There is an area of France which is flung out far far away from the capital, Paris , down in the south-east of the country which seems totally different to other parts. There is crystal blue seas, cloudless skies, beautiful rugged coastline, mountains with fantastic hiking routes and many stunning cities and villages. Every summer hoards of visitors come to this area to soak up the sun and to detox from the stressful lives from the workplace. We were also in that category. Middle of August and we wanted a break so we thought a road trip (from London , UK) to the Italian and French riveria would be great. I (Danik) have been here many times before but Claire hasn’t. So here are the places we checked out in August 2017 and to give Claire a taster of what the fuss is all about on the Cote d’Azur.
Starting off in the west, we had to check out trendy St Tropez known for its glamour and glitz by the sea. Technically not on the French Riviera but we had to include this in this blog post. Yes, it is over touristy but believe me, it’s still worth a visit. There may not be many beaches in St Tropez itself (visitors would have to go to the resorts further up the rugged coastline) but the boat trips into the sea is top of the list (well, for us it is). Just to get some breeze off the sea during a hot summer’s day to cool down is worth paying the money for but also the boat tours takes visitors along the coastline to the buildings where famous people and companies own (and use as their summer houses). Whilst doing this we were passing many expensive yachts and seeing men and woman soaking up the sun rays whilst on deck.
St Tropez is about 112km (over 70 miles) west of Nice, this village was known for its fishing and a strategic location to defend France from their neighbours, Spain, who love to bring their boats up along the coastline and look for a battle. After a while, once life quietened down, the village drew lots of writers and painters to the area. Well, why not, this secluded surrounding is one of the best places in France to get inspiration.
The village is probably now known for it’s most famous resident, Brigitte Bardot (and yes, she is still alive at the time of writing!) who was a famous singer, actress, model and dancer back in the 1960s who then turned into an animal rights activist. She does still have a home here and is sometimes seen walking along the beautiful streets of St Tropez. She came here in the period when St Tropez was turned from a sleeping fishing village into a ‘rich jet-set’ destination to take on other famous ‘must-see’ places on the coastline like Monte-Carlo and Cannes. These were the places where rich Parisian people would come down and soak up the sun rays and drink a lot of wine (or maybe some champagne)
Walking around the village, the highlight has to be eating a meal or having a drink in the old port. This is where all the yachts are moored and regularly see people dressed in their best clothes. However when eating here, make sure you have lots of money, it’s more expensive than places like Nice but if looking for a cheaper meal, just go a few streets back away from the seafront.
The largest city on the Cote d’Azur is Nice and is the place where most visitors will come to when reaching this region. The main airport is located west of the centre and the TGV trains and local trains depart from the central train station. The main autoroute from Barcelona , Marseille and Genoa passes through here as well, so Nice is basically the main transport hub. However, Nice is worth a visit and we love the vibrant feel here. There is always something to do here, if it’s soaking up the rays on the beach, taking a stroll or a bike ride along the Promenade des Anglais to eating a tasty meal in the Old Town.
When walking around the old town or along the seafront, the facades of the buildings give out a feel from their neighbours, Italy. That is because Nice was part of Italy and joined France in the 19th century. There is a lot of charm and character about the place and despite the heavy crowds in the summer months, it is a city we are pleased to take a wander as every corner has something new to see and take in. Even all the shop owners and cafe staff are smiling, something we don’t see that often in other French cities.
One of the must do’s is taking a view from the top of Castle Hill which can be seen for miles along the seafront. There is two ways of getting to the top, walk in (which isn’t pleasant on really hot summer days and your clothes will be dripping with sweat at the top) or take the free elevator ride which is located at the bottom of the hill on the Quai des Etats-Unis. This will take visitors to the top of the hill in no time. At the top is an amazing park, however despite the name ‘Castle Hill’, there is actually no castle to be found. That was destroyed by the French (when fighting the Italians) in the 18th century and there is a lot of history of it detailed on the displays at the ground level where the elevator is located.
