Scroll To Top
Features

March/April 2005 | Hugging the Cote d'Azur

March/April 2005 | Hugging the Cote d'Azur

A road trip through the French Riviera

A car journey along the French Riviera is captivating, to say the least. But it is by no means a road trip in the American sense of vast distances and devil-may-care parking. No, it's definitely a Euro experience where credit cards pay tolls, parking is always an issue, and instead of barking into a Wendy's drive-through I speak my best French into a speaker at the gates of a medieval village so the garbled voice at the other end can lower the barricade and let me in--wherein I barely avoid scraping up against the excruciatingly narrow 13th-century ramparts and almost tumble down the marble steps into the cemetery as I back up in a desperate attempt to turn a sharp corner. That said, Marc Chagall is in the cemetery at the edge of the town of St-Paul-de-Vence, and a wild game of p?tanque (Provence's answer to the Italian boccie) is in progress as my shaky legs take me to the Caf? de la Place for a much-needed beer.

I had been invited to Monte Carlo by the legendary Swedish car manufacturer Saab to test-drive the groovy lime yellow 9-3 convertible with its snappy guidance system--"prepare to make a slight left"--and over-the-top rain-sensing windshield wipers. Of course, I was, like, Wow--Monte Carlo! Casinos, James Bond, talking cars, Cary Grant, Princess Grace...uh, did they say I'd be driving on twisty roads? Yup. And as my companion, Kevin, Smith a former race-car driver turned Saab PR maven, whipped around the umpteenth hairpin turn on the edge of the Palisades cliffs far, far above the Mediterranean, the little Mario Cantone in my head blurted out, "I wonder what Princess Grace would have thought about these cliffs?" Thus began my tour of the Riviera. The Saab-smooth but white-knuckle drive high above the crashing sea was actually lots of fun (think Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief) and not nearly as scary as the coming-out I did (will it never end?). This time I told a group of automotive journalists that on my new car, no matter where I looked or which secret buttons I pushed, I could not figure out how to open the hood. Where was Bond when I needed him? They were very supportive and even told me that my car has front-wheel drive. Who knew?

But it was after my weekend of convertibles and hairpin curves when I slowed down to smell the mimosas--so to speak--that I got to explore the area and found that there are actually two Rivieras. There is the well-known Riviera, running along the coast, like Monaco, all sunglasses and Herm?s beach towels; and just to the north between the sea and the foothills of the Alps is the lesser-known Arri?re Pays ("back country"), a mixture of picturesque "perched villages" and local industry. The walled villages are literally perched atop hills, and the industry is of the fun variety, like perfume and pottery. And because the amazing light and mild climate attracted practically every well-known artist of the 20th century, the Riviera is dripping in art. Even better, the legacy of creativity thrives today in the local culture. It is not only everywhere to appreciate and to buy, but to
create.



Despite my complete lack of auto expertise, the drive was glorious. And without a car I would have missed both the view from the road above Villefranche, a town of terra-cotta buildings and turquoise shutters stuck to a hillside overlooking the sea, and the fish soup at the restaurant Charlot 1er Roi des Coquillages in Cagnes-Sur-Mer, where the flaming souffl? Grand Marnier made even the locals (and the poodles seated next to them) stop and stare.

As for navigation, the signposts worked well, and if the name of the town I was looking for disappeared at one traffic circle, it normally reappeared at the next. If not, I'd stop for lunch--always a two-hour affair, which worked out perfectly because (surprise) everything closes from noon to 2 p.m. Everything. I caught on to the schedule thing quickly, though: Restaurants typically close on Monday, museums on Tuesday, and holidays in France are, well, random.

I went no farther that 25 miles in all--creating a Nike-logo-shaped path starting at the border of Italy, moving west along the coast, then curving north and east into the back country. And although that distance could be covered in an hour with a 9-3 convertible and well-tied kerchief, a long weekend is better. Even if you only wanted to drive, eat, swim, and stop at the odd casino, the pace is slower here. Enjoy it.

Monte Carlo is the only city in the principality of Monaco (after the Vatican, it is the second smallest sovereign state, with 30,000 people residing in 0.7 square miles). And yes, it's as rich and glamorous as in the movies. Even getting there from the regional airport at Nice is spectacular, since most people fly by helicopter (faster and cheaper than a cab). Ten euros and a passport get you into the lovely but painfully quiet Casino de Monte-Carlo, where roulette wheels spin and intense croupiers preside in every imaginable language. But unless you are 007, you will not be invited into the Salon Super Priv?. Instead, park yourself outside at the Caf? de Paris (directly on the Place du Casino), order a Kir Royale and critique--I mean, watch--the passersby. Be sure also to duck into the Cathedral of St. Nicholas, where Princess Grace had her fairy-tale wedding and where she is now buried. It's in the old town near the prince's palace.


To start your road trip from Monte Carlo, first drive east to Menton (on the Italian border) to see the museum that the prolific artist-filmmaker-writer (and gay boy) Jean Cocteau created from a 17th-century fortress. From there I suggest driving back through Monaco along the road they call the Basse Corniche (N98), keeping the Mediterranean on your left, just to revel in the sublime Riviera. In Beaulieu-Sur-Mer, tour the Villa K?rylos, a detailed reproduction of an ancient Greek home. The Villa Ephrussi-de-Rothschild in nearby St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat houses a 5,000-piece art collection; the gardens alone merit a stop. Villefranche-Sur-Mer is the ultimate Riviera town where some of the sexiest angels in Christendom reside in the St. Pierre Chapel, Cocteau's homoerotic homage to the patron saint of fishermen. And although there is a dearth of organized gay life along the Riviera, the Lounge Beach restaurant at the end of Villefranche, on a sandyish beach, sports a rainbow flag. Farther along the coast in Cagnes-Sur-Mer, Renoir's house and studio are open to the public.



