Absolutely Fabulous French Riviera
Follow in the footsteps of “Riviera” – with all the filmic glamour and gorgeous hotels of the tv series the French Riviera – but without a crime scene awash with exploding super-yachts.
“Riviera is, at its heart, a story of the genuinely filthy rich,” says Neil Jordan, director of the latest crime thriller to titillate and tempt us back to the Cote d’Azur. This glitzy stretch of coastline has come to the small screen as “Riviera,” a fast-paced crime drama that is this summer’s guilty secret. The ten-part thriller on Sky Atlantic glories in the murky mix of glamour and money that makes the Riviera such an addictive destination.
“Anyone in the world who starts to make a lot of money tends to come to the South of France to spend it,” says Paul McGuinness, who came up with the concept behind the crime series. “It’s about a sort-of French, sort-of Italian business family, a large, seemingly legitimate family business empire that conceals a criminal enterprise. That’s the basis of the story.” The series stars Julia Stiles, fresh from playing Jason Bourne’s sidekick in the Bourne franchise. As the widow of a shady billionaire art dealer, she is swiftly faced with a double-dealing world that descends into murder and intrigue. The film illustrates the saying that behind every great fortune lies a great crime.
Along the way, viewers are ensnared by the sun-soaked stereotypes of the super-rich, from penthouses and private jets to super-yachts and super-cars. Long-time Riviera resident Paul McGuinness sees the film as mirroring “glamour, wealth, family and crime – rich people doing terrible things.” And, as the manager of a huge band for 35 years, he should know about splashing out, rock-star-style. As with the U2 band members, he owns a villa in Èze-sur-Mer, between Nice and Monaco. When quizzed as to why U2 chose the Riviera as their base, Bono quipped: “They are very tolerant of loud, Irish people here…the French are so into themselves they don’t even notice you.”
Filming the French good life
Body count aside, the film is a fabulous promotion of the French good life. The landscape is lush, with panning shots of umbrella pines, pink bougainvillea and Belle Époque villas half-hidden behind wrought-iron gates. Even without being sun-addled, we can sense the sweet-scented jasmine and the chorus of chirping crickets coming from the lavender beds.
It’s a long time since the Riviera looked this gorgeous on screen. Perhaps we need to go back to Grace Kelly, Cary Grant and the golden age of Hollywood on the Cote d’Azur. As Executive Producer Kris Thykier says of Riviera: “This is the anti-Scandi Noir – there haven’t been shows of such visual beauty for a while.”
The film’s visual beauty also encompasses boys’ toys, such as the £50 million yacht belonging to Scottish billionaire Douglas Barrowman. But it’s not all plain sailing in the borrowed super-yacht. On screen, the boat’s top deck jacuzzi is used as a backdrop to an orgy. So far, so billionairesville in the blingtastic South of France. But then the craft goes down in flames, thanks to shady enemies – and special effects. As writer Somerset Maugham once said, the Riviera is “a sunny place for shady people.”
Hot on the French film trail
But what about the sun without the shade? You’ve been titillated by a steamy story but just want to come for the fun and frolics. How can you follow in the footsteps of the “Riviera” folk without ending up in an exploding yacht?
It’s easy. “Riviera” is filmed almost entirely on location, with starring roles going to Nice’s Place Massena, Monaco’s Grimaldi Forum and the millionaire’s enclave of Cap Ferrat. The key villa is a playboy’s paradise in the perfumed hills behind Grasse and Cannes. Villa Diter is a Renaissance-style palace with Roman colonnades, two helipads and three pools. Bar Villa Diter (a venue for Russian billionaire bashes) all these hotspots are easily visited.
Grand-Hôtel Du Cap-Ferrat – glitzy Cap Ferrat
Start the film trail in Grand-Hôtel Du Cap-Ferrat, which played a leading role in “Riviera.” Perched above the coast on the tip of the Cap Ferrat peninsula, the Grand-Hotel is blasé about its fame. This palatial affair featured in last summer’s Absolutely Fabulous movie but that’s a mere footnote in its celebrated history. One would expect no less from a hotel that has hosted everyone from Picasso to Paul McCartney, Charlie Chaplin to Winston Churchill, Elizabeth Taylor to Frank Sinatra. Recently taken over by Four Seasons, this white palace now surpasses Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc. Built in 1908, the revamped Grand-Hotel is all swish suites, plunge pools and private cabanas tucked into hillside pine groves.
From the glittering white suites, take the glass funicular to Club Dauphin, and the legendary pool set in the lee of the Cap Ferrat lighthouse. Resident swimming instructor Pierre Gruneberg has given lessons to Picasso, as well as to Paul McCartney, Frank Sinatra, Ralph Lauren and broods of Kennedys. Amazingly, the coach is now guiding the grandchildren of the celebrities he originally taught.
