French Riviera

On The Road Travel Essays

back to index

French Riviera

"Riviera" is the name given to the Mediterranean coastline between Cannes in France and La Spezia in Italy. The French section comprises part of the Côte d'Azur (which extends further west than Cannes), while the Italian section is known as the Riviera di Ponente and the Riviera di Levante (east of Genoa). The Côte d'Azur is effectively sheltered by the Maritime Alps (Cannes and Nice are in the département known as Alpes Maritimes). The district has exceptionally mild winters, brilliant hot summers and much sunshine throughout the year. Rain usually falls only about 60 days in the year, and on the coast itself, snow is almost unknown

The favorable climate, the grandeur of the rugged coastal scenery and the attractions of the sea have drawn the leisured rich, especially for wintering, since before the mid-19th century. The first tourists to come to the Riviera, especially to Nice and San Remo, were the affluent English that fled the fog and dreary English winter weather.

The tourist industry, which is still expanding, has for a long time been the economic backbone of the region. The land itself is far from fertile in this area. There are, however, many subsidiary activities supporting it, the chief of these being construction, busier here than in any other part of France. See all the recently built villas and apartment blocks, especially in Nice. The popularity and renown which extended at the end of the 19th century only to that short bit of coast, known as the French Riviera, now embraces all the coastline east of Marseilles and even west of it. At present, the hinterland works to feed and serve the seasonal crowds, but the future promises well for it too; tourists are beginning to like the valleys of Upper Provence, lying only about 2 hours from Nice.


Nice, being the oldest of all the famous winter resorts, is called the "Queen of the Riviera," situated on the Baie des Anges and sheltered by the natural amphitheater created by the foothills of the Alps (some as high as 6,000 feet). You will enter the resort, passing the Côte d'Azur Airport and the hippodrome. Continue along the coast and Promenade des Anglais, named after the aristocratic and rich English that would spend every winter here in the sun, fleeing the horrible English winter.

At the end of the last century, this was the thing to do for fashionable Europeans. Not only affluent English gentlemen came here, but also other fashionable Europeans. For example, the Czar of Russia would come every winter. Everyone would try to outdo the other by showing off the most beautiful women dressed in the most beautiful and expensive furs, like sables from Russia, driving along the Blvd. des Anglais in the most sumptuous carriages, to see, and most of all, to be seen by everyone of importance in Europe.

Now, more or less the same is done, however, by generally younger men in more than 2-horse-powered carriages. As to the women you see here in summer, they are the most elegant and beautiful women of Europe, making us gape at their savoir-vivre and elegance.

Promenade des Anglais  Perhaps the single most famous beach front "promenade" in Europe — the very symbol of the glamour, chic, and money to be found along the Riviera. About the name: the English "discovered" Nice in the 19th century. Well-heeled Englishmen, from Queen Victoria on down, came here in the summer, and a sizable colony resulted. Before 1820, there wasn't even a road here, and it was difficult to get down to the beach. The English colony, wanting quicker access, and able to pay, had a road laid out which was the origin of the handsome boulevard we see today.

Harbor  The area around Nice used to be part of the Duchy of Savoy and half-French, half-Italian in language and culture. Nice was the major port of this duchy, and so an adequate harbor was essential. In 1750, the first harbor was dug out on orders of Charles Emmanual III, Duke of Savoy. In 1870 and again in 1904, the harbor was enlarged, and a breakwater constructed. The port became the lifeline of the little country: food, lumber, and wine were brought in from other parts of Europe. Today, the harbor is full of merchant ships, yachts, and steamers bound for Corsica (60 crossings a month during the summer).

Cimiez  This is a fashionable suburb of Nice, situated higher up the hillside, thus cooler during the summer. Although it's not the oldest part of Nice, it is the richest in ancient remains. The Greeks were first to settle the area; they established a modest port and trading center where the city stands today. But later the Romans came, and they preferred the cool breezes up on the hill. Wealthy Romans built villas, temples, and an arena. Several of these buildings stand today.

Franciscan Church  A monastery has stood on this site ever since the 9th century. At first it was Benedictine, but in the 16th century the Franciscans took it over and they embellished and enlarged the buildings. The altarpiece is the main attraction inside, consisting of three paintings on wood done by the famous 16th-century artists of the "Nice School," Louis and Antoine Brea. On the outside, the Calvary dates from 1477 — a twisted column of white marble, honoring St. Francis and his partner, Santa Clara. On one side of the column, St. Francis is shown receiving the "stigmata" (wounds of Christ) by a seraph. On the other side, St. Francis stands with St. Clara, on either side of the Virgin. There's an interesting churchyard where tombs are clustered close together, with little "streets" running at right angles around them; some of the monuments are large enough to be houses. Among the tombs are those of General Estienne, inventor of the tank in 1916, and of the painters Dufy and Matisse.

