The French call it ‘la grande bleue’, or ‘the big blue’ – and one of the best places to appreciate the Mediterranean’s bizarre cliff formations, sandy coves and palette of colour is the Cote d’Azur.
Along with the incredible blue of the sea, the French Riviera is famous for its green palm and olive trees as well as the ochre hue of Provencal farm buildings basking in shimmering sunshine. The area has been a playground for the jet set and well-to-do for decades and the coast has a large selection of very comfortable hotels to offer the traveller – that is, if they haven’t brought their own accommodation in the form of a yacht.
Visitors who decide to take a trip down one of the winding roads that skirt the coastline can look forward to plenty of impressions and surprises. A good place to start is Marseille’s old port, the best views of which can arguably be had on the off-shore prison island of Chateau d’If, famously portrayed in Alexandre Dumas’ book The Count of Monte Cristo. Sea-worthy visitors can also take a boat trip as far as Cap Croisette, just down the coast.
Once back on dry land, look for road D559 which snakes its way eastwards along the coast to eventually end in Menton, on the Italian border. Following the D559 out of Marseilles, one of the first sites of note is an area popular with tourists and trekkers and known as the Calanques, a limestone formation of deep valleys stretching for kilometres along the coast, leading down to the sea to form small inlets.
Further along the D559, the coastal towns of Cassis and Bandol are good places to stop off and enjoy some locally made wine. A few kilometres east of Bandol is Sanary-sur-Mer, a small fishing port that became the capital of German literature in exile during WWII when writers and poets arrived to escape the oppression of the Nazis.
Just off the road in this area are two other places worth visiting: Cap Sicie and the peninsula of Saint-Mandrier, with its stunning view of the bay and naval harbour at Toulon. If you are lucky you might catch a glimpse of the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, the pride of the French navy.
Beyond Toulon, the road heads east towards Hyeres, known for its salt works. A small diversion here leads to the peninsula of Giens and Cap de l’Esterel, where ferries cross to the lush island of Porquerolles.
Celeb-spotting in Saint-Tropez
As the journey continues west the Massif des Maures, a range of mountains charred by frequent wild fires in the summertime, rises above the landscape north of the road. Next stop is the town of Saint-Tropez, playground of the rich and famous, and the nearby town of Ramatuelle. It’s here that the rich and the beautiful go to sun themselves on the beaches at Plage de Tahiti and Plage de Pampelonne.
This is the moment to get a pair of binoculars out and do some VIP spotting. With a bit of luck you can tell the people back home you saw Paris Hilton or George Clooney as they sipped drinks in one of the beachside bars, and who they were flirting with at the time.
Saint-Tropez gained its international fame thanks to the patronage of Brigitte Bardot in the 1960s, but the town was a favourite spot for visiting artists long before that. The main sights of Saint-Tropez include its church, the row of typically Provencal houses lining the harbour, the markets and the sailors’ graveyard near the sea.
The D559 stops at Grimaud, where the Route Nationale 98 (and later again the RN7) takes over going eastwards, providing frequent views of the sea. Just beyond Frejus and Saint-Raphael begins the Massif de l’Esterel, mountains famed for their startling red colour.
The Corniche, a winding 100 year-old road that many regard as the most magical part of the French Riviera, hugs the coastline after Cannes and runs past numerous bays and cliffs. The international film festival, for which it is famed, does not start until May, but Cannes itself is worth a stop-off for a walk under the palm trees lining the Croisette.
The towns of Juan-les-Pins and Antibes with its peninsula Cap d’Antibes, beaches and splendid hotels have historical connections to the painter Pablo Picasso, who spent much of his time in the area. Nice, the main urban centre in the region, has museums and its Italian history to offer, and was home to the painter Henri Matisse.
There is hardly a place along the Cote d’Azur that did not inspire a painter or writer in the past. Today, visitors benefit from this early form of tourism through the large number of galleries and restaurants that have sprung up along the coast.
Before travelling onwards to Monaco, Nice is a good place to stop for some classic French cuisine or, better still, to try the Mediterranean seafood. Gourmets can choose from a simple Marseille fish soup called Bouillabaisse, to sea bass garnished with sea urchins. The not-so-hungry should try tapenade paste and socca, a pitta bread local to Nice made from chickpeas.
Final stop is Monaco, the home of multi-millionaires. Once famous as a money-laundering centre, it still makes headlines as a playground for the rich and famous and one of the paparazzi’s main hunting grounds. Although the new Prince, Albert II, is anxious to promote Monaco’s modern side, the principality is still a place where the super-rich can engage in hobbies such as gossip, gambling and dining in style in establishments such as the three-star restaurant Louis XV, beside the casino.
After all the glamour and hustle and bustle of Nice and Monaco however, you may instead want to round off the journey with a dip in the sea at the beautiful town of Menton, just before the border with Italy. It’s the big blue that makes it, after all.