In rural France, the presence of stray cats napping in the sun is an integral part of the image of village life – as evocative as a battered 2CV, a game of boules, and an apéro at a local bar.

The reality can be much harsher – if a cat has nine lives, it also has the scary ability to reproduce at an alarming rate – and a burgeoning feline population becomes a plague. Catching some of the cats to be put to sleep is not a practical solution, as their remaining brethren will continue to multiply apace.

The Alpes-Maritimes (06) is fortunate enough to have a saviour in Leslie Frasier, who has lived in France for many years, and advocates the capture and sterilisation of strays – these lucky animals may then be placed in kind homes, or released back into their territory, where they keep an effective guard against fertile incomers. Even older or antisocial cats, have their paradise, in two granges near Saint Etienne de Tinée, where they can live independently – but still be fed and keep warm and dry.

Leslie’s Association (www.leschatsdumercantour.com) has treated over 2000 cats since its creation back in 2006. Leslie’s work takes her all over the Alpes-Maritimes to deal with all sorts of cases – from nuisance village strays, to pets having lost their owners, and hardship cases. The task is enormous, and mightily expensive – to capture/sterilise/microchip/treat just one cat can cost up to €150 – yes just one!

Les chats du Mercantour2After a recent visit to Leslie, I can assure you that her phone NEVER stops – kind-hearted, immensely patient, and with a veterinary background. She is the local animal expert and not just for cats………. her own beautiful home is surrounded by fields…. housing – donkeys , a mule and a pony.

Leslie works tirelessly – and holds down a job! – supported by a band of volunteers who fund raise, serve as temporary Familles d’Accueil, and offer their time. There is some support from local communities but certainly not enough.
With time and/or money to spare, animal lovers can easily lend a hand – with admin, event manning, sponsoring an animal (donations are tax deductible!) if you don’t have the possibility of owning one yourself, offering a temporary foster home, passing on your unwanted towels……..

Have a look at the website and be inspired…. even a small gesture makes a big difference.

Consider too, having your own animals spayed, and, if looking to adopt a cat – don’t spend hundreds on a spoilt pedigree – take in a kitten, or an older cat that really needs a home and keep it for life!

A fellow animal lover – Tania Burrows is also active in the Alpes-Maritimes – rescuing and homing dogs and cats.

Les Chats du Mercantour are on Facebook.

Leslie Frasier www.leschatsdumercantour.com
Tania Burrows www.chiensiciailleurs.com

© Le Negresco

100 years on, this emblematic hotel still stands proud on the seafront in Nice, and remains beloved by local and visitors alike.

If you have ever driven down or walked up the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, you will most probably have stopped for a minute or two in front of the mythic Negresco Hotel to stare up at its pink domed roof (allegedly inspired by the décolletage of the architect’s mistress), or to marvel at the doormen who are always dressed impeccably in frock-coats, knee-breeches and top hats, whatever the weather outside. The Negresco Hotel is famous the world over. It has featured on countless postcards and guidebook covers, is one of the most photographed buildings in the world and over the past 100 years, its pink and white façade has become an emblem of Nice and the French Riviera.

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The Negresco’s history is long and star-studded, countless celebrities, heads of state and politicians have passed through its doors and the visitors’ book is a veritable “who’s who” of the great and the good of the 20th Century. It is also currently the only palace hotel to belong to a private owner in France and has been so for the last 56 years. Since it opened, the Negresco has played host to both the world’s most glamorous movie stars and to wounded French soldiers during the First World War, it has been the setting for both extravagant celebrations and illicit affairs, and its 6 floors are crammed full of antiques, art, and period furniture dating back from Louis XIII’s reign, right up to the 21st Century. 2012 and 2013 mark the 100 year centenary celebrations of the Negresco, a centenary which has been spread over two years as the hotel first opened in 1912, closed for a brief hiatus and then reopened and was inaugurated on the 8th January 1913 by its founder and namesake Henry Negresco.

Since the hotel first opened its doors to the public one hundred years ago, it has only known 3 owners: Henry Negresco, Gérard Marquet of the Marquet Group, and Jeanne Augier, whose father Jean-Baptiste Mesnage bought the hotel and then gave it to his daughter and her husband to manage.

Negresco-facade

Henry Negresco, the first owner and founder of the hotel was described by those who knew him as “an elegant man with a good head for business”. Negresco arrived on the Côte d’Azur in 1893 from Bucharest, Romania. The son of an inn-keeper and himself a gifted Tzigane violinist, he set off for Europe from Bucharest at the age of 15 and toured the major European capitals, playing his violin and learning the hotel trade. He worked his way up from kitchen hand to waiter, then head waiter to eventually become maître d’hôtel in the Helder Restaurant, Monte-Carlo in 1893. His natural gift for managing luxury establishments and his flair for languages (he spoke 6 languages fluently) meant that he was soon promoted to hotel manager and then left Monte Carlo to manage hotels in England, Belgium, Austria and Germany before returning to the Côte d’Azur to open his own establishment on the Promenade des Anglais.

Already owner of the restaurant at the Casino d’Enghien in Enghein-les-Bains where he spent most of his summers, Henry Negresco decided to use his experience of the luxury hotel trade and of working for fabulously wealthy families such as the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and Singers to build his own palace hotel. In 1904 during the renovations of the Casino d’Enghien restaurant, Negresco had met Edouard Niermans, a celebrated Dutch architect who had moved to France years before and who had already gained a certain notoriety in Paris, designing amongst other buildings the Moulin Rouge, the Théâtre Marigny and the Folies Bergère. Negresco had spoken to Niermans about his desire to open his own palace hotel in Nice, a project which interested Niermans and in 1909 Niermans and his family moved to Nice from Paris to start a new architectural agency on the Riviera. In the same year Negresco, whilst in Enghein-les-Bains for the summer, met Pierre Alexandre Darracq, an automobile manufacturer and cofounder of the “Darracq-Talbot” company, and persuaded him to come on-board as the chief financer of his luxury hotel project. With the backing of Darracq and with Niermans to design the building, Negresco’s plan to build his own hotel in Nice could finally begin.

After initially planning to renovate an older hotel on the Avenue Félix Faure, Negresco and Niermans then heard of a plot of land for sale on the Promenade des Anglais. The land belonged to a religious sect and was very close to the Villa de Masséna owned by the Prince de Rivoli, André d’Essling. After much negotiation, Darracq succeeded in buying the 6,482 m² plot in 1911 and Niermans immediately started drawing up plans for the new hotel. Negresco and Niermans then left Nice to tour Paris, London, Berlin, and Brussels, studying the grand hotels in each of these cities and making notes of the latest developments in luxury hotellerie. Darracq, the project’s financial backer, insisted that the new hotel contained at least 400 bedrooms to make it financially cost-effective, and Negresco himself coming from a hotel background was interested in the world hidden away behind the scenes – his plans included a full floor of kitchens, breakfast kitchens, dessert kitchens, a dishwashing room, a laboratory for the wine sommelier, a bread room, a warming room, garages, a doctor’s office, and a dining room for servants travelling with their employers.

On the 6 June 1911, Pierre Alexandre Darracq filed a building permit with the city of Nice and work began on the new hotel. The initial opening of the hotel was to be held on the 1st November 1912, but the building work and several ensuing legal battles took much longer than expected, and the opening had to be pushed back until 1913. However a rich American client, one Mr. Guerney, insisted on spending Christmas 1912 at the hotel, so a suite was prepared for him in the middle of the building site and the Negresco’s first ever guest stayed in the hotel in December 1912. After the work was completed, the Negresco then opened its doors on the 4th January 1913 with the third, fourth and fifth floors remaining shut until the inauguration on the 8th January 1913.

The inauguration was the event of the year in Nice, and amongst the crowds who came to marvel at the new hotel were seven European sovereigns and countless members of the aristocracy. The Negresco was an instant hit and the guests were amazed by their luxurious surroundings with private telephones in every room, electric light that could be turned on and off at the touch of a button, mink bedspreads on every bed, and a revolutionary heating and air conditioning system which also cleaned the air in the hotel by means of a steam turbine. The Negresco was a huge success, and by the 31st May 1913 the takings had already exceeded a million francs with a clear profit of 200,000 francs for Negresco and Darracq.

For two years the Negresco enjoyed huge popularity and became the place to stay for wealthy families visiting the Côte d’Azur, Negresco and Darracq recouped their investment and Niermans was feted for his “Ritz-style” hotel design. Then in 1914, the First World War intervened and the hotel was requisitioned by the French government along with the Hotel Ruhl, the Hotel de l’Impérial and Winter Palace, and was transformed into an auxiliary wartime hospital. The Negresco was renamed ‘Temporary Hospital N° 15’ and the first wave of injured soldiers arrived at the hotel in September 1914. Because of the sheer number of injured men, not only were the hotel bedrooms requisitioned but beds were set up in the corridors, hallways and dining rooms to accommodate the wounded. Negresco himself was pressed into service as hospital bursar and paid for an additional 100 beds for injured soldiers out of his own pocket, while his daughter also joined the war effort as the hospital librarian.

Temporary Hospital N° 15 was eventually relinquished back to Negresco in September 1915 but the 12 months in which it had been occupied by the military had wreaked havoc on the luxurious surroundings and the entire hotel had to be renovated before it could open its doors once again for the season. The golden age of luxury hotels was over on the Côte d’Azur, the aristocratic and wealthy families who had once wintered at the Negresco could no longer afford to do so, and Henry Negresco was ruined. The hotel remained open for the 1916-1917 season, but the tourists didn’t return to the Riviera as the hospitality industry had hoped, so the Negresco failed to make a profit. When the Armistice came in 1918, Henry Negresco made the difficult decision to sell his hotel to try and pay off his ever increasing debts and in 1920, Gérard Marquet, head of the Belgian Marquet group bought the Negresco from him.

Negresco-jazz

Henry Negresco left the Riviera in 1920 and returned to Paris where he died two years later in 1922 at the age of 54, bankrupt and far from the hotel he loved.

