French Riviera and Monaco :
Where to go?
The Region Today
The Region Today
Life on the Riviera
A Holiday Destination – Visitors seeking fashionable and elegant resorts can choose between the bustle of Cannes and Monte-Carlo or the quieter and more discreet setting of Hyères, Beaulieu, Menton, Cap Ferrat or Cap Martin. Those longing for the appeal of a big city with all its amusements will undoubtedly turn to Nice. Lively St-Tropez will attract a large number of summer visitors; the seeker of solitude will find isolated inlets and localities; and a full range of hotels will cater to every budget.
The Riviera region features charming country houses, built in Provençal rustic style, with pink or ochre-coloured façades, overhanging red-tiled roofs and arbors covered with wisteria and climbing plants. There are also beautiful gardens in which great earthenware jars, which once contained olive oil or wine, are now purely decorative. Magnificent parks offer fine views from their terraces, and everyone can enjoy the light and colour in a charming and relaxed atmosphere.
Numerous constructions are invading the coast and one can see here and there towns built over water, such as the lake town of Port-Grimaud, the Cogolin Marina and the marine city of Port-la-Galère.
Ambitious building projects, some of which are totally out of proportion, have sprung up on all sides; a great number of private properties have appeared at the water’s edge, although the public has right of access all along the coast.
Ports and Fishing – The naval port of Toulon is in a league of its own on the popular recreational coast. Cannes, Monaco and Antibes are long-established pleasure boat ports: beautiful yachts with polished wood and gleaming steelwork lie at anchor in the bay or are moored to the quays.
Fishing on the Riviera is confined to the coast and, as the catch is insufficient for the area, it has to be supplemented by shipments from the Atlantic.
There are no large fishing ports but numerous little harbours along the coast: Bandol, St-Tropez, St-Raphaël, Villefranche-sur-Mer, for example, have adapted to the demands of tourists and equipped themselves with moorings for pleasure boats.
For some years now the Nice region has made efforts to modernise the fishing industry and increase the number of boats in use. This has been achieved through the use of very large running nets known as lamparos and seinches and the construction of fish canneries.
The Markets – Most of the coastal towns have their own open-air markets where, to the colourful banks of flowers, fresh produce, and stalls of gleaming fish, are added the noisy bustle and the warmth of the local accents of buyers and sellers, creating a true Côte d’Azur scene.
The interior reveals the last vestiges of what was once a rough and precarious way of life: valley sides and hill slopes terraced with stone walls retaining small strips of soil for growing cereals or two or three rows of vines and a few olive and almond trees.
The garrigue, where small flocks of sheep and goats were put to graze, formed a sharp contrast with the fertile valleys and irrigated plains of the lowlands and the coast, where cereals, early vegetables and flowers were harvested and vines and fruit trees flourished. The lonely villages clinging to solitary ridges and small farms lying abandoned among their terraced walls bore no resemblance to the market towns of the plains, spread along the main roads, or to the farms (mas) scattered in the midst of large cultivated areas.
The centre of the village is the little square (cours) shaded by plane trees round a small fountain. This is where the cafés are to be found, always full in this region, where people love social life, conversation and politics and where much of the day is spent away from the houses, which are left with the shutters closed to keep out the heat and insects.
While the museums, old town markets, quaint perched villages and sandy beaches keep the continuous influx of tourists occupied for most of the year, the French Riviera economy doesn’t solely depend on tourism, an industry vulnerable to international politics and economic slumps. Nice, Monaco and Cannes have invested heavily to become important business travel destinations, hosting conferences and trade shows year round, and Toulon continues to develop its thriving port, while technology and research centres have been booming throughout the region.
The French Riviera will always preserve and promote its colourful history and natural beauty, but in the 21C it has shrugged off its sleepy resort reputation to embrace a dynamic and internationally minded identity.
The population on the French Riviera was just 200 000 in 1860, and now has 1.8 million residents, with a 3% growth rate since 1990, more than twice the national average. Over 90% of this population is concentrated on the coastal cities of Menton, Nice, Antibes, Cannes, Hyères, Fréjus, and Toulon. International residents make up 12% of the population, with half of them coming from the European Union and almost 45% from North Africa.
The French Riviera lifestyle is perfectly summed up as Art de Vivre, or the Art of Living. Everything from the lush Mediterranean landscape to the sun-drenched Provençal cuisine contribute to the overall sense of good living … and taking the time to enjoy it. The region runs at the leisurely pace typical of Latin countries, where afternoon siestas and Sunday boules games around the town square with a glass of chilled rosé or pastis are still common.
Like much of France, Catholicism is the most widespread religion on the French Riviera, with Catholic churches, chapels, abbeys and monasteries found throughout the region. Other religions, including Judaism, Islam, and Christian faiths such Protestantism and Orthodox Catholic are also represented here, often with architecturally fascinating places of worship, thanks to the large international communities from North Africa, Russia, northern Europe and the Middle East.
