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Exploring the French Riviera

By on February 28, 2016

The first thing that comes to your mind when you think of the French Rivera is the stunning coastline, the luxury yachts, the glorious sunshine, Hollywood stars walking the La Croisette and the extravagant Monte Carlo. The balmy sun takes precedent over all especially if you are traveling from England like we did 🙂

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Most would think of French Riviera as a place where you can spend endless time on the beaches. While that does make for a superb holiday, what most surprised us was that the region is a haven for art lovers. The rich history and culture make for a fulfilling travel experience. Many well know artist were attracted to this part of the Mediterranean because of the hilly terrain, bright colors and soft light. Going on an art trail and discovering Van Gogh in Arles, Pablo Picasso in Antibes, Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall in Nice and Claude Monet in Dolceacqua is enthralling.

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                                             Bird’s eye view from the Monaco Palace

We didn’t really have a plan in place. We stayed on if we wanted to spend more time at a place but moving on was a hard decision as every place was like a dream. Each town and village is picturesque with a distinct character, seeped deep in its rich history. The colourful and vibrant buildings, balconies spilling over with flowers and vines, beautiful shuttered windows, fascinating Trompe l’oeil on building facades, bustling open-air markets, relaxed tourists and a jovial atmosphere make it a memorable experience, an experience that you’d want to revisit over and over again.

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The size and diversity of this region makes it a destination for all kinds of travellers and not just the rich and famous- from inland towns and cities like Marseilles and Arles to small hilltop villages like Eze and Saint Paul da Vence to the coastal cities like Nice and Antibes overlooking the deep blue sea to where the celebrities holiday in Antibes and Monte Carlo. Below are the few places that we absolutely enjoyed. 

NICE – WHRE THE HOLIDAY BEGINS

One of the nicest things about flying into Nice is the view from the flight. As the plane makes a descent, it feels like the it’s going to land on the water- that’s how close the runway is! Nice is a busy cosmopolitan city thronging with tourists. Most people explore smaller towns and villages from here since it’s well connected with buses and trains. We chanced upon a free walking tour on Couchsurfing and met two locals -a Bolivian lady and a student from Netherlands, who had both been living in Nice for a few years. Fortunately, for us, we got to experience the city with the locals.

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We were staying in one of the alleys a few blocks from Place Massena. This is the main square of the city with beautiful fountains cheerfully gurgling with Apollo standing tall in the centre. With a tourist office, illuminated statues on poles, mirrored fountains and trams zipping past, it’s a perfect start to the day.

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We spent our time jumping on the mirror fountains on the ground, walking down the lively streets of Cours Saleya sampling local pickles and fresh fruits, indulging in some people watching from one of the many open-air cafes which line the streets, trying out exotic flavours like basil and locally grown lavender of Fenocchio’s ice cream at Place Rosetti, eating socca at Bar Rene Socca, walking down the Promenade des Anglais, sipping wine on the pebble beach and hiking up the hill for the best view of the city and the Old Port. There is an elevator up to the garden at the top of the stairs but we walked up stopping every now and then to enjoy the expanding view.

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We spent the evening in Cimiez, a quiet and posh neighbourhood in Nice, usually off the tourist trail. The gardens are surrounded by panoramic views of the city, a monastery, a 500-year-old olive grove, the Roman Ruins,  Matisse Museum and Marc Chagall Museum.

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          Those beautiful french windows are not real, that is trompe l’oeil

 (wall painting) on the facade of Matisse Museum

THE TINY MEDIEVAL VILLAGES OF COTE D’AZUR- EZE

Eze is a beautiful village perched on a hilltop, literally. The entire village is pedestrian-only with cobbled streets, well-restored stone houses with terracotta rooftops, a church with a bell tower and boutiques and cafes catering to the tourist mostly. At the top of the village is a garden, Jardin Exotica. The 6 euro entry fee is worth it for the best bird’s eye view of the coastline. One could take a bus directly to the village or walk up the famous Nietzsche’s’ path starting from the coast to the foot of the village. It is said that Nietzsche, the German philosopher climbed this path every day which gave him the inspiration for his works.

eze

We also took a fabulous tour of a perfume factory, Fragonard. I love perfumes but I had little knowledge of their production. The tour is free and starts with guessing the different smells. Yeah, I guessed them all 🙂 A very warm and friendly guide walked us through the entire process and we were told about different types of perfumes and the best way to use them, the tour ends in the shop where one can purchase perfumes, handmade soaps and creams. 

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Saint Paul de Vence is a medieval fortified village  It offers narrow sloping streets and archways that open out into hidden squares, bougainvillea-wrapped villas with tiny wooden doors,  fountains and quiet courtyards. Pick a gelato (one of the best I’ve had) and wander around the narrow high street and city walls soaking up the laid-back vibe. The village is a little more upscale than Eze with its luxurious art galleries and sculpting studios.

