Where Cote d’Azur Meets Provence

 To most visitors, the Cote d’Azur is the coastal portion of Southern France stretching from Monaco westward along the Mediterranean to St.-Tropez.  For short-time visitors that is where the actions is, but to those who live there – and particularly in the St.-Tropez area (and to the French themselves) – this leaves out a lot of what “locals” would consider to be the Cote d’Azur.  For those who want good beaches and/or have a strong interest in history, there is a lot to be seen in part of of the department Var that is tucked between the traditional Cote d’Azur and Provence.

For starters, those most interested in the sun, some of the best French Mediterranean beaches are in Cavalaire and Le Levandou, which are immediately west of St.-Tropez.  There are plentiful accommodations, and the scenic beauty alone is justification enough for spending time there.  The beach visitors are primarily French, which has led to many calling it the French Riviera.

Western Var, though, is far more than just a beach destination as it also has three of the region’s most historic towns – Hyeres, St.-Maximin and Brignoles.  They are worth a visit, and an added plus are the many charming villages along the way – and the coastal French village of Cassis.

Hyeres Old Town

Place Massillon in Hyeres

Hyeres, which dates back to 350 BC when it was a Greek port, is the next stop along the coast and is an almost forgotten city in today’s Cote d’Azur being far to the west of more recent centers of tourism, but it was a major destination for 18th and 19th century visitors.  In the 1840s and 1850s, it was the easiest option for those looking for a place in the sun when trains reached Marseille in 1848 and Toulon in 1854.

Like Nice and Cannes, Hyeres owed much of its early prominence as a winter resort for English visitors.  The Prince of Wales made visits in the winters of 1788 and 1789 that had the usual impact of others wanting to follow where royalty went: and the visitors were not all English.  In 1787, Thomas Jefferson stopped there on a tour that included Frejus, Antibes and Monaco as well. The Russian writers, Tolstoy and Turgenev, were also among its early 19th century visitors.  In the second half of the 19th century, the ever-present Queen Victoria spent a winter at the Grand Hotel in Costebelle, two miles south of the center of Hyeres.

Hyeres, however,  does never had the excitement of Nice, Cannes and St,-Tropez, and there is not a lot to see.  Lunch on the Place Massillon under the towers next to the Eglise-de- St.-Paul and a visit to the Grand Hotel pretty much does it.

A  few miles north of Hyeres is like entering another world, which is very evident when reaching the old town of Brignoles.  In the 12th and 13th century it was the region’s second largest city and once was an integral part of Provence.  So much so that beginning in the late 12th century and in much of the 13th century it served as the summer residence of the counts of Provence.  The Palace of the Counts dates to those days still stands near the Eglise St.-Sauver, a church that also was built in the Middle Ages.

Three miles southwest of Brignoles is the Abbaye-de-la-Celle, a Benedictine monastery and convent.  It was built in the 11th century by monks from the St.-Victoire monastery in Marseille and reached its peak of prosperity in the early 13th century, when the Countess of Provence, Garsende de Sabran, retired to the convent and a number of young women from noble families followed her.  Much of the abbey still stands today, and parts of it are used as a luxury hotel.  At $600 plus for a room, I have to admit I have not been among its patrons.

A few miles west of Brignoles on Peage 8 in St.-Maximin is the region’s largest and most spectacular medieval church, the Basilica of Mary Magdelene.  It was started in 1295 and was generally in its present form by the end of the 14th century.  It is of interest beyond its gothic style and size because of it supposed connection with Mary Magdelene.

Basilica-de-Mary --Magdelene

Basilica-de-Mary –Magdelene

What is likely more legend than fact is the arrival and burial of Mary Magdelene.  The legend is that she and her brother, Lazarus, along with St.-Maximin, a third century martyr, fled the holy land on a boat without rudder or sail and landed on the French coast near Arles.  She then went to Marseille and converted residents to Christianity before retiring to a cave in the Ste.-Baum mountain ridge near St.-Maximin.  She was supposedly buried there, and her remains are said to be in a crypt under the Basilica.

It is hard for me to talk about this region between traditional Cote d’Azur and Provence without mention of the pretty fishing village of Cassis and its calanques, which have been described as mini-fjords.  Located between Marseilles and Toulon, it has lots of day-tripper visitors, but it is a nice place to spend a night.

Calanque at Cassis

Calanque at Cassis

The village itself is similar to many other seaside villages in southern France in being picturesque and filled with seaside restaurants, but the calanques gives it something special.  For the energetic, they provide great hiking destinations with near private beaches along the way.  For most, though, they are seen by boat with departures from the harbor every half hour.

There many hotels in Cassis.  We like the Best Western Hotel La Rade that is a block from the harbor, but we also enjoyed the less expensive Hotel le Golfe that is right on the harbor.

This blog ncludes excerpts from my book, A Travelers Guide to Cote d’Azur.

 

Posted in Brignoles, Corsica, Hyeres | Tagged , ,

Corsica in Five Days

My blog is focused primarily on Cote d’Azur, but when people visit the area and drive through Nice, they may see those big yellow boats heading into and out of its old port – a docking area off-limits to cruise ships.  These are the car ferries going to and from Corsica, a beautiful island and natural extension of a visit to Cote d’Azur.  It is not, however, a one or two day trip – and really deserves at least a week – but it can be seen by car in five days.

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Car Ferry to Corsica

It is helpful to recognize early on when visiting Corsica that there are four very distinct sectors – the industrial towns of Bastia and Ajaccio; the west coast resorts reminiscent of Cote d’Azur; the historic cliff town of Bonifacio; and what some might call the real Corsica, the mountainous Italian-oriented center that includes the capital city of Corte.  Most island visitors head straight to the west coast resorts of Calvi, l’Ile Rousse and St.-Florent, and they will not be disappointed, but for those who wants to get a real flavor of the island, they should see all four parts,

My wife and I have made the trip three times – once to get a quick overview; a second to see what we had missed; and a third time with friends.  We loved our second trip that focused on the gorgeous west coast, but for those going for the first time with a limited schedule, Corsica can provide for a broad-based, enjoyable visit that touches on all four Corsicas in just five days.

