Antibes & the Cote d'Azur
October 2010©Nigel Spiers

There’s a storm brewing over the Mediterranean as we lurch down through the black clouds and skim over angry waves to Nice airport.

The Cote d’Azur – now there’s a name to conjure with and it’s been high on our to-do list for as long as I can remember. By the time we land I’m fair fizzing with excitement.

Also known at the French Riviera it's a ribbon of coastline in the south-east corner of France – like the hem on the skirts of Provence. Stretching just 50 km from Monaco in the East round to St Tropez in the West with Nice, Antibes and Cannes the main towns in-between.

Right behind these coastal towns are the steep hills and mountains of the Alpes Maritimes. In these hills are many of the treasures of this area – the medieval hilltop villages and towns that we intend to investigate. However first we need to get to our base camp in Antibes.

We’ve booked a 7-seater Citroen Picasso for two weeks and step one when we land is the pick-up at the Avis counter. After a couple of hours in a queue of only 4 people tempers are getting frayed, we are late for a meeting with our landlady in Antibes and I’m a bit nervous about this driving on the right hand side business. By the time they hand over the car-keys I’m so wound up that I sign up for full insurance which immediately doubles the two week rental and GPS hire fee.

Shit! – this is not going at all well, but at least we are on the road now. And anyway – how hard can it be – it’s less than 20 km from Nice to Antibes right? The traffic on the six lane highway is so ferocious that I forget all about driving on the right and just take a firmer grip on the wheel of the leviathan. Just then the GPS comes to life and instructs us to turn hard left immediately. “Hard left! – you must be f….. joking” I scream at the inscrutable Japanese woman in the TomTom.

We finally arrive in Antibes and it is so beautiful that we immediately forget all about the travails of long distance travel. Our apartment is even better than the pictures on the Internet, our landlady is charming, Hamish from Christchurch is here to meet us with a few bottles of Chateaux Neuf Du Pink Stuff and even the black clouds magically part on a perfect balmy autumnal evening.

Antibes is a town of 80,000 people located between Nice and Cannes. It was founded as a colony by the Greeks in the 5th century BC. They called it Antipolis (meaning the city across – presumably across the bay from Nice) and due to its superb natural harbour it became an important Mediterranean trading port. The Romans took over around 43 BC and for 500 years it was the largest town in the region. With the fall of the Roman Empire a long period of instability followed and the town fell into obscurity until the mid 19th century when wealthy English and Europeans rediscovered its charms and built luxury holiday homes.

We have come to Antibes on the recommendation of friends’ whose son Louis has lived here for 5 years and is now the skipper of a luxury launch. Our plan is to spend a couple of weeks exploring the Cote d’Azur and the surrounding countryside and in-between soak up the highly convivial atmosphere of southern Provence.
Antibes is really several adjoining towns – the small original fortified town called Vieil Antibes, Juan Les Pins with its hotels and sandy beaches, Cap D’Antibes where the rich and famous live and a technology park on the northern outskirts. Luckily we were convinced to rent an apartment

in Vieil Antibes – inexpensive compared to the rest of the Cote d’Azur, compact, walk-everywhere and simply delightful. We hired our 3 bedroom apartment from - a substantial and well designed website and booking service specialising in apartments for short and long-term rental throughout France, Europe and further afield.

Before we left New Zealand I tried in vain to buy some good guide books on Southern France. Even Borders bookshop had less than half a dozen books covering the whole of France. I’m addicted to guidebooks and in desperation I parted with seventy odd dollars for a 2 inch thick Lonely Planet book simply called France. This tome may suit some but I found it next to useless - poor photographs, no opinions and no guidance. I want a travel book that is prepared to state clearly and simply not just the "must does" but also the "avoid at all costs" and explain why. Half the joy of travel is then to visit these places and compare your experiences with their ratings. In the end I bought a small guidebook from Amazon called Top Ten – Provence & The Cote d’Azur by Eyewitness Travel – an ideal quick reference for those with limited time.

The best book I’ve seen on the Cote d’Azur is Cadogan Guides, Cite D'Azur by Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls. No punches pulled and highly entertaining. These two seasoned travellers have forty titles currently in print including France, Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey, as well as regional and city guides. They have even written travel guides to Mars and Hell, and condensed some of the curiosities they've learned along the way in a little volume called Tall Tales and Tittle Tattle.
Here is an excerpt from their chapter on Monaco:

"Big time tax-dodgers agree: it’s hard to beat Monaco for comfort and convenience when the time comes to snuggle down with your piggy chips. You can purr over to France or Italy in the Lamborghini in just a few minutes, the grubs good, you can safely flaunt your jewels and the homeless and other riffraff who might trouble your conscience are kept at bay."

Day 2 and we load up the Pope-mobile as Oliver calls it because apparently "you can fit lots of small boys in the back", with all the folks who are prepared to risk my driving for a day in the countryside. We are off to St Paul De Vence – a medieval hilltop village just a short drive inland from Antibes.

It’s easy to see why this is near the top of everybody’s list of must do’s in Provence – absolutely exquisite and immaculately maintained by the villagers. A leisurely lunch and a bottle of Rose at one of the many cafés looking over to the Mediterranean on one side and the Alpes Maritimes on the other – wow!

