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Culture along the French Riviera

Memorable Museums
Culture along the French Riviera
Strategically situated on the Mediterranean coast and with sparkling light and vivid colors, the Riviera has been inspiring artists, musicians, and military geniuses for thousands of years, tracing time from ancient Greece and Rome to the modern day.
By Sylvia Sabes, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by Camille Moirenc/age fotostock
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    Memorable Museums
    Memorable Museums
    Inspirational light and rich tones drew modern art’s most famous names to the region. One of the world’s most extraordinary collections, including work by Miró, Giacometti, Calder, and Braque, is set among pines at the Fondation Maeght. The Château Grimaldi in Antibes, where Picasso painted, is now dedicated to his art, while in the hills of Biot there is a museum for the work of Fernand Léger. Locals are proud of the impressive new space to honor the life and work of Jean Cocteau in Menton. In Nice, the Musée National Marc Chagall is a stunning home for the master’s bright palette and a compelling contrast to the traditional setting of the Musée Matisse. The French Riviera Pass provides access to many of the region’s museums.
    Photo by Camille Moirenc/age fotostock
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    See and Be Seen
    See and Be Seen
    Tiny, remote beaches surrounded by villages packed with see-and-be-seen cafés and bars make the Riviera a dream destination for celebrities. In the 1960s, Bridget Bardot would sit on the balcony of the Hôtel Le Sube—part of the scene but above the crowd of Saint-Tropez’s old port. Nearby, beaches at Ramatuelle still attract stars from Hollywood and Paris. Bono, Tina Turner, and Elton John have homes in the hills near Beaulieu-sur-Mer and are regulars at the African Queen café. For some stargazing of your own, linger on La Croisette during the Cannes International Film Festival in May and bring your camera.
    Photo by Valery Trillaud/age fotostock
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    The Art of War
    The Art of War
    This region, known as Antipolis by the ancient Greeks, has long been recognized for its strategic importance. The Trophy of Augustus, or Tropaeum Alpium, is a monument erected in La Turbie in 6 B.C.E. to celebrate Roman victory over Ligurian tribes down the coast. Fort Carré was built to protect Antibes in the 15th century, and in the 16th century, Fort Royal was constructed on Île Sainte-Marguerite off Cannes to hold prisoners like the so-called Man in the Iron Mask. The name Napoleon appears often in Provençal history, especially in reference to the region’s keyrole in the conquest of Italy. Even in modern times, the importance of the Riviera's geographical advantage persists: Underground bunkers and artillery rooms are still intact along the Maginot Line at Sainte-Agnès, a border meant to defend France against German attack in the 1930s, and the U.S. Navy's Sixth Fleet called Villefranche-sur-Mer its home port until the mid-1960s.
    Photo courtesy of Jerome Kelagopian/Palais des Festivals
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    Crafts around the Region
    Crafts around the Region
    The simple leather sandals handcrafted at K. Jacques in Saint-Tropez since 1933 are such an icon that an industrial knock-off is called Les Tropeziennes. Potters have been working the kilns in Vallauris since Roman times, but Picasso took them into the spotlight when he began collaborating with the Madoura workshops; there are now more than 50 studios and exhibitions to visit in the small town. Bois d'Olivier still practices the local tradition of creating objects from the wood of the region's olive trees. The Verrerie de Biot has been known for its signature handblown bubble glassware since 1956, and Cagnes-sur-Mer is home to many of the region’s jewelry makers. Art studios and craft shops line the shoulder-wide streets in Èze—a walk here offers a deep look into the area's very active cultural scene.
    Photo by G. Dalgi Orti/age fotostock
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    Abundant Festivals
    Abundant Festivals
    With a rich history and abundant harvests, there is always something to celebrate on the Riviera. The festivals begin in February with the Lemon Festival in Menton and Carnaval in Nice, both featuring elaborate, brightly colored floats. In the spring, there are violet, mimosa, jasmine, and orange blossom festivals throughout the region, honoring the stars of the local fragrance industry. In May, Cannes is home of the world’s most important international film festival. Each July, Juan-les-Pins hosts Europe’s oldest jazz festival, attracting musicians from across the globe for over 50 years.
    Photo courtesy of Nice Convention and Visitors Bureau
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    Buildings Worth a Detour
    Buildings Worth a Detour
    Nice’s Italian heritage has left the city rich in baroque architecture that is unique in France. While there are numerous churches, the Palais Lascaris is the city’s last baroque home, with intricate scenes painted in vibrant murals. A few miles to the east, the Côte d'Azur was still a string of quaint fishing villages until the 1830s, when British Lord Brougham decreed it a fashionable destination and belle epoque architects came flocking to create buildings like the Hotel Negresco, Charles Garnier’s Observatoire in Nice, and the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild and Villa Kerylos at Beaulieu-sur-Mer. Fans of modern architecture are rewarded with the chance to see Le Corbusier’s Cabanon, the Pierre Cardin "bubble" house, and Robert Mallet-Stevens’ Villa Noailles.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    The Fragrant French Riviera
    The Fragrant French Riviera
    Flowers have played a major role in the local economy since Catherine Medici received the first pair of scented gloves from a tanner named Galimard in Grasse; the local perfume industry was born. It thrives today, with perfumeries welcoming visitors to their distilleries. The scents of lavender, violet, jasmine, rose, orange blossom, and wild mimosa are native to the area; the flowers are also key ingredients in local cuisine. See how the delicate blooms are crystalized for consumption at Florian confectioners, or take a course in cooking with flowers at La Cuisine des Fleurs in Biot. Hike, cycle, or drive the rolling hills of the intoxicating Mimosa Trail or the fragrant Lavender Trail. Short on time? Visit Nice's famous flower market.
    Photo by Sandra Raccanello/age fotostock
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    Riviera Nightlife
    Riviera Nightlife
    The rich and famous come to party on the Riviera, but there is plenty of space on the dance floor for everyone. In Monte Carlo, order your martini shaken, not stirred at Hôtel de Paris's Bar Américain before hitting the casino, then party until sunrise at Jimmy’z Place du Casino. Enjoy a mellow, more sophisticated rhythm at La Cave Romagnan jazz club in Nice. Get your toes in the sand at Plage C’Beach on the Croisette in Cannes, or dance under the palm trees at the international club Le Bâoli. Avoid the paparazzi in Antibes, a popular place with local clubs that manage to stir up a good time without causing a blip on the radar. A concentration of clubs like K'ORI and the summer-only VIP Room make Saint-Tropez a destination for serious club-goers.
    Photo courtesy of Bâoli