Travel

French Riviera: seemingly the birthplace of luxury and glamour

In Nice, the Promenade des Anglais features the prestigious Hôtel Negresco. The dome, which houses the Salon Royal, was designed by Gustav Eiffel.
In Nice, the Promenade des Anglais features the prestigious Hôtel Negresco. The dome, which houses the Salon Royal, was designed by Gustav Eiffel.

CAP D'ANTIBES, France — As I wander the cobbled streets of this luxurious resort town on the Cóte d'Azur, the sun warm on my face even in early December, I can't help but wonder: Has there ever been a sexier slice of real estate in the world?

Just the words French Riviera conjure images of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly taking the hairpin curves of Monaco's Grand Corniche in the film To Catch a Thief, or of 1960s screen siren Brigitte Bardot sunbathing topless in Saint-Tropez.

Some might credit the modern jet set with discovering the Riviera — which extends east from Saint-Tropez to the Italian border and includes the principality of Monaco, with its glittering, gambling Monte Carlo.

It might come as a surprise, however, to learn that before Bardot, before Cary and Grace, others had found this sun-kissed region in the south of France to be a traveler's paradise.

Early visitors included Britain's Queen Victoria and Russia's Czar Alexander II, novelists Robert Louis Stevenson and Jules Verne, and American captains of industry J.P. Morgan and Jay Gould, who built the Riviera's first hotel and casino, Belles-Rives, in Juan-les-Pins, just west of Cap d'Antibes.

Over the years, the mystique of this Mediterranean coastal strip was enhanced by the rich and famous who lived here (F. Scott Fitzgerald began writing Tender Is the Night while staying at Belle-Rives with his wife, Zelda), and those who died here (dancer Isadora Duncan in a freak car accident in Nice when her long, flowing scarf got caught in the open spokes of the automobile's wheel).

Even the buildings exude drama and sensuality. Cannes' famed Carleton Hotel might be known today as the place where stars congregate during the city's film festival, but its major claim to fame lies in its two distinctive domes. They are said to have been modeled after the breasts of legendary courtesan Caroline Otero, who made the Riviera her headquarters in the years leading up to World War I.

How can you not fall under the spell of such a place?

Picasso left a legacy

I am in Cap d'Antibes to visit the Picasso Museum. When the artist came here in 1946 with his then-partner and muse, Françoise Gilot, he was invited to use the exquisite seafront Château Grimaldi as a studio. When he left, Picasso gave the town many of the pieces he had created during his stay, and the chateau became a museum to showcase these paintings.

The Château Grimaldi had previous incarnations as the acropolis of the 5th- century B.C. Greek town of Antipolis, a Roman fort and a medieval bishop's palace. After wandering through it, I came to the conclusion that what sets the Riviera apart from other beach resorts — aside from its cachet — is the opportunity it affords for a world-class cultural experience.

Take Cannes, for example. It isn't just about celebrities, paparazzi and non-stop nightlife. You also can indulge a passion for literature and art.

From the harbor, it's just a 15-minute ferry ride to Île Sainte-Marguerite, an island dotted with umbrella pines and eucalyptus, and crowned by a forbidding fortress. That fortress, immortalized by Alexandre Dumas in his novel The Man in the Iron Mask, was a prison for a man thought to be the older, illegitimate half-brother of King Louis XIV.

If you love the paintings of Pierre Bonnard, with their intensely rich colors, make your way to Le Cannet, adjacent to Cannes. Hôtel Saint-Vianney, a 20th-century townhouse in Le Cannet's historical center, is now the first museum in the world dedicated entirely to Bonnard's work.

To combine art and literature, head for the town of Menton, described as "the pearl of France," for a chance to visit the newly opened Musée Jean Cocteau.

Cocteau was a poet, artist and filmmaker whose lifelong addiction to opium gave his work in all three mediums a surreal, nightmarish quality. Think a 20th-century Gallic version of Edgar Allan Poe, and you get the picture. I didn't know much about Cocteau before coming to this fascinating museum; when I left, I couldn't wait to find out more.

If you do want to see more, walk a few blocks to the Town Hall for a peek into the Wedding Room, with its gigantic fresco painted by Cocteau, or arrange a tour through Alcyon Riviera Touring (Alcyon.mc) to the millionaires' enclave of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and the Villa Santo-Sospir.

The beautiful villa, with its panoramic views along the coast, was a frequent retreat for Cocteau, who went there often to paint, write and shoot films. One can only hope that the owner, a friend of Cocteau, also was a fan of his work, because, in gratitude to her for allowing him to stay, the artist decorated every surface with sketches, drawings and paintings.

Beyond the glamour, ancient villages

One doesn't come to the Riviera just for the museums. This is an area of myriad pleasures. Cap d'Antibes, for example, offered much more than the Picasso Museum. In the morning, I strolled along its ancient city walls, overlooking the colorful Old Town and the picturesque marina, Europe's largest.

That afternoon, I followed the Route du Paradise, past the open-air market to a building dating to Roman times. In its underground absinthe bar, I was able to summon the ghosts of Picasso, Duncan and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, who, I was sure, found their own Route du Paradise in the potent libation.

On another afternoon in Menton, I dawdled over a leisurely lunch in an outdoor café from which I could see the exact split in the peaks of the Southern Alps that marks the border between France and Italy.

I explored two of the Riviera's most impossibly picturesque villages, Saint-Paul-de-Vence and Mougins.

At Saint-Paul-de-Vence, which has been a town since medieval times, I wandered a maze of steep, cobbled streets before making my way to a wine tasting in the Petit Cave de Saint-Paul. I had hoped to wangle a reservation at the Riviera's most famous restaurant, La Colombe d'Or, but it was closed at the time of my visit.

As for Mougins, nestled between the coast and the mountains about 15 minutes from Cannes, there is perhaps no lovelier village on the Riviera. Wandering through the town square and up and down the labyrinth of lanes, I knew I was retracing paths taken by Edith Piaf, Man Ray, Winston Churchill and Christian Dior, all frequent visitors, and Picasso, who lived here until his death in 1973.

I spent my last night dining at the legendary Hôtel Negresco on Nice's Promenade des Anglais, named for the English who flocked here in the 19th century to escape their misty climate.

How can you not fall under the spell of such a place?

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