The Corsica ferries are headed mostly to Bastia and Ajaccio, and for that “see it all” trip, I recommend Bastia.  Its timing is perfect as one of the Bastia ferries leaves Nice at 2:15 PM and arrives in Bastia around 7:30 PM.  This provides for a relaxing five hour boat ride and gets you to Bastia in time for a port-side dinner.  There are several good hotels in Bastia, but our preference is a convenient Best Western above the town center.

From there, it an easy, albeit not particularly scenic, two hour drive south to Porto-Vecchio and Bonifacio.  The latter is the “must see” place in Corsica, but stopping at Porto-Vecchio for lunch is a nice introduction to this part of the island.  The town has no real historic significance, but it has restaurants overlooking a beautiful harbor filled with pleasure boats – and is less than 30 minutes from Bonifacio.

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Porto-Vecchio restaurant overlooking the harbor

Bonifacio is one of the hidden gems of Mediterranean that will not easily be forgotten.  The town dates back to Roman times, but it gained its prominence in the 9th century when the Tuscans took it from the Saracens and put a fortress on the high cliffs that look across the sea to nearby Sardinia.  Your first exposure, though, will not be the old town on the cliff, but the new town by the water where the hotels and restaurants are located.

After you check into your hotel – and our favorite is the Hotel La Caravel with its easy parking and waterfront location – the best way to start your visit to is to get into one of the tour boats in front of the hotel and see Bonifacio from the sea high above you on the cliffs.  This is what has been seen by visitors for centuries as they came by boat, not car – and this is the Bonafacio you will most remember.

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Bonifacio from the sea

When the short boat trip is over, it is time to climb up to the old town and wander around and take pictures.  One can dine up there as well, but most visitors end up back in the new town at one of the many water side restaurants.

Then it is 0ff to the mountains, and the best way to do this is to head north toward Bastia, and at the town of Ghisonacchia making a left turn on the road to Corte.  You will then soon be seeing mountain scenery that matches the best of Switzerland as Corsica is not called the “Ile de Beaute” for nothing.  Near the intersection with the road from Ajaccio to Corte there is an excellent roadside restaurant, Le Chalet, and then on to Corte for an overnight stay.

Corte in Corsica France

Citadel in Corte

Corte is Corsica’s capital, a hiker’s paradise and sits in shadow of citadel 300 feet above the town that is open to visitors.  To the left of the citadel is a popular “look-out” that is aptly called the Belvedere that provides a wonderful panorama of the area.

The history of Corsica is very much tied to Italy, and this is particularly evident in in Corte’s town squares that have names such as Paoli and Gaffori.  The hotels and restaurants are near these squares that are connected by the Cours Paoli and frequently have entrances on the second floor. We have  stayed in Corte twice and enjoyed both the Hotel du Nord and Hotel Duc de Padoue.

If time is limited, one can visit some of the small mountain villages near Corte and then head back to Bastia for a last night and catch the 8 AM boat to Nice.  An extra day going west to the popular port town of Calvi, though, is well worth the time.

Calvi has a citadel as well, but this time it overlooks the water instead of mountain valleys – and is a busy tourist center with beaches and seaside restaurants reminiscent of Cote d’Azur.  There are numerous hotels, and we were quite happy with our choice, Hotel Saint Christophe, but there were several with higher TripAdvisor ratings.

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Beachside restaurant in front of Calvi’s citiadel.

From Calvi it is not too far a drive to Bastia to get the boat back to Nice, which allows time to meander along the scenic shore road north and have lunch in another of Corsica’s charming west coast resort towns, St.-Florent.

This tour misses the island’s largest city and Napoleon’s birthplace, Ajaccio, but the city is not particularly interesting and easy to skip.  I would be remiss, however, if I did not mention the Hotel Dolce Vita on the outskirts of town.  It is one of the nicest resort hotel we have stayed

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Trigance Castle and Gorge du Verdon

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Posted in France, Gorge du Verdon, South of France, Var

Suburban Artistic Hilltop Villages, St.-Paul-de-Vence and Mougins

Two popular stopovers for visitors to Cote d’Azur are St.-Paul-de-Vence and Mougins, fortified hilltop villages, not far from Nice and Cannes that became art colonies and temporary homes for famous writers and artists during the 1920s and 1930s. Besides being great places for lunch they offer visitors an interesting combination of medieval times; sitting where the likes of Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Scott Fitzgerald, Yves Montand and countless other actors and actresses once sat – and are still sitting each May when the Cannes film festival is in action; and endless places to look at or buy local art. St.-Paul-de-Vence is about six miles northwest of Nice and Mougins is a couple of miles north of Cannes.

St.-Paul-de-Vence from a distance

St.-Paul-de-Vence from a distance

St.-Paul-de-Vence is of particular interest in that has more of a historic feel. It is not on a high mountain top like Peillon or Saorge, but it is still a walled hilltop city that has not lost its medieval appearance. It was a bishopric in Roman times; has an 11th century church; ramparts that were built starting in the 13th century; and few medieval cities of its size are so well preserved. Its 11th century church, Collegiale-de-la-Conversion, is one of three Cote d’Azur gothic churches that give a real feel of medieval times – Cathedrale St.-Leonce in Frejus and the Basilique-de-Mary Magdalene in St.-Maximin being the others.

In more recent times, St.-Paul-de-Vence was closely associated with a Russian born painter, Marc Chagall. He came to France in 1923, but initially most of his time spent in Cote d’Azur was on temporary visits. It was not until 1950 that he purchased a home in St.-Paul-de-Vence and became a permanent resident. Long before Chagall came to stay, D.H. Lawrence had moved to St.-Paul-de-Vence from Bandol in hopes of regaining his health. Unfortunately, he would die soon after the move and was buried there in 1930.

Mougins has a history similar to that of St.-Paul-de-Vence in that it dates back to Roman times; had a church and ramparts built in medieval times; and was a home to famous artists between the wars; but it is more a product of its recent artistic past than the olden days. This, though, does not diminish its visitor appeal as it is a great place to just wander around and have lunch. Its artistic life was dominated by Picasso who first visited the village in 1936. Like Chagall in St.-Paul-de-Vence, he initially was a part-time visitor and did not become a permanent Cote d’Azur resident until he moved to Mougins in 1961.

