Emmanuel Tresmontant - 2008-05-05
Whatever people say, the real star of the French Riviera is still Cannes and its surroundings. On the fringes of the festival with its starlets and trendy nightclubs, a few unspoiled spots continue to offer discerning visitors a welcome change of scene and a taste of authenticity.
From the star-spangled glitter of the Croisette to the spindrift of the Lérins Islands
Of course, come festival time in May, celebrities in Rolls Royces, pursued by paparazzis, invade the city’s luxury hotels and pose on its famous Croisette. Yet the heart of Old Cannes continues to beat, more peacefully and intimately, on the hillside overlooking the marina. Come and rest here for a moment and take a step back from the bustle. Once restored, venture down again to the old port (along the delightful Rue Meynadier that links the old and new towns) and bravely climb the streets of the Suquet district. A genuine maze of lanes, staircases and old houses, this district is the life and soul of Cannes. At the top of the hill, you will discover the Château de Cannes, a listed historic monument, today home to the Musée de la Castre and its legendary square tower, erected in the 11th century to warn the inhabitants of attacks by the Saracens (hence its nickname of “Tour Sarrasine” or Saracen Tower). From here, you can admire the superb panorama of the Croisette, bay of La Napoule, Lérins Islands and the Estérel Mountains.
Musée de la Castre, a neglected museum worth a visit
Magnificently located, 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 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 art 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…
Lérins Islands: Sainte-Marguerite and Saint-Honorat
Sainte-Marguerite Island, the closest and largest of the two islands, is 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 a major 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”.
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 spot. Vines have been cultivated on the island since the Middle Ages, but it is only since 1992 under the impetus of Friar Marie Pâques that the monks of Saint-Honorat have begun producing the quality wines that are now served in the region’s best restaurants. The soil is indeed rich and totally pristine. Moreover the sea climate gives the white wines (Chardonnay and Clairette) an amazing freshness, despite the hot summers that favour a high level of alcohol.
Discovering 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 unspoiled. This immense 30,000 ha-cirque, spanning the Var and the Alpes-Maritimes regions, opens onto the sea and, with its peaks and small valleys, makes up a splendid mosaic of forests (mainly pine and holm oak), maquis (scrubland) 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 towards Saint-Raphaël. You will skirt the Le Trayas district, then take the magnificent “Corniche d'Or” road, built in 1903. The view of red rocks plunging into the turquoise sea is truly breathtaking; it was, in fact, here, that the expression “Côte d’Azur” was coined in the 19th century...
Cannes Tourist Office
Tel: 00 33 4 92 99 84 22
Ferry timetable to the Lérins Islands
To Sainte-Marguerite Island: 9am, 10am, 11am, 12pm, 2pm, 3pm, 4pm (5 and 6pm in summertime)
To Saint-Honorat Island: 9am, 10am, 11am, 12pm, 2pm, 3pm, 4.30pm
Tel: 00 33 4 92 99 54 00
Guided tours of the Estérel Mountains
Maison forestière des Trois-Termes
RN7 Pont Saint-Jean
Tel: 00 33 4 94 44 16 45
Saint-Raphaël Tourist Office
Quai Albert 1er
83 702 Saint-Raphaël cedex
Tel: 00 33 4 94 19 52 52