It is easy for visitors in Cannes — France's glitzy Mediterranean coastal city — to have their imagination captured by the allure of the high life.
The huge marinas and haute-couture boutiques — from Louis Vuitton, Prada, Chanel, Miu-Miu, Jimmy Choo, Hermes, Armani and Tommy Hilfiger — line the picturesque Boulevard de la Croisette.
And Cannes isn't complete without its chic cafés and classy restaurants, and more than its share of high-end sports cars zooming past the backdrop of luxury yachts berthed nearby. Then there's the Hollywood crowd, which descends upon the city during the Cannes Film Festival — when hotel rates jump five-fold.
“Having spent two days here as part of a media tour arranged by Atout France — the state-run tourism promotion agency — and Air France/KLM, I found it hard to de-couple the glitzy part of the city from its ancient roots.” One could stand in awe of its palatial hotels and present-day frills.
A quaint mix
Scratch the surface, though, and you will see its colourful past. And this quaint mix is best explored on foot.
Cannes is always a few degrees warmer than the rest of Europe, though the ski resorts and flower fields are only 30-60 minutes away.
Locals say in February, you can swim on its Mediterranean beaches and drive up to ski slopes and enjoy the blossoms on the way.
It's no surprise then that it has become the favourite hang-out of the world's royals who stay in its grand hotels or private villas. But the multitude of backpackers are also not far behind.
Around noon, the pedestrian market nearby begins to hum with shoppers. A walk through Rue St Antoine gave away the city's ancient-modern fusion: winding cobblestone-covered streets lined with fashion boutiques on either side.
Then there are the 18th-century grand villas inspired by Roman and medieval designs.
The choice of accommodation here suits every budget: from a retreat on Ile Saint Honorat, where a room and three meals have a suggested price of €32 (Dh160) a day — though bigger amounts can be donated — to €60 a night (Dh300) for a hotel room.
On the flip side, there's the Christian Dior suite at the Majestic Barriere, for €30,000 (Dh149,798) a night and the much bigger 650-square-metre Majestic suite overlooking the Festival du Palais, for €38,000 (Dh189,742) a night.
It's this sort of reputation created by the high life that Cannes wants to dispel, the tourism official said.
There's a range of hotel apartments and one-star hotels, too, besides business accommodation.
All the low-end to "affordable" brands such as Guess, Kenzo and Lacoste are available along with high-end ones. I found fashion outlets selling a €59 (Dh294) coat, a €20 (Dh100) Italian cashmere sweater and €39 (Dh195) trousers on the pedestrian avenue.
Priceless yet inexpensive
Low-end souvenir fashion accessories for €10 (Dh50) can be snapped from weekend flea markets, which also sell gift items, paintings, antiques, trinkets and faux precious stones.
Cannes offers a range of French gourmet and beverages. Numerous small family-owned restaurants offer their own delights alongside McDonald's.
Besides the film-industry crowd, there are the business-types too. Cannes hosts more than 6,500 businesses and is the second-biggest destination for trade events in France, after Paris. It hosts international events each year — from advertising to boating to comedy.
The Musée d'Art et d'Histoire de Provence houses prehistoric artefacts in an 18th-century mansion. There are museums dedicated to photography, perfumes and the maritime industry. The Cannes Mandelieu Space Centre is the home of Europe's first satellite manufacturer, which lies in the hills beyond.
Cannes also hides a haven of contemplation. A couple of kilometres from the seaside epicentre of the annual film festival red carpet is a lesser-known side to the city.
The ancient monastery of Lerins Abbey on the 1.5-kilometre-long island of Saint-Honorat (founded in the year 410), has preceded many things the world knows about Cannes. The trio of islands forms the heart of its story.
Today, away from the bright lights and the shops frequented by the world's rich and famous, 30 monks between 35 and 75 live and toil away from the city buzz — no cars and fast-food joints. They are in bed by 9pm and up by 4am in a regimented life ruled by prayer, silence and work.
To visitors basking in the glamour of the mainland, the monastery represents an enigma, a distant place whose only tangible links with the outside world are tales of the Man in the Iron Mask, of which more than a dozen movies have been made since 1909 from the original work of Alexandre Dumas.
The Palace Hotel
The palatial Hôtel Majestic Barrière, located on the Croisette facing the sea and the Palais des Festivals, is where many of the world's royals and stars visiting Cannes stay. The hotel is an attraction in itself and is considered a unique destination on the French Riviera.
With 265 rooms, 84 suites and three restaurants (La Petite Maison de Nicole, Fouquet's Cannes and Bar Galerie du Fouquet's Cannes), it also boasts haute-couture shops.
A winter escape package costs €198 (Dh990) and a two-night stay entitles guests to a voucher worth €80 (Dh400), to be redeemed at the hotel's U Spa. A junior suite with a sea view costs €392 (Dh1,961).
Business suites cost between €1,500-€6,000 (Dh7,503-Dh30,013), depending on the season. It has two penthouse apartments overlooking the palm trees along the Croisette: the Majestic suite at €36,000 (Dh179,984) per night and the Christian Dior suite at €30,000 (Dh149,982) per night. All rooms have recently been refurbished and redecorated.
During the school holidays, the hotel offers fun for children at the Diwi & Co Club, with games, toys, fun and educational workshops, and tea time. The hotel is known for its top-quality service and it is part of the Leading Hotels of the World group.
Today's Cannes residents credit a British aristocrat, Lord Henry Brougham, for drawing people to the city by building the Italian-inspired Villa Eléonore Louise (one of the first in Cannes) in the 1830s. After him, the rest followed. His bust stands proudly in the middle of a park near the Festival Palace where local youngsters congregate.
Small alleys snake their way through shops and family-owned restaurants towards an elevated part of the old city, called La Suquet. This hill has an 11th-century Roman outpost and a chapel overlooking the swamps where the city stands, part of which is now a museum (Musée de la Castre), which has objects from the Pacific Atolls, relics from Peru and Mayan pottery.
A local tourism official said Cistercian monks actually lived there and controlled the city for many centuries. It was only around 1530 when Cannes "separated" from the contemplatives.
Porte Forville market
On-foot exploration is what we did with a local tourism official with our Gulf-based media group. After unpacking and getting 40 winks in a business suite at the Majestic Barrier Hotel, we started the day on foot to the Porte Forville public market, where locals get their fresh fish, fruit and vegetables.
This is where you can find more than 20 types of mushrooms.
From Dubai to Nice for Dh5,305. Or try Qatar Airways from Dubai (via Doha) for Dh3,395 or Air France from Dubai (via Paris) for Dh3,605. Nice is the nearest airport.
Information courtesy the Holiday Lounge by Dnata. Ph: 04 3492886.