It was quickly evident that we were four months too early for the big events in Cannes and Monaco so instead of mingling with wealthy celebs we decided to lay low in Antibes, the smaller and less glitzy sibling town only 30 minutes from Nice. As usual airbnb was our go to for reasonably priced accommodation, our small studio bang in the centre of the old town and only a 10 minute walk to the train and bus stations.
When we arrived the city was still in the midst of Christmas celebrations; festive stalls serving hot mulled wine, a childrens fairground, and outdoor markets selling our favorite French foods – olives, sundried tomatoes, tapenades, hummus and amazing cheeses with warm French baguettes. French bread continues to be our biggest vice by far! There were plenty of restaurants, bars, cafes, and boulangeries, the latter selling espressos, cappuccinos, and our second biggest vice; flaky plain and chocolate croissants. Hopefully being 95% vegetarian would offset the amount of freshly baked goods and cheeses we were going to be eating.
Easy access to the train station ensured that our daily travels up and down the coast were straight forward, the timetable good enough for us even with a limited schedule (amongst other public sectors SNCF train drivers couldn’t resist striking over pension reforms!). Cannes was 12 minutes away, Nice 20 minutes, and Monaco/ Menton from 45 minutes to an hour. We always found the trains to be exactly on time so don’t assume being a minute late will be okay!
Before heading out exploring the Côte d’Azur we first had to take a dive into our temporary home town, choosing to avoid at all costs the more modern and busier built up area beyond the quaint vieille ville. As this was the last day of the Christmas holidays we had to make the full day count – our self guided tour would ultimately take us out towards Cap d’Antibes, a really fun sounding hike, also a lot further away than we anticipated!
In the balmy winter weather we took in the highlights, paying attention to the places worthy of a return visit – the covered provincial market, the Picasso Museum, the harbour and its obscene multimillion Dollar yachts, and the Le Nomade sculpture with its epic views out to the Mediterranean Sea. Photographing this place was going to be a blast. We typically have two must-haves whilst traveling, the first being that wherever possible our accommodation must be situated in a towns historical area, the second that some decent hiking trails need to be reasonably close by. In Antibes all we needed to do was look away from the water and everything went uphill, the distant views being far more impressive with the snow covered Alpes Maritimes dominating the skyline.
By mid afternoon we were making our way to the starting point of our 10 kilometre grand tour around Cap d’Antibes, following the towns impressive sea wall before passing beaches that in season must be swarming with foreign and French holiday makers. Google was telling us that the beginning of the shorter 5 kilometre Sentier de Tirepoil circuit at Plage de la Garoupe was almost 4 kilometres from our accommodation. We eventually decided to start at Port de la Salis and see how far we could get. To begin we had to first head up hill to Chapelle De La Garoupe and its impressive views towards Antibes and Nice – from there our route meandered along tree lined streets with properties clearly for the wealthy elite. After being teased for an hour we soon made it to the signage indicating the Sentier de Tirepoil, a well maintained and very popular trail on this sunny New Years Day!
Any winters day except January 1st would have made this trail amazing, the almost continual snake of people taking away some of its appeal. Still, it was well marked with only very small elevation changes making it ideal for families. Due to the trail being a loop, the first half hugged the Mediterranean Sea as it passed by obscenely expensive villas; Chateau Garoupe built in 1907, Chateau Croë built in 1927 and now owned by a Russian billionaire, and Villa Eilenroc built between 1860 and 1867 – on occasion we would pass under waterfront patios, small extensions jutting out from the high stone walls that surrounded the properties. The traditional stone built trail hugged the fortress-like perimeters as staircases took us close to getting glimpses of how a select few live.
Although our longer anticipated route didn’t materialise we had still seen a beautiful piece of coastline that would hopefully be just the beginning of our Cote d’Azur experience. Getting an afternoon of fresh air was what we had hoped for so we were happy.
The fancy resort town of Cannes, famed for its international film festival, was to be our first local excursion. It’s hard to visualize from exiting the train station what life is like along the main palm tree lined Boulevard de la Croisette; fancy 5 star hotels, high end boutiques, and a harbour full of huge yachts. There was an overall sense that the people walking their miniature pooches and the Lacoste wearing joggers weren’t short of a Euro or two!
People watching soon gets old and does nothing for our fitness so to get our daily dose of exercise we headed up what appeared to be the highest point. Following the narrow streets up Suquet Hill took us through the calmness of the old town, also known as the birthplace of the city, before bringing us out at Place de la Castre. The easy walk was well worth it for the panoramic views across the bay and out to the Lerins Islands. Housed within the walled ramparts are the Musée de la Castre and the Notre Dame d’Espérace church, neither of which we visited but apparently home to antiquities and art from the Mediterranean.
Getting back down to sea level we continued our walk along the main Boulevard, stopping frequently to browse in jewelry shop windows to see who could find the most expensive Swiss watch, before finishing at Cap de la Croisette. The fresh sea air and picture perfect setting of this riviera town made our half day visit well worthwhile – it would certainly be worthy of a return trip to hang out on one of the yachts during the film festival!
A little further away than Cannes but still under half hour by train was the larger city of Nice. Once again we only had a half day so planned on discovering the markets and old town, both of which ended up being a significant walk from where we decided to get off the train. Following the sea front we first made our way past almost normal looking apartments, with nothing too extravagant, getting ever closer to the heart of the city. The buildings began to take on an older more historical look, the balconies larger and the exterior decor warranting a far superior price tag. Running alongside the water from the airport the Promenade des Anglais continues 4 kilometres to the old town, dreamt up by the English who wintered in Nice in the 19th century; now extremely popular with walkers, joggers, cyclists, and inline skaters – for us walking would have to do and we happily made our way along the wide promenade on this sunny midweek morning, eventually stumbling right into the cities Cours Saleya market.
