With beautiful beaches, yacht-filled marinas, opulent hotels, and trendy restaurants and nightclubs, the French Riviera is one of Europe’s top destinations for jet-setters. But beyond the glitz and glamour, there’s another, more subdued, side to the coast. Search and you’ll find the exquisite natural beauty and charming little villages that have drawn artists and writers there for centuries. On a recent road trip along the Côte d’Azur, my husband and I found plenty of literary and artistic inspiration.
We set off from Rome, where we live, and drove north through Italy, stopping for a night at the Grand Hotel Bristol by R Collection Hotels near Portofino, which has wonderful views of the Mediterranean, before continuing across the border to arrive in Nice in the late afternoon the next day. I had been to Nice once before, during my year as a student in Paris, and remember being charmed by the quality of the light and the cheery Mediterranean colours that inspired artists like Henri Matisse, who lived there.
Our home base for two nights was the beautiful new Anantara Plaza Nice, a member of the Leading Hotels of the World, opened this year in the 1848 building that housed Nice’s first grand hotel. David Collins Studio, which renovated the hotel along with local architect Jean-Paul Gomis and TBC Studio, brought Mediterranean colours like pistachio-green and lilac inside. Our room had a terrace with views out to the sea, but my favourite part of the hotel was the rooftop bar and restaurant Seen. With gently fluttering boughs of wisteria, it has a chic design and a menu that offers some of Portuguese chef Olivier Da Costa’s signature sushi creations as well as local specialties. I especially enjoyed fresh croissants for breakfast on the terrace.
On our only full day in Nice, local guide Dorothée Nakache led us on a foodie walking tour through Vieux Nice and the Cours Saleya market, where we sampled calissons (local sweets made with almond paste), fresh strawberries, and candied flower petals. On the way to Castle Hill, she pointed out the house where Matisse lived. Matisse is one of my favourite artists, but since I had visited the Musée Matisse on my first visit to Nice, I went instead to the museum I missed that time: the Musée national Marc Chagall, dedicated to the work of Marc Chagall, who lived in the nearby towns of Vence and Saint-Paul-de-Vence from 1948 until his death in 1985.
Our next stop brought us to a hotel with some serious literary cred: Hôtel Belles Rives in Antibes Juan-les-Pins. Before it was a hotel, the building was the Villa Saint Louis, where F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald lived there in 1926 during one of the happiest periods of their lives. The novelist penned part of Tender Is the Night there and called it “an escape from the world.” Upon entering the hotel, you immediately feel transported back to that era. Original art deco furniture and a mural depicting ocean liners decorates the lobby, while the royal blue café chairs outside on the terrace of the Bar Fitzgerald invite you to linger with a drink while watching the sea. The hotel pays homage to the author with photographs and the Prix Fitzgerald, a literary prize awarded to the writer of a book in Fitzgerald’s style.
We battled some blustery wind as we walked to the historic centre of Antibes, but it was worth it to visit the Musée Picasso. Housed in Château Grimaldi, the fortified castle where the artist had a studio following the Second World War, it focuses mainly on his later work. You won’t find his grandest masterpieces, like Guernica or Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, but you might be surprised to learn he also dabbled in ceramics, many of which are displayed. Afterward, we walked around the covered market, where Picasso might have bought fresh fruit and vegetables, and strolled the surrounding streets lined with shops and restaurants.
On our way to Saint-Tropez the next day, we made a detour to Fréjus to visit the little Chapelle Notre Dame de Jérusalem designed by Jean Cocteau, a friend and collaborator of Picasso’s. Located in a wooded clearing that can only be reached on foot, the chapel isn’t the kind of place you would just stumble upon, but that’s part of what makes it so magical. When you finally reach it, you’re greeted by Cocteau’s stained-glass doors, which open to reveal an octagonal space covered from top to bottom in his figurative frescoes.
Our last stop was Saint-Tropez, once a quaint fishing village made famous in the 1950s when Brigitte Bardot filmed And God Created Woman there. The town is home to some of the most expensive real estate and most luxurious hotels on the Côte d’Azur. We stayed at the retro-inspired Hôtel Lou Pinet by Maisons Pariente and were absolutely charmed by it. Modelled on Provençal homes, the hotel is composed of a handful of buildings surrounding a pool. Jasmine climbs up the walls of the buildings, which feature understated, boho-chic interiors. It includes an outpost of Monco’s trendy Beefbar, which has one of the best breakfast buffets I’ve ever seen, laden with every kind of French pastry you can imagine: croissants, financiers, fruit tarts, and the famed tarte tropézienne.
We spent a lovely day wandering around the port and the town, stopped by the Café des Arts on the leafy Place des Lices for an aperitif, and indulged in a massage at the new Byblos Spa by Sisley and dinner at Arcadia in the Hotel Byblos, a member of the Leading Hotels of the World built in the 1960s by Lebanese tycoon Jean Prosper Gay-Para to impress Brigitte Bardot. He may not have won her favour, but he—and the rest of the Côte d’Azur—certainly won ours.