From 1920 to 1957, the Hotel Negresco remained open under the ownership of the Marquet group. After 1945 and following the end of the Second World War, visitors started to return to the French Riviera, but instead of the aristocratic families and wealthy tycoons of the prewar years, during this period the Negresco’s clientele primarily consisted of short-stay tourists and businessman passing through Nice, and gradually the hotel started to decline.

In 1957 the Negresco was struggling to keep its doors open and the Marquet group decided to put it up for sale to try and recoup some of their losses. Shortly afterwards, Jeanne Augier, the daughter of a Breton butcher turned real estate developer Jean-Baptiste Mesnage, heard about the sale. Jeanne and her parents had moved to Nice from Brittany following her marriage to Niçois politician and businessman, Paul Augier, and after her father suffered a financial setback, 34 year old Jeanne took over the family business and started looking for property to invest in.

Negresco-roof

The faded Negresco building was just a few metres further down the Promenade des Anglais from the apartment where the Mesnage family were living at the time, and the hotel primarily interested Jeanne because it was the only building in Nice with a full sized lift. Jeanne’s mother had recently become paralyzed following a botched operation and the Negresco lift was wide enough to allow her mother to be taken outside while lying in her bed.

Jean-Baptiste Mesnage purchased the hotel in 1957, and for the next 8 years Jeanne, her husband and her father worked tirelessly to restore the Negresco to its former glory, whilst building a family apartment on the 6th floor of the hotel. Jeanne Augier was determined to create a home away from home for her guests, and she and her husband visited auction houses and galleries all over France purchasing over 3,000 works of art and antiques with which to furnish the Negresco.

The couple restored the glass dome in the Salon Royal which was reputedly designed by Gustave Eiffel and created 2 restaurants on the ground floor- Le Chantecler and La Rotonde, which was designed around an 18th century carousel complete with wooden horses. As the Negresco flourished once again, Jeanne Augier increased the number of employees from 76 to 260, and, from the 1960s onwards, the rich and famous began to flock to the Riviera once more to stay at the Negresco.

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© Le Negresco

Guests of renown over the years have included Royalty- Queen Elizabeth II, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, King Ibn Saoud and the Shah of Iran all stayed at the Negresco as did film stars such as Ava Gardner, Catherine Deneuve, James Dean, Marlene Dietrich, Jean Marais, Grace Kelly, and Gina Lollobrigida.

Legendary stories about the Negresco in the 1960s and 1970s include Richard Burton once leaving a jewelry case with a diamond necklace he had purchased for Elisabeth Taylor in the hotel bar, James Brown spending a night chasing his wife up and down the hotel corridors in a wild fit of jealousy, and the Red Army Choir holding a private concert in the hotel bar in honour of Jeanne’s husband Paul Augier.

Once the Negresco’s reputation started to grow again and Jeanne Augier’s love of art became widespread, artists and sculptors from all over the world came to the hotel to meet her and to enjoy her “museum-hotel”. Artists such as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau and Marc Chagall became regular visitors to the hotel and some like Chagall became friends with Jeanne and would dine with her in the Chantecler restaurant on the ground floor.

During this period, Jeanne Augier became so well known in the world of luxury hotel design that 2 guests of the Negresco asked her to advise them with their own projects. The first guest was the Shah of Iran who invited Jeanne to design and furnish the hotel Shah Abbas in Ispahan in 1965, and the second was the Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev who invited her to sit on the Soviet tourist board Intourist, for two years as an advisor to the Russian tourism trade. To thank her for her work on the Shah Abbas hotel, the Shah of Iran gave her a platinum watch which she still wears to this day.

Now only 10 years younger than her beloved hotel, Jeanne Augier still lives in the family apartment on the 6th floor of the Negresco today with her two dogs Lili and Lilou, and photos of her with well- known figures such as Louis Armstrong, Clint Eastwood, Yves Montand and many others are displayed around the hotel bar. Le Chantecler restaurant now boasts 2 Michelin-stars, and the Negresco is still famous as one of the most luxurious and well-known hotels in the world whilst remaining faithful to Jeanne’s original plan to provide a home from home for her guests by surrounding them with art and beauty.

The Negresco was classified as a National Historic Monument in 1974 and as a National Historic Building in 2003 by the French Government. Following a €12 million renovation in 2010 to repaint the façade and to update and enlarge some of the suites, the Negresco is instantly recognizable on the Promenade des Anglais today and its pink dome and green turrets have been fully restored to the glory of the golden age of the Riviera.

negresco-domeSince the death of her husband Paul Augier in 1995, Mme Augier has received several offers for her hotel, including allegedly an offer from Microsoft founder Bill Gates. (Negresco legend has it that Jeanne refused Gates’ offer by telling him that he simply wasn’t rich enough to buy her hotel). She has however turned down all of the bidders, stating that she wishes the Negresco to retain its French spirit and to remain the last independent luxury hotel on the Côte d’Azur.

To ensure that the Negresco remains untouched and her staff will still be employed once she dies, Jeanne created the ‘Mesnage Foundation’ in 2009. The foundation is an endowment fund which will inherit her wealth upon her death, including a villa in Saint-Vallier, near Grasse, and two George V apartments in Paris. Part of her inheritance will go to the development of the Negresco, and the rest will be shared amongst 3 charities close to Jeanne’s heart: animal rights, disability awareness and contributing to the “influence of French art”.

Since she had an operation on her knee a few years ago, Mme. Augier has been confined to a wheelchair and has to use the same lift to go up and down the 6 floors of the hotel as her mother did over 50 years ago, but she can still be found in the hotel bar and restaurant most days, sometimes with Lili and Lilou tucked beside her in her wheelchair, and she continues to reign over the hotel she rescued and renovated in 1957.

With her team she has organized 12 months of celebrations to mark the centenary of the Negresco, a centenary which began last year with a gala evening held at the hotel on the 5th July 2012 and which will culminate in June 2013 with a series of “Talent Days” to celebrate the different ‘behind the scenes’ trades which have helped to make the Negresco so successful over the years, including wine sommeliers, musicians, and artists.

If Jeanne Augier has her way, long after she is gone her world-renowned collection of art and antiques will still be on display in the hotel for its future guests and the Negresco which she has now called home for over 50 years will remain Nice’s most glamorous and well-known hotel for the next hundred years to come.

All other images courtesy and © Mike Colquhoun


Note from the editor: This article was first published in Riviera Buzz in January 2013. I would like to express my sincere thanks to Riviera Buzz and in particular to Iarla Byrne in granting me permission to reprint this excellent article written by Vicki Riley.

Photo credit - Nickeu Captivpics

The debate about wolves continues apace in the Alpes-Maritimes.

For sure, there is the interesting Alpha Wolf Park in Le Boréon where in the past few weeks three strapping young wolf males have been introduced to the Park and their female “belles”. A great day out for families in lovely countryside – it has to be said!

While this is good news, the downside of the presence of our wild brethren is raising fur. Local rural commerce is being directly threatened by the presence of our lupine friends.

Very unusually — and especially given the mild winter we have had —  there have been four wolf attacks recently. These have been up and down the Vésubie valley from Venanson to Pelasque – and have concluded with a hunter shooting a wolf on the Col de Turini recently. Their audacity has even seen an attack just 50m from the house of writer, Spacebetween’s, local mayor in Roquebillière.

Photo credit - spacebetween
Photo credit – spacebetween

The extremists are calling for wolf cubs to be hunted down to their lairs and be done away with – this is unlikely to be the case of course but it does raise the human versus animal space question – even here in the pretty well populated area of the Vésubie – which is pretty rustic still.

It might be easier to do the cute thing and just live with the memory of wild animals and glove puppets……..but no. An outcome which attracts tourists to the Mercantour is essential.

Come to the Alpes-Maritimes – an astonishing department in France which houses the French Riviera and the Mercantour National Park, as well as being fringed by Provence to the west, Liguria to the east and the Ecrons and Savoie to the north.

Alpha – an hour and a half north of Nice — www.alpha-loup.com
Accommodation and walking holidays — www.space-between. co.uk

Cut between the Mediterranean Sea and the Estérel Massif, is a ‘not-to-be-missed’ drive: the Corniche d’Or.

The rugged peaks of the Estérel stand proud and in strong contrast to the azure skyline, as the road zigzags between red-ochre rocks and pristine blue sea making it a truly remarkable journey and possibly one of the most scenic tourist roads along the French Riviera and one of the top driving roads in Europe.

Known also as the ‘route du Touring-Club’ this 32km section of the N98 stretches from St Raphaël to La Napoule. It is the particular portion between Agay and Le Trayas with its hairpin turns and sheer rock edges that is the most spectacular – made more so when touched by sunshine as the Estérel rocks turn a fiery red with their mixture of rhyolite and porphyry.

Esterel coastlineHere rocks plunge into a deep blue sometimes turquoise crystal clear Mediterranean sea to form little bays and inlets. The combination of colours is both mesmerising and astounding and somewhat distracting as each part of the route unveils another beautiful view. Driving along this route requires vigilance and caution but car passengers will have the ride of their life.

Bathing alcoves along the Corniche d'OrEsterel CovesAlong the route stony tracks lead down to small, shingled beaches or rocky outcrops that turn into favourite bathing spots for summer holiday-makers. And indeed, in summer this road is busy as caravans, cyclists and motorists make their way to and from holiday destinations, stop to enjoy the views or paddle in the sea.

Villas_EsterelWateredge_Villas

A few villas perch in and around the inlets or high up on the rock edge that jut out to sea, some with steps leading down to the sea. Here vegetation becomes dense with Aleppo pine, eucalyptus, mimosa, palm trees and agaves and offer some protection to these homes from stormy weather and high winds. Further inland and for part of the Estérel Massif, the land is made up of maritime and Aleppo pine, cork-oak, wild thyme, joint-pine, gorse and heather.

