HILLTOWNS OF THE FRENCH RIVIERA

 

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ITINERARY AS EXCERPTED FROM KAREN BROWN’S E-BOOK:

People in the hundreds of thousands flock to the Riviera for its sun and dazzling blue waters. When planning your trip, be aware that most of these sun-worshipers congregate during the spring and summer with the coastal towns as their base and during this time the coastside is a constant hub of activity and excitement. The Riviera attracts an international group, jet-setters here to see and be seen. In the mountains overlooking the Mediterranean are a number of smaller, “hillside-perched” towns, removed from the continuous activity of the Riviera and offering a beautiful setting and escape.

Recommended Pacing: We suggest at least three full days to explore the coastal and hilltowns of the French Riviera. Assuming your time is going to be devoted to the Riviera, this itinerary traces a routing that both begins and ends in Nice. Keep in perspective that distances between destinations are short (Nice and Menton are just 23 kilometers apart), and although you can make a circle trip staying at one or two places, it would also be feasible to select one property as a base from which to explore the entire region. Remember that during peak summer months the Riviera is crowded with tourists-it is difficult to find places to stay and dine, negotiate the roads, find parking, and visit museums, so you must incorporate more time into your itinerary to do so. Our suggestion would be to avoid summer on the Riviera and, alternatively, escape up into the hills above the coastal towns.

The French Riviera, or the Côte d’Azur, is the area between Menton and Nice. Its inhabitants are a breed apart: even the French themselves say the Niçoise are not typically French-warmed and subdued by the climate, they are more gentle and agreeable. We recommend that you begin your explorations in the region’s capital, Nice, “Queen of the Riviera.” France’s wonderful express trains service the Nice train station and convenient connections can be made from many cities within Europe into the Nice airport (the second busiest in France). Equally appealing, both the train station and airport are small and easy to get around, and car rental agencies are represented at both.

Nice is a large city whose population of 400,000 has carpeted the land with apartments and condominiums bounded only by the ocean and the surrounding hills. Along the waterfront, the Promenade des Anglais takes a grand sweep from the city’s western edge along the Baie des Anges and the new city to the edge of the picturesque old quarter. The new district of Nice is a mecca for tourists with the promenade along the seashore lined with elegant hotels and casinos. Lighted at night, the promenade is a romantic place for strolling. Just off this majestic promenade is the Musée International d’Art Naïf (Avenue Val Marie), which boasts an inventory of over 6,000 paintings from all over the world. (Open all year, tel: 04.93.71.78.33.) The Musée des Beaux-Arts Jules Cheret (33, Avenue des Baumettes) focuses on a wealth of paintings from the 19th century. (Open all year, tel: 04.92.15.28.28.) A landmark of the promenade is the stately Hôtel Negresco whose terrace is a wonderful place to settle and enjoy a café or ice cream, a tradition to be equated with tea at Harrods. Just a little farther on, the Jardin Albert 1 is dressed with fountains and a bandstand that hosts numerous rock concerts. From the Jardin a mini-train departs every 20 minutes to tour the old town, the flower market, and castle gardens. The lovely Place Masséna stands proud on the promenade with its dramatic fountains and fronts the area’s principal shopping district along the Avenue Jean Médecin. Also leading off the Place Masséna, the Rue Masséna and the Rue de France are charmingly restricted to pedestrian traffic, and banked by cafés, boutiques, and restaurants.

On the other side of the River Paillon is the old quarter of Nice, La Vieille Ville, full of character and ambiance. Narrow alleys wind through this district of cobbled streets shaded by towering buildings. The district is colored with flowerboxes and upward glimpses of sky are crisscrossed by banners of laundry. The flower market is very picturesque-a display of color all day and every day on the Cours Saleya, except on Mondays when a flea market of antiques and collectibles invades its space. A bountiful fish market is set out every morning (except Mondays) on the Place Saint François. From the Cours Saleya it is possible to climb the hill, known as the Château (by stairs, a lift, or by strolling up the Rue Ségurane), to some spectacular views of the Baie des Anges. “Château” refers to the château that last stood between the harbor and the old town some 300 years ago. The harbor with its colorful mix of fishing boats and neighboring yachts is fun to explore.

