The Mediterranean Coast of France

Riviera Corniches

The exact extent of the Côte D’Azur or the French Riviera is a matter of conjecture. But it starts at Menton on the Italian border, still the grand dame of the littoral, genteel, cradled by mountains, with a near perfect climate where lemons grow all year round. It has always been a favourite place for monied English retirees, and their legacy includes some of Menton’s most beautiful gardens- and a distinct lack of decent restaurants. The coast between Menton and Nice has the most dramatically beautiful scenery and expensive real estate of all, best viewed from the Corniche roads that demand an open top sports car and Grace Kelly as essential accessories. (The Grande Corniche has the best views, the lower Corniche the worst traffic.) Extravagant pink villas and palm trees adorn the terraces above a sublime blue sea, but the beaches are small and pebbly and designed to be inaccessible. The Caps, d’Ail, Martin and Ferrat, are the preserve of the wealthy with fabulous villas and acres of luxuriant exotic gardens, all well protected behind chien méchant signs and more sophisticated electronic security. But there are little rocky coves and quiet beaches to be discovered by the determined pedestrian and rock-scrambler. Be prepared to park the car- or better still come by train- and follow the beach paths round the Caps. Unless you want to splash out on a very grand hotel, or have friends in the right villas, Nice is the best base. You could drive through Monaco in a few minutes it’s so small- about the size of Hyde Park, though expanding vertically with skyscrapers and horizontally with landfill. If you do stop don’t miss the over-the-top Casino or its gorgeous terrace, and Andrew Lloyd Webber recommends the Hotel de Paris restaurant though his bill for two was about £300. There is a beach but even Princess Grace apparently once complained that you couldn’t sunbathe anymore because of the shade from the skyscrapers. A fine place for an aerial view of Monaco is La Turbie, one of the most extraordinary Roman monuments in France, once 50 metres high, dominating the entire region from its cliff top overlooking Monaco. There is a quiet little garden on the cliff edge with fabulous views; you can even hear Monaco when the Grand Prix is in full throttle. To the west Cap d’Ail yields a good, slightly out of the way, beach at Plage Mala. Eze, clinging to its clifftop, is the perched village of perched villages and it’s standing room only in the summer; it too has a beach, and a steep path to it named after Nietzsche- a walk that inspired Thus Spake Zarathustra. Beaulieu is a bit like Menton, the Cheltenham of the Côte d’Azur. It too has a wonderfully benign climate, but much smarter hotels, La Reserve being the grandest example. Villa Kerylos is a treat- a faux Grecian villa, complete with mosaics and frescoes, where its owner, Theodor Reinach lived out an Athenian lifestyle, whatever that might be, in the last years of his life. St Jean Cap Ferrat is worth visiting for another fantasy villa, the Musée Ephrussi de Rothschild, 17 acres of prime real estate along the crest of the Cap, with panoramas on all sides. A pink and white villa with marble floors and Tiepolo ceilings opens onto formal Italian gardens, cactus groves, a Japanese garden and otehr exotica. Gaze on aquamarine sea from the shade of the umbrella pines and appreciate the appeal of such a divine location – more perhaps than the Baroness who built it, who didn’t bother to visit it for the last 20 years of her life. Plage des Fosses on the other side of the village of St Jean Cap Ferrat is a relatively quiet beach, from which there is a path round to the end of the peninsula. At the very tip is the Grand Hotel du Cap Ferrat which features among other luxuries a funicular railway to the beach. Villefranche is a gem, but its deep harbour and naval visitors ensures it falls well short of bijou. Real washing hangs across the narrow streets and real cats still snooze in doorways. The seafront is pretty with pastel hued facades and a sailor’s chapel decorated by Cocteau (who also frescoed the Salles des Mariage in Menton, a particularly recherché wedding location.) Nice is a wonderful gutsy town, as sophisticated as any in France but with a lively Southern quality that makes it unique. Contrast the Belle Epoque glamour of the Promenade des Anglais with a drink in the Negresco hotel and a glimpse of the ton-weight Baccarat chandelier, with the funky streets of the old town and a socca (chickpea) pancake. It’s a a Niçois speciality and no-one does it better that Bar René Socca (93 62 37 81) on Rue Miralhetti. Don’t miss them any fine museums which include a brave new modern art gallery, and the recently restored Matisse museum. The jazz festival in the Cimiez Roman amphitheatre is reason enough to be there in August. The beaches are disappointingly pebbly but at least several are free. Here the Côte d’Azur seems to reach the zenith of awfulness; at first glance it’s a Hollywood strip of neon, hoardings and supermarchés only yards from the sea, dominated by the great hulking curve of the much reviled modern complex of Marina Baie des Anges. However the area also encompasses the best art in the south, the best restaurants and the biggest yachts. But unless you actually have a megayacht anchored in Antibes, head for the hills for accommodation or food. Excellent roads permit