From Nice eastwards, the Riviera is best viewed from ground level. And pedestrians, smug in the knowledge that they are not contributing to the coastal smog, can get to parts that the motorist can't reach. Delights like the Cap Ferrat peninsula, for example. (The French call it a presqu'île - almost an island - which sounds much more romantic.) It dangles like an ear-ring into the Mediterranean between Nice and Monaco, its jewel the pink-and-white Ephrussi Palace, perched along its skyline.
The undemanding three-hour walk around the Cap offers a panorama stretching from the Italian Riviera in the east to the terracotta Esterel Mountains in the west, with the snow-capped Southern Alps as a backdrop.
It is worthwhile to pick up a map of the route from the Tourist Office before you start. There are maps posted along the route, but they forgot to put ‘You Are Here’ dots on them, which means that you know where you want to be, but not where you are, so it is easy – well, for me anyway – to get lost. I prefer the clockwise route, because, that way, the sun obligingly follows you around. Also, it is more congenial, especially in the narrower bits, to be walking in the same direction as other walkers.
Baie des Fourmis
You start from the intriguingly-named Baie des Fourmis (Bay of Ants) in Beaulieu just off the Lower Corniche, one of the three scenic roads that follow the coastline. (The others, naturally, are the Middle and Upper Corniches.)
The first part of the walk follows the eastern shoreline, passing through the tiny Place David Niven – named after the actor who lived in the adjacent Villa Lo Scoglietto, previously owned by Charlie Chaplin – until it reaches the little town of Saint Jean, with its inviting restaurants and a coconut-ice Town Hall with trompe l’oeil flowers painted around the door.
The eastern aspect offers spectacular coastal and mountain views, from the three levels of Eze – beach, hill-top village, and, to complete the impression of a wedding-cake, the 500-metre Col d’Eze – to Monaco and the Italian Riviera.
The transformation of the Cap from bucolic backwater to millionaires’ retreat began at the turn of the century, when financial heavy-weights like King Leopold II of Belgium and banker Baron de Rothschild chose to build summer homes there.
It is the upmarket end of the Cote d’Azur: apartment blocks are barely tolerated, there are no trailer parks – and don’t even ask about campsites. On the Cap, individual mansions – the more fortress-like the better – are the rule. The impression is of old money: none of your freshly-laundered Marbella millions here.
The villas (or, occasionally, casas – the Italians have settled in strength) may have homely names like Belle Vue and Blue Moon, but the notices outside them are less than welcoming: ‘Access forbidden’ is the norm; ‘Villa booby-trapped’ not uncommon.
Moats are optional, but tall fences and giant cypress hedges seem de rigeur, backed by a plethora of protective technology ranging from people-activated lighting to salivating pit-bull terriers. Even the tiniest Lego-kit harbour is labelled ‘Private, do not moor’.
After security, the second most profitable trade here seems to be gardening. Here, as Gershwin almost said, anything grows. Geraniums, contemptuous of winter, think they are hedges; hibiscus, myrtle, and lemon and orange trees aromatise the air, and bougainvilleas and roses climb high into the branches of umbrella pines. And the rest, as they say, is wisteria.
I left the coastal path at its southernmost point in search of the scrambled-egg coloured Villa Mauresque, built by King Leopold to house his personal priest. His lifestyle – he was known as le noceur – required confessional convenience.
Today, the street opposite, the Avenue Somerset Maugham, commemorates a more recent resident. Here the great storyteller spent the last 38 years of his long life – except for the years of the Occupation during World War II, when it housed German and Italian officers. André Cane, a retired builder and regional historian, now aged 95, remembers being called to brick up the window of Maugham’s study because he found the panoramic view a distraction.
Many of Maugham’s guests at the Villa Mauresque were writers, such as H. G. Wells, Ian Fleming and Evelyn Waugh, but many others achieved their fame in other fields. They included Winston Churchill, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Cecil Beaton, press baron Lord Beaverbrook, who lived on nearby Cap d’Ail, musician Arthur Rubenstein, dancer Isadora Duncan and painters Matisse, Picasso and Marc Chagall.
Overlooking the tip of the peninsula are the sun-drenched terraces of the luxurious 14-acre Grand Hotel du Cap, a favourite refuge of Winston Churchill, where a suite with sea view can set you back £1,800 a night.
The nearby lighthouse heralds a change of scenery and terrain. From here onwards, the views are westwards across the stunning Bay of Villefranche, with its sumptuous yachts and a natural harbour deep enough to welcome the QE2 or aircraft carriers of the US Sixth Fleet.
Now north-bound, the path meanders horizontally and vertically along the water’s edge. Rocky ledges draped with sunbathers hang between trail and sea, while from purpose-built launches latexed divers explore the unpolluted submarine grottoes.
The secluded bay and beach of Passable, dominated at its northern – public – end by King Leopold’s villa, and at the southern – ‘private’ – end by a beach-restaurant, makes a passable refreshment stop before returning to the Lower Corniche, from where frequent and comfortable buses will whisk you back to Nice or Monaco.
Built for the Baroness Beatrice Ephrussi, daughter of multi-millionaire banker Baron de Rothschild during the Belle Epoque, it is now a museum housing the Baroness’s art collection, but it still has the feel of a residence. And if the architecture is a jumble of Italian Renaissance, Gothic, and Romanesque, the end result is harmony.
Note from the editor:
After receiving Ted Jones’ piece about Cap Ferrat, I couldn’t resist doing the walk myself a few days later. This is a delightful walk, made more so by the beautiful views across the bays and surrounding lush aromatic Mediterranean flora. As a byline – the Ephrussi Palace only has 60 parking spaces so, if you are going by car, you may want to avoid visiting this incredible place during the very height of the tourist season.
Inside, overlooked by a gallery, supported by pillars of pink Verona marble, is a covered patio from which lead off six opulently-furnished rooms – one of them a Salon de Thé – containing such treasures as Gobelins tapestries, eighteenth-century paintings and Sèvres porcelain.
From its 4 hectare (10-acre) perch astride the narrowest part of the Cap, with the blue Mediterranean lapping its two shores, the impression of being on the bridge of an ocean liner is so strong that it is no surprise to learn that the Baroness named her folly ‘Ile de France’ and dressed up her 34 gardeners in sailor suits.
The gardens they created are a horticultural and architectural world tour, its seven contrasting themes ranging from formal French and sculptured Japanese to marble Florentine loggias, Moorish grottos and the informal aloes and olive trees of Provence. (The Provençal section owes its authenticity to the fact that the Baroness ran out of money, so had to leave it as it was.)
By car: Basse Corniche (N98), turn off at Pont Saint Jean. By bus: No. 100 from Nice, Menton or Monaco and get off at Pont Saint Jean or No. 81 from Nice.
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Our special thanks and credits to Ted Jones for the photo depicting David Niven square.
Ted Jones is the author of The French Riviera: A Literary Guide for Travellers, published by I.B. Tauris and available from all good English language bookshops.