Solange Hando heads for Alpes-Maritimes and discovers that this world-famous part of France has much more to offer than mere glitz and glamour
Like the last piece of a giant puzzle, Alpes-Maritimes fits neatly into the south-eastern corner of France right up against the Italian border. Nice, the capital, joined France for good in 1860. Tende and La Brigue followed 87 years later and the map was complete, albeit for the tiny enclave of Monaco. Authentic villages, bucolic hills and mountains, nature parks and the most gorgeous stretch of the Côte d’Azur on the Mediterranean… it’s no wonder the department appeals to so many expats.
“I came to the south of France in search of light and life,” says artist Frances Peters, who lives in Cagnes-sur-Mer. “Thirteen years on, the décor still fits. The sun still shines in winter. No matter how much beauty I find in this landscape of unbelievably rich colour and texture, there is always more. Nature in all its glory is on my doorstep and Nice airport is only 10 minutes away. The love of good people still welcomes me and I feel that I’ve come home.”
Of course, it isn’t just the British who love the Riviera with its superb landscapes and 300 days of sunshine a year. Ask the French where they would like to live, given the choice, and more often than not, Nice comes top of the list. Is it the charm of the Belle Époque, the elegant palm-lined promenade, the convivial Place Masséna or the old town with its alleyways and pastel-hued façades? Fountains gurgle on the squares, restaurants beckon under flowering trees, and in the harbour, the brightly painted pointu boats unload their catch alongside gleaming yachts, ferries to Corsica and the sightseeing fleet of Trans Côte d’Azur.
Meanwhile, the market splashes myriad colours and scents on the Cours Saleya, just a few steps from the beach and its sweeping crescent of glistening pebbles. The Niçois are proud of their pebbles, much cleaner than sand, they say, whether it’s on the public or the private beaches, the latter with its upmarket restaurants, loungers and parasols.
Nice is both a holiday resort and a real French city, bustling and relaxed all in one; a mix of tangled lanes and leafy boulevards, designer boutiques and department stores, souvenir shops, art galleries, museums and, to top it all, Roman ruins at the top of the hill in the Cimiez district. Up there, men play pétanque in the olive grove near the Musée Matisse, with its distinctive pink walls, and the Cimiez monastery framed by cypress trees. In the distance, the Colline du Château shimmers on a glorious headland where the sun rises and sets over the sea. There, you can look down on a jumble of red roofs, spires and domes, the harbour and the Bay of Angels, unfolding silver and blue along the Promenade des Anglais where the iconic Le Negresco hotel has welcomed the ‘crème de la crème’ for 100 years.
But it all started back in the 1800s when Reverend Lewis Way decided to finance a seafront promenade for the British aristocracy wintering in warmer climes. Crowned heads, artists and writers soon flocked from all over Europe and nowadays, the promenade is for everyone, casual and chic alike, a place to stroll, jog, pick up a ‘vélo bleu’ or just sit and gaze at the sea. During the winter carnival, it hosts a spectacular flower parade and all sorts of festivities late into the night.
Nice claims its share of celebrities, including Elton John who has a villa on Mont Boron, but if star gazing is your thing, Cannes is the place to go. You’ll be lucky to get anywhere near the red carpet during the world-famous film festival, but the show goes on all year, with the handprints of the stars around the Palais du Festival, business tycoons, rally drivers, glamorous blondes, and cocktail parties for all to see on super-sized yachts.
Yet for all its fame, Cannes is a surprisingly small resort, easy to explore on foot, with fine golden sands, private and public, sheltered waters in a south-facing bay and affordable restaurants and shopping beyond the glitzy seafront of La Croisette and the Rue d’Antibes.
Here, you will find rose gardens and swaying palms, and in the old Le Suquet district, a hilltop castle looking out to Les Îles de Lérins, just 15 minutes away. The fort on Île Ste-Marguerite, a 15-minute ferry trip away, houses Le Musée de la Mer and here, in turn, the cell where the Man in the Iron Mask languished for 11 years can be found. Shame he couldn’t see the fantastic view stretching from the foothills of the Alps to the Cap d’Antibes and the red cliffs of Estérel. Neighbouring St-Honorat has been home to Cistercian monks since AD470 and the monastery still produces its own liqueur and wine.
Back on the mainland, the coast covers a mere 20% of the department with one long string of resorts, crowded in summer but each one as pretty as its neighbour. Scenic roads and rambling paths follow the shore festooned in capes and headlands, sandy beaches to the west from Mandelieu-La Napoule to Juan-les-Pins and pebbles to the east. Favourite resorts include Antibes with its fort and Provençal market, Villefranche-sur-Mer with its stylish villas and Menton where tall houses in rainbow colours jostle for space at the foot of the mountains. There are archways and steps, cobbled lanes and lots of lemons, so remarkably sweet and juicy they have their own festival.
And while lemons hold centre stage in Menton, every market around is full of temptations – plump tomatoes, wild mushrooms, olives, peaches, apricots, strawberries and more. Seafood is succulent; try red mullet or sea bass grilled with fennel, or mussels in your favourite dressing. The ubiquitous salade niçoise is a generous platter of tuna, olives, peppers, tomatoes, anchovies and egg, also served in the large round sandwich known as pan bagnat. Pissaladière is the local pizza, socca a kind of pancake made of chickpea flour; and ratatouille, a vegetable stew which melts in your mouth.
