The Riviera...or...La Cote d'Azur

It's Summer. It's Verano. It's Estate. It might even be Sommer…

…but in France it's Eté!

I know, there are three amazing coastlines in these beautiful, expansive and diverse United States of America.

Lord knows, where I come from (England, for those who may not know) we're surrounded by water, we're an island with one long never ending coastline.

There are astonishing coastlines winding their way around beautiful countries across the globe. 

The world is full of water. There are 5 oceans, 110 seas and three more landlocked seas to boot. Did you know that there are around 300,000,000 lakes?!

There is, however, only one Mediterranean Sea.

The Mediterranean Sea

Some 965,000 square miles of it. At the northern most part of this beautiful calm sea is the French Riviera (a totally English term) or, more accurately, La Côte d'Azur (the azure coast) which is the correct French name, though in many ways not an area created, developed or beloved of the French. More of that later.

The Mediterranean occupies a very special place in my heart and for many different reasons. 

Aside from its remarkable and varied beauty, from the Spanish and French end of the sea, all the way to the furthermost eastern points, where Turkish  and Lebanese, Israeli and Jordanian waters meet the lapping waves from the edges of the Aegean and Ionian seas, further northward...it is an area known for 'living', of savoir faire, of great food and of fine art, delicious wines and locally grown produce.

Throughout, and along, this incredible sea, sit the countries and civilisations, the cultural and historical heart beat of the Judaeo-Christian world; of Western Civilisation as we understand it. To the south The West  meets the Moors, the Arab world, Islam and Africa.

From the Balearics and the Porquerolles in the west, to the larger islands of Sardinia and Corsica, the Ligurian Sea, passing through the Tyrrhenian Sea, along to Naples and then the Amalfi Coast, down through to the Eoli Islands and Sicily, onward to the islands of Pantelleria and Malta (off the coasts of northernTunisia and Libya) then on, via Haifa in Israel, Cyprus and Turkey, to travel north again into the Aegean and back out to travel into the Adriatic, the unspoiled delights of the Albanian, Montenegrin, Bosnian and Croatian coastlines, with Dubrovnik and Split,…and then… well, then there's Venice.

All of this in one Sea! All this history, culture, art, opera, architecture, the food and the restaurants, the famous old hotels and spas.The countless languages and the many religions. The Cultural diversity. The Mediterranean rim has hosted the world, and much of the world's cultural heritage, for centuries.

Now, to my point...

The Cote d'Azur.  A stretch of coastline, a mere 120, or so, miles long, stretching from Toulon, in the west, to the small and affluent principality of Monaco, in the east, and the towns of Roquebrune-Cap Martin and Menton, right at the boarder with Italy. 

The 'new' Riviera from Toulon to Menton/Ventimiglia

'The Riviera' was originally considered to run only from Cannes, some 125 miles east of Toulon, to the Italian boarder; making it an even smaller stretch of 45 miles. In more recent times people consider it to run from St.Tropez to Ventigmilia.

The 'old' Riviera from Cannes to Menton

It is a part of the world that from it's inception, in the mid-19th Century, when, largely speaking, British aristocrats and the upper-classes started to winter there, has been a place of leisure, health cures and, in the early 20th Century, in its heyday, racy and decadent living. 

It was a former Lord Chancellor of Great Britain, Henry Peter Brougham, 1st Baron Brougham and Vaux, that made the town fashionable. Quite by chance, in 1834, he was detained in France due to a quarantine order, in effect due to a cholera breakout. Preventing him from travelling on to Nice, at that time in Italy. In fact, Nice, or 'Nizza', at that time was in the Kingdom of Piedmont Sardinia; Italy only being unified, as one country, out of many kingdoms and principalities, in 1861. The United States is an older country by 85 years! 

Peter Henry Brougham, 1st Baron Brougham and Vaux

Lord Brougham subsequently built himself a comfortable home, the Villa Eléanore-Louise, in Cannes (named for his daughter Eleonore-Louise) Having fallen in love with what was then nothing more a small fishing village. If he hadn't made it into Italy, he brought Italy to Cannes; the Italianate Villa was to be his winter home until his death, thirty-five years later, in 1868; a fair and pleasant ending to a man who had, among many things, devoted much of his life to the abolition of the slave trade.