The French Riviera is made up of 316 communes (town, village or city) and two administrative départements (the Var and the Alpes-Maritimes), within the larger Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur (PACA) region. This guide covers the Riviera from Bandol to Menton, including the mountainous inland regions of the Provençal Tableland, the Pre-Alps of Grasse and the high country north of Nice. Also covered in this guide is Monaco, a small principality on the Riviera surrounded by the Alpes-Maritimes. Adjacent regions described in the Michelin Green Guides are Provence and French Alps.
Since the early 1980s, the government of the French Republic has decentralised its legislative authority, so that now each commune, département and région has its own locally elected council and mayor or president. Nice is the prefecture, or administrative capital, for the Alpes-Maritimes, and Toulon is the préfecture for the Var. Since 2008, both Nice and Toulon elected mayors from the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), the party of President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Economic activities on the French Riviera have evolved significantly over the centuries, from shipping and fishing to farming and wine-making. The first major shift happened in the 18C with the arrival of the first tourists. Since the 1970s, the region has evolved once more into a region of technology, science, and international business.
The French Riviera is second only to Paris for tourism. It represents 1% of the worldwide tourism industry (P12million in revenue), with ten million visitors annually, 52% of them from outside France. One in five visitors is a business traveller, and today the region is home to the largest concentration of conference and trade show facilities in Europe. In addition to an attractive setting and enviable climate, the region is ultimately successful because of its highly developed infrastructure and accommodation for all budgets. The pleasure ports of the French Riviera are the largest in Europe, hosting 50% of the world’s yachts and cruise ships each year.
Numbers of craftmakers have moved into the old inland villages, which they have often restored with care, and are producing traditional objects made by the old methods or highly original creations.
Biot – The production of large earthenware jars in Biot goes back to the days of the Phoenicians. In the Middle Ages Biot was an important centre for ceramics and it was not until the 19C that it was eclipsed by Vallauris. There are several modern workshops specialising in traditional earthenware jars, pottery, ornamental stoneware and metalwork.
Since the 1960s Biot has owed its growing international reputation to its glass craftsmanship. By visiting a glass workshop one can see how the various pieces are made using early techniques. Exhibits include carafes, bottles, glasses, small oil lamps and traditional Provençal jugs with long spouts (calères, ponons) for drinking without touching the vessel with one’s lips.
Vallauris – Ceramics from Vallauris enjoy a worldwide reputation. In 1947 Picasso came to work in a studio in the town and attracted a crowd of followers. Nowadays it is difficult to distinguish between the mass-produced pot and the hand-made article, in the shop windows.
Many of the potters – whether they use old methods (wood firing) or new techniques – produce attractive work: glazed kitchenware (tureens, bowls, jugs), handsome stoneware, various glazed or unglazed articles and clay pipes. Besides pottery, many other interesting activities have been introduced, including the production of hand-crafted puppets, handsome furniture and decorative sculpture made from olive wood, colourful painted chests and cupboards, fine hand-woven linen and furnishings.
Tourrettes-sur-Loup – Tourrettes has been revived by its crafts industry. It was an important weaving town in the Middle Ages and renewed its connection with this craft after the Second World War, becoming a renowned centre for hand-woven fabrics. The weavers produce very high quality goods in small quantities.
Several of the workshops in the winding streets offer a very varied range of cloth: reproductions of old Provençal fabrics, shot material for the high fashion market or furnishings, and hand-woven ties.
Tourrettes also houses potters (making earthenware sheep using a Mexican process, engraving in vivid enamels), painters and sculptors in olive wood.
Cut Flowers – Alphonse Karr, a political refugee living in Nice before the annexation, is generally credited with having founded the flower trade. With the help of an associate, Karr began large-scale cultivation and had the idea of sending bunches of fresh violets and small packets of mixed seeds to Paris. From this modest start the trade in cut flowers and mimosa has developed considerably owing to irrigation and hothouses.
Flowers and Scented Plants of the Grasse Region – The two main flower crops of this area are roses and jasmine. The May tea-rose is the same as that grown in the east but the Mediterranean variety has a fine scent. Jasmine is of the large flowering variety which has been grafted onto jasmine officinalis. It is a particularly costly and delicate plant which flowers from the end of July to the first winter frosts.
The orange blossom used for perfume is obtained from the bitter fruit tree, known as the Seville orange (bigaradier). Orange-flower water is made from direct distillation. The cherry laurel, eucalyptus and cypress are distilled both for essence and for eau de toilette. Mimosa is used for the production of essence by extraction.
