Emmanuel Tresmontant - 2008-05-05
Whatever people say, the real star of the French Riviera in May is still Cannes and the surrounding area! On the fringes of the festival and all its rumours, stars and trendy nightclubs, a few protected places will give visitors who have had their fill of films a delightful change of scene… and authenticity.
Day One: from the splendour of the Croisette to the spindrift of the Lérins Islands
Yes, of course, in May there is the Croisette with its luxury hotels full of stars, its Rolls-Royces and unbridled paparazzi... The famous palm trees here form a border separating the luxury boutiques from the fine sandy beaches transformed, for the occasion, into television sets.
Opposite the entrance to the Palais des Festivals, you will walk over the 200 flagstones of the Allée des Stars, which bear the handprints of film directors and actors who have stayed in Cannes (Sophia Loren, Clint Eastwood, Isabelle Adjani, etc.).
But there is also Old Cannes, quiet and intimate, overlooking the marina from the hillside. Far from the rumours, you will feel the need to retreat here for a while, just to get away from it all. Then all you have to do is head to the old port (via the very pleasant rue Meynadier, which links the old and new towns) and bravely climb the streets of the Suquet district; with its maze of alleys, stairways and old houses, this is the living soul of Cannes.
At the top of the hill, you will discover the Château de Cannes, which is listed as an historic monument. Built in the 10th century, it made it possible to resist pirate raids in the Middle Ages. Today it houses the Musée de la Castre, which gives access to the Tour Carrée, a watchtower built in the 11th century to warn of the arrival of the Saracens (hence its nickname of “Tour Sarrasine”, or Saracen Tower). From there you will enjoy a sublime panorama of the Croisette, bay of La Napoule, Lérins Islands, Estérel Mountains and in the distance, behind Nice, the snow-covered mountains of the Mercantour national park.
A neglected museum worth a visit
In a magnificent location, the Musée de la Castre is one of France’s oldest ethnographic museums. It was the result of a donation made to the town of Cannes in 1877 by Baron Lycklama Nijeholt, a Dutch aristocrat with a passion for oriental antiques, who brought back a host of very rare objects from his travels in the Caucasus, Persia and Syria.
Shortly before his donation, the baron’s personal collection had been enhanced by another, even more unusual collection – that of the adventurer Ginoux de la Coche who, between 1843 and 1848, spent time in Polynesia, the Marquesas Islands, Tahiti and Latin America. The objects he brought back are very impressive, such as the funerary figure from Melanesia or the feather headdress from the Amazonian Indians.
The Musée de la Castre also displays a magnificent collection of musical instruments from all over the world (in the Chapelle Sainte-Anne) and a gallery of paintings executed in Cannes in the 19th century by talented local painters Ernest Buttura and Joseph Contini: a chance to see what the Croisette and Lérins Islands looked like in the 1870s...
Need to take to the open sea? In 15 minutes you can reach the Lérins Islands, the two extraordinary gardens of the Cannes coast...
Sainte-Marguerite Island is the closest and most extensive of the two islands, at 3 km long and 900 m wide. 150 of the 170 ha are covered by a pine and eucalyptus forest managed by the ONF (French forestry commission). You can walk round the island in 3 hours by the shore or follow the botanical trail, which catalogues all the species of the site.
Archaeological digs have revealed that, from 600 BC, the island was an important Roman trading port. Hundreds of amphorae have been fished from the waters on the approaches to the island and are preserved in the Musée de la Mer (Museum of the Sea), built in the vaulted chambers of the old “castrum” (a fortress perched above the rocks). On the ground floor, you can visit the cell of the enigmatic “Man in the Iron Mask”. Another must-see: the cannonball ovens installed by Bonaparte’s artillery. They were used to heat the projectiles until red-hot in order to set fire to the English ships, hence the expression “tirer à boulets rouges” (literally “to fire red cannon balls” meaning to go for somebody hammer and tongs)...