La Place de Mougins
La Place de Mougins

Eating, though, is on the minds of most visitors to these two villages and with good reason. They have some of Cote d’Azur’s best restaurants, and the excellent food is made to taste even better by the pleasant setting and, in some case, countryside view. When it comes to eating, Mougins may be a step ahead of St.-Paul-de-Vence and helped by its proximity to Cannes that has made it a popular eating place for the stars in May when the film festival is in full swing, but you cannot go wrong at either place.

Leading the way in Mougins are the two restaurants of chef, Denis Fettison. La Place de Mougins tops most of the best restaurant lists for the village, and a recent visit with friends for lunch has me as one its many fans. The fish, beef and pork specials were superb, but even better were the added treats that kept showing up as our two hour sit moved along. His other restaurant, L’Amandier, was not open that day for lunch, but with its setting in stone house with a terrace on the top floor that overlooks the entire region, it has an added appeal. They also are only two of the six or seven restaurants in town that normally have Michelin ratings. The reviews of the longtime top-rated Le Moulin de Mougins, however, suggest it is not what it used to be.

Under the tree at Le Tilleul

Under the tree at Le Tilleul

St.-Paul-de-Vence has just two highly rated restaurants, but it is not lacking for good places to eat. The most popular is Le Tilleul, one of the two Michelin rated restaurants in town with its outdoor seating under a tree that provides ample shade. It has a fun, touristy appeal and also has good food. When eating there we stayed fairly standard with entrecote and lotte (monkfish), but a local cassoulet is quite popular. The Artiste is a local favorite, and if you are looking or ambience plus food, this is the place in St.-Paul-de-Vence.

This blog includes excerpts from my book, A Travelers History of Cote d’Azur.

Posted in Mougins, St.-Paul-de-Vence | Tagged ,

Frejus, St.-Raphael and the Red Rocks

About halfway between Cannes and St.-Tropez, but not getting near the attention, are the twin cities of Frejus and St.-Raphael and immediately to their south is the spectacular shore road along the Massif de l’Esterel – the Corniche d’Or. These are not key destination points in Cote d’Azur, but are well worth a visit.

Frejus is of particular interest for history buffs as it is far more than just another part of southern France’s Roman history. It, along with Arles, was one of the major beneficiaries of Massalia’s (Marseille) decline after it backed Pompey over Julius Caesar in 55 BC. As a result of that decision, Arles was the new “first city” of the broader region, and Frejus became Julius Caesar’s regional naval base. In 31 BC, Octavian, later to be called Augustus, brought to Frejus the fleet he captured from Mark Anthony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium.

In addition to being an important Roman naval base, as the first seaport coming east on the Aurelian Way, Frejus was a primary shipping outlet for wines, olive oil and other agricultural products flowing in from flatter land north of the mountains to west. For a time, Frejus may have been the second largest Roman port after Ostia, which was right outside of Rome.

Frejus Arena

Frejus Arena

 

The importance of Frejus was accompanied by the building of some of the earliest Roman civic structures in France. The Frejus arena dates back to the early 1st century and is the oldest surviving arena in France. Parts of its theater of the same era are also still visible. In addition, there are the remains of several pillars of a 20 mile long aqueduct; portions of a theater; two gates – La Porte d’Oree and Porte des Gauls; a tower signifying the entrance to the harbor, Augustus’ Lantern; and Roman ramparts. Frejus also has a medieval gothic church, Cathedral St.-Leonce, built over a 5th century Roman era baptistery.

It takes a little looking to find some of these Roman sites, but not being a big city, it is easy to get around Frejus, and there is ample on-street parking. The recently refurbished arena and gothic church are easy to find in the center of town, and the church with its tower can be seen from a distance. The most interesting of the Roman ruins, the stanchions of the aqueduct, of which there are many located in close proximity, are east of the town center. This aqueduct carried water to Frejus from the hills several miles away.

Roman aqueduct stanchions in Frejus

Roman aqueduct stanchions in Frejus

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the once booming port of Frejus gave way to the non-navigable swamplands that had been there before the Roman reclamation. Credible population data is not readily available for those days, but in the 1st century, the arena supposedly seated 10,000 people. Even if that is a bit of stretch, it suggests a population that could have been as much 20,000, but by the end of the 12th century, its population was reportedly down to about 1,500.

Today, Frejus is a city of about 50,000 residents that is virtually indistinguishable from the more fashionable, neighboring city of St.-Raphael with another 30,000 people. St.-Raphael also dates back to Roman times, but without the Roman ruins. Its main sight, besides the attractive downtown on the shore road downtown is its 12th century church, St. Rafeu, and its accompanying medieval tower a couple of blocks in from the shore road. There are numerous good eating places in Old Town Frejus and in the more modern St.-Raphael downtown.

Even if Roman ruins are not your thing, taking the shore road instead of Peage 8 at least one way on a trip from Nice or Cannes to St.-Tropez is well worthwhile just to drive along the Corniche d’Or that goes right through the red rocks of the Massif de l’Esterel. For several miles the rocks come out to the sea creating spectacular scenery. A friend visiting us told me that this ride was the most interesting, and surprising thing he saw in all of Cote d’Azur.

This blog includes excerpts from my book, A Travelers History of Cote d’Azur.

Posted in Corsica, Frejus, St.-Raphael | Tagged , , , , ,

Cannes: A Must See, but Overrated

Cannes is the first stop for most Cote d’Azur visitors from America, and with good reason with the publicity it gets from its film festival.  On my first trip with my wife to Cote d’Azur, after landing at Nice and renting a car, we were off to a two night stay at the Cannes Sofitel, now the Radisson, and after a rooftop dinner in the evening and a walk along Promenade de La Croisette in the morning, we were fans.  A dozen years later and after a decade of spending six months a year living in the region, I dutiful, but not happily, take visitors to Cannes.

It is not that I do not like Cannes, but the traffic to and from is horrendous, and it lacks the charm that is so much of the Cote d’Azur appeal.  Its beaches are a poor imitation of what you can find to the west in St.-Tropez and Ste.-Maxime and a walk along La Croisette does not come close to the pleasure of a similar walk along Nice’s Promenade des Anglais.  Some will say that this is where you see Cote d’Azur’s opulence at its peak, but what you mainly see are young tourists and conventioneers that give the feel of being in Miami, not France.  When it comes to opulence, it is not Monaco or St.-Tropez.