The territory mapped out and referred to as Cimiez is where the Romans constructed Cemenelum, a town to rival the then existing Greek town of Nikaia (Nice) in the 1st century B.C. The renovated Roman amphitheater hosts a famous jazz festival that takes place every July. Cimiez also flourishes in March during the Festival des Cougourdons, and in May, Sundays are an offering of dances, picnics, and folklore presentations during the Fêtes des Mais. Cimiez is also worth the journey to visit the Musée d’Archéologie, 160 Avenue des Arènes (Closed Tuesdays, tel: 04.93.81.59.57), the Musée Chagall at the corner of Boulevard de Cimiez and Avenue Dr Ménard (Closed Tuesdays, tel: 04.93.53.87.20), and the Musée Matisse in the Villa des Arènes (Closed Tuesdays, tel: 04.93.81.08.08). The Musée Chagall houses the largest single collection of the master’s work, while the Musée Matisse honors its namesake, who made Nice his home for 20 years, through presentation of the artist’s paintings, drawings, and figurines.

Leaving Nice in the direction of Menton, you have a choice of three roads that all run somewhat parallel to each other following the contours of the coast. The Grande Corniche or “high” road was built by Napoleon and passes through picturesque villages perchés. The Moyenne Corniche or “middle” road is a lovely, wide, modern road. The Corniche Inférieure or “low” road was built in the 18th century by the Prince of Monaco and enables you to visit the wealthy coastal communities and the principality of Monaco. Each road offers a uniquely appealing route. A suggestion would be to loop in one direction on the Corniche Inférieure to enjoy the water and the coastal towns (this is the busiest road during the summer months), and return via a combination of both the Grande and Moyenne Corniches.

From Nice the Corniche Inférieure, the N98, hugs the contours of the coast and the lovely inlet of Villefranche sur Mer whose gentle waters are home to numerous yachts and fishing boats. Round the bay from Villefranche and follow the D26 through the exclusive residential district and peninsula of Cap Ferrat.

Sometimes only glimpses are possible of the million-dollar mansions, home to many celebrities, which stand proud behind towering hedges and security gates along this 10-kilometer drive. It is possible to visit the former residence of the Baroness Ephrussi de Rothschild, who commissioned the Italian-style palace to house her personal art collection. It is now owned by the state and open to the public as a museum-the gardens and setting alone merit a visit. Traveling along the peninsula, climb the steps of the lighthouse for a wonderful view. Farther out on the tip is a tower that housed prisoners in the 18th century.

Saint Jean Cap Ferrat is nestled on the other side of the peninsula from Villefranche, enjoying a picturesque setting and a quiet ambiance, with just a few homes, restaurants, and hotels tucked into the hillside. It has lovely views across the towering masts of yachts that grace its waters. From Saint Jean Cap Ferrat, the road winds back to the N98 through another wealthy enclave of homes and luxurious hotels enjoying the protected climate, the town of Beaulieu sur Mer.

As the N98 leaves Beaulieu sur Mer, the road hugs the mountain and tunnels through the cliff face just above the Mediterranean, through Cap d’Ail, and into the principality of Monaco. First-class hotels and excellent restaurants are numerous in Monte Carlo, catering to the millions of annual visitors who come to play in its casino and hope to catch a glimpse of the royal family or resident international celebrities. Monaco is independent of French rule, and an exclusive tax haven for a privileged few. Step inside the Palais du Casino Monte Carlo, fronted by beautifully manicured gardens. To experience gambling fever, step inside the private salons where high stakes are an everyday agenda.

Beyond Monaco the N98 merges with the N7 and continues on to the graceful city of Menton, on the Italian border. Menton boasts streets shaded by fruit trees and stretches of sandy beach in addition to a colorful harbor, casino, and an endless array of shops. At the heart of the old town, Rue Saint Michel is a charming shopping street restricted to foot traffic. The nearby Place aux Herbes and Place du Marché are picturesque with their covered stalls and flower displays. Menton is also known for its gardens, the most famous being the Jardin des Colombières (Rue Ferdinand Bac), located on the hill above the town and enjoying lovely views through pines and cypress trees to the waters of the Mediterranean.

From Menton, a 10-kilometer detour into the hills brings you to the picturesque walled town of Sainte Agnes. The D22, often just a single lane, winds precariously up into the hills to this attractive mountain village of cobbled streets, a few restaurants, shops, and unsurpassed views of the coastline. (Although the hillside town of Gorbio is often recommended in connection with Sainte Agnes, the drive is even more demanding. Sainte Agnes is a little larger and very similar, with better views.)

Returning in the direction of Nice with Menton and the Italian border at your back, follow signs to Roquebrune Cap Martin and you find yourself traveling on the D2564 and the Grande Corniche. Roquebrune Cap Martin is divided into two districts: the new town on the water and a medieval village on the hillside dating from the dynasty of Charlemagne. Very picturesque on the approach, the medieval Roquebrune is well worth a detour and some time for exploration. Park on the main square and follow its maze of narrow, cobbled streets to the 13th-century keep, protected at the core of the medieval village.

