Things To Do and Activities in the
French Riviera, Cannes, Nice, Monaco
Driving the Coast
Getting around by automobile is relatively straightforward, and certainly it is it is the preferred mode of travel if you intend to visit as many locations as possible on your own terms without the aggravation of having to line up private cars or taxis in advance and pay substantial fares. Hertz, Avis and Europcar are well established along the coast, as are any number of smaller local car rental outfits. WIMCO will make all of your vehicle arrangements when you book, which effectively — and conveniently — puts a car in your hands as soon as you arrive.
France has been called by some a motorist's paradise, and certainly this portion of the south coast does nothing to offset that reputation. The A8 autoroute runs parallel to the coast inland and provides high-speed travel across southern Provence — to be sure, it runs all the way from Italy to Spain. Between Nice and Menton run three more local cliff-bound routes — the Grande Corniche through la Turbie, the Moyenne Corniche through Eze, and the Corniche Inférieure fronting the coast. The views are stunning — mountains coursing skyward on one side, the world in many cases dropping off into oblivion on the other with the great blue expanse of the Mediterranean filling the void all the way to the horizon. Be advised that some of the more popular coastal routes become congested in the middle of the summer, especially during high season in the French vacation calendar between mid-July and the end of August.
Nobody really thinks about the French Riviera without the Cannes synapse going off, and for good reason. The town is a showcase of recreational energy, featuring casinos and restaurants, a grand bayfront hotel, fairs and festivals, beaches crawling with people, vibrant street life and a harbor full of boats. It was originally a quaint fishing village until 1834 when British Lord Chancellor Brougham happened upon it, liked it, built himself a villa and so inaugurated a formidable British vacation presence here.
The enormous Carlton Hotel looms over Cannes' main stretch of beach along the palm-lined boulevard de la Croisette. It is a paparazzi goldmine. So too the modern Palais des Festivals located adjacent to Casino Croisette at the Vieux Port harbor wall. It is here that the famed Cannes Film Festival is staged, a fixture every May since 1946.
Parts of Cannes still remain true to its small, fishing-port past, with narrow, winding streets and allées that take you away from the waterfront commotion and up to small local squares where people play boules, where tiny shops and open markets offer fresh produce, pasta and bread. The oldest section of town—Le Suquet—thrives on the slopes of Mont Chevalier overlooking the harbor, the Bay of Cannes and the wooded Iles de Lérins beyond.
Cannes Film Festival
The Festival Palace is where it all happens. When the Cannes Film Festival is in town, paparazzi crowd under the palm trees, popping flashbulbs at the glittering movie stars swanning up the broad, red-carpeted stairs to find out who has won the Palme d'Or.
A mecca for artists and art lovers, Picasso arrived here in 1961 and lived here until when he passed away in 1973. Despite overbuilding today, Mougins claims extraordinary views over the coast.
Picasso's final a monastic retreat, of the Abbey of Lérins. Its 13th-century bell tower and arcaded chapel form a pretty ensemble in a magnificent setting. Approached through an alley of ancient cypress, the house Picasso shared with his wife, Jacqueline, overlooks the broad bowl of the countryside.
Cap d'Antibes & Antibes
Just beyond Cannes to the east is Cap d'Antibes—"the Cap" to the in-crowd—a peninsula of rocky coves lapped by the waters of the Mediterranean, of pine-shrouded high ground dotted with exclusive properties and lavish retreats. Such a place! Cap d'Antibes is a destination unto itself, a special sidebar to the bustling Côte d'Azur.
In the western crook of the peninsula on the still waters of Golfe-Juan is one of the Riviera's most animated towns, Juan-les-Pins. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway spent considerable time here in the 1920s and 1930s, and they left a legacy of erudite hipness that still describes the scene today. Charming little restaurants share narrow streets and boulevards with a phalanx of colorful bars whose youthful clientele brim with energy and spirit. On a balmy summer night it is an infectious center of activity. In late-July the International Jazz Festival comes to town, renowned among jazz aficionados and stars alike.