Nevertheless, you should go there not only to say you have been there, but there is a lot of history to be seen even if it seems out-of-place amongst the crowds that fill the Promenade area from June through September.  I suggest day-tripping, though, from Nice, Villefranche or one of the towns on the Gulf of St.-Tropez.  If you are going to stay overnight, the Radisson is a good choice, and close to not only the best restaurants that are clustered on or near Rue de St.-Antoine; the marina; the Palais des Festival, and also the docks where one gets the boats to the Abbaye-de-Lerins on St.-Honorat Island, which alone is enough reason to visit Cannes.  If it is hotel row and the beaches you want to see, this is not the blog for you.

Fortified Monastery

Fortified Monastery

Despite being a bit hidden, Cannes is not without its own fascinating history..  It may have been a sleepy fishing village with only about only 3,000 residents when the 19th century began, but it was the approximate site of a decisive battle between the Romans and a Ligurian tribe in 154 BC, and in 410 AD, the Abbaye-de-Lerins was founded.  It would become one of the most important monasteries in southern France, and St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, studied there in the 5th century.

A walk around the island takes one back through the ages including a feel for its Roman beginnings.  There are the floor stones of a chapel from Roman times and a plaque on the wall of the working monastery dedicated to St. Patrick who studied there in the 5th century.  In the 11th century, a fortified monastery was built that still stands at the water’s edge.

Much of the credit for Cannes emergence as a Cote d’Azur “place to be” is given to an Englishman, Henry Brougham, a prominent retired Lord Chancellor.  In 1834, he and his ailing daughter were prevented by an outbreak of cholera from crossing the Var River into Savoy to enjoy his usual winter in Nice.  He instead checked into the only hotel in the small village of Cannes.

Lord Brougham was so enthralled by Cannes charms that he built a luxurious villa in the foothills on the west side of town to which he returned every winter until he died in 1868.  His home, the Villa Elsinore – named in memory of his daughter who had not survived long after her arrival – is still an attractive residence.

Palais Valambrosa

Palais Vallombrosa

Not far from Villa Elsinore, the Palais Vallombrosa was built in 1858 for Lord Londesborough, and it may well have been the most extravagant Cote d’Azur structure at the time and for at least the next 30 years.  It was expanded in the 1890s in Belle Epoque style and turned into a hotel – and like most grand hotels of that era not adjacent to the sea, was turned into a luxury residence in the 1930s.

With the visitor focus being almost entirely on La Croisette that runs along the bay, its historic buildings get little attention, and the most interesting ones are not easy to find.  Its 19th century villas and hotels are now residences and in the hills to the east and west of the city that were the primary destinations in earlier times.

In the high hills on the east side is the large Le Californie, once a hotel and now a residence, that gave its name to this neighborhood with its luxurious Belle Epoque villas and mountainside views of the bay.  This includes the Chateau Louis XIII with its spires that give it a distinctive look when viewed from below.

In the lower hills to the east is Lord Brougham’s Villa Elsinore from the early 19th century that started it all in Cannes and the Palais Vallombrosa.  The latter is part of a historic park that also includes the Villa Rothschild and Villa Belle-Vue, but, disappointingly, it is not open to the public.

With its ideal location overlooking beaches, a beautiful bay and the Lerin Islands, Cannes was a natural destination for visitors wanting to enjoy the good life in a nice climate.  Its early development, though, differed from that of Nice, Monaco and Menton.  It was not a real city like Nice, a gambling center like Monaco or a health resort in the manner of Menton.

Instead, Cannes was a fashionable place to live, particularly for the English, with many luxurious villas, often palatial, and hotels overlooking the water.  Some of these buildings can be readily seen along the water, but most are in the low hills on the western end of the city where Lord Brougham built his Villa Elsinore.

The fashionable hotels along La Croisette that can be seen today are a mixture of Belle Epoque, 1920s Art Deco and some less appealing 1960s styles. The most luxurious, the Carlton, is a Belle Epoque construction, but opened toward the end of that era in 1908.  The first of the big Belle Epoque hotels in Cannes, the Grand, was built in 1870 and torn down after the Second World War to be replaced by a 1960s style hotel.

Cannes’ image was helped greatly in the 1920s by the acceleration of Cote d’Azur becoming a summer rather than winter resort.  The celebrities creating the news were no longer royalty escaping the cold winters of London, Moscow and Vienna.  The new attention-getters were businessmen, big names of the entertainment world along with writers and painters, a great number of whom were Americans.  If it was winter weather that Americans wanted to get away from, they had Florida and the Caribbean islands with much warmer climates than Cote d’Azur.  In a rationale reversal many came to this water-cooled region to get away from hot summer weather elsewhere.  This change from a winter to summer resort was something Nice and other Cote d’Azur resorts were slow to endorse.

Cannes, a much smaller city, had none of the resistance to change that existed in Nice, and since the 1920s was single-mindedly dedicated to the pursuit of tourists.  It was willing to cover the beach pebbles common to that part of Cote d’Azur with sand and eagerly sought visits from pleasure boats of all sizes.  It even let its Belle Epoque hotels to be torn down and rebuilt with less style to add more rooms.

Congress, Cannes

Palais des Festival et Congress

In 1946, the first Cannes Film Festival was held, and Cannes had found its niche.  Unlike most film awards, it was not a one night affair and who was there was more important than who won.  Actors and actresses came looking for parts – and to be seen; producers were there searching for financing; and investors were on the prowl for the right movie.  To the public, the Festival was a succession of parties, some held on large yachts, with the beautiful people dressed or under-dressed to attract attention.  By the 1960s, Cannes, helped by the film festival, had become a Cote d’Azur hot spot, and for many had replaced Nice as the place to be.

Note:  This includes excerpts from my book, A Traveler’s History of Cote d’Azur.

Posted in Cannes, Cote d'Azur, France, French Riviera | Tagged , , , , ,

Menton: Big, Busy and Overlooked

An overlooked part of Cote d’Azur by travelers from places other than France and Italy is Menton and its immediate environs.  This is understandable for travelers with limited time as it has no airport, film festival, famous casino or reputation for extravagant living, but it is a busy place with lots to see and do – and very typical of Cote d’Azur.  It has beaches; its share of Belle Epoque hotels and16th century churches; an old town; a beachfront casino; a new Jacques Cousteau museum; and its fascinating Citrus Festival.  Within a five mile drive are a well-preserved hillside castle in nearby Roquebrune and Ste.-Agnes, the highest perched village along the sea in France with its castle ruins and a 1930s fortress.  Because of the mountains behind it, Menton also has Cote d’Azur’s warmest weather.

