The Côte d’Azur is such a treat that the morning of my arrival the universe felt inclined to test me a bit to make sure I really deserved it. I woke up one hour before the crack of dawn on the other side of France to face the challenge of circumnavigating freeway traffic in the rain on the outskirts of Toulouse. Before I even managed to leave the parking lot though, in pitch black darkness I got in a minor fender bender with a stone wall, and before that I didn’t get to have a coffee which might have been to blame for the whole thing and also made every challenge along this odyssey to the airport that much worse. It all culminated with a marathon across three terminals in Toulouse to make my flight for Nice. It wasn’t exactly a relaxing morning. I might have screamed once or twice “I can’t take this! I just need to go home and sleep! I’m going back to Paris!” That would have been a big mistake because if ever you have an opportunity to spend time in the South of France you should never ever turn that down.
I managed to sleep off my bad mood on the one hour flight and arrive to Nice by 11AM in the perfect state of zen. Sleep does wonders for me, so no more complaining from here on out. Arriving to the Côte d’Azur is not just literal, but figurative as well. This place can be so surreal it makes you just look around and think “I’ve made it…this is the life…I have arrived.” The sign at the airport in Nice reads “Gateway to the Côte d’Azur” like you’ve just stepped through a portal to paradise. That’s what it feels like too, but this time arriving in Nice was actually returning to something familiar for me. I knew what was awaiting me.
I was greeted out of the gate by some familiar faces from the tourism board that had welcomed me on a past trip, so this time felt a bit like coming back to visit old friends for new adventures. The more I travel the more I realise that it’s the people that make a place, not just the location, and dwelling in the details of the lives of those that are lucky enough to call this place home is something I really love. These familiar faces and the drive from the Nice airport to the center of town couldn’t have been a better reintroduction. That stretch of turquoise blue coastline is mesmerising. I just stared out the window repeating over and over again how happy I was to be back. Nice is not just the gateway to the Côte d’Azur, it’s also like a gateway drug to the Côte d’Azur, because it’s lovely, but as you will see, it is just the beginning. This place will wrap you in fantasy and sunshine for as long as you stay. Even on a grey day, which is rare here, the sea sparkles and the rainbow buildings color the coastline.
After a nice four course lunch at the Bistrot du Port we took a cruise to admire Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and Villefranche-sur-Mer from the sea. Our captain’s introduction to the real estate on the Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat was only confirmation that this place really is where people come when they have “arrived”. Villas here go for hundreds of millions of euros and are owned by the world’s rich and famous. Sometimes I think I’m satisfied with a modest life, but one look at these properties is enough to make me greedy again for a moment and fantasise about making a fortune large enough to be able to call one home away from home. But there is a place for everyone on the Côte d’Azur. You don’t have to be rich or famous to enjoy this place in style as I’ve discovered on my several trips here. So much so that I’ve (seriously) considered moving here. In fact, the last time I was here I was with somebody rich, and famous, and I can tell you that in reality that is no way to live. Back this time with my anonymity and modest means I broke away from my tour guides and wandered the city, only to find that very person’s face on the cover of the tabloids at every newsstand with a new girl in tow. It felt surreal, another strange moment of “is this real life?” on the Côte d’Azur. So, I headed to the Promenade des Anglais and parked myself in one of the iconic blue chairs (the southern counterpart of our green park chairs in Paris) for a bit of reflection, staring out at the sea, watching the sunset, and wondering how my life would play out as a normal girl (woman).
A Mini Guide to Nice
But the next few days of life here were hardly normal. They soared above average on this beautiful tour of France’s second most popular region (after Paris). I never cease to be amazed at all the variety Côte d’Azur has to offer. The next morning we were up bright and early to head to Grasse in the hills behind Cannes. These “hills” are actually the small mountainous beginnings of the Maritime Alps. A bit further and you can actually find ski stations. I think the Côte d’Azur must be one of only a handful of places in the world you could ski and swim at the beach in the same day. But I diverge.
