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.
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.
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.
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.