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The French Riviera is renowned the world over for its glamorous nightlife, glorious beaches and gigantic gin-palaces. The chic resorts of Cannes and St Tropez have long attracted Europe's most affluent, from Russian Tsars to Hollywood stars. Along with neighbouring Monaco, the Côte d'Azur retains its reputation as the playground of the rich and remains one of the most desirable Mediterranean destinations.
The beauty of the hills and the lively towns has inspired several great artists and the area has wonderful museums displaying their works. The quaint Provence hill villages abutting the coast, that once attracted Picasso and Matisse, now draw French and international tourists by the planeload.
The centre of the Riviera is the pleasant city of Nice. Like all the resort towns that run into each other along this over-developed coastal strip it is packed with holidaymakers jamming its restaurants, bars and beaches during July and August. Visitors are drawn just as much by the wish to see and be seen in this desirable location as by the sultry sunshine, bright blue sea and luxurious facilities. However, there are a few villages and sights tucked away in less fashionable areas of the Côte d'Azur that are worth visiting for those looking for a quiet and authentic holiday.
The long, shop-studded promenade of La Croisette, and its seven miles (11km) of beach, is Cannes' major attraction. Palatial hotels line this strip, each with their own private beach, and this is where visitors are most likely to spot a familiar face, or topless hopeful, especially during the Cannes Film Festival, though it can be difficult to see further than the sweating backs of the paparazzi during this popular event. La Croisette is best viewed from the highest point of Cannes' Old Town, Le Suquet, where the remains of the fortified tower still stand, along with the 12th-century Chapel of St Anne. Le Suquet is a lovely place to stroll, with its winding streets, small boutiques and restaurants. At the end of La Croisette is the Palais des Festivals, whose endless Allées des Stars is imprinted with handprints and signatures of the famous. Just beyond is the atmospheric Vieux Port, with its odd medley of luxury yachts and tiny fishing vessels, and the rows of palm trees and fragrant flower market of the Allées de la Liberté. Further west, along the seafront, are the free beaches (where the locals go), along the Plages du Midi.
The two islands of Lerins, Ile St Marguerite and Ile St Honorat, lie a 20-minute boat ride from Cannes. Ile St Honorat is a tiny forested island, the smallest and most southern of the Iles de Lerins. It has been the site of a monastery since the 5th century and today the Cistercian monks are the only inhabitants of the island. Much of the monastery is surprisingly modern, with the exception of the ruins of the 11th-century monastery on the sea's edge. The monks organise tours of the island and sell their produce to tourists, including homemade wine, honey and lavender oil. The monastery also welcomes visitors for week-long retreats. On the neighbouring Ile St Marguerite is the fortress where the 'man in the iron mask' was imprisoned. The famous old prison also has a Museum of the Sea to explore.
Mostly, however, people head out to the islands to picnic and enjoy the natural splendour on offer. There are plenty of secluded, rocky little coves, forested areas and gardens and it is easy to find a beautiful spot to spend the day. It is the perfect opportunity to get out of the fashionable bustle of Cannes and find a little peace and privacy. The boat trips over are also enjoyable and give wonderful views of Cannes. There is a restaurant on Ile St Marguerite.
The Cote d'Azur beaches range from intimate rocky coves to long swathes of golden sands packed with sun worshipers. Some are highly developed and will hire out loungers and the like but others are still fairly secluded; there should be something for everyone along this incredible coastline. Most beaches are away from the centre, although the family beaches, Plage des Graniers and Plage des Cannebiers, are within walking distance. Generally the beaches are very safe with calm seas, warm water and plenty of lifeguards on duty. People don't just come to places like St Tropez and Cannes for the nightlife, they also have some of the best beaches in France. The string of beaches along the Baie de Pampelonne, south of St Tropez, the best known of which is the Plage de Tahiti, have long been favoured by exhibitionists wearing next to nothing. Villefranche sur Mer is a beautiful, sandy beach great for snorkelling. The beaches of Ile de Porquerolles, in the national park, are coveted by nature lovers. Other favourites include Plage Port Grimaud, Monte-Carlo Beach and Vias Plage. Almost all the beaches are lined with restaurants and shops selling endless gifts or items to prove you've been there. A huge variety of watersports are on offer.
