A short train ride from Nice, Antibes is a picture-perfect French town. Walk along the ramparts looking at the view towards the pine-clad hillsides opposite; shop in the daily covered market where the freshest vegetables, flowers and fruit are laid out; visit the Château where Picasso once lived and where you can see a superb collection of his ceramics, or chill out in the small bars and bistros in the narrow winding streets that make up the Old Town.
Antibes has one of the most glamorous yacht marinas in Europe where multi-million dollar boats bob up and down in the harbour, or sit anchored just offshore, like the extraordinary yacht belonging to Roman Abramovich which would be at home on a James Bond film set.
Drive around the Cap d’Antibes for a glimpse of the villas owned, or rented, by the rich. It’s a beautiful drive with superb sea views. Make sure you stop at the small Garoupe lighthouse and church at the top of the Cap, surrounded by pine trees. The tiny fisherman’s church is full of models of ships and memorial plaques, both in thanksgiving by sailors who survived storms at sea, and, more poignantly, for those lost at sea.
Go a little further and you come to Juan-les-Pins. It has one of the great jazz festivals of France in July overlooking the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean, shops, bars and restaurants and sandy beaches.
Glitzy and glamorous, Cannes is known for the famous annual Film Festival. The so-called 'Pearl of the Riviera', twinned with Beverly Hills, is a major convention city with international shopping on a grand scale and accommodation to match.
But like much of the south of France towns, Cannes started as a modest fishing village. It was transformed by a Brit, Lord Brougham, who stayed here by chance, and loved it so much he came back for 34 winters. He was followed by toffs, aristos and royals and Cannes was made.
Visit modern Cannes to the east for that famous shopping (there’s a great shopping festival each year over Easter). Stroll along the Croisette, the most elegant seaside promenade in Europe, where the luxury hotels lay out their parasols and lounge chairs along the sand. If you want the best, drink a cocktail in the Hotel Martinez or the Carlton, the hotels where the famous perch.
Le Suquet is the area of old Cannes and it’s still remarkably authentic with old streets, a castle and watchtower, worth a visit for the views and the Musée de la Castre with its archaeological and ethnograpical artefacts from all over the world.
Cannes was the playground for characters like F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose Great Gatsby sums up the jazz era in this part of the world.
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Isles de Lérins off the Cannes Coast
The Iles de Lérins, the serene islands off Cannes, represent the Mediterranean in miniature. These two islands just off Cannes are the place to go for a quiet day away from the hustle and bustle of Côte d’Azur life.
Sainte Marguerite is the island of Alexandre Dumas’ Man in the Iron Mask who was falsely imprisoned in the Fort Royal.
St. Honorat was, and to some extent still is, a monastic retreat. The Benedictine monks will welcome you for Sunday Mass or Vespers. If you’re in need of more peace, book for a spiritual retreat.
The beautiful village perché (hilltop village) of St-Paul-de-Vence was made a ‘Royal Town’ in the 16th century and has never quite got over it. In the 1920s it was the place for impoverished painters like Pierre Bonnard and Modigliani, then Matisse and Picasso. They lodged at the modest Auberge de la Colome d’Or, paying the bills by giving their paintings. Today the Auberge is still relatively modest, though the walls are covered with now priceless paintings and you have to book way in advance for a room or a meal.
See more superb art at the famous, privately owned Fondation Maeght, which stands in quiet grounds, an oasis of culture.
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The Principality of Monaco
The Principality of Monaco is a tiny sovereign state, loved by gamblers and the likes of investment bankers and Formula 1 drivers who live here for the tax breaks. Ruled voer by the Grimaldi family for 700-odd years, Monaco feels like a state within a state. Its most famous stars were Prince Rainier Louis Henri Maxence Bertrand de Grimaldi (who died in 2005) and his wife, Princess Grace (who died in a car accident in 1982). You can see her tomb in the Cathedral.
Other places of interest to mere mortals are the Car Museum (formed from Prince Rainier’s private collection of classic cars), a Naval Museum, a Jardin Exotique, and an excellent Musée Océanographique. The other great attraction is the Palais du Prince.
But the star is the famous Casino.
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The Gorges du Verdon
These spectacular gorges, France’s answer to the Grand Canyon (though a little smaller), lie high up in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence department.
It’s a relatively easy drive to get here from Nice, and there’s a great castle hotel to stay at in a village just off the main rim of the Gorges, the fabulous Chateau de Trigance.
Either drive around theGorges, or take up one of the sports in the river way below. It’s busy in high summer, but go in the off season and you’ll have the roads to yourself. It’s worth stopping at Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, another picture-perfect village which is overrun in summer. It’s the home of many of the famous porcelain factories, but don’t expect a bargain. This is fine art at fine art prices.
Cap Ferrat juts out into the Mediterranean, a billionaire’s paradise where people like Somerset Maugham, Charlie Chaplin and David Niven lived the high life in their fabulous villas. You can drive around the Cap and out to the Lighthouse but many of the houses are hidden behind high gates. It's better to walk along the shaded path from Villefranche-sur-Mer around the Cap looking down at the rocky inlets.
One must-see place is the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, a pink palace perched high up with a fabulous view over the sea. The villa is beautiful, with rooms of fabulous furniture. But the glory is the garden that stretches out from the main terrace. It’s full of flowers all through the year, with a stunning rose festival in May.
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