This strategy of a rest day followed by car expeditions every other day continues for most of the two weeks and we visit some marvellous places but the two highlights for us are surprisingly both on the coast, not mentioned in our guide books and completely free:

Nice – Chateaux De Nice walk:
We take the train to Nice. We were originally headed for Monaco but luckily for us the train breaks down at Nice. We finish our Nicoise lunch and are taking a stroll at the eastern end of the Promenade des Anglais when we spot a zigzag walkway to the top of the hill overlooking Nice.

Its steep and a warm day but the views over the city are fantastic and at the top you can see Antibes across the bay and Port Lympia to the East.

Cap D’Antibes walk:
A ten minute walk from our Antibes apartment is where the rich and famous live in their amazing chateaux on the Cape of Antibes – the sticky out bit on the map down the coast from Nice. The 3-4 hour walk around this cape has been recommended to us by a local as one of the top ten short walks in the world. For the first hour my finger never leaves my camera shutter - stunning views of the dramatic coastline and emerald blue of the Mediterranean. At the tip of the Cap is the glamorous white-walled Hotel du Cap. Since 1870 this has been one of the most storied and luxurious resorts in the world. Guests who flocked here included Marlene Dietrich, Winston Churchill and Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton conducted an affair and then honeymooned here.

Other highlights of Antibes include Port Vauban – the largest Marina in Europe located right in the heart of the old town and the Picasso Museum both of which are worth several visits. The Jazz à Juan Festival is held each year in July and is apparently the largest event of the year here in Antibes and also one of the best festivals on the International Jazz calendar.

So is everything perfect here on the Cote d'Azur – mais non Mesdames et Messieurs:

Food and Restaurants – while the fresh meats, cheeses and vegetables we buy daily from the markets here are absolutely fabulous the same cannot be said of the food from the restaurants. Cote d’Azur cuisine is a mixture of French and Italian and most restaurant menus are dominated by pizza and pasta. Antibes restaurant prices are not in the same league as its ritzy neighbours - Nice, Cannes, Monaco and St Tropez however they are steepish and while there are some excellent restaurants here you have to pay big money. On the other end of the scale there are heaps of medium priced restaurants and here food is often disappointing – of a much lower general standard than, for example in Australia.

Wall to wall dog shit – the pavements are covered in it and so are your shoes. My super comfortable Rivers ripple soled boat shoes are a nightmare. They attract dog pooh like a magnet. I’m walking down our beautifully cobbled and immaculate street when I swear to God the Alsatian on a leash in front of me stops and gives birth to a giant turd while its delicate old lady owner beams with pride. The weird thing is that the locals are very proud and obsessed with cleanliness. At 6.00 am every morning the street sweeping machine sweeps every street and gutter in the town. At 7.00 every morning the street washing machine washes every street in the town. At 7.30 every morning every rubbish bin is emptied by the rubbish machine. It’s high tech, expensive and by 8.00 every morning the streets gleam awaiting the next coating of fresh dog-shit.

The Crowds – timing is everything in France because as the most popular tourist destination in the world it attracts a whopping 80 million visitors a year. Four million of these tourists visit the Cote d’Azur and mostly come in July and August when according the locals it is simply awful. Spring and autumn are therefore the recommended times to visit this area. The crowds have left, you can eat and drink anywhere, anytime, the weather is great, you can still swim in the sea and accommodation prices have dropped by a third.

More good things about Antibes & the Cote d’Azur:

Customs in Nice – almost nonexistent.

No sunburn – we forgot to bring our sun hats but we don’t need them – even in the midday sun you don’t get burnt. I think it’s got something to do with the pollution in Europe.

Moderate priced wines – you can buy wine for just NZ $4.00 a bottle however it’s the usual story – you only get what you pay for. Do yourself a favour, pay $10 and enjoy.

Food markets – even if you are not a foodie – the sheer variety, presentation, exotica and entertainment will ensure you are a regular visitor.

Manners – the locals are polite, helpful and good manners are an essential part of the language and culture. Unlike North America where hello, please and thank you have all gone from the language – in France every conversation starts with bonjour and every transaction no matter how small starts with si’l vous plait and ends in merci. It is also common (not mandatory) to ask complete strangers how they are – ca va and to say au revoir or à bientôt as you leave. I love this, it is so civilised and it’s what separates us from the animals. The rest of the western world are missing a big trick here.
The young people here speak English. Like most other countries throughout the world – if you want to get ahead in business you need to speak some English. If, like me you are an amateur French speaker and need assistance - no problem, just look for a young person and often they are fluent and typically very helpful. However you still need all your manners off pat in French to wrap around the English conversation and yes it’s true – the more you try to speak French the more helpful the locals will be.

Antibes & the Cote d'Azur - fantastic - our best holiday ever!
Au revoir

Blues Artists  The Garage Swing Band   The Remarkable Beat Roosters   Noel Coutts   Nigel Spiers   Steve Gainsford   Billy Vallance & Jon Hooker   Lightning Red
Art Galleries   Photo Gallery   Drawing Gallery   Pastel Gallery   Acrylic Gallery  
Postcards from Abroad   Seattle   Paris   Flagstaff   Wales.............. Home   Site Map   Links   Contact Us   New Zealand Blues Scene