The Estérel was once bordered to the north by the Via Aurelia, constructed during the reign of Aurelius. This Roman road ran from Rome to Arles, via Genoa, Cimiez, Antibes, Fréjus and Aix and was one of the most important routes in the days of the Empire.

trayas-2-allIn today’s current comfy and high-tech lifestyle, with our sleek cars, mobile phones, modern planes and posh trains, it is hard to imagine how difficult travelling must have been in the 18th century – or indeed what the coastal region looked like. From all accounts there were only small pathways or dirt tracks if any at all and inhabitants were few and far between.

SmugglersThe Estérel Massif was considered a notorious haunt of brigands and highwaymen (one Gaspard de Bresse was famous as a Provençal Dick Turpin or Robin Hood; his exploits inspired the pen of the French poet and novelist Jean Aicard). Convicts would seek refuge having escaped the Toulon galleys while smugglers took advantage of its isolation. A narrow path, le sentier des douaniers, known locally as ‘La Pentière’, was used by Excise-men in the hope of capturing smugglers coming ashore. Salt, sugar, tobacco, cloth from England, anything which had a tax on it, was good to smuggle to and from France. Thus, towns like St Raphaël, St Tropez, Cannes, Antibes and Nice were reached by boat because it was quicker, quality accommodation and livery were available and above all – it was safer.

corniche-d-or-esterel-12-allPlaces such as Anthéor, Trayes, and Miramar were not holiday destinations as we know them now. Théoule, a small fishing port, was used to load cargo freight or to harbour military vessels while Agay was used as a harbour of refuge for coasters and fishing craft during severe storms and only had a lighthouse built in 1884.

trayas-4-allAs difficult as it may be to imagine today, the French Riviera was once a backwater until the British started to settle there in the 18th century; and this during winter for the sake of one’s health primarily.

Things started to change with the arrival of the railway of the Compagnie des chemins de fer de Paris à Lyon et à la Méditerranée (PLM) in 1860. Previously the railway line ran only between Toulon and Les Arcs but when the Comté de Nice joined with France the line was extended as far as the Italian border (ie. past Menton).

This opened up the coastal region and went on to strengthen the Riviera’s role as a leading tourism area for British, Russian, and other aristocrats to sojourn there. However, there were no stations apart from ones built at St Raphaël, Trayas and Cannes so no-one disembarked until reaching those.  Inland alternative transport would have been either carriage, horse or mule – or simply on foot.

Abel_Ballif_Plaque-Le TrayasThe Touring Club de France
Impressed by the creation of the British Cyclists Touring Club in 1878, a group of friends decided to create something similar in France: le Touring-Club de France (TCF). Founded in January 1890 in Neuilly-sur-Seine, its main aim was to develop tourism in all its different forms. Its first president, Abel Ballif (1845-1934), was a native son of Le Trayas, and it is due to his untiring endeavours to which we owe the creation of the Corniche d’Or. It is without doubt his love for Le Trayas and the coastal region that was the major driving force (no pun intended) behind the construction of the Corniche d’Or.

VelocipedesAt first the Touring Club de France promoted tourism for velocipedes owners. With the aide of subventions this led to new roads being made and old ones widened and improved so that a new world opened up and villages, once hidden away, were brought to the fore.

Cyclists were the first group in a generation to use roads and were the first to push for high-quality sealed surfaces and were the first to lobby for national funding and leadership for roads. They were also the first promoters of motoring; the first motoring journalists had first been cycling journalists; and there was a transfer of technology from cycling to motoring without which cars as we know them wouldn’t exist. 64 car marques – including Rolls-Royce, Peugeot, Aston Martin, Chevrolet, Cadillac and GMC – had bicycling beginnings.

In 1900, Ballif first mooted the idea of having a road built to join Toulon to Genoa in northern Italy but in the end it seems that funding became aimed at building a road between St Raphaël and Le Trayas – his birth town.  He felt a better road would induce the owners of private motor cars to undertake a motoring tour to reach the Riviera (and lest we forget – these vehicles would have been steam-powered) while staying at various places and hotels en route. He saw it as an impressive legacy to leave for generations to come.

Negotiations were first entered into with the director of PLM, Gustave Noblemaire, as the company had constructed the railway line along the coastline. Other talks were set up with various heads of communes where the road would pass through until finally funding was secured. Major funding however came from the Touring Club de France with secondary funding from the PLM (the original estimate was 3oo,ooo francs but in fact the total cost ended being double that).

Construction work began in 1901 under the supervision of two chief engineers: Messrs Imbert and Perier for work undertaken in the Alpes-Maritimes and M. Thérel for that in the Var. If the final funds were considerable, the human effort, construction work, and necessary administrative legalities needed to be overcome, were far greater. Creating the route involved clearing rubble and various boulders strewn across the sentier des douaniers (locally called ‘La Pentière’) when laying railway tracks between Les Arcs and Cannes between 1861 and 1863 and retracing the badly kept pathway of Via Aurelia. Where no track existed – one had to be built.

When finished the route was named ‘le Corniche de l’Estérel’ before changing to “route du Touring Club” and finally ‘le Corniche d’Or’.

Inauguration of the Corniche d’Or
Its inauguration was held on Saturday, 11 April 1903 and was a very grand affair, ending with a magnificent banquet and speeches in Cannes. Everything that could possibly be done to make it a success was done. All the regional political personalities were invited as well as several notable foreigners from Cannes, among them the Grand Duke Michael of Russia and Countess Torby who arrived in a magnificent motor car with Baron Van Zuylen de Nijvelt, president of the Automobile Club de France (founded on November 12, 1895 by Jules-Albert de Dion, Paul Meyan, and Baron de Zuylen de Nijvelt). As a byline – the first car theft took place in Paris when a Peugeot belonging to the Baron was stolen by his mechanic on June 1, 1896.

French President Loubet (1899-1906) was represented by the Admiralty. Invitations stipulated that all guests should arrive by 13h00 and wait next to Saint-Raphaël’s railway station. Originally it was thought only 100 motor cars would be there but in fact 184 came. In addition to the president of the ACF, members of the Automobile-Clubs of Nice, Hyères, Var, Avignon, Lyon and Dijon also drove down to attend the inauguration.

Promptly at 14h00 the procession left St Raphaël and drove off at a steady 40km an hour along the road. It was estimated the drive would take about one and a half hours before reaching Cannes where the large banquet awaited everyone. At the head of the procession were Baron Van Zuylen de Nijvelt, Grand Duke and the Countess, the heads of the Touring Club de France, then a number of ministers and the admiralty, behind them were several ‘officials’, and behind them several journalists from l’Illustration, l’Echo de Paris plus a number of special envoys from other newspapers. The rear was taken up by cyclists.

Upon arrival at Cannes, food and wine flowed – as did the speeches. Amid much applause everyone agreed that the drive and the Corniche de l’Estérel was a magnificent success. History had been made.

However, over the following days (Sunday, Monday and Tuesday) some 800 cars drove up and down the new road and at greater speed – much to the displeasure of Abel Ballif, the Touring Club de France’s president. “This road has not be built for speed or for racing between Cannes and Saint-Raphaël” he remarked afterwards. “This road is the way but the Estérel is the aim”.

The Corniche d’Or became an elegant meeting spot, and the villas, hotels and the Saint-Exupery family’s Chateau d’Agay embellished the Estérel scenery. Numerous personalities spent time in Saint-Raphael. Francis Scott-Fitzgerald wrote “Tender is the night” from there and Count Edmé de Rohan-Chabot started the “Paris-Saint Raphael Woman’s Motor Rally” in 1929.

DSC_2596 copyTowards Iles de Lerins

The Corniche d’Or
Once past St Raphaël, the road winds in and out along the coast from Agay until Cap Roux is reached, to the north-east, with varied vegetation and pine trees right down to the water’s edge, with a different view at each curve of the road, but with always the multi-coloured, jagged rocks standing out of the sea before the road turns towards Le Trayas. From here the curious Mal Infernet ravines can be easily visited. The Col d’Eveque is in part the Roman Via Aurelia and from here paths ascend through broken rocks to the Grand Pic du Cap Roux, giving a view from St Tropez to Bordighera when the weather is clear.

DSC_2598 copyThe road from Le Trayas continues to zigzag in a northerly direction and passes through two ravines; in the second of these, named the Saoumes, near the railway bridge, are the remains of a Roman bridge. It is near this point, at the Baie de la Figuerette, that the Department of the Var ends and that of the Alpes-Maritimes begins. The road soon descends into the pine woods by the Pointe de l’Aiguille, and after two hairpin curves Théoule-sur-Mer is reached.

Barry Dierks
Barry Dierks

Living and Loving on the Riviera is the story of the American architect Barry Dierks, his English partner Eric Sawyer, and the stunning houses and gardens they designed on the French Riviera during the 1920s and 1930s, for those who could afford them.

From their own home built into the red rocks of the Estérel mountains and above the Mediterranean, Barry as the architect in the partnership, with Eric as garden designer and business manager, built or remodelled almost 100 houses in the south of France.

These were occupied by Americans, British and French, many of whom have their own fascinating stories. Handsome and sociable, Barry and Eric were ‘the two charmers’ of the Riviera social scene in the years of après guerre and avant guerre, indeed leading a charmed life until the Second World War changed everything and revealed their determination and courage in their respective adventures.


A Little From a Summons from Somerset Maugham

The Paris Herald, the forerunner of the Herald Tribune, declared ‘the twenties were an era of wonderful nonsense’. Small wonder, as there was so much to try to forget, if even for a short space of time. During the Great War the area had become a vast hospital and convalescent home for the wounded and was now slowly beginning to return to a semblance of its former self. But gradually the old life of catering to privileged visitors returned, although in an increasingly different form. Suddenly everything seemed possible. Moving pictures, wonderfully designed automobiles, new music, liberating fashions, were all exhilarating. By the time the American architect Barry Dierks and Eric Sawyer, his partner in business and life, left Paris and built their iconic house on the red rocks of the Esterel in 1925, the towns along the coast were alive with a fevered post-war excitement. Among the palm trees, oleander and bougainvillea the belle époque, characterised by its ornate architecture and amply dressed winter visitors, was over. Barry at twenty-six and Eric, ten years older, were about to make an enduring architectural influence on the Riviera.

