That’s one simple word that describes a full range of emotions after spending a few days – even if in passing – along the French Riviera. There’s also amazement, splendor, magnificence, elegance, luxury, style, and the list goes on an on…
If Paris was ‘known’ – despite the fact that I always ‘discover’ it anew every time I visit (link to my Paris blog here) – the Côte d'Azur is something that surpassed even my most vivid imagination. It’s as if man had carefully built around nature with a very purposeful (and clearly successful) intent of conserving its beauty, and even enhancing it, where possible.
Got you hooked yet?
Then, read on!
A high-speed train ride from Paris to Monte Carlo gives you a first glimpse at the incredible scenery that hugs the Mediterranean coastline in the south of France. After 3 hours (averaging 250-300 mph!) you’re just outside Marseille (Aix-en-Provence) and have already traveled more than three quarters of the total distance. So I’m left scratching my head as to how the rest of the trip would take another 3 hours, with only about 200 km (125 miles) to go. But realizing that from this point there is no high-speed rail, and the train seems to purposely slow down to allow you to take in the views, it started to make sense…
First, the dilapidated slums on the outskirts of Marseille provided a bit of an eye-sore, but only to help contrast what was to come: steep hillsides sprinkled with colorful villas and small villages on the left and an array of seaside resorts parading by on the right, lost, if you followed the gaze, into the topaz tranquility of the Mediterranean, itself dotted with yachts, cruise ships and fancy boats. Brief moments outside that train window only provided a preview of the show that was to follow…
So in another 3 hours plus change, and after quick ride through the Monte Carlo tunnels, we opened the hotel room’s balcony to the first awe moment: a plethora of yachts of all shapes and sizes tucked in for the evening in the harbor below, snoozing quietly under the shimmering moonlight.
Camera in hand – for we wanted to make sure we captured as much of this beauty for leisurely review later on – we immediately set out to take in the sights. More yachts, shining their reflections out of the mirror-like water, exotic cars, rich old sugar-daddies with eastern European arm-candy, and buildings that seem to have grown organically out of the rock. Did I use breathtaking yet? Under the right sun [setting] light it all seems like a dream, although you’re wide awake!
So let’s start the tour.
Le Rocher (Monaco-Ville) is a mandatory stop, where you can spend a full day. Yes, it’s ‘touristy’ – much more so when a cruise ship is anchored in Port Hercule below – but it’s worth spending time wondering through the narrow streets of the old town, watching the changing of the guard at Palais Princier, visiting the actual Palace, the cathedral, the oceanographic museum (yep, a bit more than an aquarium), the exotic garden, the zoo, or Prince Rainier’s collection of exotic cars. And remember, all this is set on a stunning backdrop of amazing man-nature-made architecture on the hills, and clear blue Mediterranean as far as the eye can see below. If you visit the Musée Océanographique (which I highly recommend) don’t forget to take the elevator to the terrace. Awe moment #2!
From the top of the Rock in the old city, I suggest walking across the harbor to the Casino. It’s not far (about a mile), but the awe moments along the way are countless; whether it’s the road snaking in and out of the rock, or disappearing into the tunnels only to resurface where you least expect it, buildings that defy gravity, parks with luscious exotic greenery, or the many high-end shops that line the streets, one can’t help but wonder if this is all real…It really looks like something out of a high-definition Lego world created by an over-imaginative kid.
The Casino – flanked on one side by Café de Paris and the other by the famed Hôtel de Paris – is gorgeous, inside and out. Inside, especially. The outside view was somewhat obstructed by the scaffolding and stands used the day before for the Grand Prix (yes, we missed it by one day; some planning, huh?) but inside – where until 2 pm you can visit, especially if travelling with kids – is nothing short of spectacular. It’s not a nicely decorated gambling establishment, but a casino housed in a luxurious museum. Each ‘room’ perfectly appointed, with no detail left to chance. Hard to imagine the ‘buzz’ during evening hours while you're visiting in the morning, but we've all seen enough of it in the movies to be able to paint that mental picture. And if you’re travelling sans enfants, you can be part of that picture (just make sure your wardrobe is appropriate, as they have a fairly strict dress code).
|Hôtel de Paris|
|Click on these picks to appreciate the splendor in large size!|
The alternative – and unique show in itself – is to grab a small sidewalk table at Café de Paris next door and sip $20 cocktails while watching ‘the rich and famous’ parade in and out of the Casino, driving off in their Bentleys, Ferraris, Lamborghinis, or any other $200K-plus luxury car you can imagine.