Menton FranceIt has not always been overlooked, and what you see today in Menton represents a lot of what Cote d’Azur once was.  In the late 19th century, it was Nice’s main rival for tourists from northern Europe, particularly from England and Russia.  It was a bit unique in its appeal at the time, though, in that its attraction was based more on health than revelry.  Nice and Cannes owed much of their 19th century growth to the belief that their climate benefited health problems, but Menton went so far in that direction that Ted Jones, a writer of a book on Cote d’Azur, entitled his chapter on Menton, “Sanatorium City.”

Menton is no longer a refuge for the wealthy and ailing, but Cote d’Azur’s best year-round weather is still there and has made it a major retirement center.  Even in the late 19th century it was unfair to think of Menton as only a place for the ailing since its sunny climate and location attracted many others as well and this is equally so today relative to being just a place for retirees.

In 1870, it was a book by a British doctor, James Henry Bennet, Menton and the Riviera: As a Winter Climate, that helped bring a colony of 5,000 English citizens to the city, and as a result, Menton has its share of Belle Epoque hotels and villas from this era.  The Grand Hotel des Ambassadeurs dating back to 1865 is still taking guests, but the two largest hotels of that era, the Winter Palace and Rivera Palace, built in the early 1880s, like so many Cote d’Azur’s grand hotels, have been converted to residences.  Even as residences filled with retirees, they sit majestically on the hills above the city and an early 1890s hotel, Palais d’Europe, which once housed a casino, is now a tourism center.

Menton FranceWhat makes Menton special today besides its weather and a touch of nostalgia is a lengthy beach stretching from Roquebrune- Cap-Martin to the Italian border – a distance of at least three miles; its gardens and fruit trees; the mountains behind it; and a citrus festival.  The beaches bring crowds and with them endless hotels and restaurants, but the city is best known for its gardens, fruit trees and February fruit festival.  The festival features miniature castles, houses and people over a two block area constructed totally of lemons.

Being so close to my home base at Nice, I am no expert on its hotels, but Menton, like Cannes, is place where you want to be near the beach – and not just to swim.   This is where most of the hotels and restaurants are – and its old town, which has a very picturesque combination of 16th century religious churches with the Basilica de St.-Michel and Chapelle-de-l’Immaculate Conception facing each other and overlooking the beach and harbor.  If day-tripping this is a must visit, and there are a couple of excellent harbor-side restaurants right below the churches, La Belle Escale and Cote Sud.

If one is going to Menton, the mountain village of Ste.-Agnes, which is the highest in France overlooking the sea, should be part of that visit.  It was mentioned in one of my earlier blogs on Saorge and other perched villages in Cote d’Azur, but it is worth repeating here with a little more detail as is it only about five miles north of Menton and an easy drive.  There is also a bus that leaves Menton at 9:30 AM and one that comes back from Ste.-Agnes at 2:35 PM.  It is busy place since it is not only a pretty village to visit, but a popular luncheon destination for Menton’s many retirees as well as visitors.

While most people are up there to eat with a view, Ste.-Agnes has two historic spots, each of which is by itself worth the trip.  These are the 12th century castle ruins and the much more recent Fort Ste.-Agnes that was constructed between 1932 and 1938 as part of the Maginot Line that was to protect France from invasion from the east.

The castle ruins are on a 2,625-foot peak that overlooks the Mediterranean and provides spectacular views of both Menton and Monaco down below.  It was supposedly built by a Saracen prince that had married a local girl; was rebuilt in the 15th century; and then destroyed by Louis XIV, the Sun King, in the 17th century.  It is a bit of a walk up from the village, but it is quite doable on a well-constructed pathway.

Even more spectacular, and certainly more unique, is Fort Ste.-Agnes.  It is several stories high, totally encased in the rocks and was built to hold a military contingent of 350 men.  Only one level is open to visitors, but it is extensive and has many rooms, some of which include displays of what they were like during the war. The cannons that were intended to protect Menton harbor can be seen from the outside.  The fort is open June through September from10:30 in the morning until noon and reopens in the afternoon at 3 o’clock.  The rest of the year, it is open from 2:30 PM to 5:30 PM.  Right inside the entrance is a movie with English subtitles of scenes taken within the fort when it was still active.

Lunch, though, seems to be what Ste.-Agnes is about, and it has good restaurants.  Le Righi with its location outside the village near the cannons is the best, but Le Saint Yves in the village also draws large crowds.  The latter’s central location; large outside dining area; and reasonably priced food are good reasons why; but it also helped by being open all the time – and being able to handle the large weekend demand.

Roquebrune village is a nice stopover for lunch high in the hills on the Moyenne Corniche between Menton and Monaco, and about 15 minutes from each.  It is a well-preserved medieval village with a 10th century castle that was restored in the 19th century.  It has its own hotel, Les Deux Freres, and several restaurants.  My favorite is the very unpretentious Fraise et Chocolat with a terrace overlooking the water.

This blog includes excerpts from my book, A Traveler’s History of Cote d’Azur.

Posted in France, French Riviera, Menton, South of France | Tagged , , , , ,

St.-Tropez: Where the Rich Come to Play

St.-Tropez is probably better known outside of France than any other Cote d’Azur spot except perhaps Cannes and Nice, and it has become a symbol of the region’s opulence and, to some, decadence. No matter what people think of it, though, they keep coming. Most of those who come, however, usually see little more than the picturesque village and never experience the real St.-Tropez that requires at least a visit to Pampelonne Beach, some understanding of its history and is helped by a taste of the local nightlife. Day-trippers may wonder why all the fuss about this overpriced village, but the many mega-yachts sitting in the harbor are not there just for the scenery.

St. Tropez pictured from a boat

Crowded day at St. Tropez port as we approach by boat.

Even for those that just come for the day, it may be hard to believe that St.-Tropez was still a small fishing village in the early 1900s when Monaco, Cannes and Nice had already become major tourist destinations. This would not change until the mid-1920s when Colette, a talented French author whose lifestyle helped make her a well-known celebrity moved to a rather rundown St.-Tropez.