Just behind Sainte-Marguerite Island, the island of Saint-Honorat is smaller by half. It is a private estate that has belonged to Cistercian monks since the foundation of the monastery in 405. You can swim and walk here, provided that you respect the peace and quiet of the place.
Vines were already being cultivated on the island in the Middle Ages. But it was under the impetus of Friar Marie Pâques that, from 1992, the monks of Saint-Honorat applied themselves to producing quality wines that are now served in the region’s best restaurants. It must be said that the soil is magnificent and the absence of neighbours allows the monks to put into practice principles of organic winegrowing, free from disease. The sea climate moreover gives the white wines (Chardonnay and Clairette) an amazing freshness, despite the hot summers that favour a high level of alcohol. You will find these wines here, at the monastery.
Day Two: exploring the Estérel Mountains
A few minutes from Cannes, the Estérel Mountains are one of the most beautiful landscapes of the east Mediterranean and, above all, one of the most protected. This immense cirque of 30,000 ha, split between the Var and the Alpes-Maritimes regions, opens on to the sea and, with its peaks and small valleys, makes up a splendid mosaic of forests (mainly pine and holm oak), maquis and rocks. Outdoor enthusiasts will be happy, since the mountains are crossed by 40 km of footpaths, 100 km of mountain bike circuits and 100 km of bridle paths.
Despite the fires, the Estérel Mountains remain a precious ecological reserve for fauna (eagle owl, red partridge) and flora (wild lily, Judas tree). To reach this paradise, take the N 98 in the direction of Saint-Raphaël. You will skirt the Le Trayas district, then take the magnificent “Corniche d'Or” road, built in 1903 by the Touring Club: the view of red rocks plunging into the turquoise sea is truly breathtaking; it was here, in fact, that the expression “Côte d’Azur” was invented in the 19th century...
You then have two options: one sporty, the other relaxed. You can first of all park your car near the small and very typically Provençal Le Trayas station, then follow the trail that will lead you to the Pic de l'Ours (492 m). Reckon on a good half day’s walk there and back. In the late afternoon, why not go for a drink in Saint-Raphaël? This charming little port stretches out on the last slopes of the Estérel Mountains.
The other – easier – option consists of following the sea shore as far as the Pointe de l'Observatoire. From there, after parking in the car park, take the Cap Roux forest road,which is happily closed to traffic. Allow an hour and a half’s walk up to the Saint-Barthélémy rock, which offers a magnificent view of the coast. Then head back down to Saint-Raphaël. If you push on as far as Fréjus, famous for its beach and Roman ruins, you can end your little jaunt by rediscovering the legendary N 7, which crosses the Estérel Mountains from west to east. The N 7 was not built there by chance, since it covers the ancient Via Aurelia that led to Rome. It will take you to Mandelieu-la-Napoule (capital of the mimosa!), just 8 km from Cannes.
Where to have a drink
151, rue d’Antibes
Tel: + 33 (0)4 92 59 14 22
In June 2001, Giovanna Rapali, originally from the Abruzzo region, became the third woman to obtain the title of “ best young sommelier of France”. At the age of 30, she is now sommelier at Cave Croisette, a new wine bar set up in May 2007 by Frédéric Roggemans at the top of rue d’Antibe. All the Grand Cru Classé Bordeaux wines are on the wine list here, as well as the great champagnes, but the place is worth a visit above all for its selection of vins de vignerons produced by winegrowers from all over France, preferably using organic methods: Jean Foillard in Morgon, Philippe Alliet in Chinon and Dominique Hauvette in Saint-Rémy de Provence. Nigh on 750 items in all. Wines by the glass and bottles to take away at merchants’ prices. Fresh market cuisine (9.50 euros for a main course).
73, La Croisette
Tel: + 33 (0)4 92 98 73 00
July-Aug: open every day, 11am-4pm. Sept-June: open every day, 11am-2pm.
Very busy and open to all, this is the bar of the Palace Martinez hotel, which achieves the biggest turnover on the Riviera. Its reputation relies on the know-how of its head barman and American pianist. Live music every evening from 8pm.
