Things to see and do - French Riviera and Monaco
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This is a country of contrasts:
Extending from Bandol to Menton, the Riviera is extremely varied. The sheltered inlets between the red rock promontories of the Esterel differ markedly from the great sweeping bays and flat shores which gently punctuate the coastline; while elsewhere on the coast, such as at Cap Sicié, mountains plunge steeply into the sea, sheer as a wall.
A countryside just as varied lies inland. The fertile plains and foothills of Provence are typically Mediterranean in their vegetation but among them are barren, rugged heights like those to the north of Toulon. The mountain masses of the Maures, which rise to no more than 800m/2 600ft, are crisscrossed by valleys and ravines and covered with fine forests of cork oak and chestnut; while the Esterel, massif is dominated by the outline of Mont Vinaigre and the peaks of Pic de l’Ours and Pic du Cap Roux. The country behind Cannes and Nice is one of undulating hills stretching to the Pre-Alps of Grasse, where gorges have been cut into the plateaux and the mountain chains are split by rifts (clues) , particularly in Haute-Provence.
Behind the Riviera the peaks of the Pre-Alps of Nice rise to more than 2 000m/6 560ft, while further to the north and northeast the true Alpine heights tower on the Italian border.
There is a winter warmth on the Nice coast (the average temperatures for January in Nice are max 13ºC/55ºF; min 4ºC/39ºF) and, less than two hours away by car, the icy air of the ski slopes; the summer heat of the coast and the exhilarating coolness of the mountain resorts; the cold mistral wind and the burning sirocco ; long days of drought, dried-up rivers and, suddenly, tremendous downpours and overflowing torrents.
The forest of Turini, with its centuries-old beeches and firs, resmbles that of a northern land; the woods of the Maures and the Esterel are typically southern with their cork oaks and pines, periodically ravaged by forest fires. The wild scrub and underbrush of the maquis is far from the orderly rows of the orange and lemon groves; the lavender and thyme growing wild from the vast cultivated fields of flowers; the palm trees, agaves and cacti of the coast from the firs and larches of the highlands.
The coast attracts all the activity of the area: the busiest roads, the most important towns and the best equipped resorts are concentrated there. Inland, however, there is peace and quiet, even complete solitude; sleepy little towns and old villages, perched like eagles’ nests high up on the hillsides but now almost deserted .
Nice is the coast’s tourist capital; Monte-Carlo, a great gambling city. The busy flower trade and the production of perfume exist side by side with new research centres dealing with oceanography and data processing.
Land of the Sun
Such a multiplicity of impressions has one common factor – the Mediterranean climate. In the Land of the Sun, the sun shines continually (2 725 hours annually in Nice compared with 1 465 hours in London).
Except in high summer, outlines are sharpened and natural features acquire an architectural aspect in the clear air. The shining blue of the sea and sky blends with the green of the forest, the silver-grey of the olive trees, the red porphyry rock and the white limestone.
Provence was formed from two mountain systems: one very old – the Maures and the Esterel – the other much younger – the Provençal ranges of Pyrénéan and the Pre-Alps of Alpine origin.
This crystalline mountain mass spreads from the River Gapeau in the west to the Argens Valley in the east, from the sea in the south to a long depression in the north, beyond which are the limestone Pre-Alps. Long low parallel ranges, covered with fine forests which have not escaped the forest fires, make up the Maures Massif; the highest point is La Sauvette (779m/ 556ft).
The Esterel, separated from the Maures by the lower Argens Valley, has also been eroded by time, and is therefore of low altitude. Its highest peak is Mont Vinaigre at 618m/2 027ft. The deep ravines cut into its sides and its jagged crests dispel any impression of mere hills.
The Esterel, like the Maures, was once entirely covered with forests of pine and cork oak but these have been ravaged periodically by forest fires.
