Letters From the French Riviera

‘Journeys,’ the writer Alain de Botton has said, ‘are the midwives of thought.’ Having spent two years in solid work mode, the idea of having a thought independent of work was attractive. So I thought I’d take a journey.

Tickets were bought. I set my alarm 3:10am (three hours’ time). There was no chance I was going to be able to sleep but I lay down nonetheless, drunk on sweet anticipation of what was to come. I was heading to that pristine, mystical stretch of coast known as the French Riviera.

Within minutes of landing in the south of France it becomes clear why many of history’s great artists spent some of their most productive years in this part of the world. “There is something about the light,” Fitzgerald wrote of this coast, “that gives life an intensity.” And it’s true. Life becomes brighter, breathing becomes easier; the eyes are graced by a myriad of colours and languages. By the time you get in the taxi, the stresses of yesterday have faded.

So what is it that lends this small stretch of coast such allure? I believe the answer can be summarised in three words: Festivals, Food and Fitzgerald. I had come for all three.

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Festivals

Each May, Los Angeles moves to the Riviera for a week as the Cannes Film Festival takes over La Croisette, the street in Cannes flanked by grand hotels on one side and a bright blue ocean on the other. The films showing at the festival have, famously, become second to the parties. Like the Edinburgh Fringe in August, Cannes is one of those odd festivals whose peripheral events are often more exciting than the official program.

On any given afternoon during the festival you might pass swathes of film-lovers in tuxedos on their way to a red carpet premiere at the Palais, watch interviews being held with celebrities surrounded by paparazzi, or be swept up in a crowd dancing to ‘You’re The One That I Want’ at a screening of Grease on the beach.

The experience of being at Cannes, whether as a tourist or as part of the festival itself, is defined by a remarkable energy that sweeps the town. It is, I think, an energy of possibility. Of dreams being sold in the form of scripts in nearby hotel lobbies. Of movies being packaged by producers over a long lunch. Of the lost actress meeting the director who will go on to cast her in an obscure French film.

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But Cannes is more than the business of film. It is also about indulging in the region’s specialties: the parties, the food, the exquisite landscape.

Boat parties are aplenty. On any given evening you might walk along the docks as glamorous creatures spill off the yachts dancing to live music in their long gowns. These private parties have become the identity of Cannes, beyond the film festival in May. If you are one of the lucky souls to have your name placed on the list then you are in for an exciting night.

If, like me, you get exactly zero invites to these parties then fortunately you have the pleasure of mingling with likely more interesting people at the various bustling bars and clubs around town. One such bar is Baoli, a restaurant by day and club by night, located at Port Canto and thus appropriately placed for those who didn’t get into Paul Allen’s boat party. Baoli is a little jungle within a wider enclosed green space of plants and trees. One night we saw Disclosure play to a full bar. They started their set at 2am and when we left at 4:30am the place was still packed.

Other bars and clubs, such as the newly opened Medusa (replacing Gotha), offer a larger space in which to bring a big group to eat and dance as you overlook the bay to Antibes. Each year the popular bar in town seems to change but you are sure to have an interesting night simply by joining one of the many busy bars in town playing music to a happy crowd that will turn the street into a party of itself.

Food

One would struggle to find a concentration of better quality food than on the French Riviera. Good food is of course a matter of taste, but for what it’s worth the culinary critics continue to point to the region as hosting some of the freshest, most densely flavorful food in Europe. Every meal is a superlative, down to the most simple dish.

For some of the best fish, head to Le Cesar in Antibes, which sits right on the water overlooking a beautiful cove, Nice shimmering in the distance as you eat your turbot and sea bream. For those who didn’t catch the famous bouillabaisse from Tetou (sadly now closed), Le Cesar comes very close.

Dining in the Riviera has as much to do with one’s overall experience as it does with the food itself. Perhaps the greatest example of this is La Colombe d’Or in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, a hotel and restaurant nestled in the hills about 40 minutes’ drive from Nice.

A perfect day out for the art enthusiast might involve a trip to Saint-Paul-de-Vence to wander the achingly beautiful French streets in the morning as you drift through the art studios and museums displaying the works of the countless artists who made this gorgeous little town their creative abyss.