After chowing down on some of the best oranges known to mankind we made our way up a well used trail towards Castle Hill. Sitting almost 100 metres above sea level views from this forested oasis are stunning, at least they would have been had we visited during the early morning or at sunset. Our time was limited so searching out the best places for photographing the old town below and the pretty harbour was a struggle – the hill could definitely warrant a couple of un-rushed visits! Outside of the views it’s home to ruins, a couple of cemeteries and an artificial waterfall. Thanks to Louis the XIV the castle was lost in 1706.
Continuing through the old town the final stop was Nice’s Port Lympia, moorings for a multitude of boats, some big and ugly, some small and very colorful. I can waste a lot of time photographing colorful boats, especially when presented with a backdrop of historical buildings that surround Nice’s port! Luckily the end of the local tram system finishes at the port too giving easy access back onto the rivieras rail network.
Our third day of French Riviera discovery took us almost to the Italian border, to the picturesque town of Menton, then a quick backtrack to the Principality of Monaco. Leaving the train station as usual we headed for the beach, knowing that if we followed Promenade du Soleil along the water we would end up in another picture perfect medieval old town. We weren’t disappointed, in fact we were pretty amazed and set to work at discovering as much as possible in another of those rushed mornings.
The old town, founded by pirates with alleyways still bearing their names, is set on a hillside between two bays. Colorful facades of the historic buildings reach up towards multiple church spires including the imposing 17th century Basilique Saint-Michel-Archange. The town is crowned with “the world’s most aristocratic” cemetery, its headstone epitaphs overwhelmingly British, with the one that really stood out being for the inventor of rugby football, the Anglican clergyman William Webb Ellis.
By continuing our walk back downhill, passing beyond the harbour and the towns many cafes we reached a small manmade spit jutting out into the water – looking back towards town from here the view is complete, with the snow covered Maritime Alps looming above in the distance. This has to be one of the most scenic spots for capturing the beauty of the French Riviera.
What we unfortunately did miss out on was a visit to any of the highly recommended subtropical gardens, all a bit too far of a walk this time around, but including Val Rahmeh, Serre de la Madone and Jardins Biovès. Menton had risen to the occasion and with nothing left to top the panoramic view it was time to take a ten minute train ride to another country, or at least a principality; Monaco.
Far and away the most upmarket place on this stretch of the Mediterranean, Monaco oozes money, from its fancy yachts, to the iconic Monte Carlo casino, to its countless number of Ferraris and Rolls Royces. It seemed like only the middle class Monégasque had to drive Mercedes or Porsche!
Our arrival at the fancy train station set the stage for another all too brief visit, although with the price of everything the less time we spent the better. First up was the harbour and a nose around the ridiculous portable private islands, status symbols for the wealthy few with price tags into the hundreds of millions. Heading up Route de la Piscine, the same road that Formula 1 cars come flying down every May, took us into the Monte Carlo area of Monaco – an area known for its flagship casino, the Hôtel de Paris, and exclusive Boulevard des Moulins for luxury shopping. We decided that this wasn’t going to be a day for big spending so skipped over that, then due to our slob dress code we chose to just stand and car watch outside the entrance to the casino instead of trying our luck – the sheer amount of vehicle money must be astounding! Strange, but no Monégasques (people from Monaco) are permitted inside its gaming rooms.
Walking more of the grand prix track and trying to envisage what a transformation must happen here for race week bought on the desire to make it happen. I was going to convince Andrea that she really needs to watch twenty fearless drivers flying around this amazing street circuit more than 70 times! Not many days went by before we had tickets for one of the grandstands. Although we could justify $650 per person race day tickets there was no way we could stop for anything to eat or drink on this occasion – funny that!
Whilst our week long trip took us to the larger towns along the riviera there was plenty to see away from the water, many highly recommended villages tucked away in the Maritime Alps, and some sitting pretty above their larger neighbors along the coast. We had read about the fortified village of Peillon, the medieval walled village of St Paul de Vence, Éze and its amazing views, and Sainte-Agnès, perched high in the mountains above Menton. The only one we actually made it to was Éze, a 50 minute train ride from Antibes to the Gare de Eze Sur Mer – from there it was a couple of kilometre steep hike following Nietzsche’s Footpath. Arriving early in the day is highly recommended as around late morning the narrow cobblestoned alleyways started to feel busy!
The French Riviera can definitely justify another visit or two and as of writing we’ve splashed out on Monaco F1 Grand Prix tickets for May 2020, with a 5 night stay in the old town of Nice. Taking things a little slower and getting off the beaten path wouldn’t hurt either, possibly even hiking the Grande Traversée des Alpes section of the Nice to Amsterdam GR5 long distance trail.
03/19/20 UPDATE: Thanks to the Coronavirus the Monaco GP has been canceled, not postponed but canceled!
Arrival: Marrakesh -> Nice, Carrier: Easyjet, Cost: $106.28 pp
Departure: Nice -> Geneva, Carrier: Easyjet, Cost: $111.49 pp
Reasonable train travel from Antibes to Cannes, Nice, Monaco and Menton with SNCF, Cost: 3-10 Eur per ride pp
Carrier: Bouygues Telecom, SIM card & Data: 20Gb, Cost: €39.90 ($44) 30 day validity
December 31st 2019 – January 7th 2020
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