Shrubs and bushes grow beneath the trees: tree heathers, arbutus, lentisks and lavender, while scrub (maquis) covers the open ground. In spring the red and white flowers of the cistus, yellow mimosa and broom, and white heather and myrtle form a brilliant floral patchwork.
These short limestone chains, arid and rugged, rise to heights of 400–1 150m/1 200–3 500ft. Of Pyrenean origin with a highly complex structure, they do not have the continuity of those of Alpine origin such as the Southern Pre-Alps. The most southerly peaks, just north of Toulon, are the Gros Cerveau (429m/1 407ft), which is bisected by the Ollioules gorges, Mont Faron (542m/1 778ft), which dominates the town; and Le Coudon; Montagne de la Loube rises 28km/17.4mi to the north. Between the ranges are fertile valleys where the traditional crops of cereals, vines and olives are cultivated.
Maritime Alps and Mercantour
The northeast the horizon is dominated by a vast mountainous mass (altitude: 1 500–2 900m/4 922–9 515ft), which is dissected by the upper valleys of the Var, Tinée, Vésubie and Roya. On the Italian border these mountains meet the great crystalline massif, Le Mercantour, the peaks of which exceed 3 000m/9 842.5ft.
This region contains a large part of the Southern Pre-Alps. Between the River Verdon and River Var the Pre-Alps of Grasse are formed by a series of parallel east-west chains, with altitudes varying between 1 100-1 600m/3 609-5 249ft which are frequently indented by wild and narrow rifts (clues) .
The Nice Pre-Alps rise from the coast in tiers to a height of 1 000m/3 281ft, affording a wide variety of scenery inland from Nice and Menton. These ranges, which are Alpine in origin, run north-south before changing direction abruptly to finish up parallel with the coast.
From Canjuers plateau to the Vence pass, the Pre-Alps are rimmed with a tableland of undulating limestone plateaux, similar to the causses , into which water infiltrates, penetrating through rifts to feed resurgent streams like the Siagne. The River Loup has carved out a very picturesque gorge.
Below lies a depression or “lowland” where the towns of Vence, Grasse and Draguignan are situated. Beyond the River Argens, the depression extends east down the river to Fréjus and west towards Brignoles; the main axis, however, is southwest to Toulon to the northern slopes of the Maures and Le Luc basin.
Mediterranean rivers are really torrents and their volume, which varies considerably from a mere trickle to a gushing flood, is governed by melting snow, rainfall and evaporation, depending on the season.
The lack of rain and the intense evaporation of the summer months reduce the rivers to little dribbles of water along their stony beds.
In spring and autumn the rains fall suddenly and violently and even the smallest streams are immediately filled with rushing water.
The flow of the Argens varies from 3-600m3/60-132 000gal a second and that of the Var from 17-5 000m3/3 790 to over a million gallons. At the height of its spate the Var is more than half a mile wide and the stain of its muddy waters can be seen in the sea as far away as Villefranche on the far side of Nice.
The water level in rivers in limestone regions is always very uneven. The rains seep into the ground through numerous fissures to reappear often a considerable distance away as large springs gushing out from the sides of valleys. Some of the springs rise in riverbeds, such as the gushers (foux) , which cause the River Argens to flood. Most of the rivers with torrential rates of flow transport material but the River Argens is the only one to have built up an alluvial plain comparable to those of the Languedoc coast. All the torrential rivers have created beautiful valleys, deep gorges (the Loup and the Siagne gorges) or rifts ( clues – the Clue de Gréolières), which are among the attractions of inland Provence.
Caves and Chasms
In contrast to the deeply dissected green valleys, such as the gorges of the Loup and the Siagne, the Caussols plateau rolls away to the far horizon, stony and deserted, a typical karst relief. The dryness of the soil is due to the calcareous nature of the rock which absorbs rain like a sponge.