Tel: + 33 (0)4 94 39 32 74
Far from the glitz, here you will find working-class, convivial Cannes. Located on the Place du Marché, this small cafe is devoted to football and football fans. Dozens of scarves and pennants adorn the walls.
La ferme savoyarde
22, rue Meynadier
Tel: + 33 (0)4 93 39 63 68
Édouard Ceneri is a living institution in the region. You will go into raptures over the magnificent cheeses that he has selected throughout the year in France and abroad, and which he ripens himself in his cellar. Goat’s cheese from Banon, ewe’s milk cheese from the Pyrenees, parmesan, gorgonzola and stilton feature in all the great restaurants of the region.
Aux bons raviolis
31 rue Meynadier
Tel: + 33 (0)4 93 39 36 63
Ravioli stuffed with duck, morel mushrooms, ricotta, asparagus or basil, traditional niçois ravioli with daube (Swiss chard and parmesan) or gourmet ravioli (braised cabbage, veal, pork)... All the pasta here is hand-crafted by Patrick Foppiani. You will also find the famous panisse (a chickpea pancake) and numerous Italian specialities.
13 rue Hoche
Tel: + 33 (0)4 93 39 26 63
Another very famous address, as beautiful as a goldsmith’s shop, where people go to stock up and commit the sin of gluttony. Homemade crystallised fruit galore (clementines, pears and apricots from the Vaucluse), exquisite marrons glacés, bitter ganaches to die for.
Cave de Forville
3, marché Forville
Tel: + 33 (0)4 93 39 45 09
Set next to the beautiful Provençal market in the town centre, where the scorpion fish caught the same morning are as red as the Sicilian tomatoes, this big cellar offers over 800 wines, including a good choice of great organic wines from the south of France and Corsica (Antoine Arena’s Patrimonio, Domaine de Trévallon, Château de Roquefort...). The wines can be tasted in the bar there, with a few homemade tapas. Fine cigar cabinet too. The latest “in” place in Cannes!
An unusual hotel: the 3-14!
5, rue François Einesy
Tel: + 33 (0)4 92 99 72 00
Set on the Croisette, 300 m from the Palais des Festivals, this new hotel is aimed at those who enjoy relaxation (swimming pool and bamboo forest on the terrace!), Feng Shui and a “multi-ethnic” atmosphere: each floor corresponds to a universe representing the five continents – creative, flamboyant America, Africa at the gateway to the desert, Oceania and the remote islands, the Europe of the Belle Epoque, and mysterious Asia…A cultural mix is also the keynote of the cuisine, and drinks are served in airy Murano glassware. Rooms start at €155.
Cannes Tourist Office
Tel: + 33 (0)4 92 99 84 22
Musée de la Castre
Tel: + 33 (0)4 93 38 55 26
Open every day except Monday, 10am-1pm, 2pm-6pm.
Sailing times to the Lérins Islands
For Sainte-Marguerite Island: 9am, 10am, 11am, 12pm, 2pm, 3pm, 4pm (5pm and 6pm in summer)
For Saint-Honorat Island: 9am, 10am, 11am, 12pm, 2pm, 3pm, 4.30pm
Abbaye de Saint-Honorat
Îles des Lerins
Tel: + 33 (0)4 92 99 54 00
Guided tours in the Estérel Mountains
For guided tours on horseback in the Estérel Mountains, contact Bernard Bietta, ONF forest warden, who is in charge of activities in the mountains. A man who, for 20 years, has been totally dedicated to this place and knows it like the back of his hand!
Maison forestière des Trois-Termes
RN7 Pont Saint-Jean
Tel: + 33 (0)4 94 44 16 45 - + 33 (0)6 22 30 01 63
Saint-Raphaël Tourist Office
Quai Albert 1er
83 702 Saint-Raphaël cedex
Tel: + 33 (0)4 94 19 52 52