Before going to the Côte d’Azur, I have heard a lot about it, reading about “the famous names on the French Riviera beaches”, exclusive resorts, Hollywood stars who once got wet in shallow waters of Cannes, Nice, Saint-Tropez, about princess Grace, Picasso’s retreat.
The Film Festival in Cannes or the Casino in Monte Carlo are the things you just have to hear about over the years, and the whole coast is wrapped in such a cloud of glamour-like advertisement that you have to think that this is probably “the best place on Earth”, with “the best sea and the best beaches”, and “the best…” everything! Prices included accordingly, of course.
Well, think again! Or better yet – go there and see it for yourself and you will get the picture.
Sleeping in Toulon
Sure, the coast of French is lovely, it radiates that special charm you expect when coming to France, and it is interesting to swim at the same place you know Brigitte Bardot did just that, and it is quite expensive if you want to dine in popular restaurants or sleep in famous hotels. But, those are not the only options.
Also, French Riviera beaches are lovely, especially in small villages along the coast, but if you are looking for a vacation retreat with the beach and the sea high on your agenda, this shouldn’t be your first pick. People come here because it is the French Riviera, not because it has “the best snorkeling ever”.
I had some lovely time there, and went from one side of the coast to the other! So, let’s start from the beginning. It was 2003, extremely hot August, I spent few weeks in Paris, chasing around places that the 19th century artists occupied, went to Giverny and Rouen to visit Claude Monet’s house (more about it in previous Glimpses!), and a friend and I have decided to go swimming for a few days.
We took the train from Paris to Toulon, a port at the very beginning of the Côte d’Azur. Even though the place is a port, not that beautiful as neighboring towns, and it was mostly inhabited by migrants back then (not a lot of women outside in the evenings), it was still a wise decision to stay here. Toulon was still one comfortable town with everything we needed with prices that were far less than in another small town, only half an hour away – Saint-Tropez.
Peek into Saint-Tropez
“The Côte d’Azur stretches from Saint-Tropez to the town of Menton, almost on the border with Italy. If you take the train, you can go from one side to other in just about two hours and a bit more than 10 euros… In order not to go out of the train every now and then to see one more beautiful small village along the coast and pay four or five euros each time, there is the special rail pass ‘Isabelle’ that costs 10 euros and allows you to hop on and off the train throughout the whole day. That way nothing is actually that far – the Casino in Monte Carlo, the famous English Promenade in Nice or the view of the yachts in Saint-Tropez bay”, this is what I wrote back in 2003.
(I think that the Isabelle pass is now around 12 euros.)
So, the first town on the coast, Saint-Tropez, so charming. With the population of less than 10,000 citizens, this small town with narrow streets, bohemian cafes, authentic architecture, gets overwhelmed during the summer when it welcomes about 100,000 visitors.
Not only that the French would advise you not to go because of such crowds, since there are a lot of other pretty little towns along the coast, but you will also stumble upon the same “recommendations” in guide-books (as I did). But, still, I had to peek at least, to take a walk and have a coffee overlooking the sea.
If you take another half an hour by train, you will get to Saint Raphael. This is one lovely town with a sandy beach and typical cafes along the shore walkway, and a pretty 12th century church. (Having a drink here was so cheap compering to other parts of the coast.)
Stroll around Cannes and Nice
Another half an hour and there was the Cannes station. What the Promenade des Anglais is for the town of Nice, that is what La Croissete is for Cannes. One long walkway along the Mediterranean Sea with the beach on one side and the boulevard on the other. To tell you the truth, I did rush a bit through these two towns, being all impatient to see all those other smaller and lesser known places on the coast. But I did take a walk along both promenades, took a swim, strolled around lovely streets and went to the station again.
And so, the two towns remained as actually quite similar to one another in my mind. One hotel dominated the center of Cannes, the other the center of Nice, and it almost seemed like they were occupying the same spots, even their domes were similar…
There is the old fortress overlooking Nice and you will have one great view of the bay from its terraces. On the other hand, Cannes is proud of its Palais des Festivals et de Congres, where the famous Film Festival is taking place. Both of these towns have few museums, nice wide squares with fountains. And I just loved the Old Town of Nice (such charming authentic architecture), and the Flower Market.
Admire the bay of Monaco
And how about Monaco and Monte Carlo! Everything you have heard about the place – it’s true! You can immediately notice that this is one wealthy city-state, refined in style and taste, with lovely bay, view of the yachts, imposing royal palace overlooking the city, pleasant and cozy.
Prince of Monaco Charles III founded the famous Casino in Monte Carlo in the mid 19th century when the city had financial difficulties. He didn’t want to impose more taxes on people, so he came up with an idea of the Casino. This brought a lot of visitors to the city and the population grew from merely 3,000 to more than 15,000, and continued to grow further. The Italian translation to prince’s name is Carlo, hence – Monte Carlo.
Tax free zone attracted a lot of companies, so the business grew, a lot of golf clubs, prestigious sport associations were opened, the popular Grand prix emerged, numerous museums. The monarchy turned to tourism and it got even more popular when Hollywood actress Grace Kelly married prince Rainier III.
You might find it interesting to know that the first part of the Casino was designed by Charles Garnier who actually did the design for the Paris’ Opera House. In Monaco it is possible to visit the Royal Palace, the private royal collection of antique cars, Oceanography museum, the exotic Cactus Garden etc. I remember being sorry for missing out on the exhibition of Andy Warhol’s work, which took place only a month before I have arrived.