After my drive along the Riviera, passing by its gay-popular beaches of Eze, Coco, and Castel, then through Nice, I went inland. Here you can explore the medieval towns, shop, and see even more incredible 20th-century art. In Vallauris, the "town of potters," the Romanesque chapel in the ch?teau is adorned with Picasso's work, while the Magnelli Museum-Ceramics Museum is devoted to contemporary ceramics from art nouveau to '50s deco. Grasse is the perfume capital of the world and the International Perfumery Museum has an excellent collection of bottles, including fanciful Schiaparellis. Make an appointment to create your own fragrance. At La Verrerie de Biot you can watch them making their unique bubbled glass, then buy it. Matisse's Rosary Chapel, designed brilliantly from the hanging oil lamp to the confessional, is in the village of Vence. The attached museum displays his colorful vestments--a unique look at Matisse as fashion designer.

"My trip ended in one of the most charming villages of the back country, St. Paul, also know as St-Paul-de-Vence, clearly touristy but charming. Ask for the Artistes-Artisans-Galeries brochure from the tourist office and tell them you want to meet a local artist. Do not miss the Maeght Foundation, a storehouse of modern art set in a garden of masterpieces. And at the end of the day, with your car parked safely outside the village away from those medieval walls, sit at the Caf? de la Place, have yourself a glass of wine and a plate of olives, and start planning your return: next time to paint, to make glassware, or to create a perfume. Oh la la!Measom's next trip is to Mumbai, India, to work on the upcoming Bollywood musical, Marigold.


ESSENTIALS

Accommodations

(Dial 011 before all phone numbers) Inexpensive/Moderate: Gay-run and -owned L'Ange Bleu (419 Chemin de Montgros, La-Colle-Sur-Loup; 33-4-93-32-60-39; $87-$134), a small guesthouse convenient to all things Riviera. And further afield is the more secluded gay B&B, Let Hauts de Pierrefeu (360 Route des Mortissons, Pierrefeu; 33-4-97-02-12-81; $73-$94), run by Franck and Jean. For the eerie experience of being one of the only inhabitants of a 13th-century village, check into the Hostellerie Les Remparts (72 Rue Grande, St-Paul-de-Vence; 33-4-93-32-09-88; 39-80; $49-$100). Stone walls and ancient furniture make up the Spartan rooms that are opened with a Ben Franklin-era key. Expensive: At La Demeure de Jeanne (907 Route de Vence, Tourrettes-Sur-Loup; 33-4-93-59-37-24; $125-$188, dinner $57) not only will Albert and Yolande make you a cocktail from champagne and homemade violet liquor as you sit under the 700-year-old olive tree by the pool, but they will tell you where each and every flea market and antiques show is and coach you on pricing. The Columbus Monaco (23 Avenue des Papalins, Monte Carlo; 37-7-92-05-9000; $288-$687) is convenient to the heliport and makes an elegant resting place. The art of Matisse, Picasso, and L?ger decorate the exclusive La Colombe d'Or (just outside the village wall, St-Paul-de-Vence; 33-4-93-32-80-02; $325-$475).

Restaurants

Inexpensive: In Villefranche-Sur-Mer, the Lounge Beach (Promenade des Marini?res; 33-4-93-01-72-57; $10-$20) sits directly on the beach, sports a rainbow flag, and serves local fish and pasta dishes. At the Caf? de la Place in St-Paul-de-Vence, (just outside the gates; 33-4-93-32-80-03; $10-$15) have a drink and watch the passing tourists or a game of p?tanque. Moderate: In Monaco, the Café de Paris (Place du Casino; 37-7-92-16-20-20; a Kir Royale is $15) is right on the square where all the action is, while the Euro-cool Zebra Square (Grimaldi Forum; 37-7-99-99-25-50; $15-$30) has a well-stocked wine bar and great views. In Cagnes-Sur-Mer, fresh oysters, amazingly graphic art and a gregarious hostess who's clearly smoked her fair share of Gauloises greet you at Charlot 1er Roi des Coquillages (87 Boulevard de la Plage; 33-4-93-31-00-07; $18-$27). In Vence, Le Troquet (13 Place du Grand Jardin; 33-4-93-58-64-31; $15-$30), just outside the old town walls, has a delicious tarte au chocolat. Expensive: Loulou in Cagnes-Sur-Mer (91 Boulevard de la Plage; 33-4-93-31-00-17; $20-$40) serves excellent local fare in a Proven?al room. In St-Paul-de-Vence La Ferme de Saint Paul (1334 Route de la Colle; 33-4-93-32-82-48; $20-$33), in an 18th-century farmhouse is romance. Outside there's a stunning view of the village; inside the fire crackles.

Shopping

Local products like olive oil, santon dolls, and Proven?al fabrics, along with fine art and lots of knickknacks, can be found in the old town areas of Vence and St-Paul-de-Vence. For upscale contemporary pieces try the Galerie Guy Pieters (Chemin des Trious, St-Paul-de-Vence; 33-4-93-32-06-46). Galerie Madoura (Rue Georges et Suzanne Rami?, Vallauris; 33-4-93-64-66-39) has exclusive Picasso-designed ceramics. The bubbled glass of Biot can be purchased at La Verrerie de Biot (Chemin des Combes, Biot; 33-4-93-65-03-00).

The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. We suggest that you confirm all details directly with the establishments mentioned before making travel plans. Please feel free to e-mail us at update@outtraveler.com if you have any new information.
Out Magazine Print SubscriptionAdvocate Print Subscription

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories