Cote d'Azur, French Riviera

Cote d'Azur (French Riviera) excursions for when you've seen enough of Nice!

(Your second week, maybe?)

We have selected nine of the most popular day excursions from Nice to the Cote d'Azur to whet your appetite.

Details are given of trips to Antibes, Cannes, Digne-les-Bains, Grasse, Menton, Monaco & Monte Carlo, St. Paul de Vence, Saint-Tropez and Villefranche-sur-Mer.

The list is by no means exhaustive; we could add Cap Ferrat, Eze, Gourdon, Tourettes-sur-Loup, Vence....not to mention Ventimiglia in Italy.

All are accessible by car and by public transport, whether train, bus or boat. If you prefer a guided tour Cityrama have half day coach tours from May to October with English commentary to Monaco, Cannes, St. Paul-de-Vence, Grasse, Antibes, Vallaurais, Eze and the Villa Ephrussi at Cap Ferrat.

You can find many more details at the Nice Tourist Bureau, conveniently located a few steps from the apartment at 5, Promenade des Anglais. One thing we can promise you - you won't be bored!

Thanks are due to Russ Collins of Provence - Beyond the French Riviera (www.ProvenceBeyond.com) for permission to use some of his evocative descriptions of local towns and villages.

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Antibes

Antibes was a Greek fortified town named Antipolis in the 5th century BC, and later a Roman town, and always an active port for trading along the Mediterranean. Today it's an attractive and active town, popular with "foreigners" from Paris and the north of France, with non-French, and with the local population.

The natural beauty remains in the vieille ville (old town), with the ramparts along the sea and the long, arched protective wall along the port. There are plenty of little streets for exploring, restaurants of all types and prices, and lots of shops, from authentic little hardware/general-stores to tourist gift shops.

Bus Route 200 from Gambetta, ca. 1hr 10min

Train from Gare SNCF ca. 30min

Cannes


Cannes is the "star" of the Cote d'Azur, famous for the International Film Festival and the glitzy hotels, cars, beaches and visitors attracted here. Although it's probably the opposite of the Beyond type villages of the "arriére pays", it would be a shame to visit the South of France without experiencing the city for yourself.

Film producers (yeah, sure!) and starlets for the festival in May. Tourists year-round and crowds of tourists in the summer. Exotic people and real people, and plenty of poodles (it is France, after all). The yachts and cruise ships float in the blue water, and you can't always tell which is which by the size.

Exotic cars abound: white-haired ladies drive Maseratis for shopping trips, Porsches blow through the streets like pollen, and only the very latest models of Lamborghini and Ferrari attract serious attention.

The city of Cannes is centered around the old port, with the central part quite compact. The famous Croisette is the boulevard and the beach that extends around the bay to the east of the port, in the protected Rade de Cannes. Out around the point at the west side of the port, the Boulevard Jean Hibert runs along the coast to the west, with even more fine sandy beaches. The Rue d'Antibes is the main street running east-west through the center of the city, becoming the Rue Félix Faure at the bottom end, past the Allée de la Liberté and the port.

The closest thing to an "old town" is Le Suquet overlooking the west end of the port. The 12th-century Tour de Mt. Chevalier, ramparts and 12th-16th-century church Notre-Dame-de-l'Espérence give a touch of medieval flavor to the city. The Le Suquet area has narrow streets climbing up and around the hill, with a fine view from the top. Standing on the ancient rampart wall in front of the church, you can see east across the city, the port and the bay to the Cap de la Croisette, and to the west across the Gulf of La Napoule to the Massif de l'Esterel mountains.

Bus Route 200 from Gambetta, ca. 1hr 30min

Train from Gare SNCF ca. 45min

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Digne-les-Bains

If you are into long train journeys and beautiful mountain scenery, then Digne-les-Bains is the place for you. The Chemins de Fer de la Provence run one of France's most scenic and fun rail routes from the station on Nice's Rue Alfred Binet, ten minutes' walk north of the Gare SNCF (or buses #4 or #5). The Train des Pignes runs up the valley of the Var between Nice and Digne-les-Bains , climbing through some spectacular scenery as it goes. Four trains run daily, year-round, and the whole journey takes 3hr 10min (each way!), although the less hardy can stop at Entrevaux (1hr 30min).

Digne, the préfecture of the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, is a town with a medieval heart and an even older history. In the early 19th century Digne was a luncheon stop for Napoléon. Today it's a popular tourist stop for French and foreign visitors, with only one of its attractions being the thermal baths that justify the -les-Bains part of its name.

Although Digne is a major town, with residential areas and shopping centers,  it has a compact center and a beautiful setting, sitting beside the fast-flowing Bléone river and with forested mountains all around. The long main street through town is completely shaded by the overhanging branches of the plane trees.

There's good shopping in central Digne, along the tree-lined Boulevard Gassendi and the pedestrian streets just beside.

Digne has a unique geological position because of the transition between the Alps and the plains of Provence.The Réserve Géologique des Alpes-de-Haute-Provence is a huge area protected for its geological interest. The controlling Centre de Géologie has laboratories, libraries and expositions in Digne. The Centre is located just north of central Digne, across the river and then left up the hillside. There's a 15-minute walk from the parking lot, but you'll have a great view of the town from there.

The hot springs of Digne-les-Bains have been used since Antiquity, but not continuously, the baths losing their popularity after the Romans departed. The modern baths, rebuilt by the municipality and opened in 1982, are still on the aptly-named Eaux-Chaudes river 3 km southeast of the town. There are actually 8 hot springs (and one cold), flowing from the St Pancarace cliffs. The water, starting at 42°C (107°F), contain sulfur, calcic (lime and calcium), strong minerals and are lightly radioactive. The baths are supposed to be good for respiratory problems and rheumatism.

Digne is the center of one of the principle lavender regions of Provence, the Pays de Digne.

Train from Gare CP ca. 3hr 10min; depart 06.42 or 09.00; return 13.58 or 17.25

Grasse


Grasse, the perfume capital of the world,
has been a popular tourist town for several centuries, with the smell of flowers and clear air. The altitude of the town, from 300-400 m, and the hills behind give Grasse a fresher climate than the beach during the heat of the summer. Princess Pauline Bonaparte, the Emperor's sister, spent the winter of 1807-08 in Grasse, recuperating her mental and physical strength. Queen Victoria vacationed through several winters in Grasse, staying at the Rothschild's or at the Grand Hotel. Napoléon himself passed through Grasse on 2 March 1815, but didn't have time for vacationing.

The vieille ville (old town) is large, old, and extremely interesting. Tiny streets wind forever between the 17th and 18th century buildings, up and down ancient steps, passing through arched tunnels and sometimes opening out onto large squares. Many of the streets aren't as clean as they should be, but still worth a wander.

The principal square near the top of the old town is the Place aux Aires. A pretty, three-tiered fountain splashes in the center and arcades line one long side. Until recently (2004) this was the site of the daily market of flowers and regional foods, now sadly gone. The nearby shops (butchers, bakers, etc.) are still in business.

Somewhere down in the old village a narrow street comes out onto the Place Godeau, with the 10-11th-century Notre Dame du Puy cathedral (rebuilt in the 17th c.) and its huge 18th century clock tower. Inside the cathedral are three paintings by Rubens, commissioned from the then-unknown artist in 1601 by the Archduke Albert for the Santa Croce di Gerusalemme in Rome, and offered to Grasse in the 19th century. There's also the 1754 painting Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles by Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

Also in the Place Godeau is 12th-century Tour de Guet (watch tower) at the Mairie, which was the Bishop's Palace.

Bus Route 500 from Gambetta, ca. 1hr 05min

Train from Gare SNCF ca. 1hr 10min (via Cannes)

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Menton


Menton is a large and dynamic Cote d'Azur seaside town. The entrance to Menton by car from the A8 autoroute comes down the Vallée du Careï and into town along north-south boulevard of lawn, flowers and shade trees,the Jardins Biovès. At the bottom, the coastal road comes into town from the west along the Baie du Soleil, runs around the old port and curves past the Baie de Garavan towards Italy.

The town is full of old buildings, beautifully restored. A good example being the colorful buildings around the Place Ardoino, including the Hotel de Ville (town hall).

The old town, le Vieux Menton, has an active pedestrian area, with the long Rue St Michel running the length of it and the Rue Piéta joining. Full of shops of all sorts and terrace cafés - although the rest of the town doesn't really lack for these amenities either.

The real heart of le Vieux Menton for us is the Medieval style buildings grouped around the Eglise St Michel and the Chapel de Pénitents Blancs at the top of the hill. Viewed from the sea front at the east, this area has the appearance of a hilltop perched village. The streets are narrow, with long step-streets and many very colorful old buildings.

If you get tired of wandering the streets or general sightseeing, there are tons of things to do in Menton, including museums, gardens, frequent special events (such as the February Lemon Festival), not to mention the seaside and beach activities. And when the sun is well down, there's a rather grand casino along the seaside near the center of Menton. Perhaps not as grand as the one in Monaco, but we suspect you could lose your money just as fast here as there.


Beaches line the seaside on both sides of the town. The majority are to the west, towards Cap Martin. The handiest is probably the Plage des Sablettes at the feet of the old town.

There are nearly a dozen private beaches in Menton, where you rent deck lounges and have bar service and a handy restaurant for lunch. In spite of the many private beach areas, there are many free beaches (such as the Plage des Sablettes), and the entire beach front along the water is open to public access.

Bus Route 84 from Gambetta to Airport Terminal 2 ca 15min; Bus Route 110 from Airport Terminal 2 (every hour on the hour) ca. 1hr 15min.