Sweet basil, clary (sage), tarragon, melissa or balm mint, verbena, mignonette, peppermint and geranium all yield products used in perfumery, confectionery and pharmaceuticals. Scented plants include wild lavender, aspic, thyme, rosemary, sage etc.
Le Bar-sur-Loup, Golfe-Juan, Le Cannet and Vallauris as well as Seillans (Var department), are major centres for the production of natural aromatic raw materials, although Grasse is number one in this domain.
This luxury industry, which caters mostly to the export market, is supplemented by the synthetic perfume industry. The French perfume industry’s exports exceed 5.9 billion, the most important customers being the United States, Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom.
First Vegetables – After North Africa, Spain and Italy, the region of Toulon and Hyères provides the first seasonal vegetables and fruit. The Var is noted for the cherries of Solliès-Pont and the peaches from the region around Fréjus.
Olive Trees and Oils – Traditionally, the northernmost place where olive trees (symbol of Southern agriculture) are grown, is also the limit of the Midi or South of France.
Production of olive oil in the region accounts for more than two-thirds of that of the whole country, and is spread throughout the Var, around Draguignan and Brignoles, and in the Bévéra and Roya valleys. Following the frosts of 1956, when nearly a quarter of the olive trees died, the olive groves have been replanted progressively with two more hardy species: the aglandau and the verdale. There are many other varieties, with flavours which vary according to the soil and the date of harvest.
Traditionally, several varieties are grown in one olive grove. Harvest is from the end of August, depending on the area; table olives are picked by hand, while those destined for miling are shaken off the tree and collected in nets.
Around Nice, shaking (gaulage) is always used. Olives from Nyons (tanches) are the only ones to be designated AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée – of guaranteed quality). The belgentiéroise olive, harvested at the end of August, can be eaten within the month; the grossane is a fleshy black, salted olive; the salonenque is a green variety also known as olive des Baux. The cailletier, or little Nice olive, is stored in brine for six months before being eaten. All of these can be eaten as an apéritif or made into oil.
Toulon is the largest commercial shipping port on the French Riviera, and also serves as the largest naval base in France. It’s the primary port for shipments of cargo and passengers to Corsica.
There is a smaller commercial shipping port in Nice, but the regional shipping activity is largely for cruise ships, ferries and pleasure yachts.
Most of the fishing along the French Riviera is done on a small artisanale scale for local consumption, much as it has for centuries. Despite its relatively small contribution to the region’s economy, it nevertheless touches many coastal communities where fishing has been an important way of life for the locals for many generations.
The high-tech industry has grown significantly since the 1970s, encouraged by the establishment of science parks such as Sophia-Antipolis near Valbonne. Today, information technology and telecommunication represents P4.2million in annual revenue, and biotechnology and chemical research (cosmetics, scents, flavourings) accounts for another 2.1million annually. Aerospace research and development have also grown in importance, both in the public and private sectors, while Toulon has begun investing in naval technology tied to national defence.
Food and Drink
The main features of Provençal cooking are garlic and frying in oil (preferably olive oil). Garlic has inspired many poets who have written of the “Provençal truffle”, the “divine condiment”, “man’s friend”. Olive oil is used wherever butter would be used further north. “A fish lives in water and dies in oil” according to a local proverb.
Bouillabaisse – Here we salute the most celebrated of Provençal dishes. The classic bouillabaisse must consist of the “three fishes”: scorpion fish (rascasse), red gurnet and conger eel. Several other kinds of fish and shellfish are usually added – it is essential that the fish be freshly caught and cooked in good quality olive oil. The seasoning is just as important: salt, pepper, onion, tomato, saffron, garlic, thyme, bay leaves, sage, fennel and orange peel. Sometimes a glass of white wine or brandy gives the final flavour to the broth, which is poured onto thick slices of bread.
Aïoli – Aïoli is another Provençal speciality: a mayonnaise made with olive oil, strongly flavoured with crushed garlic. Comparing the northern variety of mayonnaise with aïoli, Mistral dismissed it as insipid “jam”. Aïoli is served with hors-d’œuvres, or with bourride (a soup of angler fish, bass and whiting, etc.), among many other dishes.
Fish – One of the Mediterranean’s tastiest fish is the red mullet (rouget), which the famous gastronome, Brillat-Savarin, called the “woodcock of the sea” probably because gourmets cook it without first scaling or cleaning it. The loup (local name for bass) grilled with fennel or vine shoots is another delicious dish. Brandade de morue is a purée of pounded cod mixed with olive oil, some garlic cloves and truffle slices.
Aromatic herbs – Considered with garlic and olive oil to be one of the basics of Southern cooking, aromatic herbs, cultivated or growing naturally on sunny hillsides, perfume gardens and markets and enhance local cuisine. Known as herbes de Provence, the mixture includes savory (sarriette), used to flavour goats’ and ewes’ milk cheeses; thyme (thym) cooked with most vegetables and also grilled meat; basil (basilic); sage (sauge), wild thyme (serpolet); rosemary (romarin) which is good for the digestion; tarragon (estragon); juniper (genièvre), used to flavour game; marjoram (marjolaine); and fennel (fenouil). It is used in many dishes and can, according to taste, be a main constituent or just a trace.
