A Four-Day Adventure on the Riviera
A close friend from the other side of the planet met me in Nice Wednesday morning giving me an opportunity to behave like a tourist for a few days. Naturally, the first stop was lunch at a seaside restaurant, Le Galet, to take in the sheer delight and beauty of being on the French Riviera after having flown such a long way. It was the perfect introduction to what was to come.
The exhibition at the new Espace Lympia, “Vasarely, d’un art programmatique au numérique,” on until October 22, 2023, was high on my list of things to do as a huge fan of the artist. Little did I realize that the Lympia barracks, formerly Nice’s penal colony, is the oldest building in the port of Nice. It’s so “off-the-beaten-path” that one might not realize it’s even there. (To find the Espace, just walk down the east side of the Old Port until you can’t go any further without turning left!)
Expanded several times, then amputated of its south wing, its history is closely linked to that of the Port Lympia, built by the Sardinian monarchy from 1749 onwards. The building was initially a defensive pier closing off the port on the east side, and was also used as a storehouse and workshop for port work, thanks to its large vaulted rooms. Mostly, it has served as a prison, during various periods of its long life and now, renovated and converted into a single complex as a special space for temporary exhibitions.
Vasarely’s work mesmerizes and excites me. A master and innovator of “Op Art,” his work goes way beyond the norm. Hungarian born, and moved to Paris in 1930, Vasarely is considered the “grandfather” and leader of the movement.
On the way to the Espace Lympia, we made a point of walking from Place Garibaldi to the port, along rue Cassini, which is undergoing a complete facelift. Not fully realized yet, it’s well on its way to being as beautiful as it deserves to be, with a single traffic lane, a two-way cycle path, wider sidewalks, 55 trees, benches and attractive cobblestones.
As part of our mini three-day vacation, we rented a car from Europcar, the office of which is literally steps from my Niçois apartment. The idea was to head north of Nice to the French Alps; roads I’d never taken before. The goal was first to work our way toward Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée, a ski town close to the Mercantour National Park, without knowing what to expect or what we’d find along the way. It took about two hours to get up there through the most beautiful mountain passes I may ever have seen in my life.
The roads are not for the faint of heart, as there are some serious hairpin turns, narrow roads with no shoulders that drop down hundreds or thousands of feet, and no one or any sign of human life except for the many bikers, both motor and manual, on the road. Like everywhere in France, the roads are impeccable, immaculate and well-marked. It takes no time at all to move out of the seascape to the mountainscape, mind-bogglingly that there is such a contrast all within such easy and fast reach of one another.
Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée is 1,140 meters above sea level, but Saint-Dalmas-le-Selvage nearby is 1,500 meters above. That’s pretty high up even if only one-third as high as Mont Blanc, France’s highest peak at 4,808 meters up there (15,774 feet). Still, there’s no doubt you feel on top of the world as you slowly but surely climb up to the top of the peaks.
The town was busy hosting an open-air market when we pulled in and parked, in spite of the fact that it’s not ski season, nor summer vacation. With two restaurants in the center of town, and one of them “complet,” filled with large groups who had reserved well in advance, we were able to score a basic, but well-prepared lunch at the second choice—Restaurant de la Poste (4 rue des Communes de France).
Other towns along this “Route de la Bonette” are worth a visit given the time. After lunch, we headed west to Barcelonnette, where we discovered one of France’s craziest drives! I am blessed that my friend is an accomplished driver who could be trusted explicitly to handle such roads with confidence, although I have to admit to being white-knuckled on a few occasions. The hairpin turns will make your hair curl. And the vistas are breathtaking, but very different from our trek up.
Along the way to Barcelonnette, we came across the beautiful Cascade de Vens, a substantial waterfall just at the edge of the road. Just a bit further is the Camp des Fourches, a mountain barracks located at an altitude of 2,291 meters. It was a surprising punctuation of what is mostly barren and steep mountainsides.
There are 26 small buildings, built between 1896 and 1910 and improved until the Second World War. Twenty of them are virtually identical and have the appearance of chalets but, given the different materials used, were certainly not built at the same time. Although located in the immediate vicinity of the Col-des-Fourches outpost, which was attacked in June 1940 and September 1944, the camp itself does not appear to have been affected by the fighting. It’s a bit creepy if not fascinating a sight.