St Tropez has long held the reputation of being the 'black sheep' of the renowned French Riviera holiday resort towns. Sexy starlets were flaunting themselves topless here back in the 1930s, long before the beautiful people dared disrobe elsewhere. St Tropez' reputation as a kinky carnival town attracting the more bohemian members of the 'in' crowd continues to this day.
There is little left of the medieval Provencal atmosphere of the original town. From May to September, St Tropez is the wild holiday destination people imagine, but in the off season the town virtually shuts down, reverting to a quieter, calmer existence. Behind the rows of yachts fronting the terraced cafés of the waterfront are some narrow, picturesque streets full of shops. The hub of the town is the Place aux Herbes, a busy enclave of fish, fruit, vegetable and flower stalls.
The beach in St Tropez is famous, and has a number of bars, cafes, and watersports options, especially the popular Plage de Tahiti. The beaches west of St Tropez are popular with nudists. Visitors can stroll the Sentier Littoral, a coastal walking route with fabulous views, or visit the Musée de I'Annonciade, which has an exceptional collection of post-Impressionist paintings.
The area around Quai Jean Jaures on the waterfront is where the best of the nightlife can be found. Within town there are charismatic and laid-back bars in and around Place des Lices. For celebrity spotting and pricey champagne cocktails, visitors should get dressed up and head to Nikki Beach.
The village of Biot is more than 2,500 years old, and retains much of its medieval charm in the 15th-century architecture and narrow, winding streets. The town's old walls and gate can still be seen, as well as a number of other small, historic features strewn throughout the hilltop community. The town has been a hub for craftsmen for centuries, and is known for its pottery and blown glass, making it a popular shopping destination for tourists in the French Riviera. There are several glass-blowing factories that offer tours, allowing visitors to watch the age-old process in action. Biot is also the site of an ancient volcano, and geology buffs will enjoy hiking the scenic rock formations. There are several other pleasant walks through the surrounding hills and woods and the feel in the countryside is pastoral and peaceful, with plenty of shade and bubbling streams.
Located less than three miles (4km) from the coast, Biot makes an excellent daytrip when visitors want a break from the pleasures of the beach. The village is busy year-round but gets particularly crowded during the summer (June to August); even so, it is slightly off the main tourist path and remains one of the less commercial villages.
Perched on a mountain 1,400 feet (427m) above sea level, the medieval town of Èze is a popular stop on the route between the French Riviera and Monaco. The winding cobblestone streets lead visitors to the ruins of a 12th-century castle, and also to many shops; shopping is one of the most popular reasons for visiting Èze. The streets are dotted with tiny boutiques and shops selling a variety of French souvenirs.
There are stunning views of the Mediterranean from this charming hilltop village but because it is so steep and medieval, with its little houses crammed together on winding, cobbled streets, the views from inside are often limited. To fully appreciate the location of the place one must climb into the botanical gardens, Le Jardin d'Eze, which perch on top of the hill. There are magnificent 360 degree views from the top and some interesting ruins too. It is quite a climb though, so dress accordingly. Another popular attraction in the village is the Fragonard - L'Usine Laboratoire, a factory where they make beautiful perfumes and fragrances, where visitors can be guided through the process as well as buy some lovely scents at reduced prices.
Eze feels like a place stuck in a quaint and artistic past and it is a delight to explore; it is less fashionable and celebrity-packed than many places in Cote d'Azure and this is part of its appeal.
Today it is hard to imagine that the quintessential, glamorous French Riviera holiday resort of Cannes was for centuries a simple, sleepy fishing village whose only visitors were the monks and wealthy pilgrims who came to visit the monastery on the nearby Island of St Honorat. All this changed in 1834 when Lord Henry Brougham, former British Chancellor of the Exchequer, arrived and established Cannes as a popular upmarket holiday resort for the British upper-classes.
Soon the French and later the Russian aristocracy also flocked to Cannes to while away their summer holidays. Today, Cannes is besieged by tourists on holiday in the summer, when the long sandy beaches, glitzy nightclubs, chic shops and famous promenade are abuzz with beautiful people flaunting the latest designer wear.
There is lots to see and do in Cannes. The old town is pleasant for strolling and sightseeing, and the beaches fantastic for lying in the sun. For the more active, there are a number of water sports available, including sailing and swimming. Popular attractions in Cannes include the Notre-Dame d'Esperance, the Molinard perfume factory, and the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire de Provence. It is worthwhile to take the trip out to the Îles de Lérins, which boast a monastery and ruins alongside a number of shops, bars and restaurants. There are also options for excursions to nearby Monaco and St Tropez.