Thirteen desserts – Provençal tradition presents diners at Christmas with 13 desserts (representing Christ and the 12 Apostles): raisins, dried figs, walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, grapes on the vine, apples, pears, black nougat (made with honey), fougasse (sort of brioche), prunes stuffed with almond paste, melons stored in straw and dry cakes flavoured with orange blossom.
At Epiphany, a galette des rois is served in the form of a brioche filled with almond paste and topped with a paper crown which goes to whoever finds the china figurine in their slice.
Wines – Vines have been cultivated in Provence since Antiquity.
The rosé wines, their glowing colour achieved by a special process from black grapes, are gaining increasingly widespread popularity; pleasant and fruity to the palate, they go well with any dish.
The white wines are generally dry in character but have a good bouquet and are an excellent accompaniment to shellfish and Mediterranean fish.
There is a wide variety of full-flavoured red wines: full-bodied or subtle and delicate depending on whether they come from Bandol or the southern slopes of the Maures or, on the other hand, from the Argens Valley or St-Tropez.
The most popular wines are from the region of Bandol, Ollioules, Pierrefeu, Cuers, Taradeau and La Croix-Valmer, from the Niçois area and particularly the wines of Bellet, La Gaude, St-Jeannet and Menton.
Specialities from Nice
Niçois cuisine, a lively expression of the character of Nice, is inspired by the cooking of Provence and of Liguria in Italy as it is the meeting point of the two traditions.
The narrow streets of Old Nice, clustered at the foot of the castle hill, overflow with opportunities to try the best-known specialities as well as seasonal variations.
Two well-known examples of the cooking of Nice are an onion tart (pissaladière), garnished with a thick anchovy sauce (pissala) and black Nice olives, and salade niçoise, a tasty combination of local tomatoes, cut into four, lettuce leaves, beans, radishes, peppers, onions, hard-boiled eggs and Nice olives, garnished with anchovy fillets and basil leaves and moistened with olive oil.
For a snack to be eaten in the street there is a large chickpea flour pancake (socca), divided into portions and accompanied by a small glass of local wine (pointu); it is sold in and around place St-François.
At lunchtime recharge the batteries for more sightseeing with a round sandwich (pan bagnat – soaked bread) containing tomatoes, lettuce, onions, anchovies and olives, moistened with olive oil and flavoured with garlic.
Salad or soup or omelette may accompany a marinade of young fish (poutina) which are caught with the permission of the local authorities between Antibes and Menton in February. During the rest of the year gourmets may console themselves with a fish soup (soupe aux poissons de roche) made with little crabs (favouilles).
The evening menu may be enlivened by a slice of suckling pig (porchetta) stuffed with herbs and its own offal, served with a mixed salad (salade de mesclun in the local dialect) composed of 14 types of young salad plants picked in the area.
The dishes on offer in the tiny restaurants in the villages inland include stuffed squash blossoms (fleurs de courgette farcies); a vegetable stew (ratatouille) made of tomatoes, eggplant (aubergines), peppers and courgettes (zucchinis) gently cooked in oil; shell-shaped pasta (gnocchi) made of wheat and potato flour and served with a thick sauce (daube); deep-fried pastry parcels (barbajouan – Uncle John) filled with rice, squash, garlic, onion and cheese; a stockfish dish known as estocaficada.
The convivial family dish, known as pistou, is a vegetable soup to which is added an unctuous concoction of basil, garlic, tomatoes and unstinted olive oil.
For dessert there is a sweet tart (tourte de blea) garnished with chopped chard leaves, pine kernels and currants.
Halfway through Lent the pastry cooks’ windows display small sweet pastry cushions known as ganses. A cake flavoured with orange flower water (fougasse) is sold all year round; in Monaco it is decorated with aniseed in the national colours of red and white.
One may resist the torpor of midday by sitting in the shade with a glass of crushed ice flavoured with mint (gratta queca).
Estocaficada – This is the local version of the stockfish of Marseille, known for short by old hands as “estocafic”. As it takes a whole day to prepare, it has become a dish for special occasions. To fillets of stockfish (dried cod), flaked with a fork and lightly browned, are added peeled and de-seeded tomatoes, the tripes of the stockfish cut into strips, chopped olives and bouquets of herbs including fennel, marjoram, parsley, thyme, bay and savory. The dish is braised for three to four hours, generously laced with brandy (la brande). When the liquor has reduced to a level which only the vigilance of the cook can determine, a good measure of stock is added to the pot.