Roman Arena  This is the ruin of a Roman amphitheater which could seat 4,000 people. Gladiatorial fights were held here (but never with animals), as were various processions on pagan feast days. You can see remains of the old entry-ways (arched), and brackets which held poles from which awnings were strung to keep the spectators cool in summer. Today, the arena is used as an outdoor theater, and there are often plastic chairs set up in the central part.

Russian Orthodox Cathedral  For years there has been a large Russian colony in Nice, and it was enlarged right after the Russian Revolution by well-to-do émigrés who preferred the sun on the Riviera to driving taxicabs in Paris. The cathedral was put up at the beginning of the 20th century in the old, 16th-century Russian style. Czar Nicholas II had it built in memory of his uncle, the Czarevitch Nicholas, who died in Nice in 1865. The large central onion-shaped dome is surrounded by four smaller ones. The richness of decoration, both outside and in, seems curiously out of place in the Mediterranean setting. The aroma of incense, the icons, the holy pictures, and the older Russian women clad in black veils give the cathedral an exotic aspect.

Train and bus stations in Nice  The principal train station is the Gare SNCF Nice-Ville, Avenue Thiers, tel. 04 36 35 35 35. The information office is open Mon-Sat 8am-7pm; Sun 8am-noon, 2pm-6pm. Another station is the Gare du Sud, 33 Avenue Massena. Located 800m from Nice-Ville station, it is used by special trains servicing the southern Alps.

The main bus station in Nice is the Gare Routière, Promenade du Pavillon, off Avenue Jean-Jaurès, tel # 04 03 85 61 81.


Cannes is the "other" Riviera resort, with a population of 70,000. The city has a beautiful setting on the shores of the Bay of La Napoule backed and sheltered by what is called the Esterel height. Cannes has a beautiful promenade, called La Croisette, shaded by palm trees and beautified by multicolored flower beds.

As far back as the 10th century, a little cluster of homes stood at the foot of the rock, known today as Mount Chevalier, which is overlooking the Marina from the West. The place was then called Canois (Cane Harbor) named after the reeds (called cannes) that grew in abundance in the surrounding marshes.

It was near Cannes (actually at Golfe-Juan just west of Cannes) that Napoleon landed on March 1, 1815 and set out for Cannes. One of his faithful friends, Marshal Cambronne, preceded him to create the illusion that the Emperor's forces were considerably larger than, in fact, they were. He also wanted to establish the population's feelings regarding Napoleon. The Mayor of Cannes agreed to give Napoleon's troops provisions, but refused to allow them to enter Cannes. They, therefore, camped just outside of town and moved on a few hours later up into the mountains of Grasse. Napoleon was aware that the Rhone valley was hostile towards him, and in order to get to Paris, he had to choose the more difficult way through the mountains, where there were then hardly any roads, so that they had to abandon their horse-drawn carriages and walk on little mule tracks.

Cannes is, of course, the home of the Cannes Film Festival, which takes place in the Palais des Festivals, and is situated at Blvd. de la Croisette, facing the blue Mediterranean. Another famous festival at Cannes is the Battle of the Flowers.

Train and bus stations in Cannes  The train station in Cannes is located at 1 Rue Jean-Jaures, tel. # 04 36 35 35 35. Open daily 6am-midnight. The information desk is open daily 8:30am-11:30am, 2pm-6pm. Tickets are sold daily 6am-11pm.

The main bus station is the Gare Routière at the Hôtel de Ville, on the Vieux Port, tel. # 04 93 39 18 71. The information office is open daily 7am-7pm.


Grasse is known all over the world as the home of the French perfume industry. About 30 large factories around Grasse process flowers collected from all parts of the world. About 500 tons of orange blossom, about 450 tons of rose petals, and 350 tons of jasmine blossom and quantities of other aromatic plants grown in Provence, Alpes Maritimes or imported, are processed here each year. The three manufacturing processes are: distillation, enfleurage (absorption) and extraction.

Distillation is the oldest of these processes. Water and flowers are brought to boiling point in a still. The condensed water and essence are tapped into a decanting apparatus, known as a Florentine Vase, where they separate owing to differences of density and insolubility.

