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On Location, Places

On Location: #4 Côte d’Azur/The French Riviera

I won’t get into why France is so significant to me (another time), but at a guess, I’ve been there 100-150 times.  I’ve visited most parts of the country, but it’s the Provence-Côte d’Azur Region in the South-eastern corner that pulls me back the most often.   I recently spent a week with my family in Nice, staying in an apartment where we had the delight of sunny breakfasts on the balcony (there was an amazing bakery nearby and my son counted we got through 43 baguettes!) and a stunning view of the city and bay lit up at night.  This is #4 in my On Location series which means it’s either a place in my first novel, or a red herring…

The Côte d’Azur, meaning coastline named after the intense blue of the Mediterranean, is known as the French Riviera in English but neither is an official term.  Roughly, it covers the coastline from St Tropez in the west to the Italian border.  Nice is the main city and an ideal base for exploring the area even without a car as public transport is unusually good.  It always surprises me that it’s the 5th largest city in France; even the Greater Nice area has fewer than a million in population.  It’s also the second most visited, after Paris, with 4 million tourists a year and if you’ve ever been, you’ll know why.

We arrived the day before Palm Sunday. I'd never seen these fantastic palm weavings before.Nice has been seen as a desirable place for a very long time, founded as Nikaia by the Greeks of Marseille (Massalia) in 350BC.  As a strategic border town it came under Provencal, Savoy and Piedmontese rule before definitively becoming part of France in 1860.  There’s a great story about how the head of the eagle on the city’s coat of arms you see everywhere used to keep swivelling from left to right depending on which country it belonged to.  Presumably he’s now got used to facing right, wearing an expression of Gallic defiance.

In modern times, this area owes its popularity to the mild climate with over 300 days of sunshine per year and the exceptional soft light that goes with it, and to the beautiful scenery –  sweeping bays, dramatic cliffs and mountainous hinterland.  It was the British upper classes who first cottoned onto all this in the late 18th century when it became fashionable to ‘winter’ in Nice, and the arrival of the railway in the mid 19th century and the opening of a casino in the tiny independent state of Monaco nearby (gambling was then illegal in both France and Italy) brought them in droves.  The famous Promenade des Anglais in Nice which skirts the Bay of Angels (Baie des Anges) for miles was even financed by the British.   Queen Victoria was a regular visitor with a huge entourage, though she hardly fits the profile of the decadent, idle pleasure-seeker.

Not surprisingly, the Riviera attracted bohemian types from all over and still does.  It was beloved of Picasso, Matisse, Renoir and Monet, and Yves Klein of the gorgeous eponymous shade of blue was a local.   Word of its allure spread to the States, and Edith Wharton penned The Age of Innocence and F Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby whilst residing here.  Several James Bond films and many others have been shot on the Côte d’Azur and it’s home to the super glamorous Cannes Film Festival.  In my distant City days I attended a commercial property show there several years in a row and I can tell you, there are worse places to party…

There still is evidence of great prosperity in the form of stylish coastal villas, marinas packed with luxury yachts and expensive shops.  On the whole, it’s very tasteful and restrained (with the exception of Monte Carlo, where we went for the day because my sons like Grand Prix.  Every inch is built on and to me it feels really excessive and fake).  The great thing is, of course, you don’t have to be rich or famous to come here and it’s no more expensive to visit than any other part of France (outside high season, when it’s also hot and very crowded).  There’s an irresistible sense of the glamour and sophistication of the Côte d’Azur that lingers on and is very enjoyable.  Nice has a really buzzy, laid-back vibe, especially in the Old Town (Vieux Nice) which is a warren of narrow lanes behind the wide Cours Saleya, where there’s a regular market of the kind the French do so well, and lots of cheap restaurants where you can sit and people watch.  The Italian influence is all around, in the architecture, the amazing food, the place names…  For my money the Fenocchio ice-cream parlour in Place Rossetti is in itself a reason to return – about 60 flavours, divine!

We had lunch by the sea most days, sometimes rubbing shoulders with Russian billionaires (OK, I’m speculating here) and spent hours strolling along the seafront in Nice, Menton and Cannes.  We visited the heavily wooded and achingly exclusive peninsula of Cap Ferrat and walked from Juan-les-Pins to the Cap d’Antibes and Eden Roc.  It’s not supposed to be clean at all but for me there’s something entrancing about the limpid quality of the water and the way it glitters in the sun.  The memory of it has kept me going since my return to torrential rain, thunder and hailstorms and there lies one of the most wonderful things about travel: once you’ve been to a place it becomes part of you, and you can return in your mind any time you like.


Staying with the elegant and upmarket theme, next week’s book review will be of debut The Last Summer by Judith Kinghorn.