reasonably quick forays back to the coast. At Cagnes-sur-Mer the beach is too pebbly for comfort but the original medieval village of Haut-de-Cagnes more than compensates. It is crowned by the 14th-century Château- don’t miss the Suzy Solidor collection of paintings of herself, especially her portrait by Tamara de Lempicka. Steep winding streets, equipped with the requisite bougainvillea, dozing cats and satellite dishes also accommodate good restaurants and a cacophonous nightlife (Jimmy’s and The Blue Moon are key nightspots). You can park here in the world’s first fully computerised car park, a typical Cote d’Azur conjunction of high-tech and ancient history. Visit the Renoir house at nearby Les Collettes, where his studio is preserved with palette and easel just as he left them, and there are several orginal paintings to see. The house is surrounded by Renoir’s beloved olive grove, a shady sanctuary on a hot day. It is true that the Colombe D’Or (93 32 80 02) in St Paul de Vence is over priced but so is everything else. Rooms need to be booked well in advance but dining on the terrace ( the serving of 15 hors d’oeuvres is recommended) is pleasure enough, surrounded by a priceless collection of art donated in lieu of meals and rooms by Léger, Picasso, Calder, Braque and more. Everyone came to St Paul and in August the streets are so crowded it seems as if they are all still there. Retreat to the Fondation Maeght down the road, one of the world’s most beguiling modern art museums. The garden in particular, is a pine shaded labyrinth of brilliant, witty, colourful modern sculpture, and attenuated Giacometti figures stroll across the courtyard. Just outside Vence, the Chapelle du Rosaire, decorated by Matisse is a poignant testimony to the artist’s genius, with stained glass and cut-outs done at the end of his life when he was sorely afflicted by arthritis. Or you might head for the perfume town of Grasse where the smell of Ambre Solaire soon gives way to pine, jasmine and roses. Below Grasse is Sophia Antipolis- the Silicon Valley of the Côte d’Azur, all landscaped roads and jogging American executives, the “beach boffins” who are the latest to colonise the region. Beaches improve considerably towards Antibes. A public beach on the east of the Cap stretches from Pointe de l’Ilet to the Port de la Salis. It’s the only sandy beach apart from the tiny Plage de la Garoupe, Scott Fitzgerald’s “bright tan prayer rug of a beach” in Tender is the Night, which was first cleared of seaweed by Gerald Murphy for his chums Picasso and Cole Porter. Now wooden decks extend the private beach out over the rocks, typical of many of these beach clubs. Lack of sand is compensated by clear waters this far out. Most of Cap d’Antibes is the preserve of luxurious pied dans l’eau villas and private beaches. Sample Fitzgerald’s “lost caviar days” with drinks at the fabulous Eden Roc Hotel, contemplating deep blue sea beyond the white railings of the Thirties terrace, and the organic shaped pool hewn out of the rocks where mad Zelda once used to dive. Antibes itself feels real, a working city. Beyond Port Vauban (centre of Mediterranean yachting) the grid of streets behind the old harbour walls is Graham Greene’s town. There is an excellent market and you can eat unpretentiously in Greene’s favourite restaurant, Chez Felix, (93 34 01 64) where they will show you your fish before it is cooked, and Greene always said he “found short stories served to me with my meal.” The Chateau Grimaldi has a superb Picasso collection, including La Joie de Vivre, inspired by the light and colour of the south. Many were painted in the chateau just after the Second World War and are seen at their best in the luminous sealight that pours in the windows. Juans-les-Pins has a brilliant beach, lots of people think so, and its wide golden sands are barely visible for blue and white striped parasols. But it’s supposed to be crowded and its frenetic beach life of intensive sunbathing and shoreline promenading is one of the palpable pleasures of the Côte d’Azur. Or you might devote a few hours to a proper bouillabaisse at Tetou (93 63 71 16) on the Golfe-Juan beach. Juans-les-Pins attracts a young crowd- all cute French girls and dudes on screeching motos. After dark it is the place for throbbing nightlife and there is a annual jazz festival under the eponymous pines every July. Cannes is chic and expensive and determined to stay that way. Its celebrity beaches, most of them private, are cleaned and raked daily, and the view of the grand hotels and boutiques of La Croisette is as spectacular as the yacht infested seascape. Beyond the old town there is a good long stretch of sandy public beach.To sample the luxuries of Cannes do cocktails on the Carlton Terrace, favourite of the movie barons during the Film Festival. Alternatively head for the bistros of the old town of Le Suquet. If you climb as far as the 11th-century Tour du Mont Chevalier you will be rewarded by a splendid view along the coast. Mougins, however, just to the north of Cannes is the place for a serious food experience, and most serious of all is Le Moulin de Mougins, (93 75 78 24) run by the great Provencal chef, Roger “Cuisine du Soleil” Vergé. (Think of truffles inside courgette flowers, or lavender blossom beignets…) There are dozens of others, less extravagant – Feu Follet, (93 90 15 78) for example, has a lovely terrace overlooking the village square.

