South of France: the French Riviera & Monaco

“I’ve made a huge mistake,” I thought, as we drove into Cannes. Clearly, this is not the ideal thought to run through your mind as you enter a holiday destination, and I was worried. I am usually at the helm of our holiday travel itineraries, and I take pride in my pretty much flawless record of choosing places to go. (Okay, except perhaps staying directly in the town of Munnar, in Kerala, as opposed to staying in a more rural guesthouse in the jungles near it. That town was grim.) Prior, it had been a fairly stressful day of driving through traffic, not finding bathrooms, and then upon finding bathrooms discovering there was no toilet paper (a running theme in that region, though). So, arriving to an afternoon scene of more awful traffic, roads that didn’t quite match our directions (turned out a road had just shut down for repairs) and much commercialization (especially after the quaint villages) – Cannes was a shock to the system.

frenchriviera02 the saturated colors of the French Riviera, on the road from Cannes to Cassis

The earlier part of the day had been a mixed bag. Leaving Seillans in the morning, we headed towards Cannes via GrasseGrass was a pretty pleasant mix of old village atmosphere and bustling modern town. At the edge of the village’s warren of old lanes filled with modern shops, a square looked down to the not-so-distant French Riviera. It was a lively mid-week scene, hosting a market brimming with gorgeous produce, meats and cheeses, and tasty bites from succulent roasted vegetables to seafood paella being made on the spot, doubtless with ingredients fresh out of the Mediterranean that morning. Grasse is best known for its fields of lavender, rose and jasmine (which bloom and are plucked closer to May) and its high-quality production of fragrances (Chanel sources jasmine and May rose for No.5 from Grasse). There are three main fragrance houses in Grasse that can be visited (and offer tours of their factories): Fragonard, Galimard and Molinard. The latter was the only one I chose to visit (a mix of perfumes are one of my main migraine triggers), and briefly, lest the scents start to get to my head – literally. But it was a fantastic choice. The building itself, around a 10- to 15-minute walk from Grasse’s center, is grand and stately – designed by Gustave Eiffel of that tower – and the interior is filled with opulent, fragrant gifts (I’ll take a bottle of the vanilla-patchouly eau de parfum, if anyone’s offering), antique curios and a stunning glass-dome ceiling.

grasse08 a pretty pastel square in Grasse

After hunting for a bathroom, and then toilet paper, and then getting stuck in thick traffic, we decided we weren’t quite ready for the Riviera yet, so grabbed some picnic items from a market (a variety of hams, cheeses, breads and – but of course – rosé) and made our way to a lookout point on our map. Winding our way into the foothills, we gradually left modern civilization behind for a hilltop lunch spot with a clear view to the Mediterranean.

gourdon01 Gourdon (middle right) and the French Riviera as seen from a pretty sweet picnic spot

From there, we spied yet another pretty village and, after a long, lazy lunch, made our way to explore it. Gourdon is perhaps the best example of a ville perché that we came across. Clinging to the top of steep slopes like an ornate medieval crown, it makes for a pretty dramatic sight (enough that it had a couple cameos in 2012’s Les Misérables). And one that drew more than a few tourists. The breezy town and castle, built in the ninth century, was undeniably attractive in the extreme, but with its almost clinically well preserved good looks and spotless pastel façades, it lacked the genuine character of the nearby villages we had seen in previous days.

gourdon03 Gourdon’s medieval, albeit touristic, lanes

And that brings us back to Cannes. Look, I’m not a total asshole. I don’t want to slag off a place I spent just two nights in; that’s not fair. Was Cannes for me? No, I don’t think so. It was busier, more commercial and bigger than I was expecting. I didn’t know what to do there (perhaps being there in season when more was going on, or being more savvy as to the “right” places to go would have given me an entirely different view on the place). And I think I’ll just leave it at that. Cannes didn’t leave much of an impression on me, other than: I would have rather been somewhere else.

However. We happened to arrive during the Panerai Royal Regatta, and the marina will filled with lust-worthy vintage sailing yachts. Real stunners from the early 20th century with buffed wooden decks and shining copper or brass hardware. Lovely.

Old-timey sailing yacht. I'll have that. Old-timey sailing yacht in Cannes for the Panera Royal Regatta. I’ll have that.

