A week on the French Riviera is a license to explore a region stocked full of fine art, vineyards, hills and beaches. The local buses are all 1 a ride, even for a 90-minute journey into the mountains.
But the best way to get around is via the coastal train, which stops in each resort every 30 minutes or so. 12 will get you a Carte Isabelle, available all summer long, which grants unlimited access on the rails for 24 hours. Cars can be hellish to handle on the busy Riviera roads. Join the locals on a 50cc scooter (no license required) from Holiday Bikes and see your parking problems go up into smoke.
Nice France: Our One Week Itinerary
With sea, sunshine and a liberal set of locals it’s little wonder that the world’s finest artists, from Picasso to Renoir, set up shop on the French Riviera. The Fondation Maeght in Saint Paul de Vence should be your first port of call, as it was for Brangelina et famille after Angelina Jolie popped out her twins in Nice’s Lenval hospital back in 2008.
After the paintings, sculptures and graphics, the tropical dining terrace of La Colombe d’Or beckons. The great and good, including Sir Roger Moore, Orson Welles and (everyone’s favourite royal) Prince Charles have all dined here in the past half-century. The big pull is the exclusive art-filled interior, however. It boasts donations from Matisse, Picasso and Miro, all of whom paid for their dinner in modern art when they couldn’t afford the bill.
Back on the coast the Musee Picasso in Antibes’ Chateau Grimaldi reopened in 2008 fresh from a four-year renovation. The Spanish master used this town centre castle as a studio in the late 1940s and made it his most prolific period.
The Lerins Islands, a kilometre off the coast, weren’t much of an escape for the Man in the Iron Mask who was incarcerated there, but they’re a top day out by ferry from either Nice, Cannes or Juan les Pins. Both are national parks with abundant snorkelling and rich flora, a significant proportion of it Australian (oh, that sweet smell of home).
A top tip is to pick up a free Rando Guide from any tourist office. Published by the state authority, these nine titles (including coast, inland, high hills and mountain bike) list around 400 walks around the Riviera between them.
Over the border
Take a train from Nice and you can be saying ciao over the Italian frontier in less than 30 minutes. The first stop is Ventimiglia; the best day to go is market day, each Friday. The whole town erupts into culinary colour with yellow wheels of parmesan cheese, purple aubergines and red hot chilli peppers from Sicily. Ten minutes along the coast is the classy 1950s resort town of San Remo.The place had enough allure to form the backdrop for The Talented Mr Ripley in 1999.
Back in the Port of Nice, Corsica Ferries plies the three hours across the calm Mediterranean (no Tasman Sea, this) to the Corsican ports of Calvi and Bastia. Both are former Genoese military outposts and fascinating towns in their own right. The beaches in between are some of the quietest and prettiest in France.
Hit the Beach
Paying to go to the beach may be an alien concept. While it’s certainly not de rigueur on the French Riviera, dishing out 20 for a sun lounger on a strip of sand with an attached restaurant (known as clubs or plages) is a joyously self-indulgent way to while away the day. Yes, drinks are extra.
Zplage at the grande dame Martinez Hotel in Cannes is the crown prince of beach clubs. Royalty, wealthy and celebrity visitors line up to cook themselves in the sun on the wooden pontoons that stretch out into the Mediterranean. The lotus flower ponds and red carpets line the pebbles at Castel Plage in Nice were nearly swept away by a storm in 2010, but Castel is hipper than ever, with Harry Potter star Emma Watson and local resident Elton John occasionally popping in. Further down the beach, Beau Rivage Plage is a shade more elegant; lines of white sofas cover a wooden terrace. The most family-friendly of Nice’s beach clubs is Opera Plage right opposite, you guessed it, the opera house. Cheap beers and a giant childrens’ play area set the scene.
For sheer debauchery hit none other than Club 55 in St Tropez. Waiters routinely spray guests with Champagne and lunch bills of 20,000 are not unknown. Also on St Trop’s 5km-long Plage de Pampelonne is the infinitely more chilled Tropicana Plage. It’s elegantly laid back, with orange sun loungers lapped at by the Med and sand-in-the-toes snacking on steak tartare and grilled fish. Yummy.
NB: UV protective swimwear, sun hats and factor 50 sunscreen are simply not done in these establishments. And do not, under any circumstance, wear Crocs.
Take the kids
Secluded bays and lapping waves are what the Riviera is known for. Plage de la Buse by Roquebrune station, 3 km past Monaco, boasts clear water, plenty of parking and shallow depths. Eze-sur-Mer just before Monaco is a similar set up. And you may just hear U2 frontman Bono jamming in his mansion above the beach.