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Your walk might be followed by a late and long lunch at La Colombe d’Or. This remarkable spot takes you into an exposed brick room with multiple ‘compartments,’ each with their own set of tables full of jovial visitors speaking different languages. On the walls you’ll notice an original sketch by Matisse or a small painting by Picasso. These pieces were gifted to the restaurant by the two artists in return for their food when they were too poor to pay with money. The food, like the art, is second to none, and the feeling of eating in what is essentially an intimate museum is nothing less than enchanting.

But of all the unique dining experiences to be had on this special coast, you’d be hard-pushed to find a more wonderful meal than at a restaurant in Nice called La Petite Maison. Were this to be my last supper, I would die a happy man. It’s an experience more than it is a meal. This year I went with a large group – and we went very hungry. The dishes are simple, heavenly, and everything you taste will be a more exquisite than the last. I recommend the truffle pasta, the steak and their small delicacy: the slow-cooked eggs with truffle oil. The cherry on top is the dessert – a basket of the juiciest berries you can eat with a side of white chocolate mousse.

But before we got to the dessert we had already danced to three songs and smashed two glasses as the house band made its ceremonial sweep through the restaurant. This year, like every year, it became a battle of two parties, one table trying to out-dance and out-fun the other. By the end we had joined forces, dancing to the same song and drinking from the same wine glasses.

At any given point late in the meal you might have a few smashed plates around your feet, not from your party but from the owner – a short, remarkable woman who commands the place with her eyes while breaking the odd glass or plate and throwing small ice cubes at the band during their performances. One year I had danced on three tables before dessert had arrived. Another year I recall the entire restaurant dancing in the middle of the main course as waiters went around pouring shots of limoncello for everyone.

These, surely, are the kinds of nights we live for; nights full with good food, good wine, good music, and the best of company.

Fitzgerald

This last little section is about a specific (non-food) experience typical of the Riviera. It’s less about F. Scott Fitzgerald himself and more about what his experience in the south of France in the 20s and 30s represented: pure escapism.

By the time we have wandered Cannes, Antibes, St Tropez or Nice, enjoyed the long lunches and the afternoons by the rocks, we might begin to get a sense of time slowing down. This feeling of listlessness, of solitude without loneliness, is expressed again and again by the great artists and writers who claimed the Cote d’Azur as their sacred home away from home. Van Gogh, Matisse, Hemingway all indulged in the lifestyle offered in the south of France not because it represented something glamorous and unreachable (this came after the Lost Generation had made its mark), but because of the colours, the ‘otherworldliness,’ the intensity to life here felt within minutes of arriving that makes the place from which we have come feel like a distant memory.

Fitzgerald did much of his writing at a villa in Juan-les-Pins, now known as the Hotel Belles Rives. This incredible hideout, overlooking the water with Antibes to the left and Cannes to the right, is escapism at its finest and, unsurprisingly, uniquely conducive to long periods of reading and writing.

Just a few miles north, set on a private estate dating back to the late 1800s, lies a hotel steeped in yet more tradition: the Hotel du Cap, Eden Roc.

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The grounds at this astonishing French mansion are so pristine, so close to perfection through its attention to detail, that one is tempted to believe this is what the Biblical Eden might have looked like had it been landscaped. Perched on the cap d’Antibes, the Hotel has slept guests including Winston Churchill, the Kennedy family, Orson Welles and members of the British royal family. It is said that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had an affair here, and today the grounds host the most glamorous and exclusive parties of the Cannes Film Festival.

You might head to the bar in the grand lobby, order a Bellini and take it outside to the balcony where you’ll see movie stars and models parade out onto the front steps and walk down to the water at the Eden Roc, a restaurant that extends out above the rocks to offer a second-to-none view of the coast. Lunch guests peer over the famous swimming pool carved into the rocks, immortalised in Fitzgerald’s novel Tender Is The Night as the pool at the Hotel des Etrangers.

If you find yourself at the Hotel one night, the chances are there’s a party going on down by the pool area. The terrace then becomes the perfect place for a nightcap as the guests make their way up towards the main lobby.

On any warm evening along this uniquely vibrant stretch of coast, one is given the impression that we are sitting where Fitzgerald might have sat when crafting his whimsical characters, and that we, too, are about to crash one of Gatsby’s parties. Thus nights in the Riviera uncover those strange and wonderful moments in life when the line between dream and reality becomes obscured.

Pinch yourself and you’ll be back at your desk, dreaming of a blue, sun-kissed coast.

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