The Esterel Coast

After Cannes the geography changes dramatically, as a spectacular Corniche road hugs the crimson cliffs of the Esterel massif, indented by small bays and sandy coves. Geography has thus far frustrated wholesale development though the route is marred by purgatorial traffic for most of July and August. The most inaccessible beaches are inevitably the most rewarding, (and even those are usally signalled by an ice-cream stand) but wherever you pause the sea views and jagged rocks are gorgeous. Stop at Point de l’Esquillon for a grand view of the Med, the Esterel behind and the great red cliffs of Cap Roux further down the coast. Or you can climb Cap Roux itself for a total panorama. The cliffs provide backdrop drama for the beaches at Anthéor and Agay. Agay has a broad loop of sandy beach and you can walk across the cap du Dramont to Plage le Dramont, where American troops established a beachhead in 1944. Sol e Mar is a good hotel on the beach with salt water pools and great views. That’s it though. There are a few little beaches- the Plage d’Arène Grosse, for example, is pleasant for an evening pastis with a distant view of the twinkling St Tropez promontory. But from then on you are into the massive family holiday complex of St Raphaël and Fréjus; both towns have more or less merged into one amoebic mass of camping sites, holiday apartments and yacht harbours. It has been a favoured spot since the Romans built their villas here, but you really need one of your own to appreciate the benefits. Fréjus town however, about a mile inland, has magnificent Roman monuments which include the ampihitheatre, theatre and several aqueduct arches still standing. In the Cité Episcopale with its cathedral, elegant coffered cloisters, and Renaissance doors, Fréjus also possesses the oldest baptistry in France, probably 5th century, an octagon of Corinthian columns pilfered from the Roman forum. St Aygulf to the south is quieter, with a soft sand beach and sheltering pines. You can take a Bateau Bleu from St Raphaël to St Tropez, just over an hour and a lovely, windblown sea voyage – necessary if you are travelling by train since the railway doesn’t go to St Tropez.