Rainwater, charged with carbonic acid, dissolves the carbonate of lime to be found in the limestone. Depressions, which are usually circular in shape and small in size and are known as cloups or sotchs , are then formed. The dissolution of the limestone rocks, containing especially salt or gypsum, produces a rich soil particularly suitable for growing crops; when the cloups increase in size they form large, closed depressions know as dolines . Where rainwater infiltrates deeply through the countless fissures in the plateau, the hollowing out and dissolution of the calcareous layer produces wells or natural chasms which are called avens . Little by little the chasms grow, lengthen and branch off, communicating with each other and enlarging into caves.
The infiltrating waters finally produce underground galleries and collect to form a more or less swiftly flowing river. The river widens its course and often changes level, to fall in cascades. Where the rivers run slowly they form lakes, above natural dams, known as gours , which are raised layer by layer by deposits of carbonate of lime. The dissolution of the limestone also continues above the water-level in these subterranean galleries: blocks of stone fall from the roof and domes form, the upper parts pointing towards the surface of the earth. When the roof of the dome wears thin it may cave in, disclosing the cavity from above and opening the chasm.
The mainly rocky coastline reflects the different types of mountain and plateau to be found inland emerging as cliffs and rocks where they meet the sea.
The Toulon Coast
This highly indented section of the coast provides well-sheltered harbours, Bandol and Sanary bays and the outstanding Toulon port. The stretches of almost vertical cliffs are interrupted by some fine beaches.
The Maures Coast
Between Hyères and St-Raphaël, the Maures Massif meets the sea and the coastal scenery offers charming sites and enchanting views.
The Giens Peninsula, formerly an island, is now joined to the mainland by two sandy isthmuses. Nearby are the Hyères islands, densely covered with vegetation, and the Fréjus plain, once a wide bay but now filled by alluvial deposits brought down by the Argens. Characteristic also of this particular section of the coast are great promontories such as Cap Bénat and the St-Tropez Peninsula, narrow tongues of land such as Cap Nègre and Cap des Sardinaux and wide bays like the Bormes harbour and the gulf of St-Tropez.
The Esterel Coast
The red porphyry rocks of the Esterel Massif, steep and rugged, make a striking contrast with the blue of the sea. Along this stretch of coast the mountains thrust great promontories into the sea, between inlets (calanques) and small bays. Offshore, the surface of the sea is scattered with thousands of rocks and small, green moss-covered islets, while submerged reefs can be seen beneath the clear water. The Corniche d’Or is reputed internationally for its breathtaking scenery, superb viewpoints and resorts.
The Antibes Coast
The vista changes once again between Cannes and Nice. The shore is no longer eaten away by the sea; it is flat and opens into wide bays. It is a smooth, unbroken coast on which the Cap d’Antibes peninsula is the sole promontory.
The Riviera Proper
From Nice to Menton the Alps plunge abruptly into the sea. Here the coastline forms a natural terrace, facing the Mediterranean but isolated from its hinterland. Cap Ferrat and Cap Martin are the two main promontories along this stretch of coast. The term Riviera, which has already passed into the language of geography, is applied to this type of coast line. A triple roadway has been cut over the steep slopes, lined with villas and terraced gardens.
The Mediterranean Sea
The Mediterranean is Europe’s bluest sea. The shade – cobalt blue to artists – comes from the clarity of the water. Visitors soon realise that the colour often changes depending on the nature of the sky, the light, the seabed and the depth of water so that at times the “blue Mediterranean” is opal or a warm grey.
The temperature of the water, governed on the surface by the sun’s heat, is constant (13°C/55.4°F) from 200–4 000m/650–13 000ft downwards, whereas in the Atlantic it drops from 14–2°C/57.2–35°F. This is an important factor in the climate, for the sea cools the air in summer and warms it in winter. Rapid evaporation makes the water noticeably more salty than that of the Atlantic. The waves are small, short and choppy; storms come and go quickly.
