Cannes, Grasse, St-Paul-de-Vence

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Cannes, Grasse, St-Paul-de-Vence

After Eze and Monaco, this is the prime alternative excursion from Nice. Again, the scenery is spectacular, though this time more inland than coastal. It is pretty much a full day. Leaving at 9.00am, you can expect to be back in Nice by about 4.30pm. It is enough in Cannes to stroll at leisure around the Boulevard de la Croisette. In Grasse you should restrict your visit to the Fragonard perfumery. At St.-Paul-de-Vence, allow plenty of free time for lunch, a bit of exploration and shopping. Unless you make specific arrangements on your own and in advance you will not be visiting the Matisse chapel in Vence or the Fondation Maeght.

Between Nice and Cannes take the A8 to avoid the crowded and very slow coastal road.

Cannes  In order to reach the waterfront you have to drive through a large swathe of the town which looks rather ordinary. You park by the gardens opposite the unglamorous Gare Maritime on the Allée de la Liberté. There are public loos here. A couple of hours is ideal for Cannes. The Boulevard de la Croisette begins at the rond-point. To walk all the way out to the Pointe de la Croisette, where the Palm Beach Casino and the really big yachts are, is well worth it but if you are strolling gently you need to allow a minimum of about half an hour to get there (1.5 miles).

The history of Cannes is of no particular interest. You should talk about its extraordinary glamour and its magnificent natural setting.

Cannes is situated on the Bay of La Napoule against the splendid backdrop of the massif de l'Esterel. The beach is gorgeous, one of the few stretches of sandy beach on the Côte d'Azur.(In fact, the sand is imported; in its natural state, the beach would be as pebbly as anywhere else around here.) From the waterfront you have constant views out on to the Iles de Lérins. These are two islands called Ile Ste.-Marguerite (the nearest) and Ile St.-Honorat. The Ile Ste.-Marguerite is the most interesting for the story, definitely worth the telling, of the Man in the Iron Mask.

In 1687 in the prison built on this island by Richelieu, a mystery man was held for 11 years, his identity hidden behind a mask, actually made of velvet. In 1698 he was transferred to the Bastille where he died in 1703. His sentence was imposed on the direct orders of King Louis XIV. Who was he? According to the legend promulgated by Alexandre Dumas and most recently interpreted by Leonardo di Caprio, he was the twin brother of the King and the legitimate heir to the throne. It is almost certainly untrue but it makes for a marvellous tale of intrigue and romance. There is a regular service out to the islands from the port behind the Gare Maritime. At the old prison you can still see the cell of the Man in the Iron Mask.

Cannes is undoubtedly the most glamorous town in Europe. Every year in the month of May, Cannes even eclipses Hollywood as the focus of the world's film industry. It is no surprise to see supermodels doing photo shoots here, rallies of beautiful vintage cars, elephantine yachts of stupendous luxury or movie crews filming the latest blockbuster. Cannes is twinned with Beverly Hills. Among its world-famous luxury hotels on the Boulevard de la Croisette are the Carlton, the Majestic and the Martinez. Luxury boutiques are also here, like Cartier or Van Cleef and Arpels. (More can be found just behind on the parallel rue d'Antibes.) The famous disco Jimmy'z is owned by Régine, the international night club queen (she has others in Paris and New York). All over the ground in front of the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès, where the International Film Festival and Jazz Festival take place, are the hand prints of stars from Hollywood and elsewhere. Cannes is the second biggest convention and conference centre in the world.

As you leave Cannes en route for the hills and Grasse you pass the village of Mougins where Picasso used to live. (You cannot see his house from the road.) Christian Dior has a villa here.

Just before Grasse is the villa where the former Haitian dictator Baby Doc is kept under house arrest. In fact, just about every villa on and around this road is owned by someone famous or infamous. The price of property around here is among the highest on the Riviera.

Grasse  Grasse is beautifully situated, surrounded by hills. From the panoramic terrace at the parking in the centre of town there is a beautiful view back down towards the Mediterranean. Grasse is a historic town, scarcely changed since the C18. In the early Middle Ages, it was a tiny independent republic until 1227 when it was annexed by the Count of Provence. It boomed in the C17 and C18 as the centre of the new perfume industry. It was the first stop on the route Napoléon in March 1815 (even though he only stayed for an hour). In the C19 it was frequented by Queen Victoria. The author H.G. Wells had a villa here. Nonetheless, the sole focus of your attention should be its internationally famous role as 'capitale de la parfumerie.' Three out of every four perfumes sold in the world have essences distilled here. It is not necessary to give any kind of detailed introduction to the perfume industry here as part of your commentary since that will be dealt with, albeit rather briefly, by your guide at the perfume factory. Perhaps a few words on the wondrous local flora will be enough - roses, jasmine, mimosa, orange blossom, eucalyptus etc. Follow the signs to the Parfumerie Fragonard. (The other main ones are Gallimard and Molinard.) The procedure here is exactly as for Eze (see above).

Grasse was also the hometown of the C18 artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

St.-Paul-de-Vence  This is the most picturesque and perfectly maintained of all the villages perchés, spectacularly sited in the Vence hills. You have to park outside the town, about 5 to 10 minutes on foot to the town entrance. After Paris and Mont St.-Michel, this is most visited destination in France. Pax generally love it.

At the entrance to the town on the Place Générale de Gaulle on the left, is the famous restaurant La Colombe d'Or. This was the rendezvous point of the artists who congregated in St.-Paul in the 1920s: Signac, Modigliani, Bonnard and Soutine, for example. Many of these impoverished painters paid their bar bills to the discerning restaurant owner in their own paintings, bequeathing the restaurant a unique and magnificent collection with which to adorn its walls. If anybody is planning on eating here (very expensive) they will need reservations. (It is not open to the public to peep in and take a look at the collection.) Continue to the rue Grande, absurdly picturesque with its C16 and C17 houses decked with flower baskets. These are now almost exclusively antique shops, arts and crafts shops, bars and restaurants. The side streets and staircases leading nowhere in particular are equally delightful. Leave the group free to explore the town. The C16 ramparts can be followed all the way round, offering endless views. The picturesque cemetery at the far end of town is well worth a look. Note also the charming patterns of the pebbled cobbling on the streets.

James Baldwin, the Black American writer of, among others, Go Tell it on the Mountain, lived in St.-Paul and died here in 1987. He is buried in New York.

Marc Chagall lived here until his death in 1985. He is buried here in the cemetery. (For more about Chagall, see notes on 'Painters and the South of France.')

Other famous visitors to this place, as for almost anywhere on the Riviera, are innumerable. The following are just some notable examples: Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sophia Loren, Greta Garbo and President Truman. Elton John has just bought a villa off the road between St.-Paul and Nice.


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