Then, one doesn’t expect to be hit in the face with Mexican culture upon landing in an alpine village, such as Barcelonnette, but that’s exactly what we discovered. The signs are everywhere on the streets and in the shops. Every year in August, Barcelonnette gets a taste of Mexican customs, music and gastronomy through free shows, street performances and workshops roused by mariachi melodies, flamboyantly dressed dancers and an insight into Aztec culture…believe it or not.
This has taken place there for almost 40 years. The strange thing is “why!?” According to what I could find, in the 19th-century, several thousand of its inhabitants left for the adventure of Mexico, and today the town has preserved an impressive architectural heritage from that era, characterized by numerous villas, that they call “Les Mexicains!” These beautiful bourgeois homes, commissioned by emigrants who returned home with their fortunes made, bear witness to Barcelonnette’s deep-rooted links with Mexico.
How strange is that!? Who would have guessed?
We chose to take a different road down the mountains back to Nice, through the town of Guillaumes, which was an entirely different kind of scenery than our ride north. And I’ll tell you this…if you want to live in a remote spot on the planet, this is it. There is not much humanity in these mountains, nor much in the way of amenities, except perhaps some Mexican sombreros! I couldn’t imagine such a life, but I was happy to have seen and experienced it, even just for a few hours. Our day up into the Alps and back took about 11 hours including all our stops, but worth every minute of the adventure.
The next day we got back in the car parked nearby in a public lot. There are tons of public parking garages in central Nice. Overnight parking in them is €28.20. This time we headed west along the coast, ensuring that we were driving along the water at every opportunity. The goal was to get to Théoule-sur-Mer where I had made reservations for lunch at the Restaurant Plage L’Aiguille (l’Aiguille Beach Club), a spot recommended to me as being very special.
Along the route, L’Aguille called to explain that they might not be serving lunch due to the inclement weather. Rain and wind were predicted during the day. It turned out to be a good thing, as driving along the water took much longer than we expected. That’s because it was an opportunity to see the seaside resorts from a different perspective.
When you drive or train into Nice, one cannot help but see the pyramid-shaped apartment buildings at Villeneuve Loubet named the Marina Baie des Anges. The Local asked us, “Are these the ugliest buildings on the French Riviera?” It’s a good thing that was a question and not a statement, because I happen to think they are sensational! It wasn’t easy to get to them from the main roads, but with a little maneuvering, we were able to get up front and up close. We imagined that the residents were mostly second-home owners who love to boat. Who knows if this conjecture is even close to being correct?
The enclaves along the coast are absolutely beautiful, just as one might imagine. As we skirted Antibes and Cap d’Antibes, my appreciation of the city grew. It’s a serious haven for boaters and it’s elegant as hell. My only complaint, is of course, that you’d have to own a car if you were living in Antibes as the seaside town will not satisfy your every desire, while Nice living can be absolutely vehicle-free.
By the time we arrived at Cannes, it was time for lunch, so we found a place to park just off the Croisette (aka The Promenade de la Croisette, or Boulevard de la Croisette) to find a café for lunch. With all the construction going on along the Croisette, we chose to dine on the water rather than in one of the curbside cafés.
The Cannes Yachting Festival has been in full swing all week, so the town was busy, to say the least, but the Carlton Beach Club was able to take us without a reservation. The Carlton is Cannes most revered hotel. The story about the hotel unfolds like a page from a Russian novel. In the year 1909, Grand Duke Michael of Russia took it upon himself to finance nearly the entire construction of the hotel in order to live up to his standards, and that would come to be known as the “Carlton,” a name signifying “free man” in Scandinavian. It is considered to be “a monumental structure that combined neoclassical elegance with the spirit of the Belle Époque era.” And everyone knows it or knows of it. “Cannes” and “Carlton” are almost synonymous! The Beach Club is just opposite it directly on the water.
The Beach Club isn’t as pricey as one might think, and in all honesty, it’s not as lovely (in my opinion) as Le Galet in Nice, however, it was delicious and became our haven as the rain came down in buckets for a while with winds weren’t far behind. We had stupidly left our umbrella in the car. Large parasols covered the outdoor tables, but they weren’t enough and all of us got pretty wet, especially the waiters whose shirts were clinging to them like plastic wrap.
Once the rains let up, we headed back to the car to continue our trek. I was anxious to see Théoule-sur-Mer. It’s a hop, skip and a jump from Cannes, but it’s like landing on a different planet. This is part of the Esterel National Park spanning approximately 32,000 hectares and extending from Saint Raphael to Théoule-sur-Mer—a volcanic mountain range that rises precipitously from the coastline, with vivid red hues owing to the presence of Rhyolite, an igneous rock dating back to the Paleozoic era. All the buildings in Théoule are red, and made of the same rock. Punctuate this with the azure water of the Mediterranean and what you get is pure heaven.
