Ever since the turn of the 20th century, the French Riviera has enjoyed a reputation as one of the world's most alluring destinations. And contrary to what many think, while it is a playground for the rich and famous, it has plenty to offer the rest of us regular travellers too - and without breaking the bank.
There's no better place to start your journey along the coast than in Nice, where urban sophistication meets small-town charm. The city's scenery, temperate climate and carefully preserved past has made it into one of the most sought-after European holiday destinations. Beautifully nestled between the Alps and the Mediterranean, Nice is France's fifth-largest city, even though it has only been a part of the country since 1860 following five centuries of House of Savoy rule.
Nice-r than most
The most iconic symbol of Nice, the Promenade des Anglais, is a seafront walk that curves gently over a five-mile stretch along the Baie des Anges. First paved to allow North European and Russian aristocrats to take their leisurely daily stroll in the warm winter sun, it is today busy with runners, bikers, skaters and walkers, all enjoying the great sights of the white-capped Alps on one side and of the blue Mediterranean Sea on the other, which is instrumental in shielding and tempering Nice's climate. Much of the old town of Nice dates back to the 17th century and is a maze of narrow streets, lively cafés and restaurants. Don't miss the flower and fruit markets on Cours Saleya (open 6am-12noon), which, on Mondays, give way to antiques and bric-a-brac displays.
From there, climb up to the Colline du Château hilltop-park and enjoy spectacular views over the pleasure port and the Promenade. This is the spot where many an artist finds inspiration from the beautiful light and unrivalled sceneries. Nice is home to a few museums dedicated to terrific artistic treasures including Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall.
The local cuisine, a mixture of French, Italian and Provençal, translates into such delicacies as pan bagnat, pissaladière and of course, the renowned Salade Niçoise. Try the local ‘street food' Socca, a chickpea pancake at Pipo Socca (13 rue Bavastro), and follow up with an indulgent dessert at Fenocchio's legendary ice cream parlour (2 place Rossétti), where you can choose from over 90 flavours.
To while away a lazy afternoon, the heart of Nice's lively city centre, Place Masséna and Avenue Jean-Médecin, which is dotted with boutiques and cafés, is perfect. I love Emilie's Cookies (9, rue Alberti) for delicious homemade cupcakes and free Wi-Fi.
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Heading east out of Nice along the Basse Corniche and passing the magnificent Bay of Villefranche, a vast natural anchoring haven since antiquity and France's busiest cruise-ship harbour today, you will find Cap Ferrat. This is one of the most glamorous and romantic stretches of the coast and an essential ingredient in the making of the myth of the French Riviera.
Located half-way between Monaco and Nice, Cap Ferrat boasts an eight-mile walking path around its whole perimeter that is not only a pure delight for the senses, but also home to some of the most spectacular and sought-after properties in Europe - Cap Ferrat tops French real estate price listings with an average price of over €40,000 (Dh193,000) per square metre!
Situated in a seven-hectare park atop the Plateau du Centenaire, the pink Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild was built by the baron of Rothschild for his daughter Beatrice and her husband.
Dating back to 1912, the building duplicates those of Renaissance princes through its adoption of an Italianate style.
The most striking feature of this property is a park subdivided into nine breathtaking thematic gardens and a sweeping view of the Mediterranean. Have a swim at Paloma beach with its opulent beauty or spend a relaxed afternoon people-watching at café La Civette (1 Place Georges Clémenceau, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat) at one of the world's most prestigious peninsulas. Stroll down to the tranquil port and order a dish of the best seafood spaghetti this side of the Italian border, Spaghetti aux Fruits de mer at seafront restaurant Gourmet Italien (Nouveau Port, St Jean Cap Ferrat).
On Moyenne Corniche and heading east again, perched on a tall narrow rock looming almost 1,500 feet above the sea, Eze village will soon make its fable-like appearance. Founded by local fishermen, this ancient town understandably acquired the nickname ‘Nid d'Aigle' (Eagle's Nest). The village's narrow cobbled streets hug the rocky peak in a concentric fashion, culminating at the Exotic Gardens, where ruins of a 14th-century Château can still be seen. A truly breathtaking 360-degree panorama over the coastline and surrounding hills awaits viewers brave enough to overcome the steep climb. Enjoy lunch at the terrace of the famous Château Eza hotel, while taking in one of the most fabulous views of the Mediterranean. Eze is also home to iconic French perfume house Fragonard's traditional perfumery, where you can take a tour and also pick up fragrant souvenirs.
A ten-minute downhill drive east again, will lead you to the second-smallest nation in the world, the Principality of Monaco. The House of Grimaldi, Monaco's ruling family since 1297, has been instrumental in preserving this tiny territory's independence thanks to brilliant political manoeuvres allying with major European powers as needed.