Whereas in the chic towns of Cannes, Nice and Menton, the British and Russian aristocracy had formally held sway, the 1920s was the era of the Americans. The Gerald Murphys at the Cap d’Antibes, the Scott Fitzgeralds, the barefoot dancer Isadora Duncan, Josephine Baker ‘the Black Pearl’ cabaret artist, Frank Jay Gould who created Juan-les-Pins as a new, informal holiday resort – the list could go on.

Photo by Ted Jones - The Literary Riviera
Photo by Ted Jones – The Literary Riviera

Before Barry Dierks could embark on his ground breaking modernist designs for those clients who were open to such new ideas, he was more than grateful, also in 1925, to receive a commission to remodel an existing house for a name soon to be reckoned with on the coast – the author Somerset Maugham. Maugham had bought a run-down house on Cap Ferrat, once owned by the confessor of King Leopold II, tyrant of the Belgian Congo. Dierks redesigned the overtly Moorish-style house into a fined-down version. While Maugham lived at the Villa Lawrence on the ramparts at Antibes, Barry swept away the façade, creating a two-story house of clean lines designed around a central courtyard open to the sky, where one would be able to dine al fresco under the stars.

Around the courtyard ran two galleries with French windows giving onto balconies. Barry’s lovely white vaulted ceiling graced the entrance hall, suspended above black marble floor tiles. From here a curved marble staircase led up to five bedrooms with large multi-paned windows, and four bathrooms. Downstairs were two further bedrooms and another bathroom. Inside the twelve meter long, high-ceilinged drawing room was installed a large fireplace of Arles stone. A staircase tower, with a roof of Roman tiles, was built into the side of the building, housing a round dining room and service rooms. Such towers fell far short of modernism so in incorporating them Barry may have considered they enhanced certain buildings, or he may have simply bowed to the wishes of his clients – for this would not be the only one he would include in his designs. Extending from the tower was a flat roof, upon which was built Maugham’s very private writing room, plain and rectangular, whose only access was by a wooden staircase. All was white and cool apart from the black tiles of the entrance hall.

Eric designed an enchanting garden full of fruit trees and oleanders. Although Maugham himself was proud of his hard-to-maintain lawns, Barry and Eric would lure expatriate clients away from expanses of grass to embrace elegantly designed swimming pools. Maugham’s was large and set into a terrace at the top of the garden. They were the first to launch the craze for garden pools. On the wall at the entrance to the property was a sign, created by Maugham and based on a Moorish symbol designed to ward off the evil eye. A sign also printed in the first edition of many of his books.

For the rest of his life, punctuated by a second world war and much travelling, Cap Ferrat became Maugham’s only home. Not universally liked but much sought-after, he settled down to hold court at La Mauresque. Invitations were received gladly, although situations could occasionally become rather tense. But as long as guests behaved comme il faut and didn’t irritate their host, visits were enjoyed and most left hoping to be invited again. So who were his neighbours in the great houses on the Cap during those years of the 1920s? Among them was Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught, the third son of Queen Victoria, who had the villa Les Bruyéres on the same road as La Mauresque. A widower and President of the Boy Scouts Association he was held in high esteem by all who knew him. Accompanied by his mistress Leonie Leslie, the sister of Winston Churchill’s mother Jenny Jerome, the Duke would occasionally dine at La Mauresque.

Others were Therese de Beauchamp who built her Italianate Villa Fiorentina in 1917 on the point of the Cap St Hospice at Cap Ferrat. At the beginning of the 1920s, before going on to buy La Leopolda at Villefranche, she sold Fiorentina to an Australian, Sir Edmund Davis, a mining millionaire and art collector. It is Davis whom one must thank for creating much of the littoral path around Cap Ferrat, which walk gives pleasure to so many people. Davis was also the owner of Chilham Castle in Kent. At the Venetian-style Château St Jean at the entry to St Hospice Vilma Lwoff-Parlaghy, an acclaimed artist and an Hungarian princess, took long walks with her lion cub Goldfleck. At the Villa Maryland the British ship owner Arthur Stanley Wilson, of the Wilson Line Shipping Company, held grand receptions among whose guests were Winston Churchill, that devotee of the great houses of the Riviera.

Commissions for remodelling of other Riviera houses came hot on the heels of La Mauresque, but it was not until the beginning of the 1930s that Barry’s talent for the pure white, flat-roofed, symmetrical or sinuous creations, so admired by architects today, was allowed to develop fully.

Copyright © Maureen Emerson


We present a collection of photographs taken over a number of years while exploring the French Riviera for AMB-Côte d’Azur. Can you guess some of the places we’ve visited? A few are easy (hint – they’ve appeared in some articles) but others are a little more challenging. See if you recognise some of them. There’s no prize except a moment of détente as you watch the Animoto slideshow. As to the music (isn’t it great?); it’s by Ernie Halter (singer/songwriter).

If you are thinking of visiting the French Riviera we hope French Riviera in Images will tempt you to visit soon. There is so much to see and do that one day simply won’t be enough!

There are a number of festivals and events that occur each year on the French Riviera. If you are planning a short holiday or shore excursion to this region you may want to plan your visit around one or two of them. Please note that for some, hotel accommodation is often booked a couple of years in advance – notably for the Cannes Film Festival, Menton Lemon Festival and Nice Mardi Gras Carnival – so don’t wait until the last minute to book your hotel or holiday rental villa.

The Calendar is accurate to the best of our knowledge and research but may not contain every event or festival happening around the French Riviera this year. Please contact the editor should you wish to have your festival mentioned or know of one that should be on this list.


January

New Year’s Concert – Nice
Held on New Year’s Eve at Nice’s Acropolis, this concert is a great way to celebrate the arrival of a new year.


February

Nice Carnival – Nice
from 13th February to 1st March
Every year, Nice comes alive with street processions, flower parades, concerts and fireworks. Each year has a special theme, prompting the creation of huge papier mâché figures.

Carnival Run – Nice
15th February
Europe’s most festive race takes place on Promenade des Anglais in Nice. Participants choose from 5km or 10km. Children’s race, disguise contest, concert, Carnival obstacles and activities, giant dance and more.

International Games Festival – Cannes
from 27th February to March 1st
Held at the Palais des Festivals de Cannes, this festival will welcome over 270 exhibitors as well as 300 authors and illustrators, showcasing everything from board games to the latest simulation game. Participate in tournaments, discover the game of the year, or meet the person behind your favourite video game.

Napoleon at Golfe-Juan
from 28th February to 1st March
Re-enactment to celebrate the bicentenary of Napoleon’s landing in Golfe-Juan

Fête du Mimosa – Mandelieu-La Napoule
18th to 25th February
Floats, troops of dancers, musicians and street performers take to the streets of Mandelieu-La Napoule with a spectacular Pyro-Aquatique on the edge of the Siagne river in the evening of 20th February.

82nd Annual Lemon Festival – Menton
from 14th February to 4th March
Menton’s Lemon Festival that attracts over 160,000 visitors every year to its Jardins Biovès and surrounding streets.  Designs up to 10 metres tall, incredible decorations, floats requiring over 145 tonnes of oranges and lemons.

Grand Mimosa Procession – Bormes-les-Mimosa
from 21st to 22nd February
77th Corso Fleuri that dates back to the 17th century and is one of the town’s most popular events. The parade sees a number of beautifully decorated caravans file through the city, ending in the traditional “bataille de fleur”.


March

Foire de Nice
from 7th to 15th March
One of the most popular events of the French Riviera with more 140 000 visitors and 1200 exhibitors.

Violet Festival – Tourrettes-sur-Loup
21st and 22nd March
Village streets are full of activity from 9.30 am, with a Floral Procession in the early afternoon and the day ending with the Flower Battle, which everyone can take part in.

17th Annual Printemps des Poètes – Nice
7th to 22nd March
For two weeks, Nice celebrates poetry in its many forms through events held in theatres, schools and cafés.

73rd Annual ‘Race in the Sun’ Paris to Nice Cycling Race
from 8th to 15th March
Covers 1,300km in 8 legs. Col de Vence, La Turbie and Col d’Èze are part of the itinerary of the now essential last leg of this Course au Soleil (Race in the Sun).

Gourd FestivalNice
Nice’s gourd festival is held in the Cimiez gardens. The event traditionally symbolises the end of winter. As well as gourd-painting events, gourd-based dishes are also served.

Fête des Jardins – Sophia-Antipolis
28th & 29th March
Chance to view an enormous variety of plants, trees and shrubs organised by the Société des Gens de Jardins Méditerranéens.


April

Antibes Yacht Show – cancelled until 2016
(24th & 25th April)
The City Hall of Antibes has asked ASAP, the association for leisure boating professionals in Antibes, to organise a replacement event for yachting professionals.

Orange Festival – Bar-sur-Loup
Monday 6th April
Orange blossom festival celebrated throughout the village.

Printemps des Musées
16th May
Every year museums throughout the French Riviera waive their entry fees for just one day, giving everyone the opportunity to discover for themselves the region’s rich cultural and artistic heritage.

Nice Half Marathon – Nice
from 25th to 26th April
Held end-April along the Promenade des Anglais. Some 4,000 runners compete in this annual sporting event.


May

Riverdance “20th Anniversary” – Palais Nikaia – Nice
2nd May
Seen by more than 23 millions spectators in 350 cities around the world – they have chosen France for their 20th anniversary tour.  They will be in Nice the 2nd of May. To buy your tickets click here.

Fête des Roses et des Plantes – St Jean-Cap Ferrat
2nd & 3rd May
Surrounded by beautiful gardens, Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild is hosting the 6th ‘Fête des Roses et des Plantes’. Some twenty international exhibitors – rose growers, nursery growers and professionals from the gardening world are expected in the villa’s gardens to share their passion.