Tides are almost non-existent (about 25cm/10in). Sometimes when the wind is very strong the tide may reach as much as 1m/3ft. These figures are markedly different from the tides of the Atlantic or from the tides of 13–15m/40–50ft round Mont-St-Michel off the Normandy coast. This relative tidal stability has resulted in the Mediterranean being chosen as the base level for all French altitudes.
The Provençal coastline drops sharply into water that becomes relatively deep a short distance from the shore. Between Nice and Cap Ferrat soundings indicate a depth of 1 000m/3 281ft about half a mile out.
A superb climate
Crowds come flocking in summer and the tourist season lasts almost the whole year.
The Côte d’Azur is one of the most inviting names in the world! Properly speaking, the name Riviera applies to the French coast between Nice and Menton and to the Italian coast between Ventimiglia and Genoa. English visitors, at first for the sake of health but later more and more in search of pleasure, were attracted to the Riviera (especially Nice) in the 18C. The Côte d’Azur (Bandol to Menton) has become widely known as the French Riviera.
The proverbial mildness of the French Riviera is due to a number of factors: a low latitude, the presence of the sea, which moderates temperature variations, a wholly southern aspect, and the screen of hills and mountains, which protects it from cold winds. The average temperature for January in Nice is 8°C/46°F. Icy winds blow from the east and from the southeast bringing rain. Fog and sea-mists appear only on the coast in the height of summer, and harsh winters with ice and snow are rare.
The thermometer may rise to 22°C/72°F but at sunset and during the night the temperature drops suddenly and considerably. There is little rainfall; it is the dew that keeps the vegetation fresh. The hinterland is cold and often snow-covered but the air is limpid and the sun brilliant – an ideal climate for winter sports.
Short but violent showers are characteristic of springtime on the Riviera. This is when the flowers are at their best and a joy to look at. The only drawback is the mistral , which blows most frequently at this season, especially west of Toulon. The mountains, however, act as a buffer and the wind is never as intense as it can be in western Provence and the Rhône Valley.
The Romans made a dreaded god of this fearsome wind. It comes from the northwest in cold gusts; after several days this powerful blast of clean air has purified everything and the wind-swept sky is bluer than ever.
The coast offers an average temperature of 26°C/79°F throughout July and August. The heat, however, is bearable because it is tempered by the fresh breeze that blows during the daytime. This is not the season for flowers: overwhelmed by drought the vegetation seems to sleep. When the hot breath of the sirocco comes out of the south everyone grumbles.
The hinterland offers a wide variety of places to stay at varying altitudes up to 1 800m/5 905ft; the higher one climbs the more invigorating the air.
There are plenty of perfect days during the Mediterranean autumn, punctuated by violent storms after which the sun reappears, brilliant and warm. In the whole year, there is an average of only 86 days of rain in Nice (150 in London), but the quantity of water which falls is higher (863mm/34in in Nice against under 609mm/24in in London).
Flora and Fauna
Plants and trees do not grow in the same way on the Riviera as they do further north. New shoots appear, as they do elsewhere, in the spring but a second growth begins in the autumn and continues throughout most of the winter. The dormant period is during the summer when the hot, dry climate favours only those plants that are especially adapted to resist drought. These have long tap roots, glossy leaves which reduce transpiration, bulbs acting as reservoirs of moisture and perfumes which they release to form a kind of protective vapor.
2 500 years ago, the Greeks brought olive trees to Provence where they grow equally well in limestone or sandy soils. The olive has been called the immortal tree for, grafted or wild, it will always grow from the same stock. Those grown from cuttings die relatively young, at about 300 years old. Along the coast, the trees reach gigantic dimensions, attaining 20m/65.6ft in height, their domes of silver foliage 20m/65.6ft in circumference and trunks 4m/13ft round the base. The olive tree, which has more than 60 varieties, is found up to an altitude of 600m/1 968.5ft and marks the limit of the Mediterranean climate. It grows mainly on valley floors and on hillsides. The trees begin to bear fruit between their sixth and twelfth year and are in full yield at 20 or 25. The olives are harvested every two years. Olive groves are numerous in the areas around Draguignan, Sospel and at Breil, in the Roya Valley.