The Villa Eléanore-Louise, Cannes - Lord Brougham's Italianate villa and home

As Lord Brougham once wrote, he had;

"been enjoying the delightful climate of Provence, its clear skies and refreshing breezes, while the deep blue of the Mediterranean stretched before us. The orange groves perfumed the air while the forest behind, ending in the Alps, protected us from the cold winds of the north"

Lord Brougham 'invented Cannes' and they thanked him upon his death with the erection of a statue in his honour, their 'Founding Father'.

Lord Brougham's statue in Cannes

He brought fashionability to the Riviera and with him the great and the good followed, the noble and royal houses of Europe arrived in their droves. The British more around Cannes, Antibes and Nice, with the English gardeners at the eastern most town of Menton, the Russians and the Belgians at St Jean-cap-Ferrat and Beaulieu-sur-Mer. There is even a monument to a British Queen, Queen Victoria, in Cimiez, a quarter of Nice, where she spent successive yearly visits with a retinue of a hundred staff between1895-1899. Her son, The Duke of Connaught, officially inaugurated the, now world-renowned, Promenade des Anglais (Promenade of the English) in 1931.

By the early 20th Century the Riviera heralded in a more glamorous, style-oriented and louche era. It was an era that owes much to a remarkable group of Americans. The American stage actress, Maxine Elliott was to spend much of her life on the Riviera.In 1932 Elliott commissioned fellow American, architect Barry Dierks, if not the best, certainly one of the very best architects in the south of France of his generation, to build her an exquisite villa, Chateau de l'Horizon. Situated in the town of Golfe Juan, across the bay of Golfe Juan from the fabled Cap d'Antibes and Juan-les-Pins, the villa had a pool and a series of terraces right on the water. A slide would take swimmers directly from the pool into the beautiful water of the Mediterranean below. The home later belonged to Prince Ali Khan. It was here that the Prince married the American screen actress, Rita Hayworth. The neighbours to the north were the Marquess and Marchioness of Cholmondeley at the Villa Roc, largely decorated by Eileen Grey. The incredibly rich, international Sibyl Sassoon had married the Earl of Rocksavage, later the Marquess of Cholmondeley. The Cholmondeleys too engaged Barry Dierks to help them transfrom an Art Nouveau little castle, of the 19th Century, into a Bauhaus-esque Modernist cube of a villa. Both houses were later to be sold to the Saudi royal family and altered internally to such an extent that today neither are recognisable.

Chateau de l'Horizon, Golfe Juan - home of Maxine Elliott, designed by American architect Barry Dierks

Maxine Elliott in the 1920s

Chateau de l'Horizon, Golfe Juan - swimming pool

Leaving their wedding ceremony at Le Vallauris to return to Chateau de l'Horizon 27th May 1949 Rita Hayworth and Prince Ali Khan

The Begum Aga Khan with Rita Hayworth on the terrace at Chateau de l'Horizon for their wedding lunch

Wedding day celebrations for a Prince and his silverscreen Goddess - Chateau del'Horizon 27th May 1949

 

Juan-les-Pins was a small, rather irrelevant spot on the coast between the larger resorts of Antibes and Cannes. The town owes its reputation to Frank Jay Gould, son of the American rail-road baron, Jay Gould. Whilst the resort never really took-off in the minds of the rich residents of the Riviera it was a highly fashionable resort for a short few years, in no small way thanks to the huge sums of money pured into the town by Frank Jay Gould.

Frank Jay Gould in New York

Gould was a philanthropist and owner of many French casinos. In 1926 he built one of the most famous hotels in the world, Le Provencal. A friend of mine, the late Peggy Strachey, spent her 'honeymoon' to Eldred Curwen, the man that Ian Fleming is said to have based his James Bond upon; they were never married officially. Peggy enjoyed telling me that Le Provencal was an infinitely more elegant and stylish hotel than its grand survivor, up the road at Cap d'Antibes, the world renowned, Hotel du Cap-Eden Roc. Peggy lived at Antibes until she died, aged 93. Her butler, Louis, looked after her, lovingly, to the end at her Villa La Marina, over looking the Plage de la Salis. Louis sometimes wore 'madame's' jewellry to keep it safe and he always carried an old Walter PPK pistol, sometimes a shot-gun too, after one too many burgularies. We would sit in her garden, under the plane trees, drinking Spanish Champagne, with one of her many Dachsunds, as she recounted stories of the Hungarian quartet that once lived at the house and played every evening and explained how she, and Eldred, would leave the coast in the summers as it was too crowded, they preffered to swim naked off the coast of Sardinia instead. When she died, Louis just vanished into thin air. Those last days were perhaps too much for him. I have not seen him since that last summer I visited the, the summer Peggy survived and endured, like a child, attended to by her beloved butler of many years. 

