Even as recently as July 2015, Saudi royals infuriated the free-wheeling French nudists of Nice by ordering the closure of their favourite beach. The locals then protested. Naked.
The Saudis own the neighbouring stunning seafront villa in Vallauris and plan to stay the summer hence the closure. The magificent residence was once the holiday home of Sir Winston Churchill which is only a stones throw from a house Elton John owns which again isn’t far from where Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie live and spend most of their time here.
Spanning the French coastline from Théoule-sur-Mer in the west via the Principality of Monaco to Menton in the east near the Italian border, There are approximately 150 private beaches along this 75 mile stretch. Avoiding the summer crush, I opted for the Regional Express Trains that stick to the coast and connect its towns and cities right up to the Italian border (ter-sncf.com). There’s also a good network of local buses departing from Nice. The €1.50 fare will get you to Vence, Grasse, St-Jean-Cap Ferrat and Villefranche sur-Mer.
When I’m finally able to collect my thoughts while Lounging at Nice’s Beau Rivage (among the biggest of the public beaches), I find out from my waiter that among the public beaches, La Garoupe in Antibes, halfway between Nice and Cannes, is a must as well as nearby Plage Keller. Clearly the upside to paying €19 for a lounger on a beach such as this is the service and atmosphere.
Of course I’m not just here for the beaches, it’s just good to know that when I visit the next town there’s a beach there ready and waiting. Cars are available for hire but it takes the fun out of stopping for a drink and a culinary sampling in every town and that’s where the bus comes in.
Antibes is an old town resting atop the 4th century ruins of the Greek city of Antipolis with a daily market attracting an assortment of locals every morning except Monday though it’s also a restaurant venue for a fresh local gastronomic experience. Pablo Picaso lived and worked here in 1946 and unsurprisingly there is a museum documenting that period. There is a remarkable collection of paintings, sketches and ceramics within this museum within Château Grimaldi, a Roman fort that was rebuilt in the 14th century and is now owned by the city of Antibes. It has been a museum since 1925 but in 1946 part of it also served as Picasso’s studio leaving behind 23 paintings and 44 drawings after just two months in residence.
St Tropez is a name you have most likey heard before. It was the location for what is considered to be Bridgette Bardot’s breakout film ‘And God Created Woman’ ultimately turning it the most famous resort town in Europe. The creative and the cashed-up were actually coming here before Bardot but it was her exposure to an American audience that created the catalyst for turning localised debauchery into a worldwide reputation for illicit pleasures.
St Tropez is also known for it’s beach clubs and the celebs they attract, Club 55 being the most notable counting world politicians and Russian and Middle Eastern businessmen among it’s patrons along with tabloid fodder such as Kate Moss, Sir Elton, Elle MacPherson and Paris Hilton and although I had a good snoop around, it’s clear that there are two halves to this venue. I’m not in the other one.
Club 55 was adopted as their canteen by the production team on ‘And God Created Woman’ and the rest is history. Book ahead for a table during summertime, and maybe call your financial planner before ordering.
Villefranche-sur-Mer, just north of Nice but before Monaco, is a waterfront town of narrow cobbled streets with a scenic walkway below the castle leading to a little-known port by the passers by. This is the kind of town where no-one is really expected to do much at all except perhaps take a harbour cruise or participate in a few games of Pétanque with some sun-tanned locals. Its sounded easy enough. Gently tossing a small metal ball which you have to get as close as possible to a small wooden ball called a cochonnet or ‘piglet’ while standing inside a circle and keeping both feet on the ground.I gave it a try of course and found myself the subject of quiet chuckles and friendly guffaws. Very much a male game, Pétanque in its current form has been around since 1910 but dates back to the Greeks in 6BC then the Romans before that and..you get the idea.
Menton, at the northern end of the riviera is less well known of the coastal towns yet it is the one originally responsible for the popularity of the region. Lord Brougham discovered the town about 1830, while looking for a place to escape from the cold, damp fog of English winters then Queen Victoria visited in 1882 followed by a further 8 occasions. Menton’s popularity eventually waned with the completion of the Paris-Lyon-Mediterrannée railroad but it’s this British influence that is responsible for many of the lush gardens found in Menton. Among the finest are Val Rahmeh, which was created in 1905 by Sir Percy Radcliffe, the Serre de la Madone, laid out between the First and Second World Wars by the landscape gardener Lawrence Johnstone.
There are about 300 sunny days in Menton each year making it the most consistently warm part of the riviera throughout winter, owing to the protection from the winds offered by the half-circle of mountains behind it. Wedged between two bays, the medieval old town was founded by pirates although The Princes of Monaco owned Menton for six centuries, taxing lemons to fund their sumptuous Carnolès palace with it all coming to an end with the French Revolution. Pirate towns aside, there are also the Alpes Maritimes mountains behind the town with the Mediterranean sitting front and centre with inspiring Italian architecture and French cuisine to tempt you.
You can take to the mountains for some skiing in the morning followed by a dip the Mediterranean in the evening. What’s not to love?
There are many other towns equally deserving a mention and more needing no mention at all such as Cannes and Monaco but they are on the surface. Just a small brush stroke is required and the simple pleasures of the Côte d’Azur will embrace you.