Originally Published on Urbandesis.com in Nov, 2014
Once upon a long time ago (yes, sorry folks, this article has been a bit too long in the writing), as we were trying to shortlist some destinations for a 2-week vacation with my sister-in-law’s family, she sent us a webpage that mentioned a place with beaches, nature, history, art and culture, and importantly wine and vineyards. By the middle of the page, hubby and I were completely sold. Took us all of 3 minutes to delete everything else from the shortlist and get on-board with a vacation in the South of France.
Now, a lesson in Geography. The French divide up their country into regions of which Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur (PACA) is one. This region is then split up into six departments: Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, Hautes-Alpes, Alpes-Maritimes, Var, Bouches-du-Rhône, and Vaucluse.
After some research, we decided to spend a week in Côte d’Azur in Alpes-Maritimes, and another in the Bouches-du-Rhône department. We scheduled our trip in mid-June in order to miss the peak-season in July. Not a bad time to visit, the weather was good and we didn’t have to juggle with massive crowds everywhere.
The French Riviera
Côte d’Azur, also known as the French Riviera is the Mediterranean coastline of the south-east corner of France, also including the sovereign state of Monaco. Translated, Côte d’Azur means the azure coast, referring no doubt to the azure blue waters of the Mediterranean.
Often called an embarrassment of riches, the Riviera is well known as a playground for the rich and famous. Plenty of A-list celebrities such as Johnny Depp, Bono, Elton John, the Beckhams, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are frequent visitors or own houses there. And as we all know, Brangelina recently tied the knot at Chateau Miraval, their sprawling estate nestled in the tiny village of Correns in the south of France, bringing even more publicity to the area (as if the Riviera needs more publicity).
But zillion-dollar-houses and million-dollar-yachts aside, Côte d’Azur also has a lot of art and history to boast of, something many people fail to realise.
Now, coming back to me, I’m going to admit that a long vacation with 2-year-old twins is definitely not easy. Throw a third 2-year-old and a 5-year-old (thankfully not all ours) into the mix, and it’s a riot. But travelling with another family does come with its perks. The kids kept each other busy, and with two families sharing the cost, a huge villa ended up costing as much as a hotel room would.
We initially started looking for vacation rentals in Nice but since we were renting a car, we decided to move a bit outside the city just to get more bang for our buck. That’s how we ended up with a huge 4-bedroom villa with a lawn and a swimming pool, in the small commune of Gattières about 30 mins drive from Nice. Vacation rentals in South France mostly work on a weekly basis (usually Saturday to Saturday), so we set up camp in Gattières for the entire week and took day trips to everywhere around the Riviera – much easier than packing bag, baggage and kids and moving every couple of days.
Start your sightseeing in Nice with the Vielle Ville (Old Town). Walk around the maze of narrow streets which are full of character and are lined with shops, restaurants and beautiful baroque style buildings.
Visit the Sainte-Réparate Cathedral at Place Rossetti andindulge in some people-watching while enjoying a cappuccino at one of the many cafés in the square. Try the local delicacy Socca, a thin crepe made from chick peas, somewhat similar and yet different to our very own besan cheela. While here, do visit Fennochio, the very famous ice-cream makers, who offer a variety of interesting flavours ranging from regular to unheard of (we’re talking olive and iced chestnut here). The colourful Cours Selaya Flower and Food Market locatedwithin Vielle Ville is a good place to shop for souvenirs. Place Charles Felix on a corner of the market, is where the famous artist Henry Matisse lived for some years.
From Vielle Ville, you can walk to the Promenade des Anglais, the celebrated walkway along the Mediterranean. The promenade runs for several miles and is home to landmark hotels and dozens of cafés. If you’re not up for a lot of walking, just grab one of the ‘blue chairs’, listen to the calming waves and watch the hustle bustle of locals and foreigners alike.
Another highlight of visiting Nice is the historical neighbourhood of Cimiez, home to the Cimiez Convent (and cemetery), Musée Matisse and the famous Hôtel Régina (now an apartment building) where Queen Victoria was a regular. Cimiez was once a Roman town and it still houses the ancient ruins of Cemenelum.
Castle Hill is a great place to spend a couple of hours with kids. Standing atop Castle Hill, I enjoyed gorgeous panoramic views of Nice and the azure coastline. There are rides and playgrounds for children, and adults can grab a coffee and a croque-monsieur (or good ol’ fries if you don’t eat ham) from the refreshment stand and watch the locals play a game of Pétanque.
Another kid-friendly place worth a mention is the Phoenix Parc Floral de Nice. If you’re around the airport and have a couple of hours to spare, this is worth a visit. My children had a great time running around on the grass, watching aeroplanes. During our visit, a peacock generously spread out its wings and gave us a grand show for a whole 10 minutes.
St. Paul-de-Vence, once home to Marc Chagall, is one of the oldest medieval towns in the French Riviera.
St. Paul is so full of character that you don’t need an agenda or an itinerary to enjoy it. Just explore the pedestrian streets and immerse yourself in the history and heritage, and in some of the very expensive art galleries which seem to be a predominant feature of this fortified village.
The best meal that we had in France was under a 100-year-old lime tree on the terrace of the restaurant Le Tilleul in St. Paul de Vence. Highly recommended.
Word of warning, St. Paul can get extremely crowded in the summer months.
Monaco / Monte Carlo
The world’s second smallest country is most famous for the Monaco Grand Prix, but the Monte Carlo Casino, with its glitz and glamour and the endless stream of Ferraris at its entrance is not far behind.
The thing about the Riviera is that even when you’re ogling at Ferraris, designer showrooms and the unabashed display of wealth in general, the history is never far away. Palais du Prince, with all its opulence and grandeur is worth a visit to get a dose of some of that history. The palace is situated up a hill and overlooks the town of Monte Carlo, so you’ll be treated to great views. When you’re trying to schedule your visit to Palais du Prince, see if you can fit in the changing of the guard ceremony which takes place just before noon every day.
If you’re travelling with kids, do not miss the Musée Océanographique (Oceanographic Museum). We also wanted to visit the Jardin Exotique (Exotic Garden) but had to give it a miss because of lack of time.
Cannes, most famous for its International Film Festival (hosted in the Palais des Festivals every year), is almost equally famous as a breeding ground for the rich and famous. People-watching (and yatch-watching?) is probably the most popular tourist activity in Cannes, and the upscale shopping street of Les Croisette provides ample opportunity for that.
However, being the history buff that I am, what I loved even more was visiting Ile de Sainte-Marguerite, the island which allegedly held the enigmatic ‘Man in the Iron Mask’ captive in the 17th century. The Island is a 15-minute ferry ride from Cannes, which kids are sure to love. You can walk around the island and tour the fort, museum and prison (including a couple of cells). The area just outside the prison, overlooks the waters and provides ample photo-opportunity.
Cannes also boasts of having one of the most famous beaches of the French Riviera, the beach along the Boulevard de la Croisette, just next to the Palais des Festivals. Did we get to enjoy this beach? Of course not. Who wants to wake up 4 kids who have thankfully passed out after hours of non-stop chattering and fighting? So instead, we took turns watching the kids and enjoying the area and I did manage to chug down 2 glasses of wine at 3 in the afternoon. Don’t judge me people, I was on vacation and I wasn’t driving!
You could easily spend a month in the Riviera. We only had a week though, so we were content with visiting the above mentioned cities. If you have more time, St. Tropez, Antibes, Menton are just some of the other cities that you could visit.
Wait before you make your reservations though. From the Riviera, we headed to Provence and if you have the time, you should too. Read about the rest of our trip in South of France: Provence.