From Roquebrune, the Grande Corniche continues along a very scenic stretch affording beautiful views of the principality of Monaco stretched out below. Just past the charming hillside town of La Turbie, watch for the D45, a short connector to the Moyenne Corniche and the idyllic village of Èze.

Like Roquebrune, there are two divisions of Èze, Èze Village, the medieval village perched on the hillside above the Riviera, and Èze Bord de la Mer, a modern town on the water’s edge. Of all the perched villages along the Riviera, Èze Village, a quaint medieval enclave with cobblestoned streets overlooking the sea, remains a favorite: park your car below the village and explore it on foot. This is a village whose residences have for more than a thousand years soaked up the sun and looked down upon the beautiful blue water associated with the magnificent Côte d’Azur.

From Èze, the Moyenne Corniche follows a beautiful route, the N7, which winds back into Nice. Once in Nice you can either follow the Promenade des Anglais along its waterfront, the N98 in the direction of Cannes, or circumvent the city and traffic by taking the Autoroute A8, exiting at Cagnes Est and following signs to Haut de Cagnes. (If you opt for the N98, take the D18 at Cros de Cagnes and follow signs away from the coast in the direction of Haut de Cagnes.)

Cagnes sur Mer is on the waterfront, a port town struggling to resemble the other coastal centers. Haut de Cagnes sur Mer, however, is an old section located on the hill, with an abundance of charm and character. Follow narrow, steep, cobbled streets to the heart of the old village. Opt for the underground parking just on the approach to the village crest-you might find space on the street, but it takes a brave soul to negotiate a spot, and unless you find a generous section, the streets are so narrow, it’s never certain that there is enough room left for passing vehicles.

The most visited site in Haut de Cagnes, the Château Grimaldi was originally built as a fortress in 1309, commissioned by Raynier Grimaldi, Lord of Monaco and Admiral of France. A citadel was built a year later and then, in the 17th century, Henri Grimaldi had the citadel refurbished into very spacious accommodations. His descendent, Gaspard Grimaldi, was forced to abandon the castle at the time of the French Revolution. During the reign of the Grimaldis, the residents within the walls of this medieval enclave prospered by cultivating wheat, wine, and olives. Mules were used to haul the bounty of produce from the neighboring hillsides and a wealth of seafood from the coast.

On the other side of Cagnes sur Mer from Haut de Cagnes, and definitely worth the hassle of its congested streets, is the absolutely wonderful Musée Renoir. (Closed Oct 20 to Nov 9, and Tues.) Advised to move to a warmer climate because of ill health, Renoir relocated to the coast and lived his last years in this sun-washed villa above the town. Surrounded by a sprawling, peaceful garden graced with olive trees, rhododendrons, iris, geraniums, and stretches of lawn, you can almost sense the peace and quiet that he must have experienced and the environment that inspired him to paint-artists today frequent the gardens seeking their own inspiration. The town of Cagnes purchased the home, which displays many of Renoir’s works, photos, and personal and family memoirs. Especially moving is the sentimental staging in his studio: Renoir’s wheelchair is parked in front of the easel, dried flowers rest on the easel’s side, and a day bed which enabled Renoir to rest between his efforts is set up nearby. When you study the photo of Renoir during his later years, he appears so old and yet determined to give the world his last ounce of creativity.

Return to the water from Haut de Cagnes and follow the N7 or the N98 along the Baie des Anges in the direction of Antibes. At La Brague detour just a few kilometers off the coastal road following the D4 to the hillside village of Biot. Biot, where glassware has been made for just under three decades, has won high acclaim. A visit to a glass factory to see the assortment of styles and types of glassware available is very interesting. Bottles vary from the usual types to the Provençal calères or ponons-bouteilles that have two long necks and are used for drinking. This medieval village of small narrow streets, lovely little squares, and a maze of galleries and shops is a gem.

After retracing your path back to the coastside, continue to Antibes-allow at least half a day for exploring this waterfront fortress. Fort Carré, not to be confused with the Château de Grimaldi, is closed to the public and located on the south entrance of town. The fort guards the waters of Antibes, which is home to thousands of yachts berthed in the modern Port Vauban Yacht Harbor. The rectangular towers and battlements of the Château de Grimaldi can be seen beyond the fort, within the ramparts of the medieval village. At the heart of the village, the château commands some of the town’s best views and now houses some of Picasso’s work in the Musée Picasso. Picasso resided at the château just after the war in 1946 and, in appreciation of his stay, left much of his work to the town. Spacious and uncluttered, open, bright rooms in the château admirably display his work and photographs of the master when he resided here in addition to contemporary works by Léger, Magnelli, and Max Ernst. Entry to the museum also gives you some of Antibes’ most beautiful views of the Mediterranean framed through the thick medieval walls. (Closed Mon.) The town with its cobbled streets is charming.