 

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THE TOWN OF ABSINTHE AND PICASSO- ANTIBES

A quick ten-minute walk from the Antibes train station, straight down the Avenue we came across Félix Café, author Graham Greene’s hangout for all the years he lived a few blocks away in a nondescript apartment. Antibes is also the place where Picasso spent almost a year. At the end of the year, he left a huge collection of his works behind which was then turned into the Picasso Museum. It’s a beautiful stone building overlooking the sea, a must see in Antibes.

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We went into a small pottery workshop where the artists were working on their beautiful pieces. We picked up a set of gorgeous tea glasses they’d finished working on earlier in the day. There are tons of cute little cafés all around Antibes. Exquisite patisseries and spectacular chocolatiers, bookshops, bistros and bars are everywhere. Take a break and sip a strong espresso with a macaroon and indulge in some people watching. Another good spot for people watching is Place du Safranier in the heart of the old town where Zorba The Greek was written. Older men rendezvous at the benches speaking in cheerful animated French. The March Provencal with the amazing mix of aromas and colours, tapenade and dried fruits did not disappoint. We spent the rest of the day lazing on the sand beach. If you’ve never tried Absinthe, hit the Absinthe bar in the evening. Grab a hat, look at absinthe memorabilia, buy a drink and let the magic work.

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WHERE THE LUXURY YACHTS ADORN THE DOCK- CANNES

While we were in Cannes, the city was prepping for the Cannes Film Festival. It does get very crowded especially at this time of the year but it feels like a big street party. Having fewer must-see museums and historical places, it’s a pleasant change to just stroll on La Croquette in Cannes.

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The city has many film-related wall paintings. One of them is on the facade of the bus station at the top of La Croquette. Look out for some more iconic moments in cinema and some from behind the scenes.  We had been looking forward to visiting the Palais de Festivals, where the Cannes Film festival is held. The place was swamped with people, everyone trying to get a shot on the red carpet. The hand prints of Kurosawa and David Lynch made up for the boring facade of Palais de Festivals. Vatsal was very excited to have had his hand fit right into Kurosawa’s 🙂 If the glamour of La Croisette doesn’t charm you walk toward Le Suquet, the original fishing village back in the day. Now, the bars and restaurants populate the narrow winding cobblestone streets. End the day with a walk up to the Chateau de la Castre for a panoramic view of the bay.

If the glamour of La Croisette doesn’t charm you walk toward Le Suquet, the original fishing village back in the day. Now, the bars and restaurants populate the narrow winding cobblestone streets. End the day with a walk up to the Chateau de la Castre for a panoramic view of the bay.

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Monaco is a principality bordered by France on all three sides. It’s a tax haven for businesses and is the most densely populated independent country in the world. Monaco is undeniably flashy and decadent. Luxury vehicles like Rolls Royce and Ferraris are a normal sight. 

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If you can’t indulge in a helicopter ride from Nice to Monaco than walk along the dock spotting the private yachts of celebrities and Royals or walk around the  Formula 1 Grand Prix circuit. If you are in the mood to splurge try your hand at the Casino, where the locals are prohibited from gambling. Or just walk right in to admire the opulent interiors with impressive chandeliers and magnificent paintings. We went for the Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Palace of Monaco, a much smaller version of the one at Buckingham Palace in London. We were glad for the view of the skyline and the port. The skyline of Monte Carlo is very impressive with highrises and the mountain in the backdrop.

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CROSSING OVER THE BORDER TO ITALY

While in the Riviera we couldn’t resist the temptation to cross over to Italy and get a taste of their very own Italian pizzas. Okay, we’ll admit it-  Well, it was more for the thrill of ‘We’ve set foot on Italian soil’ 🙂

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We made a day trip to a small village in Italy, Dolceacqua. We  boarded the train from the Nice station to a small town called Ventimiglia in Italy. The train runs along the coast with the spectacular view of the azure waters. And how often do you get to cross three countries in a single train ride under an hour 🙂  We had a couple of hours for our bus to Dolceacqua so we decided to explore the town of Ventimiglia.

VENTIMIGLIA

The town is rather uninspiring and grotty but oozes its Italian charm. It does not have the glamour of its French neighbour but is an honest town comfortable in its understated facade. The contrast within a few kilometres is amazing, we immediately felt like we were in a different country.

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We had no idea what to see and do since this was an impromptu plan so we just walked around without any aim. We walked towards River Roya crossing the foot bridge into the old medieval part of the town. The river divides the old town and the new, the old town is on a hill overlooking the modern town. If you’re interested in old ruins and churches dating back to the 10th century then it’s worth the climb up.

