Whether you call it the Cote d'Azur or the French Riviera, this is undoubtedly one of the most sophisticated regions in the world. While it may often be thought of as the playground of the rich and famous, beneath the glittering surface of luxury yachts and fast cars, there also lies a rich cultural legacy left by the dozens of early 20th century artists who were as captivated by the French Riviera's balmy climate and dazzling beauty as visitors are today.What enchanted everyone from Renoir to Picasso is the region's luminous light and its stunning geography of dramatic rocky hillsides looming above the deep-blue coves of the Mediterranean. Steep winding coastal or cliff roads called corniches offer thrilling views as they zigzag through such perched villages as Eze, Roquebrune-Cap Martin and Saint-Paul-de-Vence. Fragrant fields of roses and other flowers that grow throughout the region form the basis for an important perfume history in the town of Grasse, while a dazzling array of exotic blooms can be enjoyed everywhere from public gardens to the famous flower market of Nice.
The area is also home to the Alpes d'Azur, a range of mountains with peaks rising to 10,000 feet above sea level. The highest peaks are less than 30 miles from the Mediterranean. With temperatures considerably higher than the Northern Alps, the mountains enjoy an average of 300 days of sunshine a year. The mountains also offer vast forests, a hundred or so lakes, many miles of rivers, and some 2,000 plant species, including 200 rare varieties. The Alpes d'Azur are also home to the Parc National de Mercantour, an area of more than 435,000 acres of protected land. For outdoor activities, the mountains provide numerous hiking paths, cycling trails, rock-climbing sites, and navigable rivers.
No matter what time of year, it is celebration time in the French Riviera, which has spawned nearly 150 annual festivals devoted to history, music, theatre, and gastronomy. While the most famous is the Festival International du Film de Cannes in Cannes, other range from a celebrated annual summer jazz festival in Antibes/Juan-les-Pins to the light-hearted February celebration of lemons in Menton.
Local dishes that combine the pungent flavours of the French Riviera include salade niçoise (a fresh mix of greens, tuna, olives, and hard-boiled eggs) and pissaladière (a pizza of onions, olives and anchovies). Others to try include socca (a crisp pancake made from chickpea flour) and petits farcis (stuffed vegetables).
Nice, the capital of the region, offers just about everything the French Riviera is known for: a palm-lined beachfront, outdoor cafés, music festivals, and a fine assortment of art galleries and museums. Its central square is called Place Masséna, and Vieux Nice, the old town and its Cours Saleya, are enjoyable to explore on foot. Its most enjoyable walking path is the Promenade des Anglais, named for the 19th-century colony of English visitors drawn to the city, which follows along the beach and the Baie des Anges. Centrally located and filled with hotels in all price ranges, it makes a good base for exploring the French Riviera.
- Cathédrale Orthodoxe Russe St-Nicolas (Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St Nicholas) - Reflecting all the glory of Imperial Russia, this cathedrale built in the early-20th century is crowned by onion domes faced with colourful glazed tiles and features a fine assortment of woodwork, icons and frescoes.
- Musée d'Art Moderne et d'Art Contemporain - The prime focus of the museum is avant-garde works by French and American artists, including Andy Warhol's famous pop art depiction of a Campbell's soup can. The striking building with glass walkways and marble towers is an attraction in itself, along with the rooftop garden and gallery.
- Musée des Beaux-Arts - Located in a handsome 19th-century villa, the museum collection includes ceramics created by Picasso while he was living in nearby Vallauris and a fine array of paintings by Fauvist Raoul Dufy. Another highlight are the Belle Epoque lithographs created by locally born artists Jules Chéret.
- Musée et Site Archéologiques - The museum is entered through the excavated site of the Roman city of Cemenelum, which includes a marble swimming pool and a small amphitheater. Inside the museum is a model of the ancient city and a collection of artifacts found at the site, including vases, coins, jewelry, and statues.
- Musée Matisse - the museum houses a fine collection of works by Henri Matisse in a 17th-century villa surrounded by olive groves.