Golden sand is rarely seen in these parts but little ones will love these two notable exceptions. The first is the two sandy coves in front of the Belles Rives hotel in Juan-les-Pins. Both are normally quiet, family-friendly bays with not a trendy beach club in sight, although they do get invaded by toddlers at weekends in summer. Plage du Gigaro is a stretch of tickly sand on the sunset side of the St Tropez peninsula (about 5km from the more decadent beaches on Plage de Pampelonne).
Plage Darse makes up for its unfortunate moniker with a 100m cove of pebbles facing the rugged, wooded heights of Cap Ferrat. Walk along the seaward side of Villefranche’s Genoese citadel, then through the tiny harbour, to reach it. Cap d’Ail’s Mala Plage isn’t on many people’s travel plans. It remains an exclusive patch linked to Monaco by a coastal trail, and linked to the road by a 15-minute downward hike. Two ber-cool restaurants dot the sand.
And finally, here’s one we do mind sharing: an isolated 50m length of beach and crystal clear water midway between Eze-sur-Mer and Cap d’Ail. We are loathed to publish its location on the Internet for obvious reasons. To find it you must descend to a nudist beach (clue: its name begins with a ‘P’), then swim or wade 100m westward. If you can find it from this riddle-like description, please, please, please keep it to yourself!
If You Only Have 24 Hours
Morning: The Old Town
The capital of the French Riviera struggles to wake itself each morning. Rise early and you’ll have the wide Promenade des Anglais, the seafront esplanade named after the rich turn-of-the-century Brits who vacationed here, all to yourself. The healthier among us can pop into Roller Station and pick up a pair of blades or a mountain bike for an hour. Cheaper still are bikes from Vélo Bleu, the bike sharing scheme that has electronic rent-a-bike stands all over Nice.
Wander through the arches on the Quai des Etats Unis at the end of the prom’ into the resplendent Cours Saleya, a pedestrianised 18th-century street lined with pavement cafes. At one end is the fabulous golden house that painter Matisse once lived in. At the other is Le Pain Quotidien, the best breakfast spot in town. Light floods through the tall windows. The bare wooden tables overflow with homemade jams, hearty loaves and caf au lait. Pricier than most, but way cooler.
Nice’s daily flower market (pictured) is right outside. The 30 stalls give off varying tangs of jasmine, rose and lily. Heading back down the Cours Saleya, Monday’s antique stalls should be setting up shop; otherwise, the fruit and vegetable market (a riot of colour) will be in full swing. You can plunge into Nice Old Town right here; a warren of vibrant lanes built 500 to 250 years ago when this city was part of Italy.
A busy morning should, by rights, be followed by a good dose of carbs and sugars. Our French friends make do with a platter of ocean-fresh oysters and langoustine accompanied by a soupon of chilled white wine instead. The Caf de Turin at the Place Garibaldi edge of the Old Town is the locals’ place of choice. They got around to extending their terrace in late 2008 after 100 years of business, so there’s plenty of room for you, too.
Of the many artists who made the Riviera their home, Matisse and Chagall were Nice’s adoptive sons. Wander underneath the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (or MAMAC, as it’s known locally) on Place Garibaldi and jump on the number 15 bus up to their two respective museums in the ritzy suburb of Cimiez. The former is a festival of vibrant forms and colours. Matisse didn’t do watercolours, he did fun. Chagall is more ethereal, deeper and religiously poignant.
Evening: Nice Port
Fancy joining the locals for a 5 feast? Chez Pipo dishes up socca (local chickpea pancakes), a Niois onion pizza and Provence-style dips on long communal tables. For a harbourside blowout hit the rarified terrace of Les Pecheurs in the harbour itself. The 28 set menu is a volley of playfully presented local produce, seafood and cheeses. The Old Town’s bars beckon 10 minutes away on foot. Ask around for the current nightspot of choice: at last check Bliss, Ghost and jazz bar Shapko were the coolest of the cool.
Have you tried any of the places on this itinerary? Got any ideas we haven’t thought of? Have your say using the comments form below.
Nice France Related Links
Rosa Jackson – A blog by a famous Canadian food writer, about her daily adventures in Nice.
Bus routes – We look at this often too every bus route on the coast available to download.
Riviera festivals – This cute website features every local festival along the Riviera.
Riviera Pebbles – Beautiful apartments in Nice, Antibes and Cannes.
Pension Milou – Cracking! A famous dog judge on the Riviera who has a dog home and a daily blog where she takes photos of unsuspecting people. Great stuff.
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