The modern concept of leisure travel evolved in the Côte d’Azur back in the 1920s. Previously, affluent travelers undertook the “Grand Tour” to acquire a veneer of cultural sophistication, or they visited the Swiss Alps for the sake of their health, but few thought to spend time indulging solely in the pleasures of relaxation and sun worship. However, after World War I, this new trend gathered momentum thanks to celebrities such as Coco Chanel, who came to the controversial conclusion that she looked more attractive with a suntan. At about the same time, Picasso spent the summer with his family on the Cap d’Antibes, an area he loved for its limpid light and vibrant colors (qualities that also attracted Cézanne, Renoir and Matisse). The rest is history.
Nowadays, many feel the lyrical vision of the Côte d’Azur survives in the less developed hinterlands, where travelers can gaze down from peaceful aeries to the dramatic but congested shoreline, overflowing with summer revelers and million-dollar yachts. Whatever your preference, we recommend a visit during the less frenetic month of June, when the weather is delightful and the summer hordes have yet to arrive.
A Delightful Cooking School
Les Petits Farcis is a cooking school in Nice run by Rosa Jackson, a knowledgeable Canadian woman who has lived in the city for many years, and it provides a memorable day for anyone wanting to learn more about Provençal cuisine.
The experience involves a visit to Nice’s Cours Saleya market to shop for the ingredients for lunch, which is then prepared and eaten in Jackson’s cooking studio on Rue Saint-Joseph.
An Escape From the Crowds
During a longer stay on the Riviera, we like to escape the madding crowds for a day. Among our favorite getaways are the Îles de Lérins, islands that lie just off the coast near Cannes. Two are served by a pedestrians-only ferry. The Île Sainte-Marguerite is reached after a 15-minute crossing and has well-marked pathways running all over the island.
There is also a small museum of Roman and Greek antiquities and an impressive old fort. The idyllic Île Saint-Honorat is home to a community of monks who produce superb wines from their 20 acres of vineyards. A delightful lunch-only restaurant, La Tonnelle, serves these wines, plus locally caught seafood during the summer.
Our Favorite Wineries
Just 20 miles southeast of Marseille, the pretty little seaside town of Cassis is backed by a wine-producing region known for its light, elegant whites. Though small, with only 12 producers, Cassis is one of the oldest Appellation d’Origine Contrôlées (together with Sauternes and Châteauneuf-du-Pape), dating to 1936. Cassis whites are excellent with seafood.
Among the producers offering tastings and cellar tours, Clos Sainte Magdeleine, open to visitors Tuesday through Saturday, is one of our favorites. Farther east, the Var department is a major wine-producing region, where many wineries have shifted from volume to quality during the past 20 years.
One of the best of them is the Château de Pibarnon, a beautiful estate in La Cadière-d’Azur in Bandol that has been owned by the Saint Victor family for over four decades. It produces white, rosé and red wines, but the reds are especially noteworthy. Tastings and cellar visits are offered from Monday through Saturday.
A Feat of Modern Architecture
Built in the 1920s, Villa Noailles is one of the most important works of modern architecture in France and was designed by architect Robert Mallet-Stevens, in the hills overlooking the seaside town of Hyères in the Var.
Among other features of the expansive villa is a triangular cubist garden created by the Armenian architect and designer Gabriel Guévrékian. The villa regularly hosts exhibits of photography, art and fashion and is open to the public.