Luggage label from Hotel Le Provencal, Juan-les-Pins

Juan-les-Pins Beach in the 1930s, just between the Casino and in the background the Hotel Le Provencal

Sadly, Le Provencal, was closed and left abandoned in 1973. I found a way into the hotel in my twenties, squeezing through an old bar door from the terrace. I wanted to photograph what remained of a hotel that looked more like an Art Deco steam cruise liner than a building, a building that had embodied an entire era now lost, forgotten, gone forever. 

The abandoned and almost ruined Hotel Le Provencal, Juan-les-Pins

The entrance hall, and lobby, narrows into a corridor that was then lined, from floor to ceiling, with hammered pewter, the walls punctuated with openings for 'Reception' and 'Concierge'. It was a truly magnificent interior. I crept further into the building into the enormous lounge, possibly once a ballroom, with its enormous, arched floor to ceiling iron doors, to what had previously been the great terrace and pool that overlooked the Mediterranean. There were painted friezes of Medieval-meets-Art Deco figures, the entire way above and around the enormous bow window and walls . 

Unfortunately I made it no further into my 'recce' of this old sarcophagus of a hotel. As if from nowhere, three rather angry looking guard dogs were stood right behind me. I ran for a door and fell almost fifteen feet. There had once been a garden there but a developer, hoping for the building to collapse (Le Provencal is a Monument Historique and cannot be demolished) so that he might redevelop it, had excavated half the hill-side. I didn't break my legs and, most importantly, I didn't break my camera, which was far more important to me as I lay winded on a pile of rubble.

I digress. Gould was also to build the extraordinary Palais de la Méditerranée in 1927-29. It was considered by many to be the most luxurious building in the world. It's fate was to be similar to Le Provencal; it closed in 1978 and remained abandoned until early this century when Mdme Taittinger, of the Champage family, acquired it and transformed the place into a hotel. Only two exterior walls remain of the original structure, luckily this included the sensational facade over looking the Promenade des Anglais and the Bay of Angels.

Le Palais de la Méditerranée, Nice, c.1930s

Le Palais de la Méditerranée, Nice 

'Bibi au Palais de la Méditerranée' photographed by Jacques Henri Lartigues, May 1929

Le Palais de la Méditerranée, Nice - The original Art Deco interior showing one half of the great staircase

Le Palais de la Méditerranée, Nice - after restoration and now operated as a luxury hotel

It was during this time, the 1920s and 1930s that a group of Americans really did shape the Riviera we have all come to love and revere. Cap d'Antibes has its Boulevard du Cap running right through it but it ends, as one approaches the Hotel Du Cap, as the Boulevard John F Kennedy. 

Hotel du Cap-Eden Roc, Cap d'Antibes - courtesy of their webiste

The Hotel du Cap was to be immortalised as Gauss's Hotel by the early 20th Century novelist, American writer F.Scott Fitzgerald, when he wrote his 'Tender is The Night' and has hosted the greatest American families, movie stars, lawyers and doctors for the past 60 or 70 years along with the great and the good from all over the world. The American guests reigned supreme here for decades, now it is the turn of the Russian oligarchs and businessmen, their families and their children. Times change.

Early edition of F Scott Fitgerald's Tender is the Night

It was the Murphy's, Sara and Gerald, from Boston, who made sunbathing fashionable on the coast, at the Garoupe beach at Cap d'Antibes. Some say they even 'invented' the 'Summer Season' when they persuaded the owner of the Hotel du Cap-Eden Roc to stay open for the summer of 1923.

The Eden Roc Pavilion as it looked in earlier days, c.1920s

Gerald Murphy, born to the family who owned the Mark Cross Company, was a close friend of Cole Porter, they had attended Yale together. On arriving at Cap d'Antibes Gerald and Sara built their home, the Villa America. They were to live there for many years and together they, and their home, were to play host to many of the 'Lost Generation' of writers and artists, and to cultural and society figures of their time.