Crossover Festival – Nice
from 5th to 9th May
Crossover didn’t get its name by chance: the festival highlights artistic fusions, with invited groups at the “crossroads” of trends and generations.

51st Croisière Bleu, Régate – Antibes (Port Vauban)
from 13th to 17th May
The  Croisière Bleu was the first sailboat cruising race in Mediterranean.  A lot of Regatta men are looking forward to this fantastic event that will bring opponents for the race to Calvi in Corsica.

International Rose Exhibition, Grasse
from 8th to 10th May
The exhibition is considered to be the leading annual European show of the cut rose. More than 50,000 roses are displayed in bouquets of 60 to 300 flowers. The rose, whether cut or a bush, is in the spotlight for the whole duration of the exhibition.

3rd Route des Villages – Paris to Cannes
from 10th to 17th May
Classic Citroën 2CV cars will race from Paris to Cannes. Contestants visit about 20 villages classified among the most beautiful villages of France’s, taking in their sights, crafts and gastronomy along the way.

Les Nuit des Musées
16th May
Takes places in Nice and other cities as part of a Europe-wide celebration. For one night only, hundreds of France’s best museums will open after hours for free until 1am, and many will host special events.

68th Cannes Film Festival – Cannes
from 13th to 24th May
12 days of the world’s most prestigious film festival and much sought-after Palme d’Or.

La Fête de Mai – Nice
Every Sunday in May, held in the Arènes de Jardins de Cimiez. Nice celebrates is history through a series of free events, refreshments featuring locally produced food and children’s entertainment.

Open de Nice Côte d’Azur
from 17th to 23rd May
The most important tennis tournament held on the French Riviera and part of the ATP World Tour.  For more information about Nice Open 2015 schedule and tickets.

Latin Sails – St Tropez
29th to 31st May
Sailboats, regatta and exhibitions.


June

Voiles d’Antibes
from 3rd to 7th June
Marking the opening of the Mediterranean regatta circuit, the first stage of the Panerai Classic Yachts Challenge or Trophée Panerai. It’s a stunning regatta drawing some of the world’s rarest vintage and classic yachts.

Promenades des Anglais Exhibition
12th June to 4th October
Nice presents a new international exhibition in all the city’s museums. The theme is Promenade des Anglais, echoing the City’s initiative to submit its candidature to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In addition to the city’s municipal institutions, three of the national museums which are situated in and around Nice will participate in the event.

Giraglia Rolex Cup – St. Tropez
12th to 20th June
One of the most renowned offshore races in the Mediterranean. The fleet gathers in the harbour of Saint-Tropez for three days of inshore competition before embarking on a 241-nautical mile offshore race to Monte-Carlo via the Giraglia, a rocky outcrop off the northern tip of Corsica.

Fête de la Music – Nationwide
21st June
Since 1982 the Fête de la Musique has been held throughout the whole of France – and the world – and reunites amateur and professional musicians with an appreciative audience.

International Young Soloists Festival – Antibes
from 24th to 28th June
Offering a stage, a symphonic orchestra to young musicians that have won great international prizes and sponsored by great artists… such is the vocation of this internationally renowned festival.

11th Annual Ironman France Championship – Nice
28th June
Nice will be hosting the legendary Ironman triathlon attracting athletes and spectators alike. The participants swim in the Mediterranean, bike through the challenging course in the Alps and run along Promenade des Anglais.

Nice en roller
The Promenade des Anglais is taken over once a year by rollerbladers. As well as fun and games for all the family, there are also demonstrations and the staging of the French national cup race. The course is laid out over 2.5km and is open to all.


July

Les Nuits Guitares – Beaulieu-sur-Mer
from 2nd to 4th July
A not-to-be-missed event for guitar lovers held in the jardin de l’Olivaie in Beaulieu-sur-Mer.

Festival of Pyrotechnic Art – Cannes.
For seven nights throughout July and August, different countries take on the challenge to produce the most spectacular firework display. Each display is a minimum of 25 minutes. Can be seen from various vantage points.

Ma Ville Est Tango – Menton
July
For 4 days Menton lives to the beat of Tango with a series of concerts, entertainment, exhibitions, cinema, dance classes, balls and street entertainment.

Festival of St Pierre and The Sea – Cagnes-sur-Mer
4th to 5th July
Events, sea trips, nocturnes piétonnes, sardinade at Cros-de-Cagnes.

Les Nuits du Sud Festival – Vence
from 9th to 25th July
A key music event on the French Riviera combining diversity, discovery and good music with affordable prices. Open to all musics of the world.

Nice Jazz Festival
from 7th to 12th July
Parc de Cimiez. Staged since the 1940s, this long-standing festival attracts jazz aficionados from all over the world.

Bastille Day – National Holiday in France
14th July
This is a national holiday in France and many businesses, schools and banks may close and public transport services will be reduced. A great day to take it easy on the beach perhaps and end the evening admiring the magnificent firework display in Cannes and elsewhere throughout the Côte d’Azur.

Jazz-à-Juan
from 10th to 19th July
55th Annual Jazz at Juan-les-Pins Europe’s oldest jazz festival.  Stunning setting overlooking the bay and always brings top acts. In 2015 it starts with the great Carlos Santana.

Les Nuits Musicales du Suquet – Cannes
from 18th to 23rd July
In front of Notre-Dame d’Espérance church, in the lovely setting of Old Cannes, a programme of chamber music associating the talent of young musicians and famous artists from France and abroad.

Festival of Chamber Music – St Paul de Vence
from 22nd to 31st July
Saint-Paul de Vence welcomes you to its very first chamber music festival on Place de la Courtine, at the foot of the village ramparts.

Les Plages Electroniques – Cannes
10th, 17th, 30th July & 6th and 14th August.
Go to the beaches and the Terrasses du Palais des Festivals in Cannes for seats to an electronic music festival that takes over the beach.

La Castellada – Nice
held from the start of July in the Parc du Château, this event runs through to end of September. Actors in costume recount the story of Nice’s past in a three-hour guided tour.

Musicalia – held on the promenade des Anglais, this series of concerts features a range of music from all over the world. The programme also offers dance performances and short film screenings.


August

Jazz at Domergue – Cannes
from 2nd to 5th August
Over five consecutive days, during the course of its program the festival reveals the Russian cultural identity through its various forms of artistic expression.

35th Annual Boules Carrée World Championships – Cagnes-sur-Mer
16th & 17th August
Original championship held in the Montée de la Bourgade, a lane running up to the Château du Haut-de-Cagnes.

Festival de Ramatuelle – St Tropez
Created in 1985 as a tribute to the French actor Gérard Philipe. The festival, held during the first half of August, allows for a cultural holiday in a place where historic monuments are included with many other things to see and do.

Les Concerts du Cloitre – Nice
from 15th July to 14th August
Series of classical concerts held at the Opéra de Nice and the Clôitre du Monastère de Cimiez during the summer.

Les Grimaldines – Gulf of St Tropez
from 15th July to 14th August
World music festival, which has become an essential event in the Gulf of Saint Tropez and beyond bringing thousands of spectators to the village’s alleys and the medieval castle’s steps, yearning to discover new horizons in songs and music. Every Tuesday from mid-July to mid-August, this event takes you from one continent to another, offering an exceptional cultural world tour in five concerts

Menton Music Festival – Menton
from 31st July through to 13th August
At the Parvis Saint-Michel Archange and other venues, Menton puts on the oldest classical music festival in Europe. Started in 1949 and continues to be one of the most important in Europe.

Jasmine FestivalGrasse
from 31st July to 2nd August
Traditional festival which marks the beginning of the jasmine harvest, so important to this town of perfumes.


September

Summer Music Nights throughout the Alpes-Maritimes

Catherine Segurane ceremony
held in the Sainte Réparate Cathedral. Nice’s patron saint is commemorated with a special mass and wreath-laying ceremony at the Catherine Segurane memorial.

Voiles de Saint-Tropez
from 27th Sept to 5th October
The famous “Voiles de Saint Tropez” – modern and more traditional sail boats have united here for more than fifteen years, putting on an astounding show for nautical sports amateurs. Even non-experts can appreciate the beauty of boats on land or on the water.

Trophée Pasqui
From Nice to Villefrance-sur-Mer. Details to follow.

12th Annual Lou Festin dou Pouort (Fête du Port) – Nice
September – details to follow.

10th Annual International Festival of Gastronomy – Mougins
18th, 19th & 20th September
Also known as ‘Les Etoiles de Mougins’ this is a great weekend for anyone who loves good food and wine in a fabulous setting


October

Festival Internationale de Musique Militaire
Biennial military tattoo that takes place over the course of a weekend. This popular festival of military music also includes a grand parade.

Fête Patronale de la Ville de Nice Sainte Réparate
Colourful traditional Niçois festival that takes place in the streets of Vieux Nice.

Extreme Sailing Series – International Regatta
Hosted and supported since 2011 by the City of Nice. Key landmark in the sporting calendar of Nice.

European Masters Games – Nice
1st to 11th October
Nice has been chosen to organise and host the European Masters Games from 1 to 11 October 2015. Every edition, this big multi-sport competition brings together over 10,000 seasoned and senior athletes from around the world.


November

Salon du Chocolat – Cannes
World’s largest event dedicated to chocolate with dozens of fine chocolate artisans from the Alpes-Maritimes, France and even from around the world.

Nice-Cannes Marathon
8th November
The Marathon of Alpes-Maritimes, also known as the Nice-Cannes Marathon, is another high-profile sporting event held regularly on the French Riviera. The run between Nice and Canes, first organized in 2008, regularly reaches the full capacity of participants.

Festival Manca – Nice and around the region
International festival featuring a broad repertoire of contemporary music performed by world renowned musicians.

Challenge de Lutte Henri Deglane
International wrestling contest, with some of the world’s Olympic champions competing for this prestigious prize.


December

International Rowing Regatta – Nice
Held in the Baie des Anges, this regatta brings together the world’s best rowers to compete in pairs, eights and fours events.