Actually, not hard to imagine it all in a tax heaven “country” (no income tax and low tax on businesses) that boasts the world's highest GDP nominal per capita ($153,177), the world’s lowest unemployment / poverty rates, and the highest number of millionaires and billionaires. Which justify the real estate prices (top of the list 4th year running) that average about $58,000 per square meter. Also worth mentioning is that Monaco is one of the world’s largest banking centers, with the official numbers showing over €100 billion worth of funds (but I think that’s just the ‘official’ figure; I’m sure that in most cases the details around the über-rich clientele’s finances are a close-guarded secret… so close, in fact, that the IMF – and other leading similar organizations – have pointed to cases where money laundering and illegal activities aren't met with too much rigor by the local authorities; frankly, not surprised).
But enough with that fact-filled accolade. Let’s get back on the road…
A couple days in Monte Carlo are more than enough to touch on all the main points (although with unlimited budget one can make a strong argument against it). I would suggest hopping on a bus or renting a car to visit Menton (just 10 km down the coast right before the Italian border) or – according to a very positive recommendation from the hotel concierge – Saint-Paul-de-Vence (but this one is about 40 km away, past Nice). The more sensible alternative – and one that made me instantly mutter “I’d love to live here” – is a quick visit to Èze; the Eagle’s Nest of the Côte d'Azur.
Take the 112 bus (timetable here) from Monte Carlo and about 15-20 minutes later you’ll be there (make sure you get off on the second Èze stop; so would everyone else). The village (well preserved, but transformed very much into a tourist attraction – again, you’d be lucky if there’s no cruise ship anchored nearby) sits atop a steep rock that seems to have sprung out of the sea.
Poke in the various boutiques on the way up, visit the 13th century chapel, or if the budget allows it, reserve a terrace table at Chateau d’Eza. But whatever you do, don’t skip the Jardin Botanique (6 euros or so to get in) for not only a very exquisite cacti and succulents garden, but truly amazing views of the coastline. The biggest AWE moment for me so far!
It’s places like this that inspire artists, transform souls, and demand reverence towards mother nature. I simply can’t do it justice, so I’m just going to let some pictures do the talking:
|... a thousand words...|
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|Our coast-hugging itinerary|
Off to Cannes next (where the film festival just wrapped up 3 days earlier) with lunch on the pier, soaking the feet in the sea and watching an impromptu kite-boarding show just off the shore. The esplanade here seemed to top the one we just passed by in Nice.
|Cannes - enjoying lunch on the rocky pier (the little dots near the horizon are kite-boarders) [enlarge for a better view]|
From here to Saint-Raphaël /Fréjus the landscape changes drastically to red rock formations, but the jagged coastline is still peppered with vacation homes that seem to cling to the rock with all their might. This is definitely for the secluded beach-goer.
Sainte-Maxime is the next resort on the itinerary, where the sensible thing to do is hop on a ferry to Saint-Tropez, rather than driving across the golf (otherwise, set aside one hour – or more – for the remaining 14 km!). I should note that we did this drive in late May, so aside from a small traffic jam in Cannes and bumper-to bumper stop-and-go near Saint-Tropez, it was not very crowded. Most websites, however, advise against driving this route during the summer (unless you don’t mind spending double or triple the amount of time suggested by Mapquest or Google Maps).
Saint-Tropez was actually a bit of a letdown for me. Not sure if it had to do with some of the much better scenery up until that point, the annoying traffic to get through the last 5 km, the late afternoon hour that in the back of my mind kept reminding me that I still had to drive another 600 km to reach Barcelona, or the overcrowded tourist area reminiscent of some of the more cheesier spots I had visited in the past… Regardless, I was expecting more, hankered perhaps by my early childhood memories from the many Louis de Funès Gendarme movies. Incidentally, the Gendarmerie is still there, just didn't get to it, unfortunately…
Regardless, Saint-Tropez is still a top destination if you want to run into the latest Hollywood A-listers, and if we had more time to explore, I would have probably liked it more…
|...there's something so eerie about olive trees...|
That pretty much wraps it. The drive across Massif des Maures through the medieval village of Le Garde-Freinet (to get to the Barcelona-bound interstate) was quite nice (think olive orchards, mountain winding roads, vineyards, etc.) but I think we were too spent to enjoy it. In retrospect, this whole trip down the French Riviera should be done at a more leisurely pace (two days at least)… which could even allow for a short detour to visit the former Papal Castle at Avignon. Maybe next time…
In short, this leg of the European vacation is definitely up there with the top places I visited. So much so that in my mind I’m already planning the trip west of Monte Carlo, this time to the Italian Riviera…
For now, however, off to Barcelona. Over 600 km to go and a good 50 Euros' worth of interstate tolls!