Destination: Côte d’Azur (Part I – Nice, Antibes, Cannes, St-Tropez)

Tired of driving along your usual roads? Need a change of perspective? Need to stretch your motorised legs beyond our 30-odd kilometers? You can do much, much worse than opting for a motoring holiday along the French Côte d’Azur!

This stretch of coastline from Toulon to the Italian border has long cast a spell on its visitors. Known as the Côte d’ Azur or the French Riviera, it boasts beautiful sun-drenched, chic towns and villages, azure-blue sea and a truly spectacular drive along its coastline. The glamorous towns of Nice, Antibes and its adjoining Juan-Les-Pins, Cannes, Port Grimaud and St- Tropez are all synonymous with style and beauty, enhanced by a top-notch road network utilized by an amazing concentration of Porsches, Ferraris, Bentleys and other such exotic machinery.

Driving around Nice, the capital of the Côte d’Azur, one discovers a town of broad palm-fringed avenues, grand hotels, fine restaurants and outstanding museums. For long an inspiration for artists and musicians with its green pines happily rubbing shoulders with the blue shades of the Mediterranean Sea, its natural setting of rocks and hills is a scene to be slowly taken in and be fully appreciated.
Perhaps most inspiring is the Promenade des Anglais, a magnificent, wide promenade stretching about 7km and running the length of the sandy-beach seafront. Although traffic lights are placed with almost religious rigueur every 50 metres or so, it is possible, by sticking to the 50 km/h speed limit, to drive through the 7km stretch and not once be held up by a red light!

As expected, the promenade is lined with cafes, hotels, museums and posh apartments and provides spectacular views of the bay all the way from the Nice Cape to Antibes. It is a haven for swimmers, sunbathers, joggers and roller-bladers. Furthermore the Promenade is lined with old and grand hotels that were built at the turn of the century. A definite must when visiting Nice is a tea/coffee break (or why not an overnight stay) at the Hotel Negresco, a striking Baroque structure built by Henri Négresco, a Hungarian immigrant, in the early 20th century and specifically designed to attract the very top of the upper crust.

The old quarter of the Nice town center is made up of narrow streets curving in an irregular fashion between red-tiled roof-topped buildings. The Cours Saleya, once the elegant promenade of old Nice, is now lined with shops and restaurants, flower and vegetable markets, and also confectioneries. There is an array of façades worth viewing including Chapelle de la Miséricorde and the Caϊs de Pierla Palace, where Picasso lived in a small room facing the sea between 1921 and 1938. The Cathedral of St. Réparate, the patron saint of Nice, was built in 1650. It is adorned with a colourful façade and its interior is mainly Baroque.

A short drive away from the hustle and bustle of Nice is Cimiez. It is located on a hill that overlooks the rest of the city. Aside from some very impressive residences, Cimiez features the wonderful Matisse museum and some fairly elaborate Roman ruins. In July, Cimiez is home to many Jazz concerts that take place in and around the old Roman arena. Nearby a 16th-century Franciscan monastery with its gardens next to it affords superb views of the bay.

A short distance from Nice is the highly popular resort town of Antibes, sporting picturesque streets, bright with flowers and barely a stone’s throw from the sea. Antibes’s splendid Port Vauban is one of the largest in the Mediterranean and is used by luxury cruise ships; its promenade runs along the remains of 17th century fortifications, and allows an uninterrupted view of the coastline stretching towards Nice with the Alps in the background. The Chateau Grimaldi, nowadays housing a Picasso Museum, was built on a terrace overlooking the sea and until the 17th century was home to the Grimaldi family.

Just next to Antibes, in fact less than an hour’s leisurely drive away, is the coast of Juan-les-Pins, a haven of golden sandy beaches. Here water-skiing, paragliding, scuba-diving, fishing, sailing and swimming are all at their best.

An ideal driving excursion, not far from the coast, is to Mougins, an old village with narrow lanes and restored houses contained within the boundaries of earlier fortifications. Mougins is situated on a hilltop site and there is a panoramic view of the countryside as far as the sea. There are various restaurants here and their homely cooking and warm welcome with their pretty terraces overlooking the vast countryside beneath makes it a very attractive setting for lunch or dinner.

Driving down from the village of Mougins is Cannes, the ‘star’ of the French Riviera famous for its International Film Festival and the glitzy hotels, cars and beaches. Cannes offers a harmonious union of sea shores, wooded mountainsides, and dazzling gardens. The famed Boulevard de la Croisette, an elegant promenade bordered with gardens and palm trees overlooking a sandy beach is lined with elegant boutiques and luxury hotels, among which is the Carlton built in 1912 in Belle Epoque style whose twin cupolas are said to be modelled after the breasts of La Belle Otero.

Stretching your legs with a stroll to the old part of Cannes takes you to Le Suquet, which overlooks the old harbour. This old town has narrow streets climbing up and around the hill, with a fine view from the top and is dominated by the 17th century Provençal Gothic style church of Notre-Dame d’Esperance, the 12th century St. Anne’s chapel and the Castre Museum formerly a castle built in the 12th century. Just off the coast of Cannes are the Lérins Islands, which include the Sainte-Marguerite Island in whose fort the mysterious Man in the Iron Mask was said to be imprisoned for over ten years.

Driving along the coast, past St Raphaël, Frejus and St Maxime, some 70km south of Cannes is the charming Port Grimaud, the so-called ‘Venice of the South’, built in 1966 in Provençale style on a network of canals. It is divided into a few islands connected by small bridges and its many homes have their own mooring. Their terracotta tiled roofs, wonderful ochre and cream painted façades, a main characteristic of many Provençal villages, is no less illustrated here. Port Grimaud also offers superb views of the Gulf of St-Tropez.

The seaside town of St-Tropez has become one of the best-known resorts in Europe, the place where journalists, photographers, writers and artists all meet. Set on the lovely blue water of the Bay of St-Tropez, this modern version of a medieval town is most popular for the line of yachts along the quay, and the facing line of terrace cafés, divided by a parade of strolling tourists and slow cruising expensive cars.

At the turn of the century St-Tropez was a charming little village unknown to tourists. Then in the 1950s, Brigitte Bardot’s film, And God Created Woman, was shot here and no sooner St-Tropez’s fame was established. It gained the reputation of being the vacation spot for the international jet set and other chic visitors.

The harbour in itself is full of life. The fishing boats and other commercial vessels share the mooring with a crowd of yachts – from the most humble to the most luxurious. Along the waterfront and its neighbouring streets the old pink and yellow houses have been converted to cafes and pastry shops, restaurants, luxury boutiques and galleries. And yes, the beaches in St-Tropez are truly heavenly with their combination of fine sand and charming rocky creeks.

To follow

Destination: Côte d’Azur (Part II – Monaco)

No self-respecting motoring enthusiast (or not) on holiday on the Cote d’Azur can possibly justify not driving a few extra kilometres, or extend his stay by a day or two, to experience at first hand Monaco …