Christmas Day Swim – Nice
Every year, swimmers take to the rather chilly waters of the Mediterranean from Nice’s Ruhl Plage.

Christmas Village – Nice
Traditional festive market held at the Place Masséna. Forty wooden chalets are set up in the square, selling typical Provençal gifts. There is also an ice-skating rink and children’s entertainment.

Roquebrune, a small Medieval perched village between Menton and Monaco, appears almost chiselled out from the rocks that make up the Grande Corniche. Sadly, with so many beguiling villages and places that play Pied Piper to visitors to the Côte d’Azur, Roquebrune and its Millennium Olive Tree are often left off people’s sight-seeing list.

DSC_4592 copy
Perched on the hilltop is the exclusive Hotel Vista Palace on the Route de la Grande Corniche

In many ways this is shame as it truly deserves to be seen – not just because of it Olivier Millénaire (1,000 year-old olive tree) but because it remains untouched from the heady tourism you find elsewhere. It also has some pretty good views down to the coastline showing just how steep the landscape is along the Riviera.

A Bit of History
Like elsewhere along the Côte d’Azur, this area had been occupied in times long past – as proven by the discovery of one of the oldest prehistoric sites in Europe: the Grotte du Vallonet. Here 75 stone tools, made from lime-stone and flint, and the bones of 25 different species of mammals were uncovered and found to date between 1 and 1.05 million years. The grotte served as a shelter to ante-Neanderthals who, while not knowing how to make fire, were capable of producing sharp-edged flake of stone.

Roman tomb of LumoneThe origin of its name, Roquebrune, comes from the Latin words rocam brunam, meaning ‘brown rock’. Indeed the Romans left behind some traces of their passage too – near to the town hall – with the tomb of Lumone. Built a century before JC, it once served as a Roman relay station between the junctions of two ancient roads: Via Julia Augusta and Via Aurélienne. The entire station was destroyed in 641 by one of the Lombard’s armies under the rule of Rotaric.

After the departure of the Romans and up to 984, Roquebrune’s territory was subsequently occupied by a series of tribes such as Goths, Lombards and Sarracens. Thereafter the Counts of Vintimiglia ruled over the destiny of the land, which provoked a dispute between the Genoese and the Counts of Provence. In 1355, Roquebrune (as did Menton) entered into the possession of the Grimaldis and would remain a distinct state for five centuries. Then everything seems to go a bit awry with Roquebrune wanting to be French (in 1793) then back to Monegasque (in 1814) to becoming a free town (in 1848) before finally settling to be part of France again (in 1860).

DSC_4590

DSC_4599The 1,000 year old Olive Tree
After all that history and war, let’s now enjoy something totally different and a bit more peaceful: an olive tree.

Known as the Olivier Millénaire – the 1,000 year old olive tree – it is thought to be nearer to 2,000 years old according to Roquebrune’s tourist office, who write: ‘The roots, like those of the Mathusalem de Provence, extend 20 meters in diameter. Olive trees were probably introduced to France by the Phœnicians 3,000 years ago, but this tree was more likely planted by the Romans in the year 400.’

You’ll find this ancient olive tree along the chemin de Menton with signs throughout the village helping to indicate the way.

DSC_4596I took the above photo in 2005 and shows my husband (just over 6ft) standing within its gnarled roots as they and the tree loom well above him.

DSC_4610It is said that the tree was once the property of the Vial brothers. Hearing that they wanted to cut it down, the French statesman and historian, Gabriel Hanoteaux (1853-1944), intervened and in 1925 bought the 30m² strip of land upon which the tree grew. While still belonging to Hanoteaux’s descendants the tree is now cared for by the municipality – and marked by a wooden plaque.

During the terrible plague of 1467 (which ravaged the Mediterranean including Monaco, Nice and Ventimiglia) the villagers of Roquebrune organized a novena – nine days of prayers. On August 5, the ninth and last day of the novena, the epidemic stopped.  Since then, every year there has been a procession on August 5th that goes from St. Margaret’s Church, through the village, past the olive tree, to the Chapel of Our Lady of Pause. 150 members of Roquebrunoise families depict the Stations of the Cross as a mark of their gratitude for this miracle with the main roles passed down the generations.

DSC_4582Exploring Roquebrune
DSC_4625Dominated by the 10th-century Château-Fort, Roquebrune is an interesting labyrinth of narrow streets, steps carved in stone, vaulted passages, little squares and fountains. The Tourist office has a number of guide maps that will make your visit easier. However, like all perched villages along the French Riviera you’ll find yourself walking up – and down – so be prepared for this. In return you’ll get some outstanding views.

Built by Conrad 1st, Count of Vintimiglia, to keep out the Saracens, it apparently has the oldest donjon in France. The Château-Fort passed through a number of hands, before it was sold in 1808 as a Bien National to five inhabitants of Roquebrune. Several years later (1911) it was sold to a rich Englishman, Sir William Ingram (1847-1924). Upon his death he bequeathed the Château-Fort to the town of Roquefort. From inside the castle (admission charge) you’ll have the best views in Roquebrune stretching across the village rooftops and coastline.DSC_6603DSC_6601DSC_6598 copyDSC_6591DSC_4615

DSC_4584Place Deux Frères is very charming with its cobbled stones, pretty houses, boutique luxury hotel and olive tree surrounded by circular seating. A beautiful bronze statue, La France Triomphante, sculpted by Hungarian artist Anna Chromyand stands in the centre of the square.

Walking around the narrow streets is a delight as you’ll come across craft shops and small cafés but you’ll not find it too touristic. We stopped at a small restaurant for lunch which somehow managed to accommodate a table and a couple of chairs outside. As I sat there a couple of hang-gliders (one of the local sports) whizzed past overhead – which made a super photo shoot but also shows you how tight the streets are. DSC_4632DSC_4629A little earlier I made mention of Eglise Sainte-Marguerite. We actually stumbled across it as we made our way up the twisty steps of ‘rue Eglise’. We should have known by the street’s name that there was a church along there but it was still a surprise when we discovered it. Dating back to the 12th century it was substantially rebuilt in 1573 with further enhancements during the 17th century and again in 1750. It was redecorated in the 19th century hence the colourful baroque style façade. It is beautifully decorated inside with paintings by a local artist, Marc-Antoine Otto, dating to the 17th century – and a copy of  Michelangelo’s Last Judgement. There is a frescoed ceiling above the altar. Visits are permitted in the afternoons during week days.

Beaulieu-sur-Mer is located in the east of the peninsula of Saint Jean Cap Ferrat, between Eze and Villefranche-sur-Mer. Sheltered from northerly winds by the imposing rocky belt of hills of Cap Ferrat and Mont Leuze, it is one of the warmest places on the Riviera although I didn’t know that the first time I saw it.

In truth, I drove through this small seaside harbour in winter – on my way to discover Monaco for the first time. A cold mist swirled and the town was extremely quiet so I sped on past the port – glimpsing sight of enormous white blobs as I did so and wondering what they were. Later I found out they were yachts over-wintering in the port, wrapped in heavy duty white plastic that is then shrink-wrapped.

And return I did a few months later and found Beaulieu-sur-Mer to be a very pretty upmarket town.

The main thoroughfare (Boulevard Maréchal Joffre) is quite modern with broad pavements studded with large palm trees that stand like guardians. There is an amazing variety of shops offering a range of local specialities along with exclusive boutiques selling perfumes and luxury goods. Interspersed amongst them you’ll find a small Casino supermarket, bakeries, banks and of course glorious restaurants and charming cafés. There are still a few Belle-Epoque villas to be found down manicured side-streets but for others new modern apartments have taken their place.

A Bit of History
Trying to tie together the ancient history of Beaulieu-sur-Mer only becomes clearer when one understands that it once formed part of Villefranche-sur-Mer and is better seen as an area rather than a defined spot on the map. Excavation work carried out during the last century (on show at the Menton’s regional pre-historic museum) uncovered flints, arrow heads and other neolithic artefacts thus showing this was once a prehistoric site. The curve of Beaulieu-sur-Mer’s bay must have proved a safe haven as it became the antique Greek port of Anao before taken by the Romans who enlarged it.

Razed to the ground in the 3rd century peace lasted long enough for a small monastery to be built in the 4th century until the Lombards (a Germanic tribe who ruled Italy from 568 to 774) invaded the area and destroyed everything. The inhabitants fled to the hills and hid along St-Michel Plateau (Grande Corniche). And there they stayed until the end of the 13th century when they came back down to settle in and around Villefranche-sur-Mer.

Villefranche’s development takes on more importance with the arrival of the train in 1864 and the construction of the Basse Corniche between 1872 and 1876.  In turn this brings about the building of a couple of hotels and a few villas that would be rented out during the winter season to a select and prosperous clientèle. Beaulieu becomes an independent commune in September 1892.

DSC_3278
Harbour at Beauleau-sur-Mer

A park planted with more than 100 century-old olive trees allows the visitor to find beauty and tranquillity at a only few paces from the sea and the long promenade that hugs the length of the seafront. The harbour is set in a natural bay and has two separate ports: Baie des Fourmis, located on the western side of Beaulieu-sur-Mer and Petite Afrique, located on the eastern side.

Both beaches are sandy and offer large public areas though, like many of the beaches on the Côte d’Azur, they also have private areas set aside for hotels-restaurants. The beaches are centrally accessible and each one tucks around a sheltered cove. During the summer months there is an offshore diving platform plus a lifeguard on duty.

Pelagia noctiluca

I should mention that, come the warmer weather and due to a combination of water temperature,; tide and winds, the Mediterranean can be plagued by jellyfish – I’ve seen them as early as April. More often than not they will be pelagia noctiluca – notable by their violet colour which makes them easy to spot and known as the mauve stinger (their sting is very painful). They tend to swarm and come close to shore – so if you notice no-one in the sea and it’s a lovely day for a dip it may well be because of them.