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We both grabbed a can of beer each and went ahead to explore the maze of small streets between the houses, some so narrow that only one of us could pass at a time, and they all eventually lead to a way out, one way or the other. We enjoyed looking at the old rustic buildings with paint peeling off, wooden balconies with laundry hanging out, old men huddled around their scooters chatting, women walking with their shopping carts exchanging pleasantries, people going about their very normal lives.  There are small shops and bars at the top from where beautiful views of the sea can be enjoyed away from the traffic and crowds of the modern town.

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The town of Ventimiglia

DOLCEACQUA

A few hours later we were on the bus to Dolceacqua. Nestled in the small valley, the majestic Doria castle dating 1270 still stands proudly at the top of the town surviving a war and an earthquake. It is a gradual uphill climb as the Doria Castle is perched on the top of the village. It overlooks the entire village and the river. But what Dolceaqua is really known for is its arched bridge across the main square, as the Impressionist painter Monet immortalised it in his painting, ‘The Castle of Dolceacqua’. The bridge divides the town into the older part, terra which is beneath the castle and the modern part which is across the bridge.  The bridge itself is a beauty, its a humpback bridge made of stone. We walked towards the bridge and saw a replica of Monet’s painting at the vantage point. It looks almost the same except for one or two modern buildings which have cropped up in their tiny skyline.

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The village was a few degrees cold and eerily quiet, it was all ours to explore at our pace. We kept moving in and out of small alleyways from light to dark which gives the village a great deal of character. There are houses alongside the hill with small low beautiful decorated doors. It is a lived-in village with a small community, can see the inhabitants walking around going on with their daily chores. 

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We walked under the bridge and sat next to the river drinking some wine that we picked off the shelf in Ventimiglia. We then went across the street to a restaurant, ‘Il Borgo’ and enjoyed a plate of cheese and country bread with Rossese di Dolceacqua which is a delicious red ruby wine produced from the locally grown grapes in the hills.

There is so much more to explore in the French Riviera. So, pick your favourite of the lot, put on your floppy straw hat, your cool wayfarer and get ready to get awestruck. Don’t forget to give Absinthe a try and come back with wicked stories 😉

Practical Information

Airport: Aeroport Nice- Cote d’Azur is the main airport in the South of France service both domestic and international airlines. The airport is well connected with the bus to the centre of nice and other places like Monaco(Bus no 110), Menton (Bus no 110) and Cannes(Bus no 210).  Bus no 98 and 99 can take you to the centre of Nice. The buses from the airport to different places have higher rates than the usual buses depending on your destination.

Nice is a good base to have and explore the towns north and south of Nice during the day. Traveling from one town to another is very easy since it’s very well connected with many trains and buses throughout the day.

Bus: The buses are incredibly inexpensive. The connectivity is superb along the coast but you go inland the buses are less frequent. Traffic can be a problem especially on the Nice- Cannes route. Ticket for a ride costs 1.5 Euros and can be bought on the bus. Alternatively, you could buy a booklet for 10 euros and use the booklet for 10 rides. There are long queues for buses, especially in Nice.

Bus no 100 takes you from Nice to Menton crossing Eze(coast) and Monaco. Bus no 112/82 will take you to the foot of the Eze Village.

Bus no 200 takes you from Nice to Cannes

Bus no 600 takes you from Cannes to Grasse

Bus no 500 takes you from Nice to Grasse

Tip: If travelling to the North of Nice then remember to sit on the right side of the bus to enjoy the splendid view of the sea. And on the left if going south.

Train: The trains are a little more expensive than the buses but are faster. You can buy the ticket at the station. The ticket price varies according to your destination but can range from approximately 3-10 euros.

Driving: The flexibility that driving a car offers cannot be compared to the public transport. Driving allows you to make spontaneous stops and go inland easily without having to stick to a schedule. But traffic can be a big problem in the area and parking is expensive.

We shared a ride via blablacar.com with a few local people from Cannes- Marseilles, Marseilles- Arles and back. We prefer this option as it allows us to meet more locals.

Looking for a place away from the coast, read about our trip to Arles, Van Gogh’s trail in Arles.

   

                                            Which is your favourite coastal town? 

Disclaimer: All the practical information given above is from our own personal travels in May 2015. Please do recheck the time and prices of the services provided. We love writing about our travel experiences and provide you with information that could ease your travel. We love hearing from you. If you would like any help planning your trip then please do not hesitate to write to you. If you enjoyed reading this, please do leave a comment below, hearing from you makes us very happy 🙂

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About Us :)

Vatsal is a techie and a coffee junkie. Most often he’s caught watching a film with Guinness for company. Preeti loves everything about the mountains. She always has her head buried in a book sipping tea.
We both love traveling and watching films so we decided to document some of it. Hope you enjoy reading as much as we’ve enjoyed traveling and writing about them 🙂

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