The oaks native to the Mediterranean region are evergreen. The durmast and holm oaks grow in chalky soil at altitudes below 800m/2 624.5ft. As scrub-oaks, they are a characteristic feature of the garrigue (rocky, limestone moors). In its fully developed state the holm oak is a tree with a short thick-set trunk covered in grey-black bark and with a dense, rounded crown. The cork oak is distinguished by its large dark-coloured acorns and its rough bark. Every eight to twelve years the thick cork bark is stripped off, exposing a reddish brown trunk.
The three types of pine to be found in the Mediterranean region have unmistakable silhouettes.
The maritime pine , which grows only on limestone soil, has dark, blue-tinged green needles and deep red bark.
The umbrella pine is typically Mediterranean and owes its name to its easily recognisable outline. It is often found growing alone.
The Aleppo pine is a Mediterranean species that thrives on chalky soil along the coast; it has a twisted, grey trunk and lighter, less dense, foliage.
Other Provençal Trees – The smooth-trunked plane tree and the lotus tree shade the courtyards, streets and squares and also line the roads.
The dark silhouette of the coniferous, evergreen cypress is a common feature of the countryside; planted in rows, the pyramidal cypress forms an effective windbreak.
The common almond tree , a member of the Rosaceae, is widespread in Provence and blossoms early. The robust chestnut flourishes in the Maures Massif. Certain mountain species of fir and larch are to be found in the Alps; the forest of Turini is a fine fir-growing region.
In parks and gardens and along the roads stand magnificent eucalyptus trees . This hardy specimen is particularly suited to the climate. In winter another Australian import, mimosa , covers the slopes of the Tanneron Massif with a yellow mantle.
The greatest concentration of palm trees is to be found in the Hyères district. The two types most common to the Riviera are the date palm with its smooth, tall trunk sweeping upwards and the Canary palm which is much shorter and has a rough, scaly trunk.
Orange and lemon groves flourish on the coastal stretches between Cannes and Antibes, and Monaco and Menton.
Bushes and Shrubs
The kermes oak is a bushy evergreen shrub, which rarely grows more than 1m/3.3ft in height. Its name comes from the kermes, an insect halfway between a cochineal fly and a flea, which lives throughout its existence attached to the stems of the oak.
The lentisk is an evergreen shrub with paired leaves on either side of the main stem and no terminal leaf. The fruit is a small globular berry, which turns from red to black when it is mature.
The pistachio is a deciduous shrub which can grow to a height of 4–5m/ 13–16.4ft. The leaves grow in groups of five to eleven, one of which is terminal. The fruit is a very small berry, red at first, ripening to brown.
The Mediterranean thistle is a perennial, which attains a height of 1m/3.3ft. The irregular pointed leaves are bright green on top and covered with white down on the underside.
Some of the limestone areas are so stony (Vence pass road and D 955 from Draguignan to Montferrat) that even thorns (kermes oak, gorse and thistle) and aromatic plants (thyme, lavender and rosemary) can survive only here and there in between the bare rocks; this is the garrigue .
Scrub (maquis) thrives on sandy soil and forms a thick carpet of greenery, which is often impenetrable. In May and June when the cistus is in flower it is a marvellous spectacle, especially in the coverts of the Esterel.
Some varieties of succulents are African in character: Barbary figs, agaves, cacti and aloes grow in open ground. Ficoids with large pink and white flowers cling to old walls. The aloe has thick and fleshy leaves, from which a bitter juice is extracted for medicinal use.
The Barbary fig is an unusual plant from Central America, which grows in arid soil in hot climates; its broad, thick, fleshy leaves bristle with spines. The Moroccans call it the Christian fig; it is also known as the “prickly pear”.
