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 www.holiday-rentals.co.uk - 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
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
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
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!