Gerald and Sara Murphy on 'their' Plage de La Garoupe, Cap d"Antibes

Pablo Picasso with Gerald Murphy on the Plage de La Garoupe, Cap d'Antibes

The sign Gerald Murphy created and designed for his community of artists at Villa America

The Villa America - Sara Murphy, standing at far right, with friends

American, Jack Warner, co-founder of Warner Brothers, made his home for a few years at Cap d'Antibes, on the westerly side of the cape, looking toward Golfe Juan and further on toward Cannes. The house, known as the Villa Aujourd'hui (the Villa Today) was designed, again, by the American architect, Barry Dierks, for the society hostess, Audrey Chadwick, from Miami. The villa, a national monument, is a cool, white, streamlined edifice that abuts the road from Cap d'Antibes to Juan-les-Pins.

Villa Aujourd'hui, Cap d'Antibes - designed by American architect, Barry Dierks in 1938 for Mrs. AUdrey Chadwick of Miami. Around 1950 the American movie mogul, Jack Warner, acquired the house

Villa Aujourd'hui, Cap d'Antibes

Villa Aujourd'hui, Cap d'Antibes - the amazing name sign; simple studds placed straight into the stucco and stone

Villa Aujourd'hui, Cap d'Antibes - view of the eastern facade overlooming the Golfe Juan

Juan-les-Pins hosts an International Jazz Festival each year. The festival was set-up to honour American jazz musician, Sidney Bechet. There is a bust of him in La Pinede, the pine grove planted and developed by Frank Jay Gould.

Sidney Bechet bronze, La Pinede, Juan-les-Pins

Europe may not sometimes like to admit it but, particularly in France, the American ex-patriot community contributed much to our cultural heritage. 

An American star in the form of Grace Kelly married a Monégasque Prince and brought another wave of Hollywood to the Riviera. Later such movies as To Catch a Thief were filmed entirely along the Riviera.

Grace 'Princess' Kelly upon her departure from the church at Monte Carlo after her wedding to Prince Rainier III

Grace Kelly in the film 'To Catch a Thief' with Cary Grant above Monaco and the port of Monte Carlo 

Prince Rainier III of Monaco and his American wife, Princess Grace

This post is just an introduction to a place where the sun seems to perpetually shine, a place of nostalgia and of dreams made real. It is a place where one 'lives well', of good food, of beaches and swimming, of boats and delicious sunsets. It has changed over the years, dramatically, and more often than not, for the worse rather than for the better. It is though, a place that still remains very special for many; thousands of people descend upon its shores each year, to visit a home, to spend lazy days along its waters, checking-in to its fabled hotels and spas or to attend the Cannes Film Festival.

It is a place that will always feel very special to me, perhaps the nearest thing to 'home' that I have ever experienced; summers spent for many years here, a two year stint living here almost all year around. It holds great magic, mystery, intrigue, glamour and a sense of 'being somewhere'.

Over the course of the summer I will be posting one Riviera town each week on this site, going into more specific detail of where to go, what to visit, where to stay and where to eat for each town. I hope you'll check-in and see where you might go, where you might stay on your next trip to the Cote d'Azur. If you're not headed that way, I hope that you will feel that, having read some of these posts, you may have tasted a part of the world that is quite remarkable.

Below are some images of the towns mentioned above, towns that will feature, among others, in forthcoming posts this summer.

Villefranche-sur-Mer

Villefranche-sur-Mer

The Bay of Villefranche showing Cap Ferrat on the left

Beaulieu-sur-Mer

Cap-Ferrat

Eze Village

Eze Village with the town of St.Jean-Cap-Ferrat and Cap Ferrat in the background

Menton

Menton

Nice - the Port of Nice to the right with the Bay of Angels and the Promenade des Anglais in the distance

Cannes showing La Croisette and beaches

Old Antibes with the Alps in the background

Old Antibes and the ramparts

Cap d'Antibes

St.Tropez harbour and the old town

St.Tropez rooves and the view across the Golf of St.Tropez to Ste.Maxime 

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Stephen M. Collin

This site is dedicated to those many years of travel and movement, of exploration and 'learning in the field'. The journey continues, the passion grows, to see and to learn more. I believe it will do so for the rest of my life... read more

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