Enfleurage makes use of the tendency of fatty materials to become impregnated with the scent of flowers. Each day fresh flowers are laid on a mixture of fat. At the end of the season the fat is kneaded with alcohol which brings out the perfume. The essence thus obtained is called "the absolute of pure pomade." Extraction, the third process, uses a solvent which extracts the perfume from the flowers with the maximum of concentration and strength. The flowers are mixed with the solvent which is then evaporated. The result, known as concrete, is a mixture of wax and perfume. The wax, like the fat, is eliminated by means of alcohol and pure perfume or absolue de concrete is obtained.

Not only a perfume town, Grasse is also famous for its crystallized fruit, flowers and preserves. A high grade olive oil is also produced. After North Africa, the region of Toulon and Hyeres provides the earliest vegetables and fruit. The Var is noted for the cherries of Sollies-Pont and the peaches of Frejus. In 1967 the Riviera dispatched 210,000 tons of fruits and vegetables of which 140,000 tons left from the railway station of Hyeres to all parts of France and abroad.

Grasse has a seductive charm and much to please the visitor as it stretches out over the foothills of the high limestone plateaus and looks over the perfumed plains which have brought it fame and riches. There are wide views from the modern town and its terraced houses with split level gardens, while below in the old Provençal town narrow alleys are linked by steep ramps or steps which wind between houses four or even five stories tall.


A strange isolated village, Eze is a prime example of a perched village: it clings, like an eagle's nest, to a rock spike towering 1,550 feet over the sea. Each year numerous painters and tourists in search of the picturesque view crowd its site. Near the bottom of the hill, just to the left of the road, is a bronze plaque recording the fact that Friedrich Nietzsche used to enjoy coming to Eze (then called "Aze"). He walked up to the village from the sea below, taking the older path. (The plaque marks the spot where the older path joins the present road.) On these solitary rambles, Nietzsche brooded on the future of Europe. Several parts of his monumental Thus Spake Zarathustra were composed during these walks, thus giving this humble little town an indirect role in the shaping of contemporary thought.


This principality is a sovereign state of only 8 square miles. It consists of Monaco (the old town, perched on Le Rocher), Monte Carlo (where the casino is located, developed between the late 19th and early 20th centuries and since then expanded), La Condamine (which links them) and Fontvieille (the newest section, named after the Provençal village of Fontvieille of Daudet fame). In the 19th century, the stones used for the building of Monte Carlo were imported from Fontvieille quarries. The native Monegasques pay no income taxes and are exempt from military service.

The exact origin of the Grimaldi family is disputed, but it is most likely that they were an influential family from Genoa, in other words, not of French origin, but Savoyan or Italian, if you like. The oldest part of the Palace, which is gray in color and the first part that you will see when you approach, is dating from the 13th century, while the other parts, in which the family actually lives, were added in the 15th and 16th centuries.

The square in front of the Palace (Place du Palais) is ornamented with cannons given to the Prince of Monaco by Louis XIV. The situation of the Palace is, of course outstanding in that it overlooks the indented coastline east and west of Monaco.

As everyone knows, the ruling Prince is Rainier III, born in 1923, and married to the late Grace Kelly on April 19, 1956. Their oldest son is Prince Albert-Louis Alexandre, born at Monaco in 1958 and there are two daughters, Princesses Caroline and Stephanie.

The family history has been rather turbulent. Back in the 13th and 14th centuries, the waning power of the pro-papal faction known as the Guelphs (Welfen) caused them to flee from Genoa and seize the fortress at Monaco. In this way, Charles I became the Seigneur of Monaco. Towards the end of the 15th century, Monaco was accepted as an independent principality. In the 16th century, Jean II, however, was killed by his brother Lucien, who in turn was murdered by his nephew. Fraught by political conflicts, Honore I was thrown into the sea by his subjects in 1604. At first suffering under the foreign occupation by the Spaniards from 1524 to 1641, the Grimaldis were finally re-installed by the King of Spain and the title Prince conferred on them. The French also occupied the little territory, and during the re-arrangement of all borders in Vienna in 1815 (after the defeat of Napoleon), Monaco passed under the protection of the Kingdom of Sardinia. Menton and Roquebrune, which belonged to the Principality, were bought in 1861 by Napoleon III at the time of the annexation of Nice.

Nowadays, though an independent Principality, a Customs Treaty with France has been entered into (1912), which was replaced by the Conventions of 1951 and 1963, and a Convention with regard to the money system was finalized in 1945. Since that time, Monaco has had its own coins, but they are now euros and are interchangeable with those found elsewhere in Europe. The language spoken is French, even though the Monegasques (mainly the locals of ancient extraction) speak a local variation of Italian.