About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


19 thoughts on “On Location: #4 Côte d’Azur/The French Riviera

  1. Thanks Isabel for bringing back memories of the French Riviera on a grey Scottish ‘spring’ afternoon. I too love the south of France and went to Villefranche for our summer last year after visiting it two years before when we stayed in Nice. I haven’t booked this year’s holiday yet and your post has got me in the mood for a return trip…

    Posted by helenmackinven | April 20, 2012, 15:40
  2. Love this article Isabel! Took me back to our many childhood summers spent in Port Grimaud, when the family would pack into a big old Peugeot & drive for 24 hours solid across Europe to spend 3 weeks every year in a villa that my father had found advertised in the back of a broadsheet! Have such fond memories of San Tropez and the South of France……… Just never quite got back there with my own family. Such a shame.

    Posted by Sara Williams | April 20, 2012, 16:20
    • Sara, so lovely to hear that it brought those memories back to you, thanks. As for going with the boys, surely it’s not too late? Mine really enjoyed the trip (don’t think they’ve ever eaten so much pizza in a week!)

      Posted by Isabel Costello | April 21, 2012, 06:21
  3. So many aspects we also love about Nice and the Cote d’Azur. Especially the light and the water – and the friendly climate when Britain is covered with grey murky skies!

    Posted by Su | April 20, 2012, 17:33
  4. Wonderful description, Isabel, wonderful….ness

    Posted by nessguide | April 20, 2012, 20:34
    • Thank you, Ness. This piece required a lot of editing for excessive superlatives, I can tell you! Hope it took you back to the South of France for a moment. Still can’t believe we’re missing each other so narrowly in Menerbes this summer, would have been so lovely to see you.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | April 21, 2012, 06:26
  5. This really is one of my favorite parts of the world. Nice is really a wonderful place to explore the region from. For me a drive over Col de Turini and explore the Alp-Marittime region. I’m very envious, thanks for sharing

    Posted by romulanhampster | April 21, 2012, 11:13
  6. Okay, I’m sold. Drop-dead gorgeous, and wonderful photography too, Isabel. Thanks for writing this insightful post – i learned much more about that area of France than in the usual travelogue-types of articles. I’m now wondering if we can fit in some sort of side-trip. . . .

    Posted by Kristin | April 21, 2012, 15:19
    • Thanks Kristin! Yes, you absolutely must go – it would be crazy not to when you’re so (relatively) close. This would combine perfectly with inland Provence for a proper family vacation or you could do the two separately. Decisions, decisions….

      Posted by Isabel Costello | April 21, 2012, 17:13
  7. Such beautiful photography! I’ve never been to France, but have always wanted to go–your pics and prose are positively inspiring. Thanks so much for sharing your vacation!

    Posted by Monica Comas | April 23, 2012, 13:40
  8. Was loving this article LOVING it until you took a pick at my hometown *pulls grumpy face* ;). But I know what you mean – it does appear that way, and takes a looong time to dish out its delectable secrets. Impossible to know a place in a day and I have to confess I frequently think how magnificent this coastline would be ‘sans’ the hideous development. My (big) boys also nuts about GP so full house for me that weekend in May!

    Posted by Gina | April 25, 2012, 14:23
    • Hi Gina, thanks for reading and for being such a good sport about my dig at Monte Carlo, which I freely admit is just a personal and very superficial impression. (I know how you feel because people are always being rude about London and I love living here.) I still think you’re very lucky living in such a beautiful part of the world. My boys picked out a restaurant called Ariston serving ‘the best burgers on the Riviera’ (how bizarre is that) and I have to say they were pretty good.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | April 25, 2012, 15:42
      • Next time (because it’s closed for renovations now) take your boys to the Stars ‘n Bars. Loads of sporting memorabilia eg. old racing drivers’ helmets, motorcyling leathers of ex champs, tennis raquets of stars through the ages, footie boots, everything. My husband gets extremely excited, every time, about the full-size racing car that hangs off the ceiling! And, good burgers too. It’s a gorgeous part of the world – we have access to the lovely, remote hill towns of the area, are close to the Var and Vaucluse – it’s bliss. But it is a hard nut to crack. Not everyone’s cup of tea!

        Posted by Gina | April 26, 2012, 19:26
      • Thanks for that tip, Gina. I’m sure we will be back. Funny that you mention the Vaucluse, we have been going to the Luberon on family holidays for years and it is our favourite spot anywhere. The last two summers we missed it when we went elsewhere – so this August can’t wait to return for the 5th time to a beautiful gite with a pool on a vineyard between Menerbes and Bonnieux.

        Posted by Isabel Costello | April 27, 2012, 10:27


  1. Pingback: My Poolside TBR List 2012 « Isabel Costello - August 10, 2012

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