Across the peninsula to the northeast is the larger town of Antibes. The ancient and the modern join hands here at Château Grimaldi, an elaborate 12th-century palace once inhabited by the ruling family of Monaco, now the site of the Musée Picasso with a formidable collection of the master's own work plus items by Max Ernst, Juan Miró, Nicolas de Staël and Fernand Léger.
It has been called the "capital of the Côte d'Azur." Indeed, it is the biggest resort on the French Mediterranean coast and tips in just behind Paris in terms of everything from airline traffic to museums. Nice is mega-Riviera, a thriving conflux of oceanfront, shopping, nightlife, culture and recreation. The great promenade des Anglais along the city's extended crescent of beach pulses like an aorta. On one side, the city itself — its faithfully restored older section with twisted streets, impromptu ateliers and picturesque markets—spreads up the hill known as "the Château" rising behind it. On the other, the beach and the Med unfold– striations of tropical blue water, white surf, yellow sand, and a multicolored palette of people and umbrellas.
Nice is big and crowded and wonderfully French, with traces of an Italianate past that survived well into the 19th century. It is a vibrant city, nearly impossible to take in sufficiently on a short visit. The museums alone are abundant—Musée Matisse, Musée Masséna, Musée Chagall, Musée des Arts Asiatiques, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Musée d'Art Contemporain...a cultural historian could be lost here for months. This, not to mention the allure of a town with an endless supply of French essence—sidewalk cafés and pungent bistros gracing the most unassuming allées, people enjoying street life in the open air. Among the historical landmarks for which Nice is known is the resounding Belle Epoque hotel le Négresco, arguably the most renowned luxury hotel on the French Riviera. Indeed, this is a resort town par excellence.
The Chagall Museum
The Russian artist Marc Chagall created a genre virtually his own with his lively, large-scale renderings of Russian village life, as filtered through the prism of Yiddish folklore.
The Matisse Museum
A stroll through the museum will allow the visitor to discover Matisse's mastery of different mediums and techniques with works from every period of his life thus revealing the evolution in Matisse's art.
The Picasso Museum
Pablo Picasso spent several months in the Chateau Grimaldi, where he created numerous works. The unusual techniques and media that he used (marine paint, asbestos cement, plywood etc.) may be indicative of post-war shortages but they are first and foremost an example of the artist's enormous propensity for experimentation with new materials.
Of course there is more to the area around Nice than Nice itself. Just to the east is Cap Ferrat jutting resolutely into the Mediterranean, another of the Côte d'Azur's prime locations for exclusive real estate, elaborate villas, and a well-oiled yachting presence evident most notably in the waters around the port of St. Jean Cap Ferrat. On the northern side of the cape are the understated though lively little waterfront towns of Villefranche and Beaulieu. And just down the road is one of the absolute gems of the French Riviera, the enchanting village perché Eze clinging to a hilltop some 1,500 feet above the Med. Indeed, Eze is a must.
As you make your way east toward Roquebrune-Cap-Martin and Menton along the Moyenne Corniche, dazzled by the views from your car, you come eventually to the storied principality of Monaco. It cascades from the hills to a lavish waterfront setting most identifiable in the area known as Monte-Carlo. It is here that the motor race so immortalized by Yves Montand and James Garner in the 1966 movie Grand Prix takes place every year in May.
Monaco is a dramatic blend of modern high-rise residences and historic architectural relics that include the palatial Belle Époque hotel l'Hermitage, a number of Charles Garnier creations such as the Casino, the Salle Garnier and the Musée National, and the great Palais Princier where the government of Monaco convenes.
The modern history of this diminutive sovereign state is wrapped up in the high- profile romance between Prince Rainier III, who still maintains authority here, and former movie star Grace Kelly, who died here on a steep winding curve in an automobile accident in 1982.