- Musée National Message Biblique Marc Chagall - The museum was built specifically to house Chagall's richly coloured cycle of paintings depicting stories from the Old Testament.
- Parc du Château - This tree-shaded park on a high hill on the eastern side of the city affords great views of Nice and the sea. All that remains of the 12th-century Château that once graced the site is the Tour Bellanda, which houses the Musée Naval.
- Vieux Nice - Within the old section of Nice are such delights as a flower and vegetable market, colourful façades, artisans, narrow streets, baroque churches and palaces, lovely shops, and an antique district. The Cours Saleya is an elongated plaza in Vieux Nice that is the scene of the famous Marché aux Fleurs held daily except Monday when there is a flea market instead. Along with a vivid assortment of blooms, the market offers such regional food specialties as glazed fruits. Facing the plaza is the Chapelle de la Miséricorde, an 18th-century baroque chapel with a glorious interior.
Attractions Beyond Nice
- Antibes - just across the bay, 13 miles southwest of Nice, Antibes has beautiful sandy beaches, 16th-century ramparts along the shore, and a quaint historic district of winding streets and flower-bedecked houses. Its prime attraction is the Musée Picasso located in the Château Grimaldi, a castle which the artist used as his studio in 1946. More than 200 works by Picasso are exhibited here. Contiguous with Antibes is Juan-les-Pins, known for its sandy beach backed by pine trees and nightlife that has been in full swing since the 1920s. The resort town is the scene of a popular jazz festival, Jazz à Juan, held during the second half of July. A little further south along the coast is ultra-exclusive Cap d'Antibes, a jasmine-scented enclave where the Grand Hotel du Cap has long attracted celebrity guests, including F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald during the 1920s.
- Biot - The charming hillside village of Biot, about 5 miles from Antibes, has been known for its earthenware products since Roman times and is still a great place to shop for locally made handicrafts, particularly ceramics and art glass. Glass artists at work can be observed at La Verrerie de Biot, while exhibits on locally made glass and ceramics are at the Musée d'Histoire et de Céramique Biotois. The village's main attration is the Musée National Fernand Léger, which features 360 works by the early 20th-century artist that includes paintings, mosaics, stained-glass windows, and ceramics.
- Cagnes-sur-Mer - A charming seaside town with a fortified medieval quarter on the hillside above. Cagnes-sur-Mer, 8 miles west of Nice, was the home of Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir from 1907 to 1919, when he lived and worked in a villa surrounded by olive groves on the edge of town. The villa is now the Musée Renoir, which displays several of his works. More artwork by Renoir, along with paintings by Chagall, Matisse, and other artists, are on exhibit at the 14th-century Château Grimaldi, which houses the Château Musée de Cagnes-sur-Mer.
- Cannes - Known best for the annual Cannes International Film Festival, Cannes, 16 miles southwest of Nice, has been a popular seaside resort city since the mid-19th century when wealthy English and Russian tourists first flocked there. Elegant apartment buildings and hotels, including the Belle Epoque-era Carlton Inter-Continental with its famous twin cupolas, line the main promenade, the Boulevard de la Croisette, known as La Croisette. The city's historic quarter, Le Suquet, climbs up a hill above the Vieux Port where magnificent yachts and fishing boats bob in the water. In a chateau at the top of Le Suquet is the Musée de la Castre, which offers a fine collection of antiquities from the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
- Grasse - Undoubtedly the most fragrant place in France is Grasse, a hillside town 22 miles west of Nice, that is an important centre for perfume manufacture. Of the 40 or so perfumeries in Grasse, only three - Fragonard, Galimard and Molinard - are open to the public. Guided tours take visitors through every step of production, including the work of the nez, the term used for perfume masters who are experts at judging and refining the scents. Another source of information is the Musée International de la Parfumerie, which traces 400 years of perfume making in Grasse and the details of its production. The museum also offers a rooftop conservatory filled with the heady aromas of lavender, mint, thyme and jasmine. Other places to visit in Grasse include the Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Puy, which includes some fine paintings by Rubens and native son Jean-Honoré Fragonard. More of Fragonard's work is on view at the Villa Musée Fragonard where the artist lived in 1790. Also worth a stop is the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire de Provence, which exhibits Gallo-Roman artifacts, period furniture, and ceramics.
