The South of France is an amazingly easy short winter break from the UK, and a truly invigorating one as well. Even a few days spent strolling along the sun splashed waterfronts and outdoor cafes of the French Riviera is a great way to shatter the grim, rolling grey rigor mortis of the English winter. And you’ll find none of the maddening throngs that flood these same resorts like a human tidal wave in the heady days of the Mediterranean summer, either.
The British love affair with the Riviera goes back to the end of the nineteenth century, when Queen Victoria used to visit regularly in the cold winter months. With an average December/January temperature of between twelve and fourteen degrees centigrade and many sunny days, the climate was a definite tonic to the long, leaden gloom of winter London.
Almost inevitably, the cream of British society followed her, as did her son, the lecherous, corpulent future king, Edward VII. English money flowed into the string of opulent Italianate villas that sprouted up in the hillsides around coastal cities such as Nice.
Grand, Edwardian styled belle epoque hotels such as the fabled Negresco, offered a home away from home for those accustomed to whiling away their time in the Ritz, or the Savoy. Even today, the Negresco still remains a fabulous, vaulting vision of the past, with its gilt. gold leaf and almost impossible chandeliers. If you happen to be in Nice, it’s well worth checking out for a drink, a meal, or even a stay.
There is no shortage of budget flights into Nice Cote D’Azur airport on airlines such as Easyjet. And, while you can no longer take the fabled Blue Train to the South of France, there is still the option of combining the Eurostar service to Paris, with a run down into Nice or Marseille on the TGV. It’s a pretty special, ever so slightly decadent way to swagger into the sweet spots along the coast.
So, what to see?
I guess you’ll have to check out Monte Carlo at least once, if only to realise just how hideously over rated it actually is. Yes, the belle epoque casino and it’s gardens are gorgeous, but the tower blocks along the waterfront look like they were designed by the same architect responsible for Stalingrad. The prices are as stratospheric as the conceit of some of the residents. Not for nothing was it described as ‘a sunny place for shady people’. Here, platinum chip pretension overflows from the top of every Gucci shopping bag. It has brittle glamour at very best.
By contrast, Cannes is cool, classy and brimming with casual, spectacular style and elegance. The old town is stunningly pretty, with its winding, cobbled lanes that lead up to the old fort that overlooks the modern, yacht studded harbour. Just strolling the famous Croisette Boulevard is a treat in itself. Maybe stop off and enjoy a glass of pastis on the terrace of the legendary Hotel Carlton, overlooking the shingle beaches, lidos and languid date palms. Cannes is a beautiful city that is the very essence of Riviera chic and class.
Nice is the self styled ‘Queen of The Riviera’, and with very good reason. A city built along the edge of thirteen shingle beaches that shelve into the ocean, the city is backed by a soaring mass of lush, rolling greenery studded with gorgeous, Italianate villas in shades of ochre, cream and terracotta. The breezy, meandering sprawl of the Promenade Des Anglais is a palm shaded parade of open air cafes, bars and bistros that runs all the way along the waterfront.
Place Massena has live music set against a backdrop of strollers, mime artists and spectacular, theatrical fountains. The shopping is world class, though it has to be said that Nice is obviously not a cheap date.
It’s worth checking out in February, when the annual Carnival turns the city into a riot of fun, colour and amazing displays of fauna.There are carnival floats, fiestas and parades aplenty, and the partying often goes on far into the night. And, with the temperatures being reasonably pleasant through the days, the city is a fun, easily manageable alternative to the samba fuelled fleshpots of Rio and New Orleans.
Ah. Did I mention how good the food is?
Dining out anywhere on the French Riviera is an experience; here, world class gastronomy meets casual gluttony, and is cooked up to the level of an art form. The local bouillabaise soup is legendary; it’s much more of a deep, rich fish stew than an actual soup. Also right up there is the local seafood. Lamb is probably the best meat, and always succulent. Somehow, lingering for two or three hours over a meal in such beautiful surroundings seems like no problem at all.
There’s an excellent, incredibly scenic coastal rail route that takes you to jaw dropping, spectacularly pretty villages such as Antibes, Beaulieu, Juan Les Pins and Villefranche. The latter has quite probably the most singularly beautiful bay in the entire Mediterranean, and boasts one of the few truly sandy beaches in the region. If ever a place was designed simply for a few hours of languid people watching and genuine, platinum chip self indulgence, then Villefranche is surely it. I recommend the John Dory at Le Calypso, and the margaritas are pretty damned good, too. You can take the train to here from either Nice or Monaco-Ville in around ten to fifteen minutes, and it’s truly worth the journey.
Of course, the region as a whole is not cheap. But the quality is invariably superb, the surroundings never less than exhilarating, and the sheer fabulous, feel good factor is undeniable. It is a part of the world that (mostly) understands the difference between hype and style. And, as any dedicated lotus eater will tell you, it is impossible to hang a true price tag on real style.
So, all things considered, the French Riviera has a lot going for it, even in the off season. Even two or three days is enough to really invigorate you in the depths of a long winter. Enjoy.