We went to Grasse to learn more about this olfactory world capital. The morning started at the offices of M. Micallef. I actually had no idea that M. was a woman. Silly me for assuming otherwise before meeting her face to face, and what a woman Martine is. It only takes a few minutes with her to tell she loves what she does. She started her fragrance house, M. Micallef, twenty years ago with her husband. She wanted to leave a corporate career and pursue her passion, which she puts into every one of the hundreds if not thousands of fragrance bottles for her own brand and others for whom she has designed over these two decades. She keeps one of each in a rather massive and growing archive in her office — an entire wall that opens up into a closet that she let us poke around in. Her crystal bottles are fired right here in the ovens, decorated by hand by her employees, packaged to perfection and shipped off to nearly 60 countries around the world. I love to dive into the creative minds of entrepreneurs. Martine was so open, talking with us for hours and letting us into her creative process for fragrance concepts — the women, exotic scents, shapes, and mood that inspire her. I blushed when Martine said I had a bit of Brigitte Bardot in me, a “femme enfant sensuelle” for which she assigned me the perfect fragrance as a gift, Ylang in Gold, that is sweet and soft yet sophisticated. It’s become one of my favourite scents and a gift from a fascinating woman that I will treasure.
Later that afternoon in Grasse we explored the town’s tiny streets and shops, popping in to meet other local parfumeurs. Grasse has had a prospering perfume industry since the end of the 18th century, and is considered to be the perfume capital of the world. It produces over two thirds of France’s natural aromas, and its microclimate makes it a lush location for the flower farming industry. But before it was a fragrance capital, Grasse had a huge leather tanning business, though the odeur left from the leather didn’t please the city’s nobel residents. So, they began producing fragrances to mask the scent which eventually became the principal business of the region today. The local economy depends on it, employing thousands in the region.
In Grasse, the town and France’s fragrance history is on display at the Musée du Parfum. If a morning at M. Micallef was not enough to inspire me to become a packaging designer, I went a bit crazy documenting the hundreds of flacons on display at this museum. It is truly a designer’s dream come true in here. The other big museum in Grasse is Fragonard, which I had visited before and also recommend. Many of the original perfumers like Fragonard that started in Grasse are still in business today. Another is Galimard, whom you can visit and compose your own fragrance as well as I did later that afternoon.
The Anatomy of a Fragrance
There is a certain anatomy to making a fragrance. Different scents are categorised on a spectrum of volatility and divided into three levels: base, middle, and top notes. You begin with the base notes, around four or five to be precise. These are scents that will develop and emerge over time after applying the fragrance. Next you select the middle notes, the heart of the perfume, another five or so. And then lastly, you select top notes, or the notes that will be the first to touch the nose with your fragrance before dissipating and giving way to the middle and eventual base notes. The scents are organised into what is called an organ, like the instrument.
At Galimard in Grasse you can make an appointment to create your own fragrance from scratch with the help of their noses. You can then name it and they will bottle it for you, keeping your formula in their records for you to order again in the future.
I can tell you, I have since realised I have no hidden talent for concocting fragrances. I like what I like and I refuse to compromise to make something that might appeal to someone else’s taste. I picked the sweetest scents time and time again, and my nose at Galimard told me I needed to balance them out with something on the other end of the spectrum. Of course she was right but I am stubborn. I even cheated a bit adding more vanilla, more almond, and so one into my measuring flask when she wasn’t looking. At the end when it come time to name our fragrances she asked me to bestow a fitting name upon my scent for it’s label. “I shall call it Bonne Vivante” I declared. “That’s not a very sophisticated name” she told me. “All the better, I’m not a very sophisticated woman.” I am sweet, playful, indulgent, and a bit over the top just like this fragrance so let’s just call a spade and spade. What matters is I love my scent, it smells like a candy store.
Le Mas Candille
Le Mas Candille is a beautiful five star hotel perched across the valley looking onto Grasse. I couldn’t help but think this might be the perfect place to stay when visiting the Côte d’Azur. Its proximity to everything is convenient, and its placement in a 9 acre park with three different pools, a spa, and Michelin Star restaurant make it a little slice of paradise within paradise. We had a warm welcome from the owner, a charming British gentlemen who acquired the project on a whim a decade or so ago after a coup de coeur for the property. Eventually he moved his family over from England to pursue it full time, expanding to include various buildings, more rooms, and the spa. It has old French charm with modern comforts.