Beaulieu-sur-Mer has two types of weekly markets: the fruits and vegetables that takes place every morning at Place Marinoni and the Provençal market, known for its incomparable fragrance, held on Tuesday and Saturday mornings. Flea markets are held the first and third Sundays of the month on the terraces of the marina.

You’ll find some excellent restaurants down by the port – adjacent to which is the Casino de Beaulieu, built in 1903 in the Art Nouveau style. Following renovation work to the tune of over 8.5 million euros, it reopened in March 2014 after a closure of three years. The renovations are impressive and return the casino to its former glory and unique luxury with thirteen huge crystal chandeliers, a monumental marble staircase and purple and gold carpets. With the addition of a gambling room for smokers, players will have the choice between ten tables of roulette games, blackjack, stud poker and punto plus sixty-five gaming machines. Gourmet cuisine is assured by three dining areas under the leadership of Jean-Michel Chapuis. Byline: you will notice quite a few casinos when you are out and about in France. They are not casinos but actually supermarkets. And good ones too.

DSC_2080 copyA Walk in the Past
While Beaulieu-sur-Mer may have been given a modern face-lift, under the covers there are still some remarkable buildings worthy of attention. Most of you will have heard of Villa Kérylos and indeed, is one of the main reasons why visitors come here. However, there are a few other buildings worthy of notice.

La Rotonde at Beaulieu-sur-MerLa Rotonde, located across from the beach is a beautiful building, now used for various exhibitions but which was originally built as part of a larger building: Hotel Bristol.

The hotel was the dream child of Sir Blundell Maple (1845-1903), a London furniture maker and business magnet.

(Byline: John Blundell Maple’s skills and vision were crucial and by the 1880s Maples was the largest furniture store on the planet. Maples manufactured their own luxury furniture in a complex eventually so vast that by the 1880s it occupied an area where once stood 200 houses. They were timber importers, and exporters of furniture and fittings to all parts of the world. They used steam power and electricity, had a fleet of horse-drawn vans, depository and showrooms, and employed a vast workforce. Maples’ market was the middle class and upwards – anyone anywhere who had money. They furnished palaces all over the world, including Tsar Nicholas’s Winter Palace, the Hofburg Imperial Palace in Vienna, all the great hotels, and town and country homes. Prestigious British embassies were all furnished by Maples, even if it meant carrying the grand piano up the Khyber Pass on pack-horses.)

The hotel’s design and construction were handed to J.B. Viale and Danish architect, Hans-Georg Tersling (a power-house of a man as he was involved in many other constructions around the Riviera – notably the Grand Hôtel de Cap, Hôtel Métropole in Monaco, villa Cyrnos on the Cap to name just three although many more could be added to the list). Building work began at the end of February 1897 and finished by the end of December 1898 when it was of course furnished by Maples. Inaugurated on 5th January 1899 its English Neo-Gothic style was a sensation. The Rotonde proved a special hit and became an independent pavilion just for serving tea. In March 1911 fire destroyed the hotel’s roof but, due to the solidity of construction work, other parts of the hotel were left intact. Roofing was quickly repaired but now, instead of five floors, the hotel opened for business shortly afterwards with only four floors.

The Rotonde was used as a hospital during World War II as a commemorative plaque outside shows. In 1954 the hotel was bought by Saglia – a property promoter – and turned into luxury, high-class apartments. The gardens and tennis courts were sold to Beaulieu commune yet the Rotonde was inexplicably left abandoned and at one point nearly demolished. However, Beaulieu-sur-Mer’s commune stepped in at the very last minute and in 1982 invested in renovation works to transform this glorious building into a congress centre. Since October 2011 it has been used as an arts and festival centre especially for Beaulieu-sur-Mer’s two major festivals: “Les Nuits Guitares” (Guitar Nights) and “Les Violons de la Légende” (Legendary Violins).

DSC_6704 copyA little further down from La Rotonde you’ll find the Roman Chapel “Sancta Maria de Olico”, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Dating back to 9th century it was built on a paleo-christian site. Steps away from the chapel on the opposite side of the road is the luxury hotel “La Réserve”.

La Reserve at Beaulieu-sur-Mer

The story goes that, in 1880, a Niçois by the name of Pierre Lautier, built a restaurant by the sea at Beaulieu-sur-Mer with the intention of serving the best fish dishes imaginable. He hits on the clever idea of having large basins dug out from under its terrace where local fishermen can offload their catch of live fish and crustaceans straight into. The fishermen called the basins “la réserve” – a place for stocking supplies – and Lautier so likes the name that he takes it for his restaurant.

Word quickly spreads of La Réserve’s culinary delights but reaching it is not so easy. Unless you had your own steam-yacht like Gordon Bennett (the American press magnate) who would anchor off the bay in Lysistrata, one of the most modern steam yachts of the time (the ship included a Turkish bath and a resident cow for fresh milk). The railway station was a long way from the restaurant and local transport was very poor – which is why the Garaccio brothers (sail makers and ship chandlers and noted for having contributed to the development of winter touring in Nice) set up a steamboat service between the port of Nice and La Réserve. Very soon the cream of European and American society come here to eat and La Réserve quickly gained a reputation as a gastronomic centre for fresh fish.

Gordon Bennett was so impressed by the quality of the dishes that in 1891 he installed a telephone in the restaurant at his own expense so that he and other clients could conveniently make reservations. It was the first telephone in the area and the number – 04 93 01 00 01 – is still used today by La Réserve. In 1892 Gordon Bennett rented a pretty villa in Petite Afrique called Belvédère which he bought in 1903 changing the name to Villa Namouna.

(Byline: He called in Aaron Messiah, a well-known and well-respected architect, to oversee renovation work (notably the addition of owls). Messiah also finishes work on the Anglican Church in Beaulieu which may have been financed by Bennett. Messiah was also involved in some of the building of villa Ephrussi de Rothschild on Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat as well as Les Cèdres on Cap Ferrat for Leopold II, King of Belgians, to name just a few of his works.)

In 1905 Lautier decided to build ten luxurious bedrooms thereby turning his restaurant into a hotel – and it too became an instant success.  Surviving two world wars Lautier then sold La Réserve to Jacques Laroche. Keeping only the great veranda gallery that housed the restaurant since its conception in 1880, Laroche had everything else pulled down and in its place built a huge Florentine-style villa that is the luxury La Réserve we see today.

It is said that Auguste Maïcon (French aviation pioneer with a notoriety for flying his plane under the bridge in Nice that once spanned the Var river) often offered a hydroplane service to La Réserve’s rich clientèle for which a pontoon was built at Baie des Fourmis. Not everyone managed the transfer from the hydroplane to the pontoon with notably Baroness de Vaughan, mistress of Belgian King, Leopold II and his two sons accidentally falling into the sea.

As luck would have it, I was allowed to view inside the entrance of La Reserve and already that was enough to tell me here was luxury at its finest – with touches of the past here and there with a little Gordon Bennett memorabilia tastefully on show.

Palais-des-Anglais, Beaulieu-sur-MerAnother building worthy of note is the Palais des Anglais built in 1885. Built facing the railway station it would be the first hotel to open in Beaulieu-sur-Mer. Designed originally with a flat roof, the building was later given an extra floor and then re-roofed with grey slates  and dormer windows. Flagship for tourist hotels elsewhere the Palais des Anglais would be one of the first hotels to have porcelain sinks in its bathrooms. The lift – then hydraulic – caused much anguish amongst the locals who thought it was powered by water diverted from their area. Between the two world wars, Queen Victoria’s third son, Prince Arthur, the Duke of Connaught and honorary citizen of Beaulieu, made it a habit to stay at the Palais des Anglais to escape English winters. In 1939 it was sold and turned into apartments.

I should also mention Gustave Eiffel who habitually stayed here during the winter months after travelling down from Paris in his yacht-steamer, the Aïda. He would later have a villa built on the seafront where he installed a meteorological station. It is through his work that Beaulieu-sur-Mer was shown to have the most exceptional weather of the region. The villa sold in 2008 for an estimated 100 million euros and is now an hotel and private residence.

Lastly, because Beaulieu-sur-Mer is such a unique harbour, it goes without saying that there is a wide choice of water sports available. The Yacht Club offers catamaran, kayaking, and windsurfing, while Riviera Sports offers high energy water activities: towed inner tube riding, jet skiing, off-shore, para-sailing, water-skiing, wake-boarding. The Deux Freres Diving Club offers first time diving, explorations, night dives, day trips, renewals and international training. For more relaxing activities, you can board the Mai Mai II fishing boat (tuna, white marlin, etc.) or walk aboard a luxury yacht. The Papetee II offers the practice of sport fishing in two different forms: night fishing for swordfish or deep water fishing.

So, if you have time on your schedule while you are visiting the Côte d’Azur, do try and take half a day to visit this charming seaside resort. With Villa Kérylos a hop and a skip from the harbour and Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild only 800 metres away – you could still have time for a stroll around Villefranche-sur-Mer before heading off on another magical excursion – unless of course you are enticed, like so many others, to stay a little longer…

In 1687 a mysterious prisoner arrived at Fort Royal wearing an iron mask. Upon the orders of Louis XIV, no one was to remove this prisoner’s mask – under any pretext. Imprisoned there for eleven years, in 1698 he was transferred to the Bastille where he died five years later in 1703.

As a child, I thought Alexandre Dumas’ story about The Man in the Iron Mask rather exciting but just a story. But the story took a different turn when I learnt that his cell existed on Ile Sainte-Marguerite – and that you could visit it. Did that mean he really existed?

Fort Royale, Ile Sainte-Marguerite

Royal Prisons
Unlike today, during France’s Ancient Regime, there existed different types of prisons. These depended upon the judiciary authorities: ecclesiastics, seigniories or royal and were simply “places of security where the accused were held until their court judgement.”