- Iles de Lérins - Across the bay from Cannes, the Lérins Islands of Ste-Marguerite and St-Honorat are known for their tranquility and natural beauty. Especially worth discovering on Ste-Marguerite are the botanical gardens of Fort Royal (where "the Man in the Iron Mask" was held prisoner). The island of St-Honorat belongs to a small community of Cistercian monks and is the site of an impressive 11th-century fortified monastery.
- Menton - Just a few miles from the Italian border and 19 miles northeast of Nice, Menton is a tranquil seaside resort town where the aptly names Promenade du Soleil runs along the beachfront. Surrounded by lemon groves, the town celebrates every February with the Fete du Citron, which features giant sculptures made from lemons. Among its historic landmarks is the Eglise St-Michel with a sumptuously ornate 17th-century baroque interior. The multi-talented Jean Cocteau, who excelled as a poet, artist, dramatist, and filmmaker, is the focus of the Musée Jean Cocteau, located in a 17th-century seaside fortress with exterior walls decorated by Cocteau himself. More of Cocteau's work can be seen at the Hotel de Ville where the walls in the Salle des Mariages are adorned with his frescoes. Another place to visit is the Musée de Préhistoire Régionale, which traces human habitation in the French Riviera from its earliest beginnings.
- Monaco - Occupying its own glamorous corner of the Riviera between Nice and Menton, the tiny independent Principality of Monaco, known for its Grand Prix Automobile Race, requires no border formalities. A legendary sight is the Palais Princier, where a changing of the guard takes place each day at 11:55 am. Visitors can tour the state apartments and the Musée des Souvenirs Napoléoniens, which displays personal items belonging to Napoléon in the west wing of the palace. The tomb of the late Princess Grace and Prince Rainier can be visited in the Cathédrale de Monaco. Perhaps Monaco's most famous building is the fabulously ornate Casino de Monte-Carlo designed by Charles Garnier, architect of the Paris Opéra. Along with the gaming rooms with their marble floors and crystal chandeliers, the casino has its own miniature opera house, Salle Garnier, where top opera stars perform. Also well worth a visit is the Musée Océanographique et Aquarium, which offers exhibits on ocean exploration and nearly 100 tanks of marine life. Spectacular views can be enjoyed from the hillside Jardin Exotique, where the plantings include more than 7,000 varieties of cacti and succulents.
- Saint-Paul-de-Vence - Within the ramparts of this charming perched village, 19 miles north of Nice, are winding streets filled with shops and art galleries. In the main square is the legendary La Colombe d'Or, a restaurant and inn, which displays a fabulous art collection that includes works by Picasso, Derain, Matisse, Dufy, and Bonnard. The collection was acquired by the original owner who was only too happy to accept paintings from impoverished artists in lieu of cash for the meals or rooms. Just outside the walls is the world-renowned Fondation Maeght, a modern art museum with a permanent collection of some 6,000 works by nearly every major artist of the past century. The gardens surrounding the museum are filled with sculptures and mosaics by such masters as Chagall, Miró, Giacometti and Calder.
- Vence - This small village is home to the Chapelle du Rosaire, also known as the Matisse Chapel. The artist designed this strikingly simple church to thank the nuns who nursed him back from a serious illness. He claimed that it was his masterpiece.
- Villefranche-sur-Mer - Set around a picturesque harbour overlooking the Cap-Ferrat peninsula, 4 miles east of Nice, the town offers a well-preserved historic quarter, which includes the 17th-century Chapelle St-Pierre adorned with frescoes by Jean Cocteau. An impressive citadel guards the port which welcomes cruise liners during the summer season.
These are just a few of the beautiful towns and villages that will enthrall you but there are many others equally charming and deserving a visit. And of course, if you can't visit this region in person, then we hope that our website will enchant you just as much.