The French riviera is an essential stop to recharge your batteries or to live a romantic dream made of good wine, tasty cheeses and heady scents. Our tour starts with a deep dive into the crystal-clear blue of the coast, riding a convertible car, the best choice during the summer, or jumping on a train, if you don’t mind changes of itinerary or meeting other lucky travelers.
Photographer: Romain Laprade | Editor: Alessandra Busacca
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Leaving the north and heading towards Monaco, the first village to explore in France is the colorful Èze, where secret archways, artisanal bijou, art galleries and exotic vegetation will welcome you. Only for good climbers, taking a serpentine path named “Chemin de Nietzsche” directly on the sea, you reach La Chèvre d’Or, a five stars hotel and castle with a glorious garden, nestled between sky and sea: the most enchanting spot to catch your breath and have a coffee with one of the best views on Cap Ferrat.
Immediately beyond and only a few kilometres from Nice, we step into Villefranche-sur-Mer, one of the most beautiful harbors of the coastline. Its Provençal vegetation, colourful facades, moored sailing boats and Mediterranean ambiences create a perpetual holiday atmosphere that embodies the very essence of the French Riviera. Here a point of interest not to be missed is the pink powder colored Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, a rare and exquisite jewel on the Mediterranean sea. Today open to the public, it is possible to visit the private collection of Baroness Beatrice Rothschild and stroll through her enchanting flower gardens.
Choose the scenic Promenade des Anglais, which runs along the waterfront of the Bay of Angels, as a wonderful start walking in Nice, the pearl of the French cities, capital of the Maritime Alps and fifth largest city in the country.
Along the promenade, you cannot notice the great pink and blue dome of the Hotel Negresco, whose American bar was a popular destination for artists and musicians from all over the world, and is still today the place for live music and exquisite aperitifs. The legendary owner of Negresco, Jeanne Augier, known to many as 'Madame', was a forward-thinking woman and passionate art collector, who created a true location in her own image, elegant, creative, free-spirited and independent.
Completely different, but still romantic and trendy, the iconic neon sign of the Hotel Amour, in Avenue des Fleurs, draws you into a unique small world with 38 rooms, a Greek tavern, a rooftop pool, a bright patio with trees, all littered with furniture and objets particuliers plus a private rocky beach to enjoy sunbathing or pastel sunsets.
For culture enthusiasts, the destination is the Matisse Museum or the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MAMAC) located in Place Yves Klein, not far from the Vieille Ville (old town) of Nice.
Climbing up the sea level towards the mountains you'll find the tiny medieval village of Saint Paul de Vence. In a couple of hours you can visit all the labyrinthic poetic streets, surrounded by old fortifications, the historical center, workshops and artists' studios. You can discover all the romantic squares and small corners of Provençal charm, in particular the Chapelle du Rosaire painted by Matisse or the Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs conceived by the belgian genius of Jean-Michel Folon, both intertwined of stained glass and sculptures, always enchanted by light games and unique drawings. Saint-Paul de Vence is the authentic home to craftsmanship and painture, always a favorite destination for artists, as Marc Chagall's grave testifies in the cemetery of Saint Michel. The painter lived here for almost 20 years painting innumerable landscapes of the village in his atelier.
The accommodation we recommend are the Fondation Cab while paying a visit at Fondazione Maeght (for modern art lovers) or the mythical Auberge de la Colombe D’Or, a secret spot destination for artists and intellectuals such as Picasso, Jacques Prévert, Yves Montand and others. The hotel was once a cafè bar with an open air terrace where people danced on weekends. Nowadays it is an art collection residence itself immersed in nature and equipped with a delightful blue pool to have special lunch or dinner.
In addition to the enchanting beaches and coves on the coast, such as the secret Anse de l’Argent Faux, Antibes offers unmissable activities for those who love sophisticated and niche shopping.
The covered market in Cours Massena is an historical spot for the Provençal Market, offering a blend of fresh food and artisanal products, spices, lavender soaps, colored pottery and unique handicrafts. On midsummers’ nights you can’t miss from July to August, starting at 7pm the booths of Promenade du Soleil in Juan-les-Pins or Pré-des-Pêcheurs in Antibes. Then, of course for art lovers again, pop into the Musée Picasso just right on Fort Carrè, which was Picasso's studio in the 1940s.
