“Be prepared for crowds,” we were warned, before travelling from Provence to the Côte d’Azur. The streets were busy, but thankfully, I couldn’t describe any of them as over-crowded. We had plenty of space to stroll the Cours Saleya, the centre of the Old Town in Nice, and people watch along the Croisette in Cannes.
Our time on the Côte d’Azur was brief, but we managed to squeeze in several special experiences, including a visit to a gelateria that has local French and Italians salivating and a swim between two islands.
Nice and Cannes are distinctly different, the former famed for its role as the capital of the Côte d’Azur and local “Cuisine Nissarde,” utilising indigenous ingredients, like olive oil, tomatoes, courgettes, aubergines, among other things. The tourism board has awarded 28 restaurants a certified label guaranteeing their authenticity and commitment to traditional recipes.
In Cannes, capital of glitz, glamour and super-yachts, we found a way to get a close-up view of some of those luxury vessels and also commandeer more modest versions ourselves.
Before making our way to the coast, we stopped in the hillside above, at St. Paul de Vence to visit Fondation Maeght. It’s a green oasis far from the madding crowds of the tiny town of St. Paul de Vence. Towering pine trees provide shelter from the summer heat, and the combination of nature and sculpture creates a zen atmosphere. The site, home to galleries, a courtyard, and art integrated into nature, is the vision of Aime and Marguerite Maeght, who were leading art dealers in post-war Europe. Their close friendships with important artists of the time led to unique permanent installations, such as a playful labyrinth created by Joan Miro, a Chagall mosaic that occupies an entire room displaying his art, a Giacometti courtyard and a large mosaic pool – one of George Braque’s last works. The Fondation Maeght is blissfully engaging and offers scenic views.
In Nice, the heart of the Côte d’Azur, shops and restaurants line the small, cobble-stoned streets of the Old Town. A meal a Lu Fran Calin, prepared by a fourth generation Nicoise, generously delivers on its Cuisine Nissard certification. We eat an antipasti platter with a more-ish Swiss chard frittata, roasted peppers, and olive tapenade crostini before moving on to a light, flavourful rice dish, aubergine parmigiana cooked to perfection and finally dessert, a soufflé glace marnier with dark chocolate and orange ice cream.
Many tourists stick with the Old Town, but while it’s definitely worth seeing, there’s also a recently revived area of the city with serious attractions for foodies. Head towards the train station and slightly north to reach Liberation market, where locals shop daily for fresh produce. Practically next to it, sits the Gare du Sud (the former train station), that’s now home to a food hall with trendy restaurants and different cuisines. But, the most important stop is Cesar, for gelato that French and Italians swear is the best in both countries. The gelateria’s owner, Cesar, himself, is from Milan. Having worked for years in the fashion industry, he gave up the stressful urban existence to learn how to produce artisan gelato. Flavours like lemon meringue (with dots of meringue on top), or pistachio and dark chocolate (with roasted Sicilian nuts), elevate the experience. Close your eyes, and the lemon tastes like a lemon, the mango, like a mango, and so on. Cesar’s gelato is smooth, creamy and rich – the chocolate more like a thick layer of ganache, yet none of it is sickly sweet. I’m not sure how he does it, but I’m hoping he’ll show me how next time.
It’s a short ride before we hit Cannes and the Croisette, spotting multiple harbours where million-dollar boats are moored. Beach clubs line the promenade, offering cocktails, pop music and parties. But we wanted to play in the water, rather than on it. Our first destination was the Lerins Islands, neither of which are officially inhabited. The ferry from Cannes takes about 15 minutes to reach Ste. Marguerite, the larger of the two, and St. Honorat, which has hosted a monastery and vineyards for centuries. Visitors can tour the monastery on specific days, and also purchase locally produced products, like honey, wine, and jam. We planned in advance to swim from one island to the other. It requires a bit of research; we contacted a local swim club to ensure it was safe – it was and packed a dry bag for our clothes. The distance is about 800M each way and it takes about 25 minutes to cross the sheltered waterway. We navigated through clusters of beautiful speedboats and catamarans, but it’s an area that attracts families and a chilled-out vibe, rather than aggressive ravers.
At the opposite end of Cannes, a more local beach awaits, with opportunities to try water sports, like kayak’s, stand-up paddleboards, and a new device that requires the rider to stand while stepping (like a stairmaster) to propel it. The team at Cannes Jeunesse may as well be on the beach in Santa Monica. They’re all very friendly, relaxed and happy to help. There are lockers to store belongings, and depending on tides, you can book a sunset kayak tour to the Lerins Islands. Best of all, was seeing a totally different, more residential part of Cannes.
An early dinner at Riviera Beach Club offered great views of the sun setting. In general, beach clubs are a bit like pubs – you don’t go for the food, but for the atmosphere and the cocktails. Large dinner-size salads and desserts were the best options here.
For more on my trip to Provence please click here.
Amy Guttman is a freelance journalist and broadcaster based in London regularly reporting for PBS Newshour, BBC and Forbes, focusing on current affairs and entrepreneurship.
Photographs courtesy of Nice Côte d’Azur Tourisme