right around the tip of Cap Ferrat to the Chemin du Roy on the eastern side. For an overview of the peninsula you can climb the lighthouse. Another option is to drive to the Plateau St.Michel from the Grande Corniche - one of the best viewing spots on this part of the coast.
While in Cap Ferrat don't miss to visit Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, an Italianate villa built for Beatrice de Rothschild. It houses an extensive collection of 18th century and Impressionist paintings as well as many oriental artifacts. The villa is surrounded by nine gardens laid over 4ha. The entrance to the gardens gives you a magnificent view over Villefranche harbour. The garden themes are: Spanish, Florentine, Stone Garden, Japanese, Exotic, Rose Garden, Provençal, Sèvres and French. The whole setup is stunning. You get an idea how the superrich lived in the early 19th century: in style. In 1883 Beatrice Rothschild, aged 19, married Maurice Ephrussi, a Russian banker. In 1905 she bought 7ha of land in Cap Ferrat next to the estate of King Leopold II of Belgium, who was none to happy about it as he wanted to extend his already vast holding. Construction started in 1907 and her dream home was finished in 1912. Her husband died 4 years later. Beatrice was a great collector, traveling the world in search of treasures. Upon her death in 1934 she bequethed her estate to the Académie des Beaux-Arts de l'Institut de France. They host the Azuriales Opera Festival every August here.
One of the most notorious of royalties in Cap Ferrat was King Leopold II of Belgium, basking in his riches from Belgian Congo, where he exercised a brutal colonial regime. He owned a large estate in Cap Ferrat and three separate villas for his maitresses. Later in life he built another villa for his confessor. This villa was later owned by the writer Somerset Maugham until his death in 1965. Part of Leopold's estate today houses the Zoo du Cap Ferrat with 350 species from flamingos to Zebras.
Other notable residents in Cap Ferrat were Charlie Chaplin, Edith Piaf and Isadora Duncan.
Once a favorite of the European aristocrats, soon followed by the monied class, Beaulieu still has a certain old-world charm about it. Beaulieu means "beautiful place" in French. Gustave Eiffel and Gordon Bennett, the legendary director of the New York Herald Tribune, retired here. One of the more colorful characters living here was the archaeologist Theodore Reinach (1860-1928). He was so passionate of ancient Greek culture that he built his villa, the Villa Kérylos, in "Art Nouveau" style incorporating many features of a traditional Greek country mansion. Kerylos - "Sea Swallow" in Greek - was built between 1902 and 1908. The interior is filled with furniture, frescoes, statues and bronzes recalling the refinement of ancient Greece. It was donated to the French state in 1928 and is now a museum. When you enter Beaulieu from Villefranche you find it on the right side on the Baie des Fourmis (named "ant bay" after the many black rocks dotting the beach).
There is no old town to speak of in Beaulieu. On the seafront with its elegant promenade is the Casino, a beautiful 19th building offering roulette, blackjack and baccarat to the wealthy crowd of Cap Ferrat. Further east, much of the coast has been taken up by a huge yacht harbour. You find a couple of good cafés and bistros here, but no views of the Mediterranean sea, only a sea of masts and boats. The steep hillside of Beaulieu has many houses and apartment buildings - a relatively quiet location (the upper corniche roads are running behind the mountains here) with excellent views. Not a bad spot to rent a vacation apartment here.
Driving up the narrow winding road from Beaulieu you are suddenly confronted with tourist buses trying to find a parking spot. You know you have arrived in Èze, a lovely perched village with castle ruins, the Jardin Exotique, lots of narrow alleys, magnificent views. But the scores of shops selling parfume and the usual Provence kitsch, the many art galleries, restaurants and cafés have somehow made this a "museum village", similar to St.Paul de Vence. Are any locals still living there? But we concede one thing: Èze has a stunning location 430m above sea level and that alone is worthwhile this side trip. If you are in need of an exercise walk the Sentier Frédéric Nietzsche up from the Basse Corniche (around 90 min. - take plenty of water). Nietzsche, who had a home in Èze-Bord-de-Mer, used to walk up here, where he reportedly composed the 3rd part of "Thus Spoke Zarathustra".