Beyond the Lavandou village and just a few hours from Antibes, this seaside town, surrounded by enchanting beaches, is particularly renowned for its palm trees and medieval character, which can easily be glimpsed in the narrow streets of the center. Actually, we have brought you here not for a refreshing bath, which we highly recommend anyway, but to admire the true jewel in the hills of the Bay of Hyères: the rationalist Villa Noailles Hyères, designed by the architect Robert Mallet Stevens commissioned by the viscounts Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles, patrons of their times. The villa was once home of several artists and the setting for several films. Today, the villa annually holds the 'Festival international de la mode et de la photographie', the 'Design Parade' and various architecture and photo exhibitions.
Away from the sea, inland in the south of France, is Aix-en-Provence, where you can visit the historical center and the Cézanne's studio, a temple on the Lauves hill built in 1901 to a design by the artist, whose presence is still evident in objects he left intact, such as his letters, gingerbread jars or statues (even his apron!).
Not so far from the city, there’s also the Vasarely Foundation named after the Franco-Hungarian artist Victor Vasarely, the founder of Optical Art, a cultural hub for expressive arts.
Getting back on the road, a stop must be at The Château La Coste’s wine estate, a company with a foundation, a garden, two restaurants and several villas and suites, all made by impressive figures. The idea was conceived by the art collector and businessman Paddy McKillen who called world-renowned artists and archistars to create a unique architecture and sculpture trail.
We are at the beginning of the Luberon region, land of vineyards and wine cellars all north of Aix-en-Provence, and above all, is a UNESCO heritage site, a paradise lost in lavender fields, you must see blossoming from mid-June, July. Here, traveling in the lilac countryside, you can reach beautiful luxury hotels such as The Domaine de Fontenille or Le Moulin, on the way to Lourmarin. This location is a Provençal nest once also chosen by writer Albert Camus because of his poetry. Here, in the heart of the village, the ancient mill has been transformed into a hotel with a pool and a restaurant to taste all the traditional dishes of the region.
Then, if you continue along the Brun river to Bonnieux, a must visit goes to La Bastide de Marie that offers a hospitality experience between chic and rustic, immersed in vineyard rows, cypresses, century-old olive trees and the bewitching lavender.
But if you, at the end, continue to prefer the city streets to nature, and you are moved by the constant desire to find offers from antique dealers and boutiques, then your destination should be the Isle Sur La Sorgue, the French capital of flea markets, antiques and design, near the city of Avignone, old site of the Palace of Popes.
And here we are in the city of art and photography, so loved by the Dutch painter Van Gogh, who dedicated several canvases. Following the route towards Place du Forme, you will have the thrill of finding in front of a live painting: the famous Café portrayed by the artist on a summer evening (Café le soir 1888), which has an identical atmosphere. Now renamed Café la nuit, you can stop for a drink and feel like one of the protagonists of one of Van Gogh's most famous works. To stay on the subject of art, the best art hotels in the city are l’Hotel Nord Pinus and L’arlaton, a true masterpiece designed by Jorge Pardo.
Added to these, in the center of Arles, all around a hundred-year-old tree of Paulownia you can also stay at Le Cloître, magically conceived by the designer India Mahdavi. It’s a calm place to read a book or to have a coffee break at the Épicerie on the nice rooftop while watching a sunset.
It was precisely the bright yellow light that drew Van Gogh to Arles in February 1888, and it is still the light, secret ingredient to photography, that drew so many talents to the city every summer since 1970. In fact, since then, Arles has held the “Rencontres d’Arles”, the first international festival of Photography. During these days, the city hosts exhibitions, night screenings, events and photography workshops in various cultural centers teeming with young internationals and eclectic personalities.
Arles, especially nowadays, is also the beating heart for experimental art, as testifies LUMA, the spectacular steel-clad tower housing immersive modern art installations in what once was a railway yard.
Going back again to the coastline, under the Arles surroundings, you arrive at the coveted destination of the Camargue Natural Park the unique opportunity to observe the horizons of vast and exceptionally rich plains, the red salt marshes (for example Salin de Giraud) where white Camargue horses, black bulls and pink flamingos peacefully roam free.
But if you want to go even further west, on the mouths of the rhône, the Auberge de cavalier Pont de Banner in Sainte Marie de La Mer, the seaside town of the gypsies, is worth a visit, an unusual stay in an authentic Cabane de Gardian, facing the marsh.
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