Culture along the French Riviera

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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 Rome to the modern day.
By Sylvia Sabes, AFAR Local Expert
Photo courtesy of Nice Convention and Visitors Bureau
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    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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    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 Maeght Foundation. 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 oeuvre 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 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
    Tiny, remote beaches surrounded by sleepy villages, with plenty of see-and-be-seen cafés and bars, make the Riviera a dream destination for paparazzi-hounded celebrities. In the 1960s, Bridget Bardot would sit on the balcony of the Hôtel Sube—part of the scene but not the crowd of Saint-Tropez’s old port. Nearby beaches at Ramatuelle still attract stars like Clint Eastwood and Beyoncé. Rock stars 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, try the Croisette boardwalk at the Cannes International Film Festival in May; alternatively, feel like a star yourself with Alcyon Riviera Touring’s unique insider tour of the Monte Carlo Ballet.
    Photo by Valery Trillaud/age fotostock
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    The Art of War
    Fort Carré was built to protect Antibes in the 16th century, underscoring the military importance of the area known as Antipolis by the ancient Greeks. The Trophy of Augustus, built in La Turbie in 6 B.C.E., celebrates Roman victory over local Ligurian tribes. Fort Royal on Cannes’ Île Sainte-Marguerite is where the Man in the Iron Mask (rumored to be Louis XIV’s twin brother) was held. The name Napoleon appears often, a reminder of the region’s key role in the conquest of Italy. At Sainte-Agnès, underground bunkers and artillery rooms sit intact on the Maginot Line, a border created to defend France against Germany in the 1930s. Villefranche-sur-Mer was the home port to the US 6th Fleet from immediately after World War II until 1966.
    Photo courtesy of Jerome Kelagopian/Palais des Festivals
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    Churches, Chapels, and Abbeys
    According to legend, the treasure of the Knights Templar is still hidden under the Èglise de St. Paul in Hyères. Part of Italy until 1860, Nice is another treasure trove, rich in opulent baroque churches, including Èglise de Gésu, Basilique St. Michel Archange, and Chapelle de la Miséricorde. Drastically different, the Abbaye du Thoronet is a pure example of ascetic Cistercian design, echoed in the austere architecture of next-door’s functioning Monastery of Bethlehem. Cannes’ Abbaye de Lérins is home to an active community that supports itself with winemaking and tourism. Colorful, contemporary chapels painted by world-acclaimed artists include St. Pierre by Cocteau in Villefranche-sur-Mer and du Rosaire by Matisse in Vence.
    Photo by Sylvia Sabes
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    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. 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 line the shoulder-width streets in Eze, where Isidore Aicardi carves bowls and religious sculptures from discarded olive wood.
    Photo by G. Dalgi Orti/age fotostock
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    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 Grecque Kérylos 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
    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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    Rendezvous with History
    Beyond the scenery and luxurious lifestyle, there is a lot of history on the Riviera. Mercantour is a national park in the Vallée des Merveilles, a valley named for a marvelous collection of prehistoric art etched in stone across the ground. Via Julia Augusta was built by the Romans as a link to the Gallic provinces around 13 B.C.E., starting at the Trophy of Augustus in La Turbie, crossing the border, and ending in Ventimiglia, Italy. The Route Napoléon traces the ruler’s 100-day journey when freed from exile on Elba in 1815; from Cannes it runs north to Grasse, through the Alps to Grenoble. Every year in March, the commune of Vallauris Golfe-Juan organizes a popular reenactment of the Emperor’s return to French soil.
    Photo by Valery Trillaud/age fotostock
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    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. 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 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 Papagayo, K'ORI, and the summer-only VIP Room make Saint-Tropez a destination for serious club-goers.
    Photo courtesy of Bâoli