The hotel had humble beginnings, despite its grand design, partly based on plans by Gustave Eifel, of Eiffel Tower fame. The cape’s understudy role changed when a Belgian king with a love of beauty and a roving eye bought the land the hotel now stands on. Ceded to France in 1860, the peninsula of St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat was little more than a wilderness trapped between the rocks and the sea until the European smart set brought in the decorators. In 1895 the sixty-something King Leopold II of Belgium fell in love with the views (and a teenager called Blanche) and bought up Cap Ferrat. The cape was not just the setting for his illicit love affair but helped launch the Cote d’Azur. Noel Coward’s I Went to a Wonderful Party was inspired by the rich coterie on Cap Ferrat. Current local celebrities include composer Andrew Lloyd-Webber, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and French couturier Hubert de Givenchy.
Considered the priciest cape on the Cote d’Azur, Cap Ferrat is the perfect place for doing nothing at all. If you must, take the ten-kilometre drive around the peninsula to marvel at the Belle Epoque villas dressed like naughty Burlesque stars. Resplendent in ice-cream colours and half-hidden behind rose-pink bougainvillea, the villas play an elaborate tease: look, don’t touch because we’re out of your league. Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild can, instead, be visited but remains the shining example of how the other half lives. This Italianate mansion is pretty in pink, with rose gardens merging into fountain-filled terraces made for lingering. Stay for tea and cake on the palatial terrace before returning to the Grand-Hotel for a stargazing session. The cape’s clear skies are made for stargazing with astronomer and asteroid expert Dr Patrick Michel. Forget the movie stars – the celestial stars are even more memorable.
Hotel Barriere Le Majestic – chic Cannes
From Cap Ferrat, press on to Cannes, the cinema capital of the Cote d’Azur, to revel in the golden age of the silver screen. Hotel Barriere Le Majestic is red-carpet-ready, set on the fabled Croisette, facing the Palais des Festivals, the hub of the Cannes Film Festival. The chic Hotel Majestic is the place to unwind under palm trees and parasols on the Croisette, a late-afternoon suntrap. Sip Champagne in the garden bar while taking in views of the Bay of Cannes, the palm-lined promenade and the apricot-tinged Esterel mountains.
The star-spotting bar comes into its own at the witching hour, when the sea turns purple and the pale violet lights blink on, turning the Croisette into a purple-hued promenade. During the Film Festival, celebrity-stalkers don Grace Kelly cat-eyed shades before joining the models, movie stars and magnates in the Majestic’s bar. During the last Film Festival, I spotted Jack Nicholson, Monica Bellucci and Paolo Sorrentino in Le Fouquet’s, seemingly oblivious to one another. If the stars are pretty nonchalant about the attention, it might be because they know their place in the movie pantheon. The Majestic’s lobby and corridors are lined with 2,500 black-and-white portraits of film legends, most of whom have stayed here.
Naturally, the palatial Art Deco hotel has a slew of celebrity suites, even if the standard rooms are swish enough. If your splashing out, choose a designer penthouse, such as the Christian Dior Suite, inspired by Dior’s Parisian headquarters. Even grander is the Majestic Suite, with a solarium, home cinema, private pool and seductive views of the Lérins Islands.
Cannes has just been awarded Blue Flag status for a new beach so boasts 14 pristine beaches in total. After a day at the Majestic’s beach club, slip into the spa, Diane Barrière Spa, the best in Cannes, for a marine facial or a bespoke massage.
As for dinner, the freshly revamped Le Fouquet’s Cannes is sleekly Parisian, a brasserie serving everything from grilled seabream with purple artichokes to Caesar salad, fish and chips, roast lamb and ratatouille. For a cooler mood, try La Petite Maison de Nicole, the Majestic’s younger, wilder celebrity haunt. Dine on red mullet, crab tempura or courgette flower fritters while pondering partying: late-night table-dancing isn’t unheard of on live music Friday.
Cannes is known for its languid lifestyle and cinematic showing off. Founded by the British in 1834, Cannes was a humble fishing village until Lord Brougham rebranded it as a prestigious resort. And then the cinema circus moved in. Entertaining urban murals present naughty Marilyn Monroe and cheeky Charlie Chaplin, with the silent movie star depicted hanging from a clock on the walls of rue Louis Braille.
For a taste of Cannes beyond the cinema trail, slip into Le Suquet, the hilly Old Town, for a cosy supper in a candlelit bistrot. Le Suquet is also home to the Provencal morning market, a favourite haunt of home cooks and Michelin-starred chefs alike. It’s also a mellow excuse for sniffing lemons and wild herbs before a naughty lunchtime glass of rosé.
Yet in the end, the lure of the legendary seaside promenade is irresistible. La Croisette represents a roll call of illustrious chefs and designers. It’s commonplace to spot sleek, sun-hatted soubrettes posing over pink Champagne and pink-collared poodles. Even without celebrities in town, Cannes can’t resist living in a film set.
Hotel Barriere Le Majestic, Cannes
Cannes Tourism: www.cannes-destination.com
Lisa Gerard-Sharp is an award-winning travel writer whose work, including blogs, can be found on www.lisagerardsharp.com