Le Mas Candille is just a few minutes walk from one of the Côte d’Azur’s most loved villages, Mougins. The village is a must visit, and a favourite of artists, including Pablo Picasso Jean Cocteau who both called it home.
A busy day ended with a relaxing evening at the foot of Mougins at the Le Mas de Candille where we tucked in for the night before heading off to Cannes the next morning. The sun greeted us bright and early and after a coffee on my terrace at this beautiful five star hotel, we departed for Cannes. Cannes is always a bit of a show. Its film festival reputation literally proceeds it with the giant mural of Marilyn Monroe’s face painted onto the building of an old hotel on the outskirts as you head into town. Luxury shops line the rue d’Antibes, and just in front on the Croisette are the iconic hotels with their waterfront views, namely The Ritz and The Martinez which you can’t miss.
But just in front of Cannes there is another kind of place entirely, where a group of people has foregone the glamour and luxury for a simple life — the monks at the Abbaye de Lérins. This abbey is found on the Ile Saint Honorat and tended to by a few dozen monks that call it home. Their kind has been here for a few centuries now, tending to the vines from which they produce their wine that is bottled and sold to support the monastic operations. We had a rendezvous with them for a charity lunch that we were lucky enough to be invited to. To be honest, I had been nervous about this lunch all week. Despite that I grew up going to Catholic school, religion is something I’ve opted out of and nowadays I just wasn’t sure I would have much to say to a monk, in French no less. But seeing as they spend 99% of their time avoiding small talk and living in silence, when they do get the chance to speak they are more than happy to do most of the talking. Good news for me. Their silence was lifted for the occasion of the auction for proceeds that go to a variety of charities benefiting children. After a delicious lunch within the clos walls next to their vines, we headed to the small castle next door on the water for the auction. After that we walked the perimeters of this beautiful island before heading back to the mainland.
Les Iles de Lérins
The Lérins Islands can be found just in front of Cannes and accessed via ferries leaving from the port in Cannes. A trip here is a great day or even half day trip, for which you can pack a picnic, swim, and explore. Île Sainte-Marguerite is the larger island with more to do, including a museum and a restaurant. However on the Ile Saint Honorat you will find the Abbaye de Lérins which is quite a special thing to see. The Abbaye also has a restaurant and snack bar open to the public all day.
L'ABBAYE DE LÉRINS
You can visit the Abbaye de Lérins and even attend mass here. We had the great pleasure of sharing a lunch with them and participating in a charity auction of the monks’ wine to benefit children in need. The monks here have been here making wine for hundreds of years. What a rare treat to speak with them (they are usually silent) and taste their wine (it’s very good), which is sold along the Côte d’Azur and has even been served to President Obama.
I had only one thing on my agenda for the rest of the day, to enjoy the sunshine and warm indian summer on the Croisette. I wanted to put my toes in the sand and feet in the water, drop my head back to feel the sun on my face and the sea breeze blowing in my hair. In early October there are still beach goers on the Côte d’Azur. It’s plenty warm enough still, and with most the crowds gone, it’s sort of ideal in fact. I found myself at the end of the pier at the Carlton, shoes off watching fishes in the water and staring out at this beautiful blue stretch of coastline.
A few months back I found out that an old friend of mine from high school that I had fallen out of touch with, fell in love with Frenchie from Nice and ended up married and living on the Côte d’Azur running an art business. Lucky duck, now if that doesn’t sound like the beginnings of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel I don’t know what does. She was meant to pass through Cannes late that afternoon and we were all set to meet up for a drink. I sat on the end of the The Carlton’s pier thinking how lucky she was to live here when my phone rang to tell me that she had arrived. I got up to meet her and saw her walking down the boardwalk looking not a day older than when I saw her last (sailing in Greece I think?). We gave each other a big hug in the sunshine and laughed about how if you told us ten years ago as high school girls from a small town that we would see each other next here in Cannes, both living on the other side of the world in France, we would have never believed you. Isn’t it exciting all the places that life can take you? Let me tell you, it can be really special too when it unexpectedly takes you back to your beginnings, a marker in time to remind you just how far you’ve come. Everything in between A. and I caught up on over rosé on the Croisette and promised it wouldn’t be so long until we saw each other next.
