Before Brigitte Bardot became Saint Tropez's most famous resident, the French Riviera had long been a haven for artists, writers and other bohemians. Then the fashion icon put the little fishing village firmly on the map when she appeared in a bikini on the sands of the beach of Pampelonne for a scene in And God created woman. She popularised the daring new fashion and embodied the provocative attitude that has since been considered characteristic of the Cote d'Azur.
In fact, this privileged stretch of Mediterranean coastline stretching between France and Italy and including the tiny Principality of Monaco was the birthplace of high-class tourism. Back in the nineteenth century, visitors to the area were mostly from the British upper classes, fleeing the cold and wet of their native winters in search of healthier – not to mention warmer – climes. Their presence is remembered in the name of Promenade des Anglais that borders the Baie des Anges – the Bay of Angels – in Nice. Now popular with cyclists, skaters and skateboarders, it was witness then to the comings and goings of pale-skinned British aristocrats. Here, almost a century ago, the palatial Negresco Hotel was built, brainchild of the son of a Romanian hotelier and designed to cater for the crowned heads of Europe as well as the wealthy Rockefellers and Vanderbilts who frequented the area.
Despite being a big city today, Nice retains its charming old town area; it has been a favourite location for people as diverse as Matisse, Hitchcock, Ava Gardner and Queen Victoria. Just half an hour away along the coast to the west, Antibes was once home to Picasso, and some of the works he created during his time in this beautiful seaside town are on display in the thirteenth-century Chateau Grimaldi.
Continuing around the Cape of Antibes, on along the narrow coastal roads, between scenes of pine forests, rocky outcrops and elegant secluded villas, a short drive – or rather longer if the summer traffic is bad – takes us to another epicentre of chic: Cannes. More secluded than Nice, the town's picturesque streets lead down to the old port where a host of pretty sailboats bob on the waters. Along the Boulevard de la Croisette, elegant restaurants sit side-by-side with chic boutiques and Belle Epoque hotels such as the Carlton and the Martinez. Here, too, is the Palais des Festivals, where, for over half a century, the red carpet has been rolled out to welcome the stars to one of the most glittering gala events in the cinephile's diary.
As if this were not enough in the way of cosmopolitan style and excess, heading eastwards from Nice towards Italy, there are yet more desirable enclaves of the rich and famous, not least the Cap Ferrat peninsula, dotted with mansions emulating the grandeur of the Villa Ephrussi, former home of the Rothschilds set in magnificent gardens and open today as a museum. Farther on, of course, lies Monaco, the land of the Grimaldi, with luxury yachts moored in the port and the roar of sports cars echoing through the forest of skyscrapers around the legendary Monte Carlo casino.
But if the glam gets too much, there's the other face of the Riviera: the face dotted with charming medieval villages, just a stone's throw from the sea, tucked up on the foothills of the Alps. Eze, Mougins, Peillon, Roquebrune, Menton, St. Paul de Vence... there are simply too many to name, and for those who reckon 'the good life' is measured by rather different parameters, they hold an attraction as strong as anything the jet set style has to offer.
The area is well served by public transport, with both buses and trains, but the farthest corners of the Riviera are most easily reached by car.
Where to stay
There are classics such as the Negresco in Nice, the Carlton and the Martinez in Cannes, or the Hotel de Paris and the Hermitage in Monaco. Other high-class options, although of a different style, include the Royal Riviera in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, the Chateau de la Chevre d'Or in the medieval village of Eze and Le Saint Paul in St. Paul de Vence; these last two bear the prestigious Relais & Chateaux seal.
Where to eat
All the hotels mentioned boast marvellous restaurants, sometimes with stunning coastal views. Other fine dining options include Alain Ducasse's Spoon at the Hotel Byblos in Saint Tropez and the Louis XV at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo, another Ducasse restaurant. Alternatively, try the Restaurant des Rois at the Hotel La Reserve in Beaulieu sur Mer, or, if you prefer to combine sun and sea with a visit to an informal legend, there's Le Club 55 on the Pampelonne beach.