Thirty years later, Brigitte Bardot, would raise the fame of St.-Tropez to a higher level, but it would be a different St.-Tropez. Ted Jones in his book on the literary impact on Cote d’Azur noted that “sadly, the writers of 1920s and 1930s – Colette working on La Naissance du Jour, Jean-Paul Sartre sitting in the Café Senequier writing The Roads to Freedom and the novelist Anais Nin – probably saw St.-Tropez at its best.”

No matter what one thinks of Bardot’s talent, and she was never considered for an academy award, her And God Created Women is one of the best known movies of all time. It was a great promotion piece for the village when released in 1956 as sex and opulence was becoming synonymous with St.-Tropez – an association that seemed to be welcomed locally.

Even without Bardot, St.-Tropez was headed in that direction. Collette and her life style started the village down the sybaritic path between the wars, and its location on a peninsula with a long sandy Pampelonne Beach on one side and a deep harbor and charming village on the other was a perfect setting for the newly rich and famous with their yachts, and those that wanted to live like them. Unlike earlier years, these rich and famous were movie stars, nouveau billionaires, and, in most cases, represented neither royalty nor inherited wealth.

Despite being the “Johnny come lately” of Cote d’Azur tourist spots, St.-Tropez has a history that goes back 2,000 years. In the 1st century AD the Emperor Nero beheaded a Roman centurion named Torpes for converting to Christianity, and legend has it that he was then set adrift in a rotting boat with a rooster and a dog that was washed ashore at present site of the village of St.-Tropez that took its name from this subsequently sainted soldier.

The citadel that sits next to the village was built near the end of the 16th century by Genoese immigrants brought in to defend the Gulf of St.-Tropez. Not much later the citadel would be needed as St.-Tropez was attacked by Spanish galleons in 1637 as part of Spain’s war with France. The invasion that would be repulsed by the Genoese immigrants, and St.-Tropez celebrates the victory of its “bravados” over the Spaniards every June 15th.

Few people, though, come to see St.-Tropez because of its history. What draws the visitors is the picturesque village, a deep harbor that can handle the biggest yachts and sandy beaches. For those that cannot afford a yacht, the attractions are similar, but with the added allure of sitting in restaurants along the docks and watching the “beautiful people” come off those yachts. It is not often, though, you get to see the likes of Jack Nicholson, Beyonce and Rihanna that are frequent visitors. When they are there they do not go into hiding, but are more likely to be seen at the beach clubs and night spots than in the village.

Unfortunately, most visitors only get to see the village and do not experience the beach scene on the other side of the peninsula that maintains the reputation started by Collette and Bardot or the night life. On a summer afternoon, the sea along Pampelonne is filled with enough yachts to resemble a naval invasion, which to some degree it is as the boat people come ashore for lunch and the sun.

The most famous of the beach clubs, and where one is most likely to see the celebrities, is Le Club 55, but it is not the best for getting a feel of the beach. Smaller clubs like La Voile Rouge and Ocoa (my favorite) have better views and equally good, if not better, food. Further down the beach away from the main concentration of clubs is the famed Nikki Beach – an open air club on the beach, but structured around a pool – and a hot spot from 6 PM to 8 PM. If you keep walking you will find the nudist beaches, but the scenery is better at Nikki Beach and the other clubs.

The Crowds at Pampelonne Beach

The Crowds at Pampelonne Beach

Unless you are fortunate enough to live in the area as I did for eight years, getting in and out of St.-Tropez – village or beaches is no easy task in the summer. When the road north from Cannes and Nice gets to Ste.-Maxime – about ten miles from St.-Tropez – what would normally be a 20 minute additional ride off-season is a two hour trip in July and August. A good alternative if day-tripping is the shuttle boat from Ste.-Maxime that leaves every 20 minutes and makes the crossing in less time than that.

The traffic makes a one or two night stay a necessity in order to fully experience St.-Tropez, and there are limited hotel rooms – and much of what exists is very expensive. If one has the money, Byblos is the place to stay, but there are cheaper and well-located alternatives like Hotel Sube, La Ponche and Bastide du Port if one is able to book far enough ahead.

Even staying at a village hotel, if you do not have a car, it is a taxi or elusive bus ride across the peninsula to the beach something those visiting on yachts or staying at the Byblos do not have to worry about. The yachts pull up anchor around noon and move around to the beaches for lunch, swimming and sun bathing, and then by 5 PM, they are headed back around the peninsula to the village to dine and enjoy the nightlife. The Byblos provides ground transportation for its guests.

There are good restaurants along the waterfront – Le Girilier and the Café de Paris are my favorites – but they are not gourmet dining and highly priced because of location. There is better food and prices a block or two off the waterfront with Les Pesquiere and Les Garcons being a couple of such alternative. Food, though, is not what anyone remembers about St.-Tropez. I seldom left Ste.-Maxime to eat in St.-Tropez, but on many Sundays, my wife and I took the shuttle boat over for lunch, but usually to sit at the red-chaired Café Senequier, which has been there since 1889, with a ham and cheese sandwich and watch the yachts come and go.

For nightlife, the VIP Room at the Byblos is the “must go” place where celebrities are almost always in attendance, but it does not really start to move until 11 PM. An earlier opening alternative is the music bar, Le Quai, on the waterfront.

Also capable of adding to the enjoyment of the area are the nearby hill villages of Ramatuelle and Gassin. Pampelonne Beach and the homes of the area’s very rich are in Ramatuelle. The hilltop village of Gassin has a splendid overview of the area and is a great place to have lunch.

This blog includes excerpts from my book, A Traveler’s History of Cote d’Azur.

Posted in Cote d'Azur, France, French Riviera, South of France | Tagged , , , , ,

Monaco: A Rock, A Casino and Two Princesses

With a very small land mass – less than one square mile – Monaco was never a competitor for the mass tourist market, but it is more than just a casino.  There has long been something special about its being an autonomous principality; part sitting on a rock and the rest surrounded by cliffs; and run by a prince with a royal family in residence that for a few years included Grace Kelly as its princess.  That it happens to hold a world famous road race through the center of the city adds to that aura.