Corniches des Maures

Bypassed by the A8 autoroute the Massif des Maures remains, remarkably, a still unspoilt wilderness of pine, chestnut and cork forests providing welcome relief from the over developed coast. Forest fires are a constant threat, no matches, please. Or arson, for that matter; a constant temptation, with all that empty building potential. Note that some roads are closed during the summer to minimise the risk. Most accommodation on the coast is modern Provençal style villas and apartments; if you want the real thing head inland to La Garde-Freinet or Collobrières. St. Maxime is a sort of St Tropez overflow town, but you might just as well be grossed out by the original. Port Grimaud is interesting, a Provençal pastiche housing estate, built by architect François Spoerry in 1968. Its Venetian style lagoon village with pedestrianised “streets” and bridges and personal boat parking spaces has proved an enormously popular tourist attraction and the buildings have matured well. It presages the purpose built resorts of the Languedoc-Roussillon coast. St Tropez (St-Trop to the French) is much maligned but still great fun. The crowds, the monstrous traffic, the Johnny Halliday lookalikes and the white cowboy boots are all part of the spectacle. And it remains very fashionable among Europeans, especially the art crowd, who rent or buy villas or exquisitely restored village houses. The key is to stay inland in Gassin or Ramatuelle and drive to one of the beach clubs on Pampelonne beach to the east, (Epi-Plage, for example, or Club 55 where BB gave her end of career party), all of which have excellent restaurants, pools and sometimes even grass. Then you venture on to the beach to promenade along the shore and ogle everybody else-there is plenty to ogle. Pampelonne is the plus branchée plage of all. Go to St Tropez in the morning for the market- the earlier the better if you are star-spotting, or in the early evening to sit at Café Sennequier and yacht-watch; most of these yachtees seem to spend all their time in port drinking ostentatious cocktails and never putting out to sea. The Musée de l’Annonciade is worth visiting for its excellent post-Impressionist collection; Derain, Signac, Seurat, Dufy, Braque, most of whom came here when St Tropez was still a quiet little fishing village, before Bardot and Vadim turned it into Paris by the Sea. Byblos where Mick married Bianca is still fashionable, a wildly exotic hotel and nightclub, sumptuously furnished and incredibly expensive. Seeking peace and quiet here in summer seems almost perverse, (why come?) but a possibility is Plage de l’Escalet, accessible via a winding road south of Cap Camarat. Or there is a sweet palm- fronded beach at Gigaro on the Baie de Cavalaire. Cavalaire-sur-Mer itself is choc-a-bloc with new development though the long sandy beach merits it at least. The little resorts of Cavalière and Pramousquier are nicer, with sheltered sandy beaches and more discreet development Bormes-les-Mimosas is over run by les Anglais but they know a good thing when they see it and it is a very beguiling little village, with a truly gorgeous beach at l’Estagnol; Parasol pines fringing a wide bay of turquoise water. The marina is pretty monstrous as is the port of Le Lavandou. Bormes though is a good place to start the Route des Vins of the Maures. Hyères is the potted palm capital, which combined with moorish architecture makes it seem quite exotic in a gentle sort of way. First favoured by Queen Victoria it was one of the first to attract the English in the 19th century. Despite wholesale development (three leisure ports, 22 miles of beaches and lots of windsurfers) the town itself still retains a quiet charm, and has been a highly favoured film set. Appearances may be deceptive however since this was also the location of the notorious gangland murder two years ago of the town’s député, and the whole region seethes with political intrigue. Best of all are the Iles d’Hyères, three remarkably unspoilt islands off the coast- much of the land is protected and the sea here is unpolluted and particularly good for scuba diving. Ile du Levant has a well established naturist colony at Héliopolis.

