Whether you call it the French Riviera or the Côte d’Azur, France’s Mediterranean coast from Cannes to Nice and beyond has an almost mythically glamorous appeal. The beautiful people (le Beau Monde) have flocked here for generations. And if Ernest Hemingway, David Niven, Joan Collins and Elton John have all holidayed here, who are we to argue?
But it isn’t all big names and glamour. Check out the campsites, caravan parks and rental apartments and you’ll soon realize that many of us more, er, ordinary folk like to call this our favourite holiday spot.
If you do have access to the private helicopter pads, the Michelin-starred restaurants, the oh-my-god-look-at-the-size-of-that yachts and the private beaches, you don’t need my advice. But what of those of us who drive our own cars, shop for our own food and maybe have to share a swimming pool with more than just our nearest and dearest? Here are a few suggestions.
Off to market
If you’re self-catering (and even if you’re not), don’t go past the local markets. Every town or village has at least a weekly market and many are held daily (usually mornings only). You are guaranteed top quality produce, but it may not be too cheap. The fruit and vegetables are local and seasonal (asparagus, peaches, melons and tomatoes are all excellent). There’s also local honey, olive oil, sea food and meat. The cheese and pâtés are legendary.
It’s the cheese that can overwhelm – France produces around 400 varieties. Most stallholders allow you to try (gouter) before you buy. My personal choice (and this is a small selection) usually includes a Reblochon (from the Savoie), some Époisses (from Bourgogne) and a nice soft Brie de Meaux. I also like a roll of Chèvre (goat’s cheese) which I slice, place under the grill until just melted and then serve with ultra-thin toast and a crisp green salad…
After the hard work of buying food, it’s traditional to retire to a local café. Here you take a seat on the terrace whilst sipping on a café au lait or glass of wine (depending on the hour). You may, if you like, read a local newspaper such as Var Matin. You will observe that local couples sit side-by-side at a table rather than facing each other. This is so that both parties may watch (and comment) on passers-by. And then, of course, it’s home to eat all that lovely food.
On the road
If you’re brave, join the locals and use a motorbike or moped. If you’re not so brave, then go for a car. Whatever you’re driving, keep your wits about you. Many roads are bordered by deep ditches and drivers think nothing of overtaking with mere centimetres to spare. It can feel like they all graduated from the Monaco F1 Grand Prix School of driving.
Assuming that I haven’t put you off, a car is pretty much a necessity if you want to see the country. There are rewards: driving up a long path towards an old château, maneuvering a tight bend into a valley of vineyards, taking the coastal road at sunset. Even the A8 motorway from Nice airport is scenic: on a clear day you can see both the sea and the Alps.
If you prefer the water, there are plenty of boat trips. Some are sightseeing cruises (mainly from Nice or Cannes), others are the A to B transport variety. Rather than driving to St Tropez, why not take the boat across the bay from Port Grimaud or Ste Maxime? It’s a great alternative to sitting in traffic and has the bonus of keeping children entertained.
Life’s a beach
Of course, there are the A-Lister beaches with private sun-loungers, designer bikinis and paparazzi lenses. But this is not all that the coastline has to offer. Whatever your kind of beach, you’ll find it here. Golden expanse of sand or rocky cove, party central or family-friendly, clothed or, um, unclothed. A small selection:
- Ste Maxime: A quick walk along the beach and then breakfast in a café.
- St Raphael: A favourite spot for a Sunday afternoon family stroll.
- Cannes: Pose with your Gucci bag and pretend that you’re staying at the Carlton.
The coastal paths
If walking is your thing, then take a walk along the coastal path. The Ramatuelle Peninsula (just west of St Tropez) is particularly notable. We walked to Cap Taillat, where the water was clear blue (perfect for snorkeling), the lizards were emerald green and the butterflies flocked through the flowers. A good walking book with short, family-friendly walks (in French) is Les Sentiers d’Emilie dans Le Var / Sur La CÃ´te d’Azur, available in local bookshops.
Shopaholic on holiday
There are plenty of designer boutiques: the Cartiers, Guccis, Vuittons et al. Cannes is good for this (Beach to Armani in less than 5 minutes, should the urge grab you). St Tropez has a smaller selection but also more wallet-friendly shops.
Many towns have a regular brocante (flea or bric-a-brac market). This is a good way to pass the time, pick up a 1950s edition of Paris Match, some mismatched crockery, a few dusty 45′s or some locally-made jewelery.
We traveled down to the Riviera for a random week and found the following: The Harley-Davidson Euro-Festival, Saint’s Day, the Cannes Film Festival and VE-Day commemorations. You’re pretty much guaranteed to find a festival.
Roads may be closed or very busy and there will probably be some extra noise but otherwise, party away! Riviera FM on 106.5FM gives local information in English. In print media, look for the Riviera Times or Riviera Reporter for upcoming events.
You can’t miss the vines, vineyards or wine sellers here: 580 winegrowers produce 160 million bottles annually. There are actually 3 ‘appellations’: Côtes de Provence, Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence and Coteaux Varois en Provence. The region’s specialty is rosé, but red and white are well represented. Check out local supermarkets, wine shops or producers for tastings and to buy.
A few oddities
The Tortoise Village near Gonfaron looks after a variety of tortoises, including Hermann’s Tortoise, the only land tortoise native to France. You may, if you’re very lucky, see one on a nature walk. Be honest, you weren’t expecting that, were you?
Da Vinci enthusiasts – fear not! You can get your fix here. Mary Magdalene died in St Maximin La Sainte Baume and her skull is preserved in the Ste Marie Madeleine Basilica.
And finally, dessert…
How could I omit to mention the sweeter things of life? A local specialty is Tarte Tropezienne, a sponge cake with crème patissière filling and sugared topping. (Tip: It doesn’t keep well, so eat the same day.)
Homemade ice-cream is everywhere. Many people will skip dessert at a restaurant, buy an ice-cream cone and eat it whilst strolling along the promenade. Try the Dame Blanche, a sundae made with vanilla ice-cream, chocolate sauce and Chantilly cream.