Monte Carlo Casino in Monaco

Monte Carlo Casino in Monaco

The Monaco we see today had its origins in the middle of the 19th century when the Monte Carlo Casino was built, but its isolation historically kept it from being much more than a fort overlooking a natural harbor – and even that did not happen until the 12th century.  Its protective cliffs and natural harbor had been well-known in the days of the Greeks and Romans, but surrounded by the nearly impassable extension of the Southern Alps, for centuries, Monaco had been strictly a sailing way-station and occasional haven for pirates, and not an important settlement.  Hannibal based his fleet there when invading Rome and Julius Caesar anchored there during his battle with Pompey, but these were just temporary layovers.  In the Dark Ages, it was occupied by Lombards from Italy and the Saracens, but it did not have any permanence until the 12th century.

In 1174, when the Genoese built a fort in Monaco, known as the Rock, to defend the nearby coast, it was an uninhabited place. When the fortress was finished in 1215, it gave Monaco some importance and continuity.  It also would become the primary holding of the Grimaldi family giving them lasting, but not uninterrupted, control over it that still exists.

As late as the 17th and 18th centuries, Monaco was nothing like it what once was or was to become.  The fortress was no longer needed, and the isolation caused by the cliffs kept it from being a prosperous regional trading center like nearby Nice.  It was such a dreary place, in fact, that throughout these years the princes of Monaco spent most of their time in Paris.

When wealthy visitors from northern Europe began to find their way to Cote d’Azur in the 19th century, it seemed inevitable that a place as physically beautiful as Monaco would get its share of visitors.  This was not the case, though, as Monaco was struggling with its two long-standing problems – a lack of access and money.  It would take the vision of an aging Princess Caroline to set in motion a transformation that in a dozen years lifted Monaco out of poverty and obscurity and made it one of Cote d’Azur’s most visited places.

At age 68, Caroline, upon returning from a visit to Germany’s Bod Homburg in 1857, had the idea that a casino similar to the one she had seen there could be built in Monaco and solve its money problems.  In that year at her urging, a casino was opened in a small villa that overlooked the water.  Gambling and a beautiful location, however, did not immediately overcome the access problems, and in 1858, the casino was not profitable.

The Princess, however, was not ready to give up, and in 1860, she was blessed by the fortuitous circumstance of the unification of Italy resulting in Italy rewarding France for its assistance by returning the County of Nice.  This totally changed the fortunes of Monaco for the better despite reducing its territory by 80 percent.  Her son, Prince Charles, was then able to sell Roquebrune-Cap-Martin and Menton to France for 4.1 million francs along with an agreement that France would build a carriage road from Nice to Monaco and the railroad to be built from Nice to Genoa would go through Monaco.  This solved the financial and access problems and brought Caroline’s plans to fruition.

Even with all the positive events, an underfunded casino with the promise, but not yet reality, of railroad access continued to struggle and was still dependent on the perseverance of Princess Caroline, then in her 70s.  Fortunately, a combination of new management, Rothschild banking family assistance, the arrival of the railroad and Princess Caroline’s determination led to unimagined success.  In 1865, the beautiful casino seen today was finished on land below the Rock, but still on a hill, and a year later, a new Hotel de Paris and the Café de Paris were built on adjoining property.  The area around the casino in deference to Caroline would be named after her son, but also wanting an exotic name, she chose an Italian version, Monte Carlo.

Monaco’s aura took a step forward when on April 26, 1956 the American actress, Grace Kelly, married Monaco’s Prince Rainier, in what was called at the time, the wedding of the century.  She had recently won the Academy Award for best actress in the film The Country Girl, and her dignified beauty and prominent Philadelphia society pedigree added to her mystique.  It was a tabloid feast not to be seen again until Princess Diana’s wedding 14 years later.  The new Princess did her part in the marriage by having a daughter, Caroline, just nine months after the wedding; a son, Albert, a year later; and a second daughter, Stephanie, in 1965.

Princess Grace would tragically die in a car accident in 1982 while driving her daughter from the family home in La Turbie on the French side of the border with Monaco.  Despite the unfortunate ending, for almost 26 years she and her family had kept Monaco in the news, particularly in the United States, and her son, Albert, would become Prince of Monaco in 2005 when Prince Rainier died.  In July 2011, he married an Olympic swimmer from South Africa, but this did not have near the fanfare of 1956 as the new princess, Charlene, was not a movie icon, but it had the same intent – the need for an heir.

View of Monaco

View of Monaco

With its small size and proximity to Nice and Cannes, Monaco can readily be seen as a side trip from these cities by car, train or, in the case of the former, by bus.  It is about a 20 minute drive from Nice.  There are numerous parking lots, the best-located of which is immediately to your right as one turns off Boulevard de Moulins heading toward the casino.

To really get the feel of Monaco and its beauty and history, an overnight stay is advisable, and one does not need to pay the exorbitant prices of Hotel de Paris or Hotel Hermitage.  The Novotel Monte Carlo and Hotel Port Palace are excellent hotels within easy walking distance of the casino, harbor and the Prince’s Palace.

It is such a small place, walking is the way to see Monaco, and since most people stay or park near the Casino, it is the natural starting place – and specifically the gardens behind it.  These gardens include what is probably the most photographed statue in Cote d’Azur, Botero’s Adam and Eve.  From there it is an easy and delightful stroll down the hill along the harbor filled with an endless number of beautiful yachts.   At the bottom of the hill are numerous inexpensive outdoor restaurants right on the harbor.  For those who visit in the winter, there is public skating rink with palm trees in the background at that site.

It is a bit more of a struggle to the climb to the top of the Rock to see the Prince’s Palace, what passes for an Old Town and oceanography museum that includes a large aquarium.  For those who are tired after the climb there is a ride back without the complication of learning the buses as one of Cote d’Azur’s ever-present Little Trains leave often and go down to the casino area.

The casino area is where tourists want to be and the evening is when to see the sumptuous Hotel de Paris.  Its rooms and its main restaurant, Alain Ducasse’s Louis XV, are costly to say the least – i.e., at least 200 euros each for dinner, but drinks at Le Bar Americain and dinner on the sixth floor Le Grill overlooking the harbor are affordable alternatives and well worth doing.

If you are lucky enough to be in Monaco the third week of January, April or September there is a special treat for you.  In January, it is the world-famed road race with the finish line at the foot of the harbor.   In April, it is the Rolex Masters men’s tennis tournament that draws the best male players as a French Open warm-up, and the background views from the grandstand alone are worth the visit.  Parking is a problem for both and going to the other end of town and taking a taxi is not a bad idea,  In September, it is the boat show featuring an endless array of yachts, many of which are larger than the sailing ships of Hannibal and Julius Caesar that were there two millenniums earlier.