Toulon to Marseilles

Unless you have a penchant for sailors you can skip Toulon, France’s biggest naval base, but further along the coast are several pleasant resorts, with the added enticement of some of the best wine the south has to offer. Sanary, once home to Aldous Huxley, is a sweet resort of pink and ochre facades and palm trees, which has engulfed the original little port; sip a kir on the promenade and contemplate the boats bobbing in the harbour. To the west the winds buffetting Cap Sicié make the beaches popular with windsurfers. Here too is Ile des Embiez, the pleasure playground of pastis magnate Paul Ricard, who has also developed Ile de Bendor off Bandol. Bandol is smart and pretty but most distinguished by its excellent wine; Domaine Tempier makes delicious reds and rosés. There is a good safe beach between La Madrague and Les Lecques and the nearby aquapark makes it particularly good for kids. La Ciotat was once a major shipbuilding centre and the old harbour adds flavour to what is now a seaside resort. Cassis is one of the most pleasing resorts along this coast, and has controlled development better than most. Their particular claim to have invented bouillabaisse should be indulged since the local white wine is the perfect accompaniment. Savour the combination here at Chez Gilbert, (42 01 71 36) one of several restaurants round the harbour. You will be served the traditional way; the fishy broth first with rouille sauce, followed by a vast platter of the fish itself. There are small sandy beaches where you can sleep it off afterwards. A boat from Cassis is the best way (cheaper than Marseilles) to see the famous Calanques, those fjord like inlets of crystal blue sea carved from white cliffs. But the tantalising little beaches remain inaccessible tantalise though unless you walk and scramble down from the cliffs. After penetrating the web of industry and high-rises that surrounds Marseilles, it is somehow disappointing to find the city is not as sleazy as you expect, but it does have a great fish market and you can eat some of the best fish and seafood anywhere in the restaurants of the Vieux Port; elaborate plateaus of molluscs you’ve never seen before. Marseille does have a town beach, Plade du Prado to the south of the Vieux port, with artificial sand, lawns, nightclubs and restaurants, but the Estaque coast, the so-called Côte Bleue, to the west, is a well-kept secret. There are several tiny little Calanques beaches, difficult to get to due to the absence of road along the coast. Further round the beaches of the little fishing villages of le Rouet-Plage, Carry-le-Rouet and Sausset-les-Pins have roads and therefore, other people.

Golfe du Lion

Heavy industry obliterates the coast until you get to the Camargue, with its abundant birdlife, wild white horses and pink flamingoes. The wild expanses yield great long empty beaches like Piémanson, 11 kms from Salins-de-Giraud. Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer nestles cosily round its vast fortified church, an unpretentious little resort, with shops full of Provençal produce, and a broad sweep of sandy beach. Once a year in May it is overwhelmed by the great gypsy pilgrimage when the statue of St Sarah, their patron saint, is carried to the sea to be blessed. The streets throb with flamenco, horse races, bullfights and a rainbow of costumes. The local dish is bouef gardien, a rich stew of bull’s meat, best with nutty Camargue rice. The whole region is a cultural feast; the strange marooned walled town of Aigues-Mortes, the elegant avenues of Aix-en-Provence, the amphitheatre at Arles, the funky bullfight ferias and Roman antiquities of Nîmes. Best of all the staggering sight of the Pont du Gard, an extraordinary feat of engineering, the tallest aqueduct the Romans ever built. Montpellier too is a fine town, full of grand mansions, elegant courtyards, boldly experimental modern architecture and pulsating with concerts and music, The western edge of the Camargue is where the Languedoc-Roussillon tourist initiative really begins; a more proletarian South of France. Until the 1960s most of this 100-mile coast was mosquito-infested swamp, interspersed with tiny fishing villages. Massive government investment has transformed it into miles of golden beaches and purpose built resorts perfect for the dedicated sun, sea and sand holiday. Ecological considerations have been observed, so that long stretches remain without buildings and the sea has the reputation of being amongst the cleanest in the Mediterranean. A1994 French government survey of bathing water, showed the Mediterranean as the cleanest in mainland France with over 96% of the beaches complying with European standards. You either love ’em or hate ’em, but they accommodate vast numbers of sunseekers with remarkable ease. Modern, often quite experimental architecture predominates. La Grande Motte, for example, is an entirely new beach complex of bizarre white ziggurats, providing marinas, apartments and every possible kind of facility from tennis and golf to watersports, all flanked by sandy beaches and pine forests. Effectively though this section of the coast is one long beach party, and very crowded. Much more interesting are the original étangs behind; miniature Camargues of eerily beautiful salt flats and sunbleached blue lagoons, suffused with an extraordinary luminous light. Some yield meandering paths and pink flamingoes, others are exploited for food production. The saltwater lagoon of the Etang de Thau around Sète, for example, is one vast mussel and oyster bed. To eat the produce as fresh possible along with clams, whelks, langoustines and even sea crickets (cigales de mer) head for La Côte Bleue (67 78 30 87) and its verandah overlooking the lagoon in Bouzigues. There is a gutsy, raffish air to Sète itself, a major fishing and industrial port. Its quayside restaurants are full of hungry sailors demolishing vast platters of fruits des mers. It is an ideal place for landlubbers fond of seafood and most of its restaurants can be found in a stroll along the Grand Canal lined with rose pink, pistachio and Camargue blue houses with wrought iron balconies, overlooking Sete’s network of canals and bridges. The Grand Hotel is particularly splendid with its palm shaded atrium and Belle Epoque facade. To the south between the sea and the Bassin de Thau is a long stretch of magnificent windswept beach which continues all the way to Cap d’Agde, another vast new seaside city. Built in vernacular style and pleasing colours of ochre and terracotta, with plenty of palm trees, it really doesn’t offend. It incorporates the old port and further inland the old town itself with its famous black basalt cathedral. Agde also has the largest nudist colony in Europe, complete with naturiste shopping mall and nightclubs. Vestiges of the past can still be found on the coast in places like Gruissan, despite its large resort and marina. The old fishing village is built round the medieval Barbarossa tower, and the windswept shore with its beach huts on stilts is where “Betty Blue” was filmed. Inland there is much to see; the wilderness of the Corbières with its vineyards and remote Cathar castles, and the great château de Salses, looking for all the world like a giant sandcastle. This was the old frontier of Spain and France, and now presages the border with Roussillon. On the final flat stretch, heading directly south, there are several unassuming small resorts. La Franqui-plage is relatively quiet, facing north and away from it all, and Toreilles and St. Maries de la Mer are a bit off the beaten track. But the Etang de Leucate is effectively one huge sports facility with armies of windsurfers plying its waters. Perfect if that’s what you want but there is nothing else. Canet-en-Roussillon is the Perpignan town beach; big, blowsy, with funfairs and a gaily decorated carousel; next door is St Cyprien, which is safe, good for familes, its modern buildings inoffensive especially if all you do is look straight out to sea from under a parasol. Perpignan, capital of Roussillon, is a Catalan town and proud of it, southern, vibrant and colourful. Catch if you can the Catalan dance, the Sardana, performed with great solemnity by its citizens every week in the main square.