Tourism and entertainment are not the only activities in this bustling country as, thanks also to favourable tax legislation, Monaco is making its mark as a major centre for finance, technology and shipping.
It was back in 1956, that Prince Rainier III and Grace Kelly's fairy-tale - and well-publicised - wedding placed Monaco back on the list of fabulous world destinations after decades of lingering on the back pages of international newspapers. Although little tangible testimony is left of its past due to extensive construction activities to house the ever-increasing population (around 36,000 to date), culture is still one of Monaco's main attractions.
Across a surface of about two square kilometres (which is the actual size of Monaco!), events famous the world over take place in quick succession. The Monaco Grand Prix, the Tennis Masters Series, the Rallye de Monte-Carlo, the Opera season, ‘Salle des Etoiles' summer concerts, an international summer firework competition and the Yacht Show are just a few of the best known of the many exhibitions, congresses and sporting events taking place here.
Even if you visit at a not-so-eventful-time (and that is probably a good idea, as prices automatically rocket whenever the A-list decide to descend on the city), Monaco has lots to offer. Don't miss the grand Oceanographic Museum, as noteworthy for its Roman-Byzantine architecture as it is for its aquarium. Follow up with a visit to the Zen-like Maya Bay restaurant for some mouth-watering Japanese and Thai cuisine (Le Roccabella, 24 avenue Princesse Grace). For an insight into Monaco nightlife, stop by the always bustling Sass Café (11 avenue Princesse Grace).
Heading back west onto the tunnel-ridden motorway, a 40-minute drive to the Cagnes-sur-Mer exit will then connect you to an inland road leading you to the enchanted village of Saint-Paul-de-Vence, whose oval shape and intact outer walls on a hilltop can be seen from afar.
St Paul is undoubtedly the Côte d'Azur's most famous hillside village. It is traditionally associated with artists of the calibre of Matisse, Chagall and Renoir who started to flock here when the owner of the village inn Colombe d'Or (1 Place Général de Gaulle) Paul Roux, who was also an aspiring artist, offered room and board to artists for some of their creations back in the 1920s. Today, patrons can admire unique art pieces while enjoying a meal at the Colombe d'Or. The village's quaint cemetery is Marc Chagall's final resting place.
Contemporary painters keep the village's artistic trade alive and the nearby Fondation Maeght, nestled in the pinewoods northwest of the village, hosts an impressive art collection.
You will find two of Alberto Giacometti's famous L'Homme qui Marche sculptures, another one having been auctioned off for over $100 million in 2010, making the Swiss artist's creation the most expensive sculpture to date.
Heading back west onto the motorway for another 30 minutes one reaches Cannes and its famous Croisette beachfront walk.
Thanks in part to its International Film Festival held every year in May since 1947, Cannes is probably France's second best known city.
Ever since the popularisation of the Cannes Film Festival in the 1950s, the city's pulse is especially intense and cosmopolitan during the summer.
The Boulevard de la Croisette is flanked with beach clubs on one side and luxury hotels and elegant boutiques on the other.
Cannes has around 30 private - beautifully golden sandy - beaches with top-class amenities, water sports and fantastic restaurants with its bay being a favoured summer-time anchorage for some of the world's biggest yachts. If you want to get away from the crowds, a great alternative for beach-life is Zplage, Martinez Hotel's private beach (73, La Croisette).
To take a break from the beach and shopping frenzy, head to Volupté (41, rue Hoche) for some delicious cakes and French bread.
However, there is much more to Cannes than just seductive starlets and flamboyant lifestyles.
The Old Town of Cannes, Le Suquet, has steep streets that lead strollers to the Citadelle with its 12th-century castle and square lookout tower, offering magnificent views over the coast and Foreville, a traditional street market at the foot of the old town (open mornings only).
Don't let the glitz and glamour of the French Riviera overshadow the complete range of prices and variety of activities the area has to offer. It is probably Queen Victoria's whispered death-bed words - "If only I were there I would already be getting better!"- that best sum it all up!
Emirates offers direct flights to Nice, fares start around Dh5,100, visit www.emirates.com
Where to stay
- Hôtel la Pérouse, 11 Quai Rauba Capeu, 06300 Nice. Room rates from €250 (Dh1,200) ; Villa La Tour, 4, rue de la Tour, 06300 Nice from €46.
- The Fairmont Monte Carlo, 12 avenue des Spéluges, 98000 Monaco from €180
- 3.14, 5 rue François-Einesy, 06400 Cannes from €100
Bruno Scaramella is a writer for Haute Compass, a unique luxury online travel guide which offers insider tips and recommendations on various destinations around the world, including London, Milan, Stockholm, Hong Kong, New York and Dubai. The website also has an event calendar for top international social events. Visit www.hautecompass.com.