From Antibes a scenic drive follows the D2559 around the peninsula to its point, Cap d’Antibes, another exclusive residential community with gorgeous homes, exclusive hotels, and lovely sandy beaches. On the other side of the peninsula from Antibes is the pretty resort town of Juan les Pins, which is popular for its lovely stretch of white-sand beach and whose sparkling harbor shelters many attractive boats.

As the N98 hugs the bay of Golfe Juan and before it stretches to Pointe de la Croisette in Cannes, you can detour into the hills just up from the town of Golfe Juan to Vallauris. Picasso settled in Vallauris after his time in Antibes and tested his skill at the potter’s wheel, producing thousands of pieces of pottery using the Madoura pottery shop as his atelier. He restored the craft and brought fame to the village and in gratitude the town made him an honorary citizen. He, in turn, showed his appreciation by crafting a life-size bronze statue, which stands on Place Paul Isnard outside the church. A museum, Musée de Vallauris, displaying Picasso’s work is housed in the château, originally a 13th-century priory rebuilt in the 16th century. There are numerous workshops in Vallauris, now considered the ceramic capital of France-the Galerie Madoura remains one of the best, and stores sell a vast assortment of styles and qualities. (Closed Nov, Sat and Sun, tel: 04.93.64.66.39.) Over 200 craftsmen reside in Vallauris, creating original designs and copying patterns made famous by Picasso.

From Vallauris, return to the coast and continue on to the cosmopolitan city of Cannes. Located on the Golfe de Napoule, Cannes is the center for many festivals, the most famous being the Cannes Film Festival held annually in May. The Boulevard de la Croisette is a wide street bordered by palm trees separating the beach from the elaborate grand hotels and apartment buildings. La Croissette is congested with stop-and-go traffic in the summer, and the lovely beaches that it borders are dotted with parasols and covered with tanning bodies. The old port (Vieux Port) is a melange of fishing boats and sleek luxury craft. You find the flower market, Fortville, along the Allées de la Liberté and the bounty displayed at the covered market is set up every morning except Mondays. The picturesque pedestrian street of Rue Meynadier is worth seeking out for delicious picnic supplies such as cheeses, bread, and paté. Rising above the port at the western end of the popular Boulevard de la Croisette is Le Suquet, the old quarter of Cannes, which has a superior view of the colorful port.

It is easy to escape the bustle of the cosmopolitan fever of Cannes by traveling just a few short miles directly north out of the city along the N85 to the hilltown village of Mougins. This charming village achieved gastronomic fame when Roger Vergé converted a 16th-century olive mill into an internationally famous restaurant. Other notable chefs have been attracted to the village and Michelin has awarded the village and its restaurants in total four gourmet stars. The fortified town of Mougins is characteristic of many of the medieval towns that are accessible only to pedestrian traffic, which luckily preserves the atmosphere that horns and traffic congestion all too often obliterate. Located in the center of Mougins is a small courtyard decorated with a fountain and flowers and shaded by trees. Here you will discover a few small cafés where locals meet to gossip about society, life, and politics.

Continuing into the coastal hills, you come to a region of lavender, roses, carnations, violets, jasmine, olives, and oranges. Approximately 12 kilometers north of Mougins in the heart of this region is Grasse. Grasse’s initial industry was the tanning of imported sheepskins from Provence and Italy. It was Catherine de Medicis who introduced the concept of perfume when she commissioned scented gloves from the town in a trade agreement with Tuscany. When gloves fell out of fashion and their sales dwindled, the town refocused on the perfume industry. The town is constantly growing, but the old section is fun to wander through. Interesting tours of perfume factories are given in English by Parfumerie Fragonard (at 20 Boulevard Fragonard and at Les 4 Chemins), Parfumerie Molinard (60 Boulevard Victor-Hugo), and Parfumerie Gallimard (73 Route de Cannes).