Each May the world's media descend in droves for the annual Cannes Film Festival, which draws Hollywood's finest to the Palais des Festivals.
A Mediterranean climate prevails along the coast of the French Riviera, with long hot summers and mild winters. The region enjoys a pleasant, warm climate throughout the year. During the hottest summer months, particularly in August, temperatures often reach excesses of 86°F (30°C), while maximum temperatures in winter are usually between 50 and 59°F (10-15°C). August is the hottest month and January is the coldest. Rainfall is moderate and mostly occurs during winter; October is usually the wettest month. Snowfall is extremely rare. Strong winds, known as la Mistral, can occur, particularly during winter and spring (November to April).
Summer is peak tourist season in Cote d'Azur and this is the best time of year to visit for those planning to enjoy the beaches. However, the spring months of April and May can be lovely and the coast is far less crowded. Visitors will get plenty of sun but the water will be too cold for swimming, making spring the ideal time to go for those who want a scenic, sightseeing holiday. Autumn can be rainy but the weather is mild and this can also be a pleasant time to visit.
Attracting some of the best pyrotechnicians in the world, the Festival of Pyrotechnic Art in Cannes sees fireworks masters compete under their national flags on about seven nights, turning the skies of the picturesque town into an artistic canvas. Apart from the overall prize awarded by the panel of judges, there is a 'public prize' voted on by spectators. Each fireworks display is a minimum 25-minutes long and all are accompanied by music. The fireworks are launched from three barges in the Bay of Cannes and spectators gather at vantage points all over the town to watch the breathtaking displays. For a full programme check the official website listed below.
The Cannes Film Festival is one of the most renowned film festivals in the world. Each year a selection of the finest filmmakers from the international scene judge entries from across the globe. Hollywood often chooses to screen blockbuster films on opening night and the small town on the Cote d'Azur hosts the biggest celebrities and their famous after-parties. The prestigious festival is attended by industry professionals and the media in droves. However, the public are able to view films in the competition on large open-air screens.
Although it is incredibly exciting to be in Cannes during the festival visitors should be aware that the glamorous little town becomes absolutely packed with people during this period. Those coming in the hope of spotting celebrities and to enjoy the stylish chaos will not be disappointed. However, those journeying to Cannes to enjoy the beaches and the other attractions of the region should avoid the festival, which makes everything a bit crowded. Check the official website listed below to find out what the festival offers each year.
The main winter event on the French Riviera and one of the major carnivals in the world, the Nice Carnival brings the city to life with a series of flower parades, float processions, fireworks and concerts every year. The float procession is one of the main events and features 18 floats and entertainment provided by more than 1,000 musicians and dancers from around the world. Every year a festival theme is declared.
Anything goes during Carnival, which is all about the joys of difference and friendship between different nations. The flower parades, often called flower wars, are a highlight of the festival. They are battles between competing floats bedecked in beautiful floral arrangements, many samples of which are thrown into the crowds. The carnival is meant to brighten up the winter months and it does so beautifully. Those travelling in France during winter therefore have an added incentive to visit the lovely city of Nice.
From the famous resorts along the French Riviera to the quaint medieval villages just inland, the attractions of Cote d'Azur never cease to enchant visitors. The beaches along this coastline are some of the most famous in the world and Cannes and St Tropez in particular draw thousands of tourists every summer to bask on their golden shores. But there is lots to see and do in Cote d'Azur apart from swimming, suntanning, shopping and celebrity-watching at the fashionable resorts.
Cote d'Azur boasts some very special medieval villages. Biot, apart from being a pretty and well-preserved ancient town, is well known for its traditional crafts and is a lovely place to go shopping for souvenirs. Eze is perched dramatically on a steep hill and the views from this charming place are astounding. Grasse is famous for its perfume and visitors can learn about the production process and even create their own scents in this floral kingdom.
Along the azure coast Antibes, St Raphael, Frejus, Cassis and, of course, Nice are all exciting places to visit. A boat trip to the islands of St Honorat and St Marguerite is a popular excursion from Cannes and an extremely pleasant way to spend a day. The islands are perfect for lazy picnics and walks and there is an 11th-century monastery, an old fortress and a fascinating Museum of the Sea to explore.
Travellers in Cote d'Azur will find that the coastline can get crowded and the roads congested during the summer months but, with a little patience and good planning, this area is magical.
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