The French Riviera is not all about celebrities cavorting on blingtastic yachts. Cannes Film Festival is a supermodel snapshot of the Cote d’Azur, as is swish St Tropez.
Beyond the famous hotspots are picture-perfect villages and wild stretches of coast waiting to be explored. This is the Cote d’Azur the artists came for – and it’s all still there if you know where to look. On Cap d’Antibes, a short hop from old-town Antibes, the peninsular is studded with villas but is made for walking, especially before the summer season sets in.
The Cap d’Antibes still represents the loveliest spring ramble in the Riviera, with plunging scenery matched by movie-star mansions and a sleek procession of mega yachts. Scott Fitzgerald’s legendary Tender is the Night was inspired by this cape, even then considered more laidback than chic Cap Ferrat, closer to Nice. Instead, Cap d’Antibes was wilder, from the scenery to the partying. Dick Diver, the novel’s mouthpiece, says, “I want to give a party where there’s a brawl and seductions and people going home with their feelings hurt and women passing out in the cabinette de toilette.”
Walking around Cap d’Antibes today reveals less wild partying than wild waves, even if there are glimpses of grand villas through the umbrella pines. Our stroll along the coastal path, Le Sentier du Littoral, begins in the sparkling bay at the foot of Villa Eilenroc. It’s barely spring but boats are bobbing and children are swimming at the foot of a Belle Epoque villa built by Garnier, the creator of Monte Carlo Casino.
Now neglected, the villa was fit for Flappers in its 1920s heyday and was where the Fitzgeralds danced the night away. We are lucky enough to find the villa open and, despite neglect, the rose gardens and swaying pines are nostalgic enough to evoke the romance of the Jazz Age.
Through the umbrella pines are glimpses of Villa de la Croe, once the palatial residence of the exiled Duke of Windsor, the former Edward VIII. Here, he and his duchess sank into a swan-shaped bath with gold taps, grand enough for Buckingham Palace. Now owned by publicity-shy Russian tycoon Roman Abramovitch, the villa only comes alive in summer. We picnic on Provencal cheeses and baguette overlooking `billionaires’ bay’ and feel sorry for the billionaires who think this is the wrong season to visit.
We hike along the coastal trail, tasting the tangy salt spray as we clamber over boulders towards the Plage de la Garoupe. The well-marked clifftop trail loops down to pebble beaches and hidden coves. After an hour or so we reach La Garoupe beach, where legends such as Picasso helped persuade the glitterati that the Cote d’Azur was the place to party. Even without Picasso, this sandy bay remains alluring. The summer beach season only became a craze after Coco Chanel’s light tan was deemed sexily desirable.
Plage Keller is the chicest sunbathing spot, with the pontoon bar perfect for idling over a bottle of rosé. But for now it’s time for a coastal drive south, from Antibes to St Raphael, past the loveliest stretch of coast on the French Riviera.
After ignoring the glittering La Croisette in Cannes, we continue winding south to Theoule, where the fun begins. Known as the Corniche de l’Esterel, this is the most voluptuous stretch of coast on the Riviera, and stretches all the way to St Raphael. With porphyry red rocks plunging down to the sea, the Corniche de l’Esterel is as recklessly romantic as the mountainous hinterland. We stop at the Pointe de l’Aiguille and Cap Dramont, the best viewing spots, to take in the rocky red crags.
At St Raphael, we head for the hills and the Pays de Fayence perched villages that feel like the real face of the Riviera. The drive north towards St Paul-en-Foret reveals terraced olive groves carved into the hillside, a view softened by parasol palms, fig trees and the last of the yellow-blooming mimosa.
We’re staying at Terre Blanche, an upmarket golf and spa resort designed like an authentic Provencal village. Set between St-Paul-en-Foret and Tourrettes, the resort overlooks the real Provencal villages we’re here to see. The resort was once owned by Sean Connery but there’s nothing James Bondish about the serene setting. The bunkers, greens and water obstacles of Château course make it a true championship course, matched by lakeside views and a Golf Academy.
Golf can wait until tomorrow, as can a tour of the local vineyards, such as Chateau de Selves, which is considerably more charming than most on the Riviera. For now, we want to see a perched village before sunset. Set in the hills behind Grasse, the Pays de Fayence perched villages represent the real Riviera. The nine medieval villages evoke visions of Provence before the famous artists painted `Provence’ into existence. With their crooked cobblestones, lopsided houses and mellow inns, the villages are quietly arty but much less touristy than St Paul de Vence and Mougins.
First up is Fayence, a steep village studded with low-key sites – from Provencal fountains to a well-preserved washhouse and a 16th-century communal bread oven. Once fortified, Fayence now feels more open than other perched villages, and has a true sense of café life. South of the village, Val d’Iris is an iris plantation transformed into a wine estate. Against our better judgment, we succumb to tasting a delicate rosé and a punchy white wine before staggering to the next village before sunset.
As luck would have it, Tourrettes is even prettier, a pedestrianised hilltop hamlet devoted to street art. We wind our way uphill, walking towards the quaint clocktower and Napoleonic chateau, passing permanent murals around every medieval corner, created by talented artists in return for bed and board. The summer art festival sees artists line the streets with their canvases and sculptures. We decide that the back country is best embodied by Tourrettes, both an open-air art museum and the mellowest spot for a sunset toast. Before calling it a day, we pause for a rosé and the perfect view at La Pause Tourrettane on the shady main square. To me, this is the secret Riviera, a mood far removed from the blingtastic yachts on “billionaires’ bay.”
For more on the Riviera:
French Riviera Tourism: www.frenchriviera-tourism.com
Var Tourism (Provence): from St Raphael to Toulon: www.visitvar.fr
Lisa Gerard-Sharp is an award-winning travel writer and France and Italy expert who can be found blogging on www.lisagerardsharp.com