From time immemorial the scourge of the Provençal woodland, especially in the Maures and the Esterel, has been the forest fire, which causes more damage than deforestation by man, now carefully monitored, and destruction by goats which live on the tender young shoots. During the summer the dried-up plants of the underbrush, pine needles, resins exuded by leaves and twigs are highly combustible and sometimes catch fire spontaneously. Once started, a fire may spread to the pines with disastrous results in a strong wind. Great walls of flame, sometimes 10km/6mi in length and 30m/1 00ft high, spread at speeds of 5-6km/2-3mi per hour. When the fire has passed, nothing remains standing except the blackened skeletons of trees while a thick layer of white ash covers the ground.
The Riviera still bears the scars of the particularly severe forest fires that raged during the summer of 2003, fueled by the worst drought and heatwave in 15 years, and it will be many years before regeneration of its natural habitat is complete.
Preventive measures include the removal of undergrowth near residential areas, creation of fire-breaks and the appointment of fire-watchers and patrols. Active intervention is provided by the fire brigade and the airborne water carriers based in Marignane. In the event of a major fire risk, the ALARME plan enables access roads to private homes to be cleared for firefighters and limits the movements of walkers.
Mediterranean Marine Life
Life in the Mediterranean Sea resembles a house full of animal tenants with astonishing characteristics living one above the other. During an underwater dive, the following species may be observed.
Depending on its age and size, the grouper is first female, then male. It changes sex at about nine years old when it weighs 10kg/22lb. Since the fish can live for about 50 years, it spends most of its life as a male.
The young female grouper lives on rocky seabeds in shallow water (less than 10m/33ft deep), which makes it an easy prey for underwater hunters and other predators. As it reaches adulthood it makes its home in holes in the rocks at a depth of at least 50m/164ft, where it lives as a formidable carnivore at the extremity of the marine food chain. It may eventually reach a length of 1.2m/4ft and weigh 30–40kg/66–88lb. This fish, which had become very rare in the Mediterranean, has benefited from a 5-year moratorium prohibiting the catching of groupers.
The Parc Naturel de Port-Cros is now designated to protect the grouper within an area around the island.
Jellyfish, which appear seasonally in coastal waters, sometimes cause problems for holidaymakers. The most common species, pelagia , can sting with its mouth, tentacles and umbrella. The poison, which is intended to immobilise prey, is powerful enough to cause redness and burning of the skin. The population of pelagia follows a 12-year cycle, depending on climatic conditions, and their arrival is usually preceded by a very dry spring. Another species of jellyfish, the Portuguese Man-of-War, has long tentacles (up to 10m/33ft), which are invisible to swimmers and have a very powerful sting. They are fortunately rare in the Mediterranean.
This flowering plant, which has bunches of long dark-green leaves, plays an essential role in the Mediterranean environment. Its rhizomes grow slowly, thus allowing it to fix the sediments from the coast and create a habitat rich in oxygen and favourable to many animal species. When the posidonia dies, these animal species either die out or migrate.
A dive into the colourful world of the posidonia provides the possibility of seeing many amazing species. The sea cucumber , also known as holothurian, is the dustbin of the sandy seabed and lives only in the posidonia. The sea-slug , found all over the Mediterranean, is a white mollusc with brown spots, which contrasts with the red sponges. The striped weever fish lives on the seabed near the posidonia, buried in the sand with just its head visible. It has a very poisonous dorsal fin, the sting of which can be serious. The sea-horse likes to hide near its relative, the pipefish , whose amazing threadlike form, with trumpet-shaped mouth, mimics the leaves of the posidonia among which it lives.
In the last few decades harbour works and construction along the coast have caused much sedimentation and the resultant pollution is endangering the fragile habitat. Since 1989, a genetically altered strain of algae, the non-toxic taxifolia , has spread rapidly along the French Riviera. It is feared that the spread of this alga, originally created to decorate aquariums, may be harmful to the posidonia as well as other marine life in the Mediterranean, although experts still haven’t agreed on the best way to eradicate the alien species.