Ancient hilltop village on the Grande Corniche above Cap d'Ail and Monaco, often shrouded in clouds, sleepy, but with local life still intact. The name La Turbie derives from the Latin word tropea, the trophy. Le Trophée d'Auguste, the Trophy of Augustus, also known as the Trophée des Alpes, is a monument erected by the Romans to celebrate Emperor Augustus' conquest of the Gaulish tribes between 25 and 14 BC. It stood 45m high, a round building on a square base with Doric columns and a bronze statue of Augustus on top. Used as a quarry during the Middle Ages, it was only partially restored in the early 20th century. The statue was never recuperated. Located at the highest point of the Julian Way on Col de la Turbie, the monument overlooks the sea and is visible on clear days from San Remo in the east to Cannes in the west. There is a small museum with a scale model of the monument. Great panoramic views form the museum's hilltop park.
Take the road to Les Hautes de Monte Carlo (from the road to Monaco turn left at the village exit). It leads you to a promontory close to the France Telecom dome. Magnificent views of the Côte d'Azur with Monaco and Cap d'Ail below. Turn around and you will see the Alpes Maritimes covered in snow most of the year.
From Beaulieu we continue on the Basse Corniche past undistinguished Èze-Bord-de-Mer, which suffers from road and railway cutting it off from the beach. We arrive in Cap d'Ail, very close to Monaco and therefore often overlooked. Yet a good choice to rent a vacation apartment or stay in a hotel. A narrow winding street leads from the Basse Corniche to the Cap. Plage la Mala is prized by visitors from Monaco and Italy. The Italians adore the Côte d'Azur: clean beaches, beautiful promenades, building codes strictly enforced - in other words law and order. Quite unlike from what you find across the border in Liguria.
As you get closer to Monaco you can admire the "hideux immeubles de Fontvieille, monstrueux crime contre l'urbanité, commis impunément par les seigneurs du Rocher", the hideous urban/office complex of Fontvieille, monstrous crime against urbanity, committed with impunity by the lords of the rock (the Prince of Monaco), as the French daily Le Monde phrased it in a recent article. If you need an antidote to a hideway type vacation Monaco is the place for you. One of the most densely populated areas in the world. An amalgamation of carefully restored heritage areas for tourists and Grace Kelly worshippers (the rock), traditional elegance (the casino area), a concrete jungle of highrisers in between and the most expensive yacht harbor in the world. Playground of the wealthy, the ultimate resort for those with plenty of cash and a desire to minimize their tax bill. It is home to thousands of foreigners who use Monaco as their "permanent residence". You might even run into Bono, who has a home near Èze.
This is actually an agglomeration of several villages and towns: St.Roman, for all means and purposes a suburb of Monaco, the hillside residential areas of Cabbé, Bon Voyage and Serret, Roquebrune proper with its Vieux Village and château, the fashionable peninsula of Cap Martin and the modern, more basic seaside town of Carnolès with its long pebble beach next to Menton.
The Cap Martin peninsula is another place of the rich and famous: Winston Churchill, Coco Chanel, Le Corbusier, W.B.Yeats, Emperor Bokassa (Congo) and today an increasing number of Russian oligarchs. Similar to Cap Ferrat not much can be seen as most properties are hidden behind walls and luscious gardens. The best way to explore the peninsula is the Sentier Douanier, a well-maintained seaside footpath, which passes by Le Cabanon, Le Corbusier's tiny modular beach cottage (call the tourist office 04 93 35 62 87 to arrange a visit).
Roquebrune's Vieux Village on a hilltop 250 - 300m above sea level is worthwhile a visit. Park the car below the village and walk its picturesque alleys, the Château de Roquebrune and admire the panoramic views from the Place des Deux Frères. Or, if you need a workout, walk the Sentier Massolin, a giant staircase leading from Carnolès to Roquebrune's Vieux Village. Roquebrune was settled early on, the château can be traced back to the 10th century, when it was a Carolingian fortress. Later the Grimaldi's from Monaco ruled this area for 600 years until 1848. The village has preserved its architecture, successfully fighting a 1920 Disneyfication attempt of the château by its English owner. Traditions are being preserved; example is the procession on August 5, thanking Notre-Dame des Neiges for being saved from the 1467 pest epidemic. Not far from the cemetery, on the Chemin du St.Roch, stands a 1,000-year-old olive tree, one of the oldest trees in the world.
Menton is the warmest and the most Italianate of the towns on the Côte d'Azur, ringed by the protective Mont Agel, Mont Grammont and Mont Berceau. A stunning 331 days of sunshine, no Mistral and an average winter temperature of around 16°C (60°F) make this a wonderful place to spend the colder season. The favorable climate ....read more about it here.