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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 have drawn some of modern art’s most famous names to the region. One of the world’s extraordinary collections, including works 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 the hills of Biot are the site of 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 National Museum of Marc Chagall is a stunning home for the master’s bright palette and a compelling contrast to the traditional setting of the Matisse Museum. The French Riviera Pass provides access to many of the region’s museums.
    Photo by Camille Moirenc/age fotostock
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    Star Gazing
    Star Gazing
    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, Brigitte Bardot would sit on the balcony of the Hôtel Le Sube—part of the scene but above the crowd of St. 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 Ste. 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 key role 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 Ste. 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 St. Tropez since 1933 are such an icon that an industrial knockoff 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. Le Travail du 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 the Riviera's rich history and abundant harvests, there is always something to celebrate here. 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 to the world’s most important international film festival. For more than 50 years, Juan les Pins has been hosting Europe’s oldest jazz festival in July, which draws musicians from across the globe.
    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 Époque architects came flocking to create buildings like the Hotel Negresco, Charles Garnier’s Observatory 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’s 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 and 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 the 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 C Beach on La 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 St. Tropez a destination for serious clubgoers.
    Photo courtesy of Bâoli