Côte d’Azur (the French Riviera)

There are many interesting destinations on the French Riviera, a region that we visited on a couple of occasions but consider underexplored by ourselves. Nice and Monaco have their own entries, while the rest is described here.
St-Tropez


Cannes

We made a day-trip excursion to Cannes during the Côte d’Azur leg of our French trip in 2002, and were left entirely underwhelmed. Despite the fact that our visit happened just days before the famous Film Festival, the town was largely deserted and unexciting. The glamour apparently arrives just a couple of days before the festival, and leaves soon thereafter.

We strolled up and down Croisette ♥, a grand waterfront boulevard that separates luxury boutiques and hotels from the beaches; looked into the rose garden at the far end of the promenade; stopped by the Palais des Festivals, where French movie stars have their names etched into the pavement akin to the front yard of Grauman’s Chinese Theater in LA; took an around-the-town excursion on a mini-train (less than ideal narration); and left for the livelier Nice.

It occurred to us later that the Old Town is a bit farther away from the shore, and we did not see it at all. Among attractions there is Notre-Dame de l’Espérance and the Musée de la Castre. A potentially interesting excursion to Iles de Lérins can be undertaken from the Vieux Port.

Having heard considerably more positive comments than our own impressions from our friends, we will probably try again in the future.


Grasse

Grasse has been the capital of the world’s perfume industry since the 16th century, and its main attractions are all about parfumerie.

The best place to learn about the craft is the Musée Internationale de la Parfumerie ♥, but visiting Fragonard museum and factory ♥ was also quite interesting, with a great presentation on traditional ways of making perfume and an extensive “sniffing” session. Of course, the factory store is right there, and offers to make a purchase will abound.

We also walked around the unspoiled pedestrian squares and arcaded streets. Very charming. Cathédrale de Notre-Dame-du-Puy might be worth a look. Anyone interested in Fragonard the artist may want to visit his Villa-Musée.

Places to Eat

No record of the specific name or location, but a randomly picked restaurant in May of 2002 produced a lunch portion of mussels that was by far the biggest I’ve ever tried, before or since.


St-Tropez

St-Tropez Port is the prime gawking location, what with sleek and luxurious yachts of all sizes. The streets of the Old Town are not too crowded – because most of the visitors stay glued to the marina and its assortment of lively cafés and shops – and make for a pleasant walk. There are many corners that evoke quintessential Mediterranean feeling.

There are several attractions potentially worth visiting, such as a 16th-century Citadelle, an Italian Baroque Église, a good paintings collection at L’Annonciade and 5,000 species of butterfly at Maison des Papillons. We eschewed them all in favor of a leisurely stroll around town.

Places to Eat

An arbitrary choice made during our stroll saw us having lunch at L’Eau a la Bouche ♥, a Lao-Thai restaurant on Rue du Portail Neuf. Standard Mediterranean dishes are all on the menu, the service was fast and the meal quite pleasant. The damage: €90 for a party of seven, which included three children.

Transportation

Driving into St-Tropez is not recommended if you are not staying there overnight. A boat from Ste-Maxime departs every 15 minutes or so, and is a much more pleasant way to reach St-Tropez on an intraday trip.


Ste-Maxime

We went through this bustling resort town on our way to and from St-Tropez and also on a couple of other occasions, never exploring more than the central stretch of the main seaside artery, Promenade Simon-Lorière.


Fréjus

The town of Fréjus repeatedly repelled our forays with traffic and parking difficulties. We planned to see its Roman Amphithéâtre and its reputedly impressive Groupe Épiscopal, but never managed it. A walk around town streets in conjunction with a local market led us into several pleasant corners, though.

Among leisure attractions in town is Aqualand water-park. It is full of great rides, but is horribly organized (no lockers – you leave your belongings in a cloakroom and have to endure a line every time you need to get something, such as money for lunch, for instance) and is prone to long queues everywhere.

We also planned to take kids to the amusement Luna Park, but it only opens at 8pm, even in the peak season.


St-Raphaël

Another busy seaside resort town, which we actually explored a bit. The pleasant central harbour area is the usual mix of cafés and shops. There is a number of grand and exotically decorated historic villas on adjoining streets. The beach is fine and sandy, bordered by a boardwalk that ends with a small elevated park by the marina.

The formidable Notre-Dame-de-la-Victoire-de-Lépante ♥ that towers over the city is more impressive on the outside than on the inside but is still worth checking out.

Places to Eat

L’Envie D’Ailleurs ♥, located where seafront Promenade René-Coty becomes Boulevard du Général-de-Gaulle, is one of the row of restaurants close enough to the central marina area to be easily reachable, yet far enough to be less crowded. Soupe de poisson, that we all had there, is exactly what I expect from this provençal staple.

Car parking

Bonaparte is a large underground lot right by the marina. There is not a better place to park in town.


Les Issambres (beaches)

The beaches at Les Issambres, several kilometers northeast from Ste-Maxime, were the ones that we frequented during our two-week stay on the Riviera in 2008. They are mostly small and alternate between sandy ones and largely unswimmable rocky ones. The sandy stretches get fairly crowded in-season, due to numerous resorts lining the seashore. The sand is not great, often mixed with tiny pebbles. The sea is usually calm and warm; the seafloor goes down at a steep angle – little kids have a very narrow band of water to play in.


Roquebrune-sur-Argens

The village of Roquebrune was our base for the two-week stay in August of 2008. Located several miles inland, it does not get heavy tourist traffic even during the peak season. There is a fair number of vacationers around, but the atmosphere of a true southern French village remains.

The historic pedestrianized core of the town up the hill is an agreeable quarter of narrow and winding streets, adorned by fountains, with a number of galleries and shops and eateries. There is an interesting church, Église St-Pierre-St-Paul, and several attractive buildings.

The village holds numerous markets ♥ during the summer season, not just produce, delicacies, souvenirs and clothes, but also diverse arts and crafts. There are also several wineries and cooperatives for those interested in wine tasting.

The river Argens has a middling beach – although the water is clear and warm and the views of the surrounding rocks are great; renting a waterbike ♥ with a slide is an activity that always goes well with children. (There are a couple of convenient, but somewhat overpriced restaurants nearby.)

Places to Eat

Le Gaspacho ♥ sits on the main road that goes through Roquebrune, with a large outdoor seating area. A very popular place, it fills up very quickly on summer nights. Varied menu, prompt service, good food. Several prix-fixe combinations: €11.50, €16, €21. Our damage: €125 for the party of seven (three kids), with a bottle of wine.

Le Sainte Candie ♥ is next to Le Gaspacho, but facing the square away from the main road. The menu is not as varied, but satisfactory. The food is pretty good, although mixed grille, as in many other places, is no more than ok. Prix-fixe: €19. Our damage: €150 for the party of seven (three kids), with a bottle of wine.

Pizzeria Grill Créperie, in the historic town, is a nice place for a small meal.

Transportation logistics

Airport Nice Côte-d’Azur (NCE) is the main gateway to the area, especially since it has direct flights to US destinations. Marseille (MRS) airport is further away, but I experienced two very quick and hassle-free passages through it.


Other notes for France