Royal prisons came under the jurisdiction of the king who, due to his sovereign state and absolute power – regardless that there was any court proceeding on the horizon or not – could imprison anyone he esteemed dangerous to the security of his kingdom (ie. rebellious nobles, double-crossing ministers, political thinkers and protestants). Known as “la letter de Cachet” there was no disputing the order duly signed and sealed by the king’s hand.

By the end of the 17th century Fort Royal gained a new function, that of being a State prison and thereby joining the ranks of other royal prisons: the Bastille, Pignerolo in the Piémont, Belle-Ile-en-Mer or the fort at Vincennes.

Cell of Man in the Iron Mask
Image reprinted from ‘Le Fort royal de Sainte-Marguerite by Frédérique Citéra-Bullot, 2007 copyright Ville de Cannes.

Visit to the Man in the Iron Mask’s Cell
Up until the 19th century the vaulted corridor leading to the cells opened directly onto the courtyard but this has since been bricked up. The Man in the Iron Mask’s cell is the fifth one down a corridor of six cells.

Two heavy, dark wood and iron studded doors give access to the cell although both are left open to allow visitors to walk easily into the room. The first door leads out into the corridor and lies flat against the wall. Parted by a wall at least 3ft deep, the other door leads into the cell.

The room is bare, apart from a single iron bed located to the left as you walk in, and bigger than I expected – 30m² in all. The walls are white-washed with traces of damp on the outer wall containing the window.  The floor is a mixture of dull coloured, small square tiles – the sort you’d find in old Provençal farm houses.

The first thing that struck me as I walked into his cell was that it had a fire-place cut into the wall. I’m not sure why this discovery surprised me so much but it did. Granted it was a small fireplace but to me it showed an element of kindness extended towards prisoners. Next to the fireplace was the window protected by three iron grills with small square openings. Also cut into the wall, and to the right of the window, was a dry latrine.

Above the single bed were faint markings remaining from original decorative drawings but apart from that the room is stark and left quite a desolate impression on me. I imagined myself in such a miserable room, a metal mask wrapped about my face, left in solitude without any hope of escape. Despair spiralled…

So I was most relieved when I came across historical records showing that all the cells were pre-furnished with a bed, a bedside table, curtains, a clothes chest, rugs and a dining table with two chairs. Moreover, depending upon their financial situation, prisoners could add furniture or other items if they felt so inclined.

It also appears that he wore fine linens and was treated with the utmost respect – denoting surely someone of nobility (or access to funds). More importantly I also discovered that his mask was made of black velvet cloth with a spring of steel. But an iron mask makes for a better story …

The two doors, one closing upon the other, were not a deterrent for him – but a deterrent to anyone who might eavesdrop on his conversations – which makes the mystery of the Masked Man even more intriguing.

Under Pain of Death…
This prisoner, made famous by Voltaire and subsequently by Alexandre Dumas, spent a total of 40 years in prison. First imprisoned in Pignerol, then Exilles (Piémont, Italy), the Man in the Iron Mask was then moved to Ile Sainte-Marguerite in 1687 where he came under the specific guard of Bénigne d’Auvergne, Count of Saint-Mars, a retired musketeer and a favourite at Court and tool of the Minister of War.  D’Auvergne had been made officer in charge of the main tower in 1665. Twenty-two years later he was appointed governor of the islands of Sainte-Marguerite and Saint-Honorat – just one year prior to the arrival of his masked prisoner.

A month prior to the arrival of this prisoner, d’Auvergne received strict instructions on how to communicate and provide for his masked prisoner’s needs. Failure to do so was under pain of death. Orders were that he should be “jealously secluded from all eyes” and should receive “no comforts”. There was a narrow corridor for a promenade, walled up at each end, and a little altar, where a priest said Mass.

Note from the editor: Interestingly, further research¹ has revealed that by the side of his cell was another chamber for his servant, who died there. Which then begs the question – the cell currently shown in the Fort as that belonging to the Man in the Iron Mask – is not the original cell. Originally only the tower existed which held two prison cells. I am inclined to believe that it is there, along with his servant, that the masked man was imprisoned.

The identity of the prisoner remains a wonderful mystery and started by Voltaire. In his book Le Siècle de Louis XIV (1751):

“Quelques mois après la mort de ce ministre [Mazarin], il arriva un évènement, […] et ce qui est non moins étrange, c’est que tous les historiens l’ont ignoré. On envoya dans le plus grand secret au château de l’île Sainte-Marguerite […] un prisonnier inconnu, d’une taille au-dessous de l’ordinaire, jeune et de la figure la plus belle et la plus noble.”

Translation:

A few months after the death of this minister (Mazarin), there occurred an event, (…) and this is not less remarkable, it is that every historian totally ignored it. There was sent in the greatest possible secret to the chateau on Ile Sainte-Marguerite (…) an unknown prisoner, of above normal stature, young and with features of rare nobility and beauty.

Voltaire thought he was a brother of Louis XIV, or the illegitimate son of Mazarin and Anne of Austria or of Louis XIV and Mademoiselle de la Vallière, or that ‘he’ might even be a ‘she’. Others speculated that he was the illegitimate son of Queen Marie-Thérèse and a black lover, while others hypothesised he may have been Count Mattioli, an Italian diplomat who may have swindled the Sun King, or Eustache Dauger.

As a byline, Fort Royal kept its royal status until the French Revolution (1789 – 1799) when it reverted back to being a prison under military authority.  It so remained until the beginning of the 20th century when it closed and instead became classified as a historic monument on 27th July 1927. The Museum of the Sea opened a few years later and in 1996 Fort Royal was bought by the town of Cannes.

The Museum of the Sea (Musée le la Mer)
Museum of the seaJust in case you’re wondering, the Museum of the Sea is really Fort Royal but under a different name. Your admission fee allows you to visit the old prison cells, the fort’s ramparts and barracks and the archaeological findings on display in the heart of the old Roman reservoirs and restored chambers.

The museum exhibits a variety of boat wrecks found off the shores of the Islands of Lérins. Visitors can also see a selection of artefacts including Roman and Saracen ceramics, model reconstruction of the Roman water reservoir system, a collection of painted designs dating back to antiquity, and a room housing aquariums presented by the permanent centre of initiatives for the environment, which display the underwater flora and fauna of the Mediterranean. Depending upon the time of year, a number of different exhibitions take place on the immense terrace from where there are incredible panoramic views stretching across the bay of Cannes as far as the Alpes du Sud at Cap d’Antibes across to the Estérel.

Finally – a Bit of History about Fort Royal
It is to the Lérins Monastery that we owe the initial idea of a fort. Over the years, the royal imposition of having a laïque Abbot governing their abbey had gradually become unbearable to the monks. Not only was any revenue quickly snatched up by the then governing Abbot and injected into his treasury but never once did any one of them visit the monastery – thereby fuelling further ill-feeling.

And so it came about that in 1568, the monks offer the king, Charles IX, a proposition: that of building a citadelle on the Ile Sainte-Marguerite at their own expense, with housing for fifty to sixty people. In exchange the monks ask for the abandonment of the royal degree nominating laïque Abbots to their monastery and permission to charge of a small tax from ships weighing anchor off the islands. The king refuses.

A year later the Lérins Monastery sell Ile Sainte-Marguerite to the inhabitants of Cannes who want to cultivate the island’s land. However, with no security, water, and a pest epidemic between 1579 and 1580, the land falls to waste and the island is abandoned.

In 1612 the monks approach prince of Joinville, Claude de Lorraine, with a new transaction – one which he accepts. The ‘acte de cession de l’île” notes that the prince will hold the title to the entire island but is obliged to pay tithes on the wine and corn the monks produce for their religious services once the island is inhabited again.  It was also written that the prince would reimburse the inhabitants of Cannes who had bought the island all those years past.

Six years later, in 1618, Claude de Lorraine gives Ile Sainte-Marguerite to his brother Charles, the Duke of Guise and governor of Provence yet a couple of months later, in June 1618, Charles gives Ile Sainte-Marguerite to Jean de Bellon who buys it from him for 4,500 livres (Byline: the livre was the currency of France from 781 to 1794). Subsequently it is de Bellon who reimburses the inhabitants of Cannes and pays the tithes to the monks while Charles hangs on to dealing out justice on the island, hiring officers to deal with petty crimes and retaining the right to build a fort on the island.

Then in 1621 Charles suddenly foregoes everything and hands over all his rights to Jean de Bellon once and for all. Construction work on the fort begins in 1624 upon the remains of ancient Roman water tanks, and would continue until 1627.

We are now in the midst of the 30 Year War which erupted between Protestants and Catholics in Prague in 1618 and then engulfed Europe. By 1635 it had turned into the Franco-Spanish War. Louis XIII (1610-1643) and his advisor, Cardinal-Duke of Richelieu (1585-1642), sees the dangers of an undefended coastal region – especially in the south – but by then it is too late.

In 1635, Ile Sainte-Marguerite is captured by the Spanish with 3,000 men. They remain on the island for two years during which time they both enlarge the fort and its fortifications and add 28 canons.

Two years later, on 28th March 1637 the French army, with 1,800 men, weigh anchor off the western side of Ile Sainte-Marguerite. It is not an easy battle but French victory is finally assured and the Spanish capitulate on 12th May, 1637.

Following this victory, Richelieu is said to have hastily seen to the rebuilding of Fort Royal which continued until 1641. However, it is to Vauban (1633-1707), French military engineer and Marshal of France who would remodel, rebuild and restrengthen Fort Royal and turn it into the fort we see today.

In all, Vauban visited Ile Sainte-Marguerite three times to oversee his project: 1682, 1693 and 1700. His assistant, Niquet, a military engineer from Narbonne who Vauban placed in charge of realizing his projects soon despaired at the cost of building and fortification works and wrote to Vauban to say he believed the fort should be razed to the ground rather than spending such ludicrous amounts of money on something so totally useless.

But Vauban was a visionary and held firm and it is thanks to him that today Fort Royal is still standing and remains such an integral part of French history.

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¹The History of the islands of the Lerins, the monastery, saints and theologians of S. Honorat, Cambridge University Press, 1913