Shielded from winter winds by a cradle of mountains which also trap the summer sun, Menton,on the border with Italy, is the warmest spot on the Riviera.
The town has won national prizes for floral decorations which fill its parks and boulevards with blossoming colour.
With seemingly endless sunshine and a temperature which rarely falls below zero, it’s perhaps not surprising that Menton has 7 gardens of world importance, 5 of which are open to the public.
These include La Serre de la Madone, created in the 1920s by designer Lawrence Johnston - famous for his Hidcote Manor Gardens in England’s Cotswolds.
The town’s sub-tropical climate ensures year-round supplies of sweet lemons, and Menton’s Winter Lemons Festival is a huge draw for visitors - see Culture and Events below.
History is reflected in Menton’s architecture.
Narrow medieval streets of the old town cluster around Eglise St-Michel and chapel of the Penitents-Blancs. Baroque seventeenth and eighteenth century buildings give way to Belle Epoque villas built by wealthy health-seekers and European aristocrats in the late nineteenth century.
Not part of France until 1860, Menton is strongly Italianate. Parvis St Michel square is typical, with wonderful views of the bay. Menton has fine shops, restaurants, casino and free beaches like Plage des Sablettes.
Many famous figures have found the town to their liking. A fountain on the seafront commemorates Queen Victoria’s visit and the registry office (Salles des Mariages) has a mural by multi-talented artist Jean Cocteau, one of Menton’s most well-known residents, whose house on the Promenade du Soleil is now a museum of his work.
A leading Riviera resort, Nice comprises the old town and port, the nineteenth century city centre and chic Cimiez. Its famous Promenade des Anglais, created in Victorian times, runs along the whole of the seafront and is lined with restaurants, shops and museums. The views across the sea are unforgettable. For a spectacular view of the city, visit Château Park.
The medieval old town is pedestrianised so you can enjoy its quaint streets and squares and discover Baroque churches, including the Cathedrale de Ste-Reparate in place Rossetti. Much of Nice’s more recent architecture has an Italian influence. Exotic Belle Epoque buildings of the late nineteenth century parade along the Promenade des Anglais, in particular the Negresco Hotel furnished in Empire and Napoleonic style and now a national monument.
Nice’s observatory completed in 1886 was designed by the famous Gustave Eiffel. For sheer gilded flamboyance, take a look at the town’s Russian Orthodox Church. Another must-see is the flower market around cours Saleya.
Rivalling Paris as a city of art, Nice has a selection of fine museums including the Matisse Museum, the Chagall Museum, the Fine Arts Museum and the Naval Museum. Most charge for entry so it’s worth purchasing a museum pass (carte passé-musee). Nice carnival attracts over a million visitors in 2 weeks each February- see Culture and Events below.
Chic Cannes on the Med is world-renowned for its annual Film Festival. In 2011, this takes place 11-22 May. The Festival attracts huge numbers of visitors to Cannes – as many as 200,000 – principally stars, film-makers and fans.
Many visitors go just to soak up the atmosphere and to star-spot – you may be lucky enough to see your favourite star around town or along La Croisette. If you decide to star-spot at the red carpet entrance, do get there early to ‘bag’ your place.
Cannes has beautiful public sandy beaches, superb shopping on the rue d’Antibes, a delightful old quarter, a yacht-filled harbour and a scenic promenade, the stunning La Croisette.
From Cannes, you can take a boat trip to the islands of St Honorat and Ste Marguerite where the mysterious ‘man in the iron mask’ was imprisoned in the seventeenth century.
Only 15km from Cannes, the medieval hill town of Grasse is set on a series of limestone terraces. Medieval tanneries pursued the sixteenth century fashion for scented gloves and this centre for France’s perfumery industry was born. Altitude gives Grasse a pleasant climate.
Hillsides turn golden with mimosa in spring, hang heavy with the scent of lavender and roses in summer and jasmine in autumn. The modern working technology of extracting plant essences is a well-kept secret from the visitor, but there’s plenty to enjoy on tours of traditional perfume factories and showrooms.
The International Perfume Museum in Grasse, which re-opened in 2008, displays over 5,000 objects tracing the history of perfume and make-up over 4,000 years.
The old town is worth a visit for its steep Italianate streets, Cathedral Notre-Dame-du-Puy containing paintings by Rubens and Fragonard, and the daily flower and vegetable market in arcaded Place aux Aires selling wonderful dried flowers and herbs.
A villa occupied by Rococo painter Jean-Honore Fragonard is now a museum exhibiting his paintings and there’s a small museum of Provencal history. Both are open daily June-Sept and limited other times.
There are lovely walks in the area and pot-holers will enjoy the holes and grottoes on the Plateau de la Malle to the north of Grasse.
Rose farms surround hill-top Vence, famous for its spring water which you can collect from fountains around the old town.
The town was once a haven for writers and artists some of whom spent their latter years here. D H Lawrence died here in 1930 whilst being treated for tuberculosis and an arthritic Henri Matisse designed his wonderful last work for nearby Chapelle du Rosaire composed of ink drawings on white walls lit by stained glass the colours of sun and sea.
Don’t miss the Chagall mosaic and Roman funeral inscriptions in the cathedral in Vence’s old town. The fifteenth century Chateau de Villeneuve Fondation Emile Hugues is open all year and exhibits paintings by artists who worked in the Alpes Maritimes, such as Chagall and Matisse.
Antibes, founded by Greek colonists and an important Roman trading post, was once the only town of any size between Marseilles and Menton. Today, the narrow streets of this lively old town seem worlds away from larger showy resorts like Nice and Cannes.
British writer Graham Greene enjoyed living here for 20 years and in 1946 Picasso created many paintings and ceramics in a studio in the sixteenth century castle, once home of the Grimaldi family. His work remains there today and what is now the Musee Picasso holds one of his most important collections, along with sculptures by Miro, Cesar and others.
The cathedral is also a venue for summer concerts, and Antibes’s Archaeological Museum displays Etruscan, Greek and Roman finds recovered from the sea. Wonderful Provencal produce and flowers are for sale each day (except Monday) in the Cours Massena market.
A casino was built in nearby Juan-les-Pins in the 1920s and this, along with the area’s wonderful sandy beaches, promoted a resort frequented by film stars like Maurice Chevalier and Charlie Chaplin.
Now stars of the jazz world and their fans gather annually for its internationally famous festival - Jazz a Juan - which takes place in the Jardin de la Pinede from 12-24 July in 2011. The atmosphere buzzes in July and August as holidaymakers enjoy Juan’s bars and restaurants, night clubs and live music venues.