During the Middle Ages, the French built their settlements on the hills near the Mediterranean Sea for optimal protection against foreign enemies. Today, their foresight makes the colorful, elevated villages both scenic and awe-inspiring for visitors to the French Riviera.
You don’t have to be a celebrity to enjoy the South of France; there is something for everyone, from bartering at farmer’s markets to visiting affordable Picasso and Chagall museums.
Cannes is the most well-known destination in the South of France due to the internationally acclaimed film festival that occurs each May. When the films aren’t in town, you can arrange a tour of the 30-year-old Palais des Festivals, the official Cannes theatre. Take in the grand stage where celebrities accept their awards or visit the famous handprints of stars around the Palais.
The bustling Rue de Meynadier is the main shopping street, where you will find a mixture fish shops, boutique clothiers and souvenir stores. In contrast, the glamorous Promenade de La Croisette is the see-and-be-seen luxury boulevard that runs parallel to the Mediterranean.
A popular departure from Cannes is the serene and lush island of Ile Saint-Honorat, located a mile off shore and containing both an imposing, fortified monastery built between the 11th and 14th centuries and a present-day monastery, both part of the Abbaye de Lérins. The monks who live on the island produce their own fine wine, which is so popular it has been served at both the G20 Summit and to the jury of the Cannes Film Festival.
For accommodations, stay at the boutique, naval-themed Splendid Hotel, which overlooks the yacht harbor and the Carrousel des Allées, a vintage and antique market open every Saturday and Sunday.
In the seaside village of Antibes, the Romans requested salted fish guts as a delicacy during their marine voyages. Take a whiff of the medley of scents at the Quai des Pêcheurs fish market, located on the marina, or visit the colorful Cours Massena spice market, where you can purchase almost any spice you can imagine, from black salt and rose salt to different types of curry.
Adjacent to the Cours Massena is the Absinthe Bar, a former 9th-century cellar, where they serve absinthe in the old-fashioned way of using a water spout, spoon and sugar to dilute the strong spirit.
Tour the historic Musée Picasso, the location of Pablo Picasso’s workshop and home in 1946. Picasso left 23 paintings and 44 drawings at the museum, including “La Joie de Vivre,” “Satyr” and “Centaur.”
For a nightcap, have a drink on the balcony of the Hotel Belles Rives, the former villa of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and take in the same brilliant sunset that he marveled across the ocean.
ST. PAUL DE VENCE
St. Paul de Vence is located high in the lush Alpes-Maritimes region of the Mediterraneans and is one of the oldest medieval towns on Riviera. Its isolated mountain location making it a favorite hideaway of artists over the decades.
It was the home of American writer James Baldwin and his companion, Bernard Hassell. Baldwin wrote his famous “An Open Letter to My Sister, Angela Y Davis,” a plea against intolerance, while living in St. Paul.
Painter Marc Chagall was also a resident for 20 years and is interred in a cemetery surrounded by centuries-old cypress trees. Chagall’s work can be found at Chapelle Notre-Dame de la Gardette, a 15th century chapel in St. Paul.
Visit the Place du Jeu de Boules Wednesday mornings for the farmer’s market and purchase Mediterranean specialties such as honey, nougat and brioche. For wine tasting, the 14th-century Petite Cave de Saint-Paul allows you to sample and learn about Grands Crus wine from Burgundy and Champagne and rare wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Provence.
The main strip in Nice is the Promenade des Anglais, where you can visit trendy bars, hotels and relax by the bay. The promenade is a favorite shooting place of films like Alfred Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief” from 1955 and newer films like “The Transporter” (2002) and “Ronin” (1998).
Also located on the promenade is the five-star Hotel Negresco, where you can experience what it might feel like to sleep at the Louvre. There is 500 years’ worth of artwork throughout the hotel because the owner wanted her guests to be able to touch and sit on the centuries-old furniture.
Have dinner in the hotel restaurant, La Rotonde, which boasts a fancy carnival theme, complete with colorful, mechanical merry-go-round horses.
Although the beaches in Nice are quite rocky, the locals prefer them over other beaches in the Riviera because of the clear water. After catching a Mediterranean sun tan, take a leisurely stroll through the Cours Saleya, the flower market in Old Nice, where you can purchase local crafts, flowers and French-milled soaps. Perfume lovers can make their own fragrance at Molinard, located on Rue St François de Paule, located one block off Promenade des Anglais.
Known as the “best-kept secret” of the Riviera, Villefranche is a vibrant seaside town with colorful sailboats dotting the marina; it’s also a top cruise port in France.
The town has a love affair with French artist Jean Cocteau, the filmmaker, poet, novelist and dramatist. Many residents brag about his mark left on a number of places, such as the Citadel, the 16th-century Chapel Saint Pierre and his residence at the Hotel Welcome.
The Citadel is an impressive stone fortress built in 1554 to defend the old town, and today it houses the four museums where you can discover films shot in Villefranche.
A few steps away from the marine-themed Hotel Welcome is the famous family owned seafood restaurant, La Mere Germaine, which opened in 1938 and has been a favorite of Hollywood A-listers for decades.
Èze is perhaps the most extraordinary place in the French Riviera, a mountaintop village perched at a staggering 1,400 feet above sea level. The area was first populated in 2000 B.C. and is described as being an “eagle’s nest” because of its location overlooking a high cliff.
There are only 14 permanent residents, which contributes to its intimacy and mystique. The cobblestone alleyways with medieval arches host boutiques, galleries, restaurants and perfumeries.
The Jardin d’Èze contains an 18th-century church, exotic plants and sculptures by Jean-Philippe Richard. There are also advantageous lookout points for observing the sea and village below.
At the Château de la Chèvre d’Or, former home of Prince William of Sweden, you can lounge on the mini balcony and look out at the clouds below.