The coastline along the Riviera never ceases to amaze and engage, although I still favor the enclaves east of Nice, rather than west, where the landscape is much more dramatic, and therefore even more beautiful. Théoule was our last stop before heading home.
Sunday, my visiting friend boarded a plane home, but the rental car was still booked for one more day. That gave me another opportunity to visit some of the Provençal towns not far from Nice that I’d never seen before. With a friend who lives in Nice full time, we made a circle from Nice to Biot, from Biot to the Musée National Fernand Léger, from there to Valbonne and from Valbonne to Mougins before heading back to Nice.
Biot (pronounced “Biotte”) is a small and enchanting village nestled atop a hill and embraced by a lush landscape adorned with vibrant flowers, mimosas, roses, and carnations. Biot has earned global recognition for its exquisite ceramics and artistry in crafting glass pieces adorned with delicate bubbles, however, there was no sign of any of that on a Sunday afternoon when most of the shops were closed.
Because this weekend was the annual Journées du Patrimoine, the museum was free. There is a bus that takes you there—Envibus n°10 and 21 (stop Fernand Léger museum)—but, it’s not easy without a car. This was our chance and it was well worth the stop to see Léger’s work in such a quantity and so well-displayed.
Joseph Fernand Henri Léger was a prominent French artist, who excelled in the realms of painting, sculpture, and filmmaking. In his early artistic endeavors, he forged a distinctive variation of cubism, a style that he later transformed into a more accessible and figurative approach. Léger’s audaciously simplified interpretation of contemporary themes has rightfully earned him recognition as a precursor to the pop art movement.
Nestled along the Brague River, the town of Valbonne boasts of its historic old town as well as providing a home for the many people who work in the cutting-edge technology hub of Sophia Antipolis. Founded in 1519, the town adopted an urban layout inspired by Roman street planning, deviating from the maze-like alleys common in many Provençal villages. Like several towns along the Côte d’Azur, archaeological excavations in the surrounding hills have revealed the presence of ancient settlements, reaching back to prehistoric times.
We lunched in the old town, a charming 16th-century gem, a grid of cobblestone streets, pastel-hued buildings, and a central square adorned with sun-drenched café tables—this is where we chose to land before wandering through the streets and taking in the offerings of a “brocante” (rummage sale) taking place all throughout the old town.
Mougins was next and last on our tour. Inhabited by many artists and celebrities…Pablo Picasso ranks highest on Mouginians’ list, but you can also count Jean Cocteau, Fernand Léger, Francis Picabia, Man Ray, Arman, Yves Klein, César Baldaccini, Paul Eluard, Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Winston Churchill, Catherine Deneuve, Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel among its residents.
As a result of all of these famous artists who have lived in Mougins, art is prevalent in the town. Sculptures by Gabriël Sterk are everywhere, like them or not! So is Pablo Picasso. This is where he died 50 years ago at the age of 91 years old, in his room at Mas Notre-Dame de Vie, which he had acquired in 1961 . His association with Mougins began in the late 1930s, when he stayed at the Hôtel Vaste Horizon with his muse Dora Maar, and other artist friends such as Paul Eluard, Man Ray, Lee Miller, and Jean Cocteau. To mark the 50th anniversary of his death, the town of Mougins is currently offering a series of exhibitions, screenings, and exclusive tours until the end of October to pay tribute to the artist and give the public a closer look at the master’s daily life in Mougins.
Also renowned for its culinary heritage, Mougins is famous for hosting the International Festival of Gastronomy every June. During this event, more than 100 chefs from around the world share their recipes and cooking tips through public cooking demonstrations. We were too late arriving there to take advantage of such culinary delights.
Satisfied that we’d seen and done plenty in one day, having taken advantage of the car, we headed home to Nice, dropped off the car to its lot at the train station and I walked home.
That was the end of a four-day adventure on the Riviera with friends, but just the beginning of discovering even more in the region over time!
A la prochaine…
The Adrian Leeds Group®
P.S. Did you know we have filmed over 50 episodes of House Hunters International?! Newer episodes frequently re-air, so we work to keep you informed when they’ll air. You can also review all the episodes and see if they’ll be shown again by going to our HHI page.