Typical around Nice are the delicious courgette flowers and petits farcis, a colourful assortment of stuffed mini-vegetables. Expect a generous helping of aioli (garlic mayonnaise) or tapenade (olive paste) served on mini-toasts, and herbes de Provence: basil, thyme, rosemary and sage.
Sweet treats range from the unusual chard pie with pine kernels and raisins, to heavenly pâtisseries, handmade chocolates and candied fruit. If you’re in Nice, head for candied fruit specialist Confiserie Florian by the harbour and book a guided tour of its workshop
As for wine, the cool Rosé de Provence is always popular, though Alpes-Maritimes does have its own little secrets, too; one being red, rosé or white AOC Bellet from Domaine de la Source, and up in the mountains, the bitter-sweet Génépi liqueur made from Alpine plants.
Rising from gentle hills, strewn with wild flowers and herbs, to Mount Gélas, topping 3,000 metres, the hinterland has all the charm of rural France close to the blue waters of the Mediterranean.
“Following a chance encounter in 2001, we have been lucky enough to live in Alpes-Maritimes for the past 10 years,” explains expat Liz Lord. “Deliberate down-shifters, we set up Spacebetween, a walking and activity holiday company with gîte accommodation in the beautiful Mercantour National Park. There’s magic in being based in unspoilt Alpine scenery while having the French Riviera just an hour away; never mind easy access east to Italy and west to Provence and beyond. But we’re never away for long. It’s just too lovely here in Berthemont-les-Bains – in the sun and the snow!”
In June 2013, the long-established Mercantour became part of the first European Nature Park, joining the Parco Naturale delle Alpi Marittime, across the border in Italy. It’s a land of rushing streams, waterfalls, high mountains and blue lakes, the domain of chamois, ibex, bearded vultures, marmots and wolves, and more than 2,000 species of plants, among them orchids and edelweiss.
You find rambling trails and long distance footpaths, summer activities and winter sports, and on the outer reaches, quaint villages clambering up the slopes or nestling in deep valleys. To the east, the Mercantour almost comes down to the coast where the Train des Merveilles sets off on its fabulous ride, climbing more than 800 metres from Nice to Tende. It’s a regular service, with a guide in summer and wide-eyed visitors shifting right and left like metronomes to take it all in. There are breathtaking viaducts and tunnels, and villages deserving much more than a passing glance: Sospel with its turreted bridge and Baroque church; Saorge and its monastery in a natural amphitheatre, high above the River Roya; La Brigue, its beehives and painted chapel tucked in a quiet valley; and Tende, where a state-of-the-art museum shows reproductions of some of the wonders discovered in the surrounding valley.
La Vallée des Merveilles is the largest listed site in France, scattered with some 40,000 rock engravings from the Bronze Age, paying homage to the powerful bull god on Mount Bego. Allow a two- to four-hour walk to reach the valley (depending on your starting point), plus plenty of time to explore this mysterious link with the past. A guide is compulsory if you wish to stray off the path.
Besides the highlights of Mercantour, the arrière-pays never ceases to delight, be it the Préalpes d’Azur, a newly created regional park in the south-west, the dramatic canyons, the mind-blowing panoramas, the scenic Train des Pignes or the Route Napoléon, where on his return from Elba, the deposed emperor marched from Golfe-Juan to Grenoble. In the hills above Cannes, he and his 1,200 men passed through Grasse but today, this colourful village has a much bigger claim to fame: it’s the international capital of perfume where Fragonard and others offer guided visits and workshops. Watch, smell, test, choose or create your own fragrance – it’s a walk through paradise, filled with the scent of jasmine, lavender, mimosa, orange blossom and roses. The most highly prized being the newly launched Baptistine boasting some 108 petals.
Grasse is just one of the must-see villages and, with a bus journey costing just €1.50 across the department, exploring is easy. Vallauris is renowned for its pottery, La Colle-sur-Loup for its antique shops, Èze village for its unrivalled panorama and the steep cobbles and steps where even the celebrities have to walk to their hotels. Look out for Cagnes-sur-Mer, its medieval village and Renoir Museum; Mougins, where Picasso and Winston Churchill liked to paint; Vence, dedicated to modern art; and the walled village of St-Paul-de-Vence, perched above the vineyards, like a hanging garden between the hills and the sea. It’s a gem of a place, the little Montmartre of the south, with galleries and studios along the winding lanes, courtyards draped in jasmine and bougainvillaea, and the celebrated inn La Colombe D’Or, which is haunted by artists and stars. Here, artists Marc Chagall, Georges Braque, Raoul Dufy and many others found pleasure and inspiration in the translucent light and rich colours of the land.
FIND OUT MORE
Comité Régional du Tourisme Côte d’Azur
Easyjet has regular flights to Nice from London and other UK airports.
WHERE TO STAY
Hôtel Villa Rivoli
10 Rue de Rivoli
06 000 Nice
Tel: 00 33 (0)4 93 88 80 25
3 Rue Vincent Ferrier
06 430 La Brigue
Tel: 00 33 (0)4 93 04 63 71
Hermitage du Col d’Eze
1951 Avenue des Diables Bleus
06 360 Eze La Grande Corniche
Tel: 00 33 (0)4 93 41 00 68
WHERE TO EAT
Restaurant Beau Rivage Plage
107 Quai des Etats-Unis
06 000 Nice
Tel: 00 33 (0)4 92 00 46 80
2 Rue de France
06 430 Tende
Tel: 00 33 (0)4 93 04 61 80F