Touring Cote d’Azur a.k.a. French Riviera, France (obviously)

Yeah, I suppose you have every reason to dismiss me with boos and hisses for what on Earth is it in that destination in question, Cote d’Azur, or the French Riviera, as it is refered to in English (although the original name reflects the real thing so much better), right? (right???) except for some ugly beaches, lousy weather, bad food and cheap wine. But bear with me, please. It was MY holiday after all.

A late afternoon sunlight adorning Cote d'Azur
A late afternoon sunlight adorning Cote d’Azur

First things first: Cote d’Azur, probably France’s finest stretch of coast, is just as good and beautiful as I remember. Maybe even tiny weeny bit better but memory can be, oh, so deceiving. Nah, it is disgustingly fabulous. We shall be returning.

St Paul de Vence, Cote d'Azur
St Paul de Vence, Cote d’Azur

Our short holiday on Cote d’Azur this summer was so colourful I’m having hard time assembling all the impressions for this post. Where do I begin?

Antibes farmers’ market
Antibes farmers’ market

For starters, we followed some of the big masters’ steps: Picasso, Matisse, Renoir, and I’ll throw in an ostentatious Rothschild villa for good measure. After alI, it is a destination of wealth in all its forms.

A view towards the hills behind the Cote d’Azur from Mougins. I love the towns’ art display.
A view towards the hills behind the Cote d’Azur from Mougins. I love the towns’ art display.

It’s a well-known fact that artists take to the French Riviera like fish to water. No wonder, who’d not? I guess it’s fair to say that the climate is stimulating and the ambience motivating. Also, the abundance of well-heeled patrons (and consumers of art) has something to do with it too.

Picasso’s ceramic plates exhibited in Musee Picasso in Antibes
Some of Picasso’s ceramic plates exhibited in Musee Picasso in Antibes

Anyway, my personal favourite has always been Pablo Picasso and this hasn’t changed. I’m drawn to his works as by magnets and I still, after all these years of seeing numerous exhibitions of his immense legacy, feel utter admiration for his artistic stamina and productivity. He lived on different locations along Cote d’Azur, so there’s a lot to be seen here that comprises of him as a person and/or an artist.

Mougins, Cote d'Azur
Mougins in the heat of a summers’ day

There’s Andre Villers’ museum of photography in a stupendous hill-top village of Mougins that exhibits a collection of marvellous portraits of Picasso, some of them famously notorious. He was his own best PR director and photographers followed him around like bees.

In Antibes, the fortified coastal town, there’s Picasso Museum in Grimaldi mansion right next to the sea where the artist was lent a studio in 1946. There’s a lovely collection of Picasso’s ceramic plates and some great paintings from his “early” cubist era that were donated to the museum by the artist himself (and some added by his wife Jacqueline after his death).

Picasso Museum in Antibes
Picasso Museum in Antibes

Also, it seems to be unavoidable, there’s another collection of photographs of the artist and his friends and family members. Like I said, he was a skilful self-advertiser.

Renoir’s Venus in the citrus garden in front of his home in Cagnes-Sur-Mer
Renoir’s Venus in the citrus garden in front of his home in Cagnes-Sur-Mer

Auguste Renoir chose to move with his family to Cagnes-sur-Mer , another town on the French Riviera. He built a splendid stone house for his family, very modern at the time, up on the slopes above the town with uninterrupted (at the time) views over the Mediterranean Sea.

Cagnes-sur-Mer as seen from Renoir’s terrace
Cagnes-sur-Mer as seen from Renoir’s terrace (note the citrus garden and the olive grove)

The property includes family’s olive grove and a citrus tree garden where there’s unexpected peace and quite, surprising for Cote d’Azur. Expect original fittings, furniture (including Renoir’s easel!), some art by the great painter and his visitors (he had plenty), some photographs from the family album. You come to admire the artist’s home; his great artworks are to be seen elsewhere around the world.

Vence, Cote d'Azur
Vence, Cote d’Azur

Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence is also known as Matisse Chapel since it was designed and constructed by the great artist himself down to the last detail (candle holders, tabernacle, priest cloth included). Henri Matisse lived in near-by Nice (and for some time also in Vence) and committed himself to conceive this chapel as a kind of thank-you to the Sisters of the Dominican order.

Matisse Chapel in Vence
Matisse Chapel in Vence

At the time of its consecration, in 1951, it surely raised a brow or two, and I have certainly not seen anything like it before. I found it clean, no-frills, almost basic, plain on the outside, colourful but serene on the inside. The stained glass windows are marvellous, the murals are simple and abstract, and the whole place is peaceful and cheerful at the same time. I could easily imagine my praying there had I been a religious kind.