This blog includes excerpts from my book, A Travelers History of Cote d’Azur.

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Villefranche and Cap Ferrat

If I had to recommend one spot to stay for someone visiting Cote d’Azur for three or four days, it would be Villefranche.  It combines physical beauty, great walking tours, fine dining and location better than anywhere else in Cote d’Azur.  It is fifteen minutes east of Nice’s Promenade des Anglais, fifteen minutes west of Monaco, and you can visit both by car, bus or train; and yes Villefranche has its own train station.  The problem is that once in Villefranche, it is hard to leave.

Like most people, my first view of this area came driving east from Nice along the Basse Corniche heading to Monaco.  This road clings to the cliffs along the sea when leaving Nice, and for the first couple of miles it is little more than an easy-to-drive shore road overlooking the Mediterranean.  Then comes a bend to the left and suddenly appearing below is a natural harbor with breathtaking blue water filled with yachts, a citadel and a seaside village.  The village is Villefranche, and stretching out beyond it and creating the harbor is St.-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, or as it is more commonly called, Cap F

Paris-Venice 07 013

Harbor in Villefranche

Needless to say, with the view and proximity to Nice and Monaco, this is some of Cote d’Azur’s most expensive real estate as well as an attraction for “in-the-know” travelers and locals looking for fine dining with much of it along the water.  This area has a long history going back to Roman times, but no one is visiting here because of the history.  Having a 15th century citadel within easy walking distance and a fort from the same era looking down upon you adds to the appeal, but it is eating, drinking, walking and quick trips to Nice and Monaco that are the draws – and there is a beach for those that want to swim or sunbathe.

There are many places to stay in the area, but there is really only one place to be and that is the Welcome Hotel, which is the only hotel on the waterfront.  It has an un-French name, but it comes with its share of local history as a favorite hang-out for Jacques Cousteau and his friends in the years between the wars.  It is unpretentious and without a restaurant, but it is well-kept, and most imporant, well-located.  It also shares the waterfront with two Michelin-rated restaurants, La Mere Germaine and L’Oursin Bleu, and many less expensive alternatives.

Welcome Hotel in Villefranche

The Welcome Hotel in Villefranche

For affluent visitors, it might be hard to pass up staying at the fabled Grand Hotel du Cap-Ferrat, but for most of us that is a better place to visit, perhaps for a drink, than stay.  It is a wonderful hotel, but well-removed from the action, which has its advantages, but not for those who want the “feel” of Cote d’Azur to extend beyond a single hotel and its property.

Once upon a time being isolated applied to Villefranche and Cap Ferrat, not just the Grand Hotel.  In the olden days, being located where the Southern Alps hit the Mediterranean created access problems by land and limited the harbor’s usage to stop-overs for boats going elsewhere.  This was true in Roman times, and when they were gone, the harbor was taken over by Saracen raiders, which certainly was not conducive to settlements.

It was not until the end of the 13th century under Provencal Anjevin rule that Villefranche was settled, and even that took tax incentives to draw people onto the shores that are so appealing today.  Then in 1388, Villefranche followed Nice out from under Provencal rule and became part of the Duchy of Savoy.  In 1543, the harbor’s isolation came to an unhappy end when the combined French and Turkish navy used it as a staging base for the siege and sacking of Nice.  This attack was the catalyst for Savoy building the Villefranche citadel and Fort Mont Alban.

For visitors to Villefranche, most of what one sees dates back to the mid-18th century.  That is when the Eglise St.-Michel and the buildings immediately above the waterfront were built.  Two exceptions, besides the citadel and Fort Mont Alban, are the cave-like passageway a block back from the sea that was built in the 13th century and the 16th century Chapelle St.-Pierre on the waterfront that includes Cousteau’s murals on the life of the saint and the local fisherman.

Cap Ferrat is an extension of Villefranche, but development did not occur there until the early 20th century when it became the home to royalty and the very wealthy.  Among the earliest to live there were King Leopold II of Belgium and Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothchild.  The King’s residence is now part of the Les Cedres botanical garden and the Baroness de Rothchild’s palace is part of the Villa Ephrussi de Rothchild museum that is open to the public.  In 1908, the Grand Hotel opened to begin serving its elite clientele.

Between the two wars arguably the most popular British writer of the times, Somerset Maugham added his luster to Cap Ferrat.  He wrote two of his most famous books, Of Human Bondage and Moon and a Sixpence, a decade before arriving, but after buying the Villa Mauresque on CapFerrat in 1926, he was there, except for the war years, until he died 40 years later.  Today, many of these villas have been purchased by wealthy Russians.

Whether wandering around Cap Ferrat’s villas – it takes about an hour to circle the cap on the hiking trails – or just strolling around Villefranche, the citadel grounds, and, perhaps, spending time at the beach, in the evening it is time to enjoy some fine dining.  When it comes to eating, it is hard not to sit by the water at La Mere Germaine and L’Oursin Bleu absorbing the view and watching the “beautiful people” arrive – particularly for lunch, but the best eating is a block above the waterfront, particularly at my favorite restaurant in all of Cote d’Azur, Les Garcon, with its charming seating area on the plaza in front of the restaurant.  The d’agneau souris is magnificent.  La Grignotiere ands an Asian restaurant, Le Mekong, are also good choices in the same area area..

Enjoying Villefranche and Cap Ferrat is a pleasant way to spend a couple days, but the added appeal of Villefranche is its access to Nice and Monaco.   As mentioned above, if you are driving, it is about 15 minutes to either by the shore road, but cars are not necessary.  It is a bit of hike up the hill to the main road, but it is doable in about 15 minutes, and from there the bus is about a 20 minute trip to Nice and/or Monaco.  The bus runs every 20 minutes and costs only a euro each way.

The train station is a shorter walk from the waterfront, but it does not run as frequently as the buses, and in Nice, the train station is a bus ride away from where people want to be, but the train is not without its advantages.  It provides a round trip to Cannes that takes about 30 minutes each way adding to the convenience of Villefranche as a gateway to the Cote d’Azur.

This post includes excerpts from my book, A Traveler’s History of Cote d’Azur.

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