The French Riviera, or Cote d’Azur as it is also romantically named, is familiar to all of us from films. Famous for its festivals and beaches, it is still the favorite holiday spot for aristocrats and celebrities. In Saint-Tropez, in particular, if you see a crowd of people who have been waiting around for hours and several camera operators mingled amongst them, you can be sure you are passing by either the house or yacht of someone famous or a nightclub that they frequent. The size of the crowd gives a rough idea of how long they have been waiting and whether it is worth tagging on to get a glimpse of the famous name yourself. Groups are inevitable if you visit the Cote d’Azur in the summer months, so spring and autumn are preferable to enjoy the authentic flavor of a holiday here.
Despite being so well known from films and television, the Cote d’Azur still manages to surprise. For a start, it is not as hot is one imagines, but just that pleasant temperature that makes one wish every day of the year was like that. It is built up without being defaced, and the old parts of the towns and cities along the coast are well preserved. This is where most visitors to the region congregate, and of course, on the long sandy beaches, where besides tourists, many local people come at lunchtime for a swim, a spot of sunbathing, and a snack before returning to work. The sea is astonishingly clean, considering the proximity of so many industrialized countries.
Nice is the chief city on the Cote d’Azur and the center of both tourism and business. It was founded by the Greeks around 500 BC, and three centuries later colonized by the Romans, who built many of the monuments that attract tourists today. Over subsequent centuries Nice sporadically changed hands between Italian and French rule before ending up as part of France in 1860. Traces of Italian influence are still evident in the cuisine, accent, architecture, and customs, and this cultural duality enhances the city’s charm. After making the short journey from the airport and settling into your hotel, the best way to explore the city is to stroll around and visit the long beach, the restaurant-lined harbor, museums, monuments, historic churches, Roman baths, and the famous Massena Place.
Several festivals are held here at different times of the year. Once you feel you have seen all Nice has to offer, then you can extend your explorations to Cannes and Saint-Tropez to the west. Saint-Tropez was once a small fishing village and is still small enough to get around quickly in a single day. Although the attractive old buildings remain, the fishing boats have now been replaced by expensive yachts, and most of the shops along the waterfront specialized inexpensive goods to match. After this glimpse into how the other half lives, you can climb up to the citadel overlooking the picturesque harbor and the surrounding sea and countryside. The 16th-century castle now houses a naval museum. Cannes has a similar fortress with an 11th-century clocktower that commands an equally spectacular view but is a more demanding climb.
If you happen to be in Cannes during April and May, the atmosphere of the famous film festival can easily carry you away with dreams of being ‘discovered’ by a film director. Before returning home, try to leave time for a visit to the much less well-known town of Eze, approximately a half-hour drive east from Nice. In this picturesque town built on a high hill, you seem to travel back in time to the 17th century. From the botanical garden of exotic plants on the very top of the mountain, there is a breathtaking view, whose memory will keep you enthralled all the way home.