At the top allow some time to wander around the park but the highlight is to take in the view of the promenade, the beach and Nice as a whole to the west and there is another viewpoint just a few steps away which looks out to the east overlooking the sea and the harbour. We also find this park to be a great place to go plane spotting as planes make their descent along the coastline and landed on the runway 7km away.
Next stop on this whirlwind road trip was La Turbie. A lot of people will have never heard of this place unless they know their Cote d’Azur knowledge. La Turbie (Turbia in Italian) has a lot of Roman history with its famous monument ‘The Tropaeum Alpium’ or in English: The Trophy of the Alps’. However we didn’t come here to go for the history (maybe another day as time was short) but after finding a car parking space near the fire station (this village gets really busy during the summer months), we took in the view towards the sea nearby. La Turbie is located on the mountain side so it is quite high up and the views overlooking Monaco is just totally amazing. We spent quite a bit of time in the end up here just taking it all in. It’s probably one of the only places in the world where visitors can get a view and overlook a whole country (and I mean, ‘the WHOLE country!’). With it’s surrounding mountains and sea views, this is one of the best views we have come across in France.
Down below we landed up in Monaco and parked up underneath Monaco-Ville, the capital of this small principality. The country is very small and can be down on foot (but in the summer months this will get tiring due to the heat and the terrain, so there is a cheap and very frequent bus service going to all parts which can take the strain away). We walked up the staircase from the Monte-Carlo harbour to the top where the Palace Square is located. Here a vibrant atmosphere is found and the views in all directions are totally amazing. We recommend doing this first thing in the morning or late in the afternoon to beat the crowds. Here is also the best place to get a meal at reasonable prices and not too expensive compared to Monte-Carlo down below.
Monte-Carlo is a beautiful place to take stroll and along the waterfront with its harbour, is pleasant taking in all the yachts and seeing which part of the world they have come from. With it’s sea breeze, bars along the shore, it is a great area to chill and unwind before taking the walk uphill along the Avenue d’Ostende to Monte Carlo casino. From here great views can be had overlooking the harbour.
Outside the casino in Place du Casino is one of the best places for people who love their cars, Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Porsches, you name it, it’s probably parked here. Inside we were allowed to go into the main lobby and check out the decor but we didn’t go into the proper part of the casino as I was very worried I would blow my life savings away on a dodgy bet. Instead we took in a drink and some ice cream in the cafe (and it ain’t cheap) but was totally worth it. After all the walking we have done, this was a good moment to have a rest. (for more on a walking tour of Monaco, check out our blog HERE)
Back in the car we headed eastwards and through the famous ‘Tunnel Larvotto’ which is one of the landmarks of the Formula One Grand Prix Circuit. We were back in France within minutes and decided to drive the coastline of Cape Martin. It was late afternoon by this point so a dip in the sea when the waves were over six foot high was not ideal. There is hardly any beaches along this point but we did sit on the rocks taking in the sun which was now lowering down to the horizon.
Before evening (and still very warm), we drove eastwards further more and landed up on the beach, to the west of main centre of Menton. Now this is a place where we wished we could have spent more time. The beach here is fantastic and probably one of the best we have seen (Danik’s other favourite is Villefranche-sur-mer near Nice but didn’t do it on this road trip), but the town itself looks charming, historic and we were told the restaurants here is worth checking out. Well, we coming back here that’s for sure. Driving along the seafront before dark, the restaurants were busy, a lot of locals taking walks along the harbour front and there is a beautiful fort to check out. Next time, next time……
Menton is the first and last town of France before entering Italy (and the border is about 2km east of the centre) and after driving through the tunnels, the French Riviera turns into the Italian Riviera and the first major town is Ventimiglia which is also a fantastic place to soak up the sun rays on the beach. Claire loved her taster of the Cote d’Azur and we will be back for sure in the near future, hopefully for longer and check out more of the charming villages and beach resorts here.
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