Our next destination brought us to the French Riviera (or Côte d’Azur in French), the southeast Mediterranean coastline off France. Due to its hot summers and mild winters, the French Riviera started out as a playground and vacation spot for European aristocrats who would temporarily move southwards to eschew the cold, bitter winters in the north. Now, the French Riviera has become a fashionable tourist destination, especially for the rich and famous. It is said that many celebrities own houses in the region.
The first stop – Parfumerie Fragonard at Grasse. Fragonard started out as ‘a novel concept of selling perfumery products directly to tourists who were beginning to discover the French Riviera’s charms’ and has remained remarkably true to its initial business concept since almost 80 years ago.
We were walked around the historic perfume factory by an English-speaking guide. The complementary tour was brief but most informative – we learnt a fair bit about the perfume production process, the three notes and how eau de toilette differs from eau de parfume. Our tour ended at the store, and being typical tourists, we bought quite a few items after perusing the merchandise.
The drive along the narrow, curvy and hilly roads flanking the Mediterranean Sea continued till we reached a pseudo pit stop which gave us an awesome vantage view of Nice (pronounced as ‘niece‘, not nice). Reluctantly we returned to the coach when our tour leader reminded us that time was running out and that our driver would like to arrive at Nice before the evening rush hour drove drones of cars up the hilly roads. As it is, the roads are difficult enough to navigate without impatient drivers. Little wonder it is said that driving on the Riviera is reserved only for the very brave.
Our coach driver’s wish was granted – we arrived at Nice safe and sound well ahead of the evening rush hour. After checking into what we would deem to be the worst accommodation throughout the tour, we were back at the lobby in a jiffy. The room was dark, small and came complete with a musty smell; we couldn’t wait to get out. It was so bad we were most disinclined to return after dinner and a night stroll, but we didn’t relish wandering about the whole night and possibly getting rounded up by the authorities for suspicious behaviour. I stayed awake for most part of the night.
We had one full day dedicated to the French Riviera, and the places to cover included Monaco, Saint-Paul de Vence and Cannes (pronounced as ‘kan‘, not cans). For the first time in days, we saw the sun peeking out of the clouds, and rejoiced. We embraced the respite from the cool, rainy weather in Italy, however short it might be.
Monte Carlo, one of Monaco’s administrative areas, is synonymous with the Monte Carlo Casino and Circuit de Monaco (of the F1 Monaco Grand Prix). Apparently you could in fact drive most part of the Grand Prix Circuit if you choose to drive into Monaco, but do not attempt to race or you could run into some serious trouble with the police.
Admittedly, we have very little interest in gambling and casinos, but were suitably impressed with the several Ferrari and Lamborghini sighted outside, and the little park situated across the road from the casino. Playground of the rich and famous indeed.
After a quick lunch, we headed for Saint-Paul de Vence, one of the oldest and best-preserved medieval towns in the French Riviera. This charming hilltop-fortified quaint little town somehow houses an astonishing number of art galleries. Even if you are not quite an art afficionado, it would be as pleasurable an afternoon sitting at a sidewalk cafe sipping coffee or tea.
The cobblestoned roads and streets at Saint-Paul de Vence are so narrow that no cars can access so be prepared to do some walking, with good sensible walking shoes.
Last but not the least, we dropped by Cannes fully expecting to be blown away by the host of the annual Cannes Film Festival. Well, do not expect Cannes to be ‘dressed up to the nines’ as it appeared to be on live telecasts of the renowned film festival, for the Cannes we saw was anything but. In fact, I did a double take and looked to the mister for re-confirmation. Without the red carpet and the bling-blings (from the female guests to the festival) playing with the lights and our eyes, I must say that Cannes was rather… nondescript.
That said, all one need to do is to walk around and you would find that Cannes is more than able to hold its own without the festival for Cannes is also about luxury boutiques, restaurants, hotels and more.
I really liked the French Riviera, in part because it reminded me much of Singapore’s balmy weather, without the unbearably high humidity. A revisit is in order, for 2 days is hardly sufficient.