One's first experience with the Riviera is somewhat like the ecstasies of first love – breathlessly exciting, intoxicating, overwhelming and something one never forgets.
As I left the Nice airport, I was struck by the incredible blue of the sea blending with a sky that seemed almost the same hue; overhead, a brilliant sun shone, and the climate was perfection. I stared at the exquisite Mediterranean as it hugged the curve of the most famous coast in the world, the Côte d'Azure.
All the glamour, beauty and romance you hear about the fabled Riviera seemed encapsulated in the lovely scene that unfolded as I drove along the Promenade des Anglais, with its profusion of flowers and cars, and people moving as if entranced by some holiday euphoria.
But what truly fascinated me was the discovery of yet another Riviera – somewhat remote from the sophisticated playground of hotels, beaches, casinos, boutiques, discotheques, restaurants, yachts and marinas. Just minutes away from the sea are artistic delights that often go undiscovered: tiny, medieval towns perched on mountain tops, both large- and modestly-scaled museums of exquisite design with exceptional collections, and ancient villages dotted with Roman ruins.
I had chosen Nice as my base since it's located almost midway between Monaco and Cannes, and is quite convenient for day trips. Although Nice is the fifth-largest city in France – and is made hectic through commerce and business transactions – there's a charm about it that's immediately appealing.
The beach, the least attractive on the Riviera, is completely covered with rocks. Yet there was no shortage of sun worshippers. Undaunted, bathers wear shoes and put down thin, inflated pads for sunbathing, yet only sometimes venture out into the water.
The Old Town of Nice, Vieille Ville, has a definite Italian flavor – this is where the authentic Niçoise live. Leading off wide boulevards are narrow, winding streets and tangled alleyways humming with local life.
Constant animation spills out from the shops to the streets: people call out to each other, framed by laundry hanging out to dry from second-story windows, and everyone seems in high spirits.
I began a leisurely tour of Nice and almost walked by the Villa Massena, now a museum. The magnificent residence, built by royalty, was turned over to the city by Prince Andrew in 1981 with two conditions: that the Villa Massena become a museum dedicated to local history, and that the gardens be open to the public. Both are wonderful destinations.
High in the wooded hills behind the city in a section known as Cimiez is a government-built museum to honor world-renowned artist Marc Chagall. The museum sits in a splendid setting: Shallow pools mark a lovely garden of olive trees and exploding flowers, all of which provide an almost reverential atmosphere. Oil paintings, gouaches, sculptures, lithographs and more than 100 of the artist's engravings were donated to this impressive gallery.
Eight miles from Nice sits the small resort of Cagnes. Yet there are really two Cagnes – the hilltop town, Haut-de-Cagnes, a picturesque little village; and the seaside Cagnes, formerly an old fishing port that has become a thriving beach resort.
In Haut-de-Cagnes, among rolling hills, is the home and studio of Auguste Renoir. Les Collettes – his home from 1908 until his death in 1919 – looks like one of his many stunning landscapes. A lovely winding road leads to a lush garden, where several budding artists were transferring their own visions of the scene onto canvas.
If Nice is the "queen" of the Riviera, then Cannes must be its "prince charming." The chic, sophisticated resort conjures up visions of movie stars, film festivals, art collectors, yachts, chic boutiques and topless beaches – in effect, it offers something for everyone.
Any DiCaprio Sightings?
Yet there is another aspect to Cannes: Take a 15-minute boat ride to the Ile Saint Marguerite, one of the Lerins Islands, and the mood becomes somber. A short walk to the Fort d'Ile, built by Richelieu, and there it sits – the cell where The Man in the Iron Mask was imprisoned in 1687. An informed attendant explained the mystery surrounding the famous character immortalized in literature by Alexander Dumas.
Just 13 miles west of Nice, extending from Antibes (with its marvelous Picasso Museum), is Cap d'Antibes, a peninsula that protrudes into the sea to frame an exquisite setting for the villas and mansions of wealthy residents. (It was the locale for the film "Tender Is the Night," based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.)
A tiny museum on this slip of land is worth exploring. The Musée Naval et Napoleonien is actually an ancient military tower, with a fascinating collection of objects from the Napoleonic era.
Realizing that I had not yet traveled on any of the three Corniches (the twisting, well-designed roads from Nice to Monaco), I planned a trip to Monaco, starting on the Corniche Inférier ("lower"), following the curving roads along the coast.
Just 4 miles from Nice, Villefranche – a charming seaside town – appeared with its deep bay and hillside houses. While I lunched in the lovely garden of the waterfront Hotel Welcome, my student-waiter asked, "Have you seen the Rue Obscure?"
He then directed me to this odd avenue.
As I stepped from sunlight into the darkness of a tunneled street, heavy beams, built about 600 years ago – when the Barbary pirates from North Africa and Greece came to France – loomed before me. It is a strange sight, this gloomy street that ends at the seaside.
A charming restaurant called La Mere Germaine on the Quai Courbet – a harbor street where many boats were moored – offered wonderful food and a great spot for people-watching.
Looking like an ancient etching, the village of Eze sits isolated on a mountain. Built on almost impregnable rock, it was a refuge in medieval times, where people fled from the Corsairs, who raided the coast to kidnap young girls for harem duty and strong men to be slaves.
Climbing to the top along cobblestone streets, I soon noticed that the houses, stores and restaurants are all made of stone, and are actually built right into the mountain.
And at the top of this fascinating pinnacle is a garden, a marvelous restaurant, and a hotel fashioned from the remnants of a 14th-century castle.
The panoramic view of the coast from the summit is nothing short of spectacular. But, then, that is the best way to describe all of the Riviera.
In last week's story about the ABC Travel Guide for Kids – Philadelphia, the author should have been identified as Matthew G. Rosenberger, not Michael G. Rosenberger.