Train from Gare SNCF ca. 30min

Monaco & Monte Carlo


Situated on the Cote d'Azur between Cap d'Ail and Menton, just a few kilometers from the Italian Riviera, Monaco is one of those magic glamorous places that has a world wide reputation. Monaco is a sovereign state, independent and prosperous. It has its own government and the head of state since 1949 was His Highness Prince Rainier III, recently succeeded by his son, Albert. 

There is no doubt that Monaco has a privileged location. This tiny capital (1,95km. with a soaring economy, is built against the mountains (Monaco is nicknamed "The Rock"), and spreads down to the shores of the Riviera. 31 hectares have been added to Monaco's surface by building several sky scrapers right on the water.

There is sun here almost all the time, and fabulous parks and gardens have been laid out throughout the city. There are sumptuous boutiques with the latest fashions, palatial luxury hotels, and very chic restaurants. The cultural and sports centers are fitted out to perfection. Everywhere you look there are long limousines gliding, or little Porsches zipping around the famous curves of Monte Carlo. This is Monaco.

This perfect little Paradise is one of the "IN" places for the international jet set and the very famous. It is also, understandably, a favorite hunting ground for the notorious paparazzi.

Bus Route 84 from Gambetta to Airport Terminal 2 ca 15min; Bus Route 110 from Airport Terminal 2 (every hour on the hour) ca. 45min

Train from Gare SNCF ca. 30min

Boat from the port, mid-June to mid-September; Saturday 9.15 am return 5.15 pm; Tuesday, Thursday 10.00 am, return 6.00 pm. Advance booking recommended.

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St. Paul de Vence


Also known as St. Paul-de-Vence, which is handy, since there are nine other "St. Paul"s in France and a slew of St. Paul-de-somewhere's.

St. Paul is a beautiful medieval fortified village perched on a narrow spur between two deep valleys. Its location gives you a great view of the village from the La Colle road to the east or the Cagnes-Vence road to the west.

Although the village itself is one of the most intact medieval examples of the region, with much of the ramparts still there, it's hard to see anything inside the village except other tourists. "Off season", the village is full of tourists. During the summer and holidays, the village is so packed with tourists that they walk shoulder-to-shoulder through the narrow streets. Except for the ramparts and the typical old houses, the most predominant things to see in the village are the scores of art galleries, tourist shops, pseudo "artisanal" shops; all very expensive.

Bus Route 400 from Gambetta, ca. 55min

 

Saint Tropez


The seaside resort town Saint Tropez is still very popular with the tourists, although the jetset and the in-crowd have long since left it behind. Set on the lovely blue water of the Bay of Saint-Tropez, this modern version of a medieval town is most popular for the line of yachts along the quai, and the facing line of terrace cafés, divided by a parade of strolling tourists and slow cruising expensive cars.


Behind the cafés, the small streets and old buildings are picturesque, but they're more popular for the multitude of shops and restaurants than historical significance. There are endless possibilities for buying gifts or items of proof that "you've been here".

Movie stars and other famous pretty people do pass through, 'though not so frequently as yesteryear. The most famous, of course, are ensconced in the fabulous private estates set along the coast, protected from the curious eyes of all but those with the means to rent helicopters and light aircraft. The late Princess Diana, for example, did spend the night in a local discotheque in August 1997, but it was closed to all but her private party.

The town's Office de Tourisme, located along the center of the main drag, is very active. The multilingual staff is friendly and helpful, and they have their own Internet web site. Excellent maps and informational brochures are available 7 days a week.

The drive there in summer is horrific, but an interesting alternative is the boat service from Nice - at three hours it's probably quicker than driving!

Boat from the port, mid-June to mid-September, 9.00 am, return 7.00 pm. Advance booking recommended.

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Villefranche-sur-Mer


This is a busy town in a busy part of the Côte d'Azur. A couple of features that make it attractive to visitors are the seaside, with long sandy beachs, terrace cafés and restaurants, and the very nice old town, vieille ville.

From the main road above, you can look down across the red tile roofs of the old town, with the distinctive church and bell tower in the center. Like the medieval villages of the "back country", the narrow cobblestone and bricked streets slope steeply down (in this case towards the sea) or traverse along the slope, with vaulted passages beneath the houses. There's quite a medieval feeling here, with just the many little restaurants to remind you you're in tourist country. There are also quiet little squares, like the Place Félix Poullan beside the church, and the Place de l'Eglise just below, with a bench circling a beautiful big tree.

The most extreme example we've seen anywhere of a vaulted passage is the Rue Obscura, a street about a block in from the seafront that's completely covered for about half its length. Lighted only by white, wire-gridded lamps in the roof, the "obscure" street reminds you of the days when the town's population sheltered here from bombardments. Cross streets open out onto the sunny upper village or the even brighter seafront below.

Bus Route 117 from Gare Routiere or Le Port, ca. 15min

Train from Gare SNCF ca. 10min

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