After an amazing dinner at Le Mantel, I spent my last night on the Cote d’Azur at the beautiful Villa Garbo. When you check into a fancy hotel in Cannes, you can’t help but wonder what kind of stars have stayed in the room before you. You can ask but staff are discrete, they really won’t give you names. That evening I spent one of the last warm nights of the year sitting on the beautiful terrace attached to my room with the moon above me and three beautiful days on the Côte d’Azur behind me, thinking how I didn’t want to leave this place the next day.
The next morning I woke up early for my last adventure here until next time — a beautiful drive in the Citroën DS along the coast to the Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. It was a Sunday morning so the roads were quiet and the coastline so peaceful. The sun had just come up, and we snuggled up in the back with blankets watching the locals come out for their morning swims and dog walking. It was my first time taking the coastal route from Cannes to Nice (and beyond) and the whole way I just kept finding more reasons I needed to come back. We passed the Hotel du Cap Eden Roc and I recalled Slim Aaron’s famous photograph of this place — his images were some of the first that ever made me dream of the French Riviera. In that moment, sitting in the back of this beautiful car with the wind blowing through my hair and the turquoise sea beside me, I can tell you it lives up to every one one of those dreams of this place that I ever had.
The Coastal Route
You can definitely visit the Côte d’Azur without a car, but one of my favourite things was a morning drive along the coastal route from Cannes to Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. We set out at 8AM, bright and early but every bit worth it to watch the soft morning light over the coast. This scenic route takes you past iconic spots like Hotel Eden Roc, Antibes, Juan-Les-Pins, Belle Rives, and more. We bundled up in the back covered in blankets, top down, and with our handsome driver at the wheel and kicked back to enjoy the view. And what a view it was…
RENT A CLASSIC CAR
Our beautiful Citröen DS was arranged by Rent A Classic Car in Nice. This has to be one of the most stylish thing you could do on the Côte d’Azur. The whole way we felt like movie stars, as people admired our rare ride. The DS was the car of choice for the elite mid-century. The ultimate expression of “à la Française” automobile elegance, it was even driven by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in their film By the Sea.
Our driver dropped us at the foot of Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, almost back where I had started the first day looking over the Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. I had been wanting to visit this place since a friend told me about it several years ago. This pink villa on the hill with its extensive gardens is the dream come true of an eccentric baroness that bequeathed it to the state upon her death for us all to enjoy now. I was so happy to check this one off the bucket list, but I’ll be back. I spent a while in the gardens on my own cherishing the views, the weather, all the beautiful stories of the last couple days before my ride for the airport came to get me.
On this peninsula between Nice and Monaco you’ll find the most expensive villa in the world. Once owned by King Leopold II, it’s current owner, an heiress to the Grand Marnier fortune, has it on the market for 1 billion euros because she would like to “downsize”. The price tells me she isn’t too keen to move. Whoever buys it will be in good company with neighbours like Paul Allen and Andrew Lloyd Weber.
VILLA EPHRUSSI DE ROTHSCHILD
If I could have my piece of paradise on the Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat it would be the feminine sensibilities of Baroness Béatrice de Rothschild’s pink villa and its gardens. The Baroness used to make the 30 gardeners that maintained them dress as sailors in berets with red pompoms. Inside much of her furniture was acquired from Versailles and her sweeping views in every direction are really something to behold. Upon her death the Baroness bequeathed the villa to the Institut de France so we can all be lucky enough to visit today.
As we pulled into the airport we passed beneath the sign that reads “kiss and fly” which is exactly what I did. I kissed goodbye to my new and old friends who I would leave here on the Côte d’Azur and flew back to Paris. As I did I thought how lucky anyone would be to come to this place just once in their life, and for me how lucky I am to come back here. I know it won’t be the last time. There is still so much more to see…
A huge thank you to Atout France, Côte d’Azur Tourisme, Grasse Tourisme, the city of Cannes, and all of the people that made this trip so wonderful. In the wake of the unfortunate events in Nice this summer, this trip was a moment to reflect and remember that the Cote d’Azur and French Riviera will always be the spectacular place that it is and no one can take that away. It means so much to me to be a part of this #COTEDAZURNOW campaign.