Say 'oui' to French Riviera

Posted May 7, 2008

With so many allures, it’s easy to say “oui” to the French Riviera. Plus, you don’t even need to know another word of French – except for maybe an occasional “merci” to the waiter bringing you a platter of fresh seafood straight from the Mediterranean.

Stretching from about Toulon to Menton and the Italian border (as well as encompassing the separate Principality of Monaco), the French Riviera features more than 65 miles of varied coastline, including about 25 miles of sandy or pebbly beaches.

The region is made up of bustling big cities, tiny fishing towns and many charming inland villages where centuries-old ways of life are still followed by friendly French locals happy to share their heritage. Visitors will quickly find that the French Riviera is much more than a fake film set for the rich and famous.

The cities of Nice and Cannes remain popular destinations for good reason. These two cosmopolitan cities feature many attributes and activities, as well as providing perfect bases for exploring the rest of the region.

With a population of about 350,000, Nice is the area’s largest city and is known as the capital of the Riviera. That means lots of shopping, museums, markets, and – of course – great food.

Running along the sea, the Promenade des Anglais provides a perfect introduction to Nice. Several museums are either on or near this pretty street, which overlooks the pebble-strewn beach. There are certainly better beaches elsewhere along the coast, but this is still a classic French Riviera strand. Depending on interests, museum stops might include: Musee Chagall; Musee d’Art Moderne, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Musee Archeologique, or further afield the excellent Musee Matisse, which is about 2 miles northeast of the city’s main train station.

The downtown area features a wide array of varied accommodations options, along with lots of restaurants offering freshly caught seafood, excellent Provencal-style cooking, and more. The colorful Cours Saleya market is not to be missed.

Cannes is to the west of Nice and is known for much more than just the famed Cannes Film Festival (the city actually hosts many art-oriented festivals throughout the year). Highlights here can include grand old hotels overlooking the Mediterranean and La Croisette, the Riviera’s most prominent promenade; beaches with their own waterfront bars and restaurants; the Cannes castle overlooking the yacht-filled harbor and old port; shopping along Rue Meynadier and Rue d’Antibes; the Marche Forville flower market; and, again, some of that tasty southern French food (especially at restaurants along Rue du Suquet).

For a fun excursion from Cannes, take one of the frequent ferries out to Ile Sainte Marguerite, where the “Man in the Iron Mask” was held in the still-standing prison during the late-17th century.

Elsewhere along the coastline, smaller towns like ancient Antibes (including the Musee Picasso), upscale Saint-Tropez (famed for its sandy beaches), Villafranche-sur-Mer (a classic French Riviera fishing village), Menton (known for the Musee Jean Cocteau), and many others beckon. There are also several “perched villages” dotting the coastline and offering incredible views, with Eze (including its cathedral) and Sainte-Agnes (the highest coastal perched village in Europe) among the most popular for exploration.

Inland, towns like Grasse and Mougins are well worth an excursion. Grasse is well known as the “capital of perfume” (making for great tours and shopping), while Mougins features the popular restaurant, cooking school and store of Roger Verges. For those with more time, both Saint-Paul-de-Vence and Vence offer many art galleries and studios.

Though not technically part of the French Riviera, Monaco and Monte Carlo make for an interesting daytrip from anywhere along the coast. Surrounded by France but operated as a sovereign state (mostly under the rule of the Grimaldi family since 1297), Monaco is well worth a visit.

Tourists won’t want to miss the changing at the guard of the Palais du Prince de Monaco every day at 11:55 a.m., Musee des Souvenirs Napoleoniens – lots of Napoleon’s personal effects – the world renowned Musee Oceanographique aquarium, lots of upscale shopping, and Monte Carlo’s ornate casino.

It’s also quite easy to head further afield to the north and into Provence proper. Many French Riviera veterans head to this famous French region for a meal, winery visits or a daytrip that includes several towns. Peter Mayle of "A Year in Provence" fame might recommend Aix-en-Provence, Avignon, Nimes and Arles, but visitors can’t go wrong with any Provencal town or village – especially at a little local restaurant serving regional delicacies and wine.


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