Leave Grasse to the northeast on the D2085 and travel for 6 kilometers to the D3, which travels north and winds back and forth along a steep ascent to the beautiful village of Gourdon. Endeared as one of France’s most beautiful villages, Gourdon is an unspoiled gem that commands an absolutely spectacular setting as it hugs and clings to the walls of the steep hillside. Vistas from the village look north down the Loup Canyon or southeast over the countryside dotted with villages of sun-washed stucco and tiled roofs to the glistening water of the distant Riviera. On clear days you can see from Nice to the Italian border. The village’s cobbled streets are lined with delightful, untouristy shops and a handful of restaurants. Le Nid d’Aigle on the Place Victoria is a restaurant whose terraces step daringly down the hillside.

From Gourdon, the D3 hugs the hillside and affords glimpses of the twisting River Loup far below. As the road winds down to a lower altitude, you can either drive north on the D603 to the medieval village of Cipières and cross the river at a more northerly point or continue on the D3 and cross the Loup on the Pont de Bramafan. After crossing the river, just before Bramafan, follow the D8 south in the direction of Pont du Loup. This 6-kilometer stretch of road winds through the Gorges du Loup. The canyon’s beauty and its high granite walls beckon you into the ever-narrowing gorge. The River Loup flows far below, only visible to the passenger who might chance a peek over the edge. The road passes through some jaggedly carved tunnels-pathways blasted through sheer rock, which open to glorious vistas of the canyon, trees, and rock. Pull off the road at Saut du Loup. The stop requires no more than 15 minutes and, for a fee, you can walk down a short, steep flight of steps to a terrace overlooking magnificent waterfalls and pools. The small riverside village of Pont du Loup is situated at the mouth of the canyon, on a bend in the river shadowed by the ruins of a towering bridge. It is a pretty town and a lovely end to the Loup Canyon.

Beyond Pont du Loup, traveling east along the D2210 in the direction of Vence, you pass through a few more towns, each consisting of a cluster of medieval buildings and winding, narrow streets that, without exception, encircle a towering church and its steeple. Tourrettes sur Loup is an especially lovely town whose medieval core of clustered rosy-golden-stone houses enjoys a backdrop of the three small towers that give the town its name. Every March the hillsides of Tourettes sur Loup are a mass of violets and the village is dressed with fragrant bouquets for the Fête des Violettes. After World War II the town revived its long-abandoned textile production and is one of the world’s top tissage à main (hand-weaving) centers. The workshops are open to the public.

The D2210 continues from Tourrettes sur Loup and approaches the wonderful old town of Vence from the west. Located just 10 kilometers above the coast and Riviera, the hillsides surrounding Vence afford a lovely coastal panorama and are dotted with palatial homes and villas. Entering through the gates into the old village, you find dozens of tiny streets with interesting shops and little cafés where you can enjoy scrumptious pastries. The Place du Peyra was once the Roman forum and it’s now the colorful town marketplace. In 1941 Matisse moved here and, in gratitude for being nursed back to health by the Dominican Sisters, he constructed and decorated the simple Chapelle du Rosaire. (Follow the Avenue des Poilus to the Route de Saint Jeannet La Gaude.) (Closed Sundays, tel: 04.93.58.03.26.) Vence makes a wonderful base from which to explore the coast and the hilltowns, and its location affords spectacular views across the hills to the blue waters.

A few kilometers beyond Vence (D2 in the direction of Cagnes sur Mer) is the picturesque mountain stronghold of Saint Paul de Vence, which once guarded the ancient Var Frontier. Cars are forbidden inside the walls of the old town whose cobbled streets are lined with galleries and tourist shops. From the encircling ramparts you get panoramic views of the hilltowns of the Riviera. Located outside the walled town in the woods along the Cagnes road, the Foundation Maeght, a private museum that sponsors and hosts numerous collections of works of some of the world’s finest contemporary artists, is one of the principal attractions of Saint Paul de Vence. (Open Oct to Jun.) Saint Paul de Vence is also a convenient base from which to explore the Riviera and we recommend a number of places both within its fortified walls on its outskirts. From Saint Paul de Vence it is a short drive back to Nice.

From Nice you can join our Provence itinerary by taking the scenic autoroute through the mountains, bridging the distance with our Gorges du Verdon itinerary. Or you can follow the coastline, referred to as the Corniche d’Or, between La Napoule (just outside Cannes) and Saint Raphaël, which offers spectacular views: fire-red mountains contrasting dramatically with the dark-blue sea. Saint Raphaël is a small commercial port with a pleasant, tourist-thronged beach. Continuing on, Saint Tropez is easily the most enchanting of the dozens of small ports and beaches that you’ll pass. If you choose to continue along the coastal road, take the Corniche des Maures, which hugs the waterfront at the base of the Massif des Maures. At Hyères the scenery wanes, and we suggest you take the A50 to the A8-E80, which travels west to Aix en Provence.

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