Cote Vermeille

Suddenly everything changes as the Pyrenees meet the Mediterranean; the coast road twists and turns round secluded pebbly coves and the rose-tinted rocky outcrops- the Vermeille, vermilion red, that give this, the finest part of the Languedoc-Roussillon coastline, its name. It stretches all the way to the Costa Brava in Northern Spain, and with its Catalonian character, is as redolent of Spain as of France. Inland is worth exploring too. The Pyrenees shelter ancient Romanesque monasteries; remote St Martin-de-Canigou halfway up a mountain and the austere abbey church of St-Michel de Cuxa, whoze marble cloister is so lovely that half of it is in the Cloisters Museum in New York. It is an atmospheric setting for the Pablo Casals music festival every August. Modern art is big at this end of the French coast too. Picasso and Braque invented Cubism at Céret, a few miles from the coast, best known for its cherries and its fine Museum of Modern Art. Before that came Matisse, drawn to little Collioure by its colours, gaily painted little fishing boats and stuccoed houses in shades of pistachio, rose and canary yellow, sheltered by dark green cypresses, all bathed in the famous luminous light. Since it became the birthplace of the Fauvist movement at the turn of the century, this perfectly formed little fishing port has changed surprisingly little, bar the ubiquitous art galleries and souvenir shops that cram its tiny cobbled streets. Three sheltered beaches, both pebble and sand, nestle round the harbour, accommodating bathers and pleasure boats, but they are small. A better bet is to go the long sandy beach at Le Racou to the north, and then come to Collioure to eat- try fresh local anchovies and Collioure wine on the canopied terrace of La Frégate. Just to the north is Argelès, the biggest camping site in Europe- but so well concealed by trees you would hardly know it was there. The beach is good and the old town of Argelès is still there, beleaguered but still centred round its medieval core. The road roller-coasts in and out of the final frontier towns and past the steeply terraced vineyards of Banyuls. Cap Béar is a good place to stop and admire the view of mountains and sea. Banyuls itself is as sweet as its wine; the harbour has palm-shaded cafes, wine caves in the narrow old streets of the town can be visited, and there is a very creditable little beach. The end of the road is Cerbère, the most southerly point of the French coast, proudly flying the red and gold Catalan flag to signal its true allegiance.