Unsurprisingly yachts were a theme along the French Riviera: really big ones and even bigger ones with heli-pads. And as we sped – whoops, no – crawled through appalling traffic towards Monaco where we were met with even more appalling traffic (and I’m calling shenanigans on Bond ever – ever – being able to race through the tunnel to and on roads in Monte Carlo because that place is just one big traffic jam from my experience) we found that the Monaco Yacht Show was filling up Port Hercule with even more superyachts than usual. Eventually we fought our way to Hôtel Hermitage, one of Monte Carlo’s more opulent of opulent hotels, where we had booked lunch. Dripping in French style, the hotel from the early 1900s was, naturally, so pristine it may as well have been brand new, and while that busy, frivolous French (Parisian?) aesthetic is really not my sort of look, I had to admit, the hotel was breathtaking and beautiful in its shameless decadence.

obligatory obligatory “hey look at me dining somewhere fancy” photo

We gawped our way through cavernous halls of ornate trimmings to the more minimal Le Vistamar restaurant. I had chosen this restaurant partly due to its location – it had a terrace, where we found ourselves at an excellent table at the edge with uninterrupted views of the port and Monegasque hillside – and partly because I was intent on getting a Michelin-starred meal in during this trip (and also because the famed Alain Ducasse Le Louis XV was currently closed, to my immense disappointment). But it was a fantastic experience. I started with a butternut soup flavored with hazelnut. Set in front of me, the bowl was filled only with fresh herbs, corn and an excellent slice of streamed foie gras (the finest I tasted during the trip, and I ate a lot of foie gras that week) – until the creamy butternut soup was carefully poured around the other elements. Rich and flavorful, this was quite possibly the week’s highlight dish. With a menu that generally follows a philosophy that uses meat and vegetables in a simple way, I tried a mix of slow-simmered fish and vegetables for my main. The colorful plate was filled with tiny baby carrots, plump grapes, and tender broccoli florets mixed with a trio of succulent white fish: john dory, sea bass and cod, all of which were exceptional. Concluding with a fluffy, sky-high strawberry soufflé that I was barely able to finish (but couldn’t stop myself from) I was glad we’d made the detour to Monaco because, in my opinion, the lunch experience (the view! the food!) was worth the infuriating traffic. After, we walked around a bit, peeking at the famed Casino de Monte-Carlo and the nearby park and Pavilion shops, which housed Chanel, Alexander Wang and Miu Miu, et al. in strikingly futuristic, pod-like buildings unlike anything else I’d seen in Monaco, or the entire region, for that matter.

montecarlo10 butternut soup at Le Vistamar, Monte Carlo
montecarlo11 slow-simmered fish and vegetables at Le Vistamar, Monte Carlo

Just outside Monaco, at the top of a hill, is another medieval village worth checking out if you’re in the area. Eze, like Gourdon, swarms with tourists and is so well taken care of it has an almost Disney-like feel to it – but again, is unquestionably beautiful. Leave your heels at home to traverse the village’s steep walkways of stones weathered slick by innumerable tourists treading on them over the years. Shops, hotels and restaurants lean towards to upmarket end: art galleries proffer genuine originals from renowned painters, restaurants boast Michelin stars and hotels in centuries-old châteaus offer lavish luxury (I would love to return just to stay in Château de la Chevre d’Or).

a windy path leads past the posh Château Eza hotel in Eze a windy path leads past the posh Château Eza hotel in Eze

Cutting our Cannes stay short, we departed for Cassis, a sophisticated little fishing village outside of Marseille. This was closer to what we were looking for in a Riviera experience. The town was small and easy to explore; the streets were old and mostly pedestrianized; bars and cafés lined the water’s edge – ideal for lazy afternoon rosé quaffing and extended evening sundowners; and the overall atmosphere was cheerful and laid back. While we were only able to spend less than 24 hours here before out flight back to Dubai departed, it was a nice, relaxed way to end the holiday. If you find yourself flying in or out of Marseille with some time to spare, I would absolutely recommend making your way to Cassis – had we more time, there were vineyards neighboring the town for tastings, and little boat tours out to the calanques, sort of French fjords, that are apparently spectacular. What I would recommend against, however, is staying in a hotel that is situated directly above one of the cafés or bars bordering the harbor. While the village itself is fairly quiet, there is a surprisingly loud and very late-night scene at some of the bars (nightclubs?) that can be sleep disruptive. Especially if you have to be up at 5:30am to leave for the airport, and they rage on beneath until 4am. So there’s that – but it’s charming otherwise!

the harbor in Cassis the harbor in Cassis, with the stately Château de Cassis looming from the clifftops above

[click here for full photo album]

5 thoughts on “South of France: the French Riviera & Monaco

  1. What a wonderful discovery finding your blog site, I enjoyed this post it brought back so many memories to our recent visit there…. I am so glad you took photos of the food because as I was reading of your lunch there in MC I was wondering what it may look like, then I came to the photos…. yay! I love reading the travels of others cause it keeps me up and going on our travels… I spent many years in Eze as a child and the perfume factory there is just amazing.
    below i posted our trip to the same places as you have here, maybe you will like as well.
    Personally I just love France and shopping in the grocery stores there, though I live in Italy the food there is just richer.

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