It seems these days the focus is always forward and whatever stands still is forgotten. As they say, out with the old and in with the new. But as certain cities race to modernize, others fight to hold on to their sense of self so that tomorrow’s traditions are the same as today’s. France’s alluring Côte d’Azur draws nearly 11 million visitors a year; and though its seaside cities refresh themselves bit by bit, it certainly isn’t the new that brings in the jet setters—drawn not only to the yachting life and exclusive beach clubs but also to the region’s deeply-rooted way of life. The Riviera’s real draw is that it has barely changed … and for the better. By Maya Vandenburg
After a pleasant seven-hour overnight Air France flight, I landed in Paris at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning and spent two days wandering the cobblestone streets of Île Saint-Louis, chewing on fresh baguettes and brie (so cliché, I know) and browsing the extraordinary impressionist collection at Musée d’Orsay. But I wasn’t in France for Paris; I was there for the Riviera. So after the weekend, I boarded Rail Europe’s high-speed TGV train for the five-hour journey to Cannes. As I sat back in my plush first-class seat, I watched with excitement as rolling fields of emerald and citrine dotted with wisps of white cows whizzed past my window. There is just something inherently beautiful about the French countryside, especially when that countryside is bordered by the azure Mediterranean stretching farther than the eye can see.
Most know Cannes for its annual two-week film festival, which began in 1939 and put the seaside city on the map. But once the starlets and oppressive paparazzi clear, Cannes is as quaint as any other low-key Riviera hideaway. Granted its chichi beach club scene is un- like any other and chairs sell out as quickly as they are available, but the destination as a whole is more than accessible. Originally a humble fishing village, the ar- rival of British Royal Chancellor Lord Brougham, who came for a winter and spent 34 years, opened the doors to tourism with his invitation to royals and artists like Renoir to join him in this newfound haven. And while the city continues to build its reputation as a chic, cosmopolitan destination and recently unveiled a new train station (Note: to be completed in summer 2014) to accommodate the crowds that descend each season, its real charms are what they’ve always been: the lovely seaside Croisette dotted with luxe shops and high-end century-old palace hotels like Majestic Barrière, my home while in town; the Forville Market, whose vendors arranged their wares in the most eye-appealing of manners, so the aroma of basil mingled with the bright crimson of fresh tomatoes delights the senses; and the hillside castle museum, which treated me to a spectacular panorama of the bay and Lérins Islands after a climb to the very top.
A quick 12-minute ride on the local TER train landed me in Antibes Juan-les-Pins, situated halfway between Cannes and Nice. Antibes enjoys one of the most extensive coastal stretches in France, with seven-and-a-half miles of shoreline and its ancient ramparts snaking along the crystalline sea. Within its walls is a city of narrow lanes, charming boutiques, sidewalk cafes and an impressive arts and culture scene that includes the oldest European jazz festival Jazz à Juan, held in an alfresco venue that’s seen the likes of Ray Charles and B.B. King and the recently reopened Picasso Museum, which houses a collection of works the artist created during his time in the city. While I enjoyed ambling around the cobblestone streets and sinking my toes into the soft sand at Plage de la Gravette, it was France’s only dedicated absinthe bar that topped my list of city favorites. You would never know when passing the storefront selling olive oil and ceramics that the Absinthe Bar was tucked below in a ninth-century cellar complete with a Roman well. After descending the curved stone staircase, I first noticed the abundance of hats strewn across the small space, which I’m sure patrons are wont to don once drunk on the green goodness that Van Gogh famously imbibed. Then I enjoyed a proper absinthe tasting, learning how to dilute the alcohol by slowly dripping water on a sugar cube perched on a slotted spoon set atop the glass. The 10-year-old bar hosts gatherings every Friday and Saturday night, and as I sipped the licorice-flavored libation, I wished it were the weekend. It crossed my mind that Antibes originally seemed quieter than its neighboring Riviera cities, but outside appearances sometimes belie what’s within.
As my driver wound his way through tree-lined streets, I saw the walled city of medieval Saint Paul de Vence from a distance. Perched on a hill, its fortifications were clearly delineated against the blue sky behind and the green grass below; its single bell tower rose majestically from the middle. It was only in the 19th century that the surround- ing hills were covered with flowers, vines and olive trees, and the streets actually remained bare until the 1950s when Mayor Marius Issert had them laid with cobblestones. I was immediately enchanted once inside the walls, and I watched locals play boules, also known as bocce ball, on a dirt expanse outside a restaurant. I smiled as they went about their game without giving a second glance to the centuries-old city they called home. Saint Paul de Vence’s innate beauty has attracted numerous actors, writers and painters, a few of whom chose to settle like Marc Chagall—as such, the area is heavily influenced by art. This year marks the 50-year anniversary of the Maeght Foundation, the second largest contemporary art museum in France after Paris’s Centre Georges Pompidou. The uniquely designed space features a sculpture garden and a restored chapel dedicated to Marguerite and Aimé Maeght’s late son Bernard. It also showcases one of the largest European collections of graphic works from the 20th century with pieces by Chagall, Calder and Léger. As I wove my way through the garden labyrinth, I thought how strange it was that in a city dating to medieval times, I was standing in front of Miró’s 14-foot-high marble l’Oiseau Lunaire statue—which in English means “moon bird.”
Next on my itinerary was Nice, the capital of the French Riviera. The city’s sense of self is pervasive, and not only does Nice have its own dialect—which I noticed when trying to navigate the narrow streets as the signs are in French and Niçard—but it also has its own cuisine, which goes way beyond the well- known Salad Niçoise to include such specialties as pissaladiera (onion flan with black olives), farcis (stuffed vegetables) and ratatouille (vegetable stew). Though the culinary scene is entrenched in tradition, not just any restaurant can claim it serves Niçoise fare. In order to receive the official Cuisine Nissarde appellation, a restaurant—like husband- and-wife-run Lu Fran Calin—has to prove it upholds the city’s cooking heritage, and as of now, only 17 restaurants have received the designation.
Then there are others who completely eschew tradition for modernity, such as David Faure who helms the gastronomic Aphrodite. Here liquid nitrogen is a staple ingredient, and the newly added insect menu means creepy crawlers are as well. Faure gave up his Michelin star to introduce the insect menu in February, and it was the liberty to exhibit his style that won out over a desire to abide by the time-honored French technique. A visionary in his own right, Faure seeks to show an adaptive way of cooking by using products available to everyone because, as he sees it, the world’s population is growing, but our food sources are diminishing. While I appreciated his pioneering attitude, after munching on a handful of crickets and larvae, I hoped it wouldn’t come to that. I like to think that some things will never change.
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