Colourful Mediterranean flora of Cote d'Azur
Colourful Mediterranean flora

Then, there was food. In Le Rouret, a tiny hinterland hillside village, we had a memorable dinner at the restaurant Le Clos St Pierre where Chef Daniel Ettlinger prepares delicious meals. Of course, we congratulated and thanked him when he came out of the kitchen to greet his guests. A corpulent man with a gentle face, I tell you.

What’s more, in this little but proper (meaning there’s a stone built church, a lively school, a hotel, a typical plane tree park) village of Le Rouret there’s also Le Bistro Du Clos run by the same family serving a bit less demanding but nonetheless delicious fare.

Cote d’Azur convinced us it may represent the potency of old and new money but one can still discover the down-to-Earth, authentic (I hate this word just as much as I despise the word inspire with all its derivatives), almost pure Mediterranean emotions, moods and passions. Paying attention to not so obvious things, my dears, pays off.

Mediteranean in Mougins

Nothing can erase the memory of fantastic smells of the sea, the pine trees, the sunburnt grass, the macchia, the rosemary and lavender; the nuances of the azure sea, the cerulean sky, bougainvilleas and oleanders, agaves and olive trees; the naked shoulders and strappy sandals, the never-ending vistas, the refreshing breeze, the ups and downs of winding roads, the summer heat. These remain imprinted on my mind forever.

Bougainvillea in Le Rouret
Bougainvillea in Le Rouret

Still, one word of criticism albeit a trivial one: as close as one gets to the origin – and you almost can’t get closer than this – confusion about the salad niçoise deepens. Hoping I will get none of tuna and plenty of anchovies when I order it in Antibes (scant 30 kms from Nice in a vast country of France) this is what I get:

Salad nicoise as served in Antibes, a stone’s throw from Nice
Salad nicoise as served in Antibes, a stone’s throw from Nice (my man had sardines with a side of French fries – it’s France after all)
The landmark of Promenade des Anglais in Nice: Hotel Negresco
The landmark of Promenade des Anglais in Nice: Hotel Negresco

I almost forgot I promised a glimpse on wealth: we enthusiastically visited the Ephrussi de Rothschild Villa on Cap Ferrat. It’s very impressive on the outside, quite backwards on the inside – all in all really and truly very lavish indeed.

Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild and its French garden on Cap Ferrat
Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild and its French garden on Cap Ferrat

The socialite Beatrice de Rothschild (1864-1934) had it build in Venetian style on the vast piece of land that was turned into nine gardens from classic French with musical water features to Florentine, exotic, Provencal, Japanese, rose and more. If nothing else the visit was worth it for the magnificent views from numerous viewing points on several carefully planned positions throughout the extensive grounds.

Kitschy interior of Villa Ephrussi but check out that view!
Kitschy interior of Villa Ephrussi’s salon but check out that view!

The lobby of the villa is the most impressive part of the house, especially if one imagines the vaulted ceiling used to be painted to represent the starlit sky. I was expecting to find a more modernist interior though, since the timeframe in which it was built (just before the WWI) is considered a synonym for innovation plus the Baroness’ reputation of a modern-thinking lady promised a bit more: she was, so we’re told, a good driver, a member of the Nice aviation club, very much interested in flying, an avid art collector, loved to travel.

Sunlight over the bay as viewed from Villa Ephrussi
Sunlight over the bay as viewed from Villa Ephrussi

It turned out she liked to cling to times past at least in terms of furniture and interior decoration (the villa was used as summer holiday retreat, it was never her main residence). There’s a Tiepolo, a Versailles carpet, Marie Antoinette’s furniture pieces, endless porcelain collections, chandeliers, kitschy upholstery and the lot. However de gustibus … Anyhow, lots of money spent there during Belle Époque, very well preserved altogether, well kept as a museum.

There are many lovely resting spots on the notorious promenade La Croisette in Cannes
There are many lovely resting spots on the notorious promenade La Croisette in Cannes

For more modern opulence there’s Cannes . Take a walk up and down the spectacular Croisette, do at least some window-shopping, sip on something refreshing, watch the world go by. Prove yourself normal. I’m convinced I was the only female with my own natural eyelashes.

Viw over bay full of yachts, Cote d'Azur


The Guardian on Picasso in Mougins

Wikipedia on Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild

Fondation Maeght near St Paul de Vence

Still the best icecream in Nice

novel on Ephrussi dynasty and a good read by Somerset Maugham, a famous English novelist and Cote d’Azur resident



2 thoughts on “Touring Cote d’Azur a.k.a. French Riviera, France (obviously)”

  1. This is one of the best Cote d’azur observation. Rich in description , variety of things and revelation of many small gems, probably known only to local inhabitants. I liked the one with Salad Nicoise. Congrats.

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