The Casino of Monte Carlo is surrounded by beautiful gardens and stands on a fine terrace from which the view stretches from Monaco to the Bordighere headland (in Italy). The building is comprised of several different sections: the oldest (to the west) built in 1878 by Charles Garnier, architect of the Paris Opera House, faces the sea; the most recent dates from 1910. As one enters the huge central hall, the theater is in front and the sumptuously decorated gambling room, on the left. To the right of the casino is one of the top palace hotels in the world, the Hotel de Paris.

The Monte Carlo Rally has, as one of its features, that the final stage is run through the streets of the town itself. The extremely difficult course is 260 miles long. The Monaco Grand Prix race takes place annually in May.

St. Devote was martyred in Corsica in the 3rd century. According to tradition, the skiff carrying her body to Africa was caught in a terrific storm, and was guided by a dove towards the French coast, finally landing at Monaco. In the Middle Ages, relics of the saint were stolen and taken away by ship. But the thieves were caught and their ship burned — a legend which has given rise to the ceremony which takes place every 26th of January, when a ship is burned on the square in front of the church. On the next day there is a procession.

Train and bus stations in Monaco  The train station in Monaco is located on Avenue Prince Pierre, tel. 04 36 35 35 35. The information desk is open daily 9am-7pm. Buses to Nice leave from Avenue de la Costa, near Boulevard des Moulins, and in front of the tourist office. Buses to Menton leave from Place des Moulins. For information, tel. 04 93 85 6181 or contact the tourist office.


Late Spring and autumn are perhaps the most pleasant times of the year to be on the French Riviera: June offers the benefits of longer daylight hours, while frequent Indian summers often last through September and into October. From November to March, cold frosty nights are balanced by clear blue skies and days so sunny that an overcoat is optional. The ski season generally lasts from late December to the end of March. The Riviera occasionally suffers from the rampages of the mistral — in winter the wind is bitingly cold, in summer a pleasant day at the beach can turn into a sandstorm adventure.

April  Temperature 50ºF to 63ºF
Monthly Rainfall 2"

July  Temperature 58ºF to 78ºF
Monthly Rainfall 1"

October  Temperature 55ºF to 70ºF
Monthly Rainfall 4.25"

January  Temperature 41ºF to 55ºF
Monthly Rainfall 3.25"

Synchronize your watches  Local time is 6 hours ahead of E.S.T. If it's 2:00pm in New York City, it's 8:00pm locally. Please note that France changes to and from daylight-saving time a few weeks before the U.S., so time differences still vary in March and October.

Money, money, money  The French unit of currency is the Euro. As throughout Europe, there is no better way than to use your ATM card to withdraw money in the local currency whenever you need it. You will never have a problem locating a suitable ATM machine. If you do need to change dollars (cash or traveler's checks) into euros, try to do so at a bank. You can expect a slightly higher rate of exchange for traveler's checks and you should always keep your passport handy. Bureaux de Change tend to give a slightly worse deal. Some shops, especially tourist ones, will accept American currency or traveler's checks as payment but be advised that you will almost certainly be getting a much worse rate than you would from a bank. The same goes for hotels that are willing to change money for you, and even if they will do it, it's usually cash only, not traveler's checks. Bank opening hours are 9am to 12pm and 2pm to 6pm Tuesday through Saturday. They are often closed on Mondays. Opening hours can be more limited in smaller towns.

The joy of servitude  Restaurant checks always include a service charge, but it's still customary to leave a few additional euros behind in a café and an additional 5% of the total bill in other restaurants. In the fancier restaurants, which pride themselves on their service, an additional tip of 5% to 10% is correct.

The mailman cometh  Mail service to and from France is reliable and inexpensive (unless you are sending a parcel overseas). You can purchase postage stamps (timbres) singly or in carnets of ten. Post offices are usually open from 9am-5pm Monday through Friday and 9am-12pm on Saturdays. In larger towns, the main post office may remain open on weekdays from 8am to 7pm.

Please wait while we try to connect you  As usual, the golden rule is never call home from your hotel. It can cost a fortune. Public telephones are easy to find and easy to use. They accept French telephone cards (sold in either 50 or 120 units and can be bought at post offices, tabacs and some news agents).

The access code to get through to an ATT operator from France is 08 00 99 00 11. For MCI it is 08 00 99 00 19.


Garlic, olive oil and olives, distinct Mediterranean flavors, are found in almost every dish along the French Riviera. Tempt your palate with Ratatouille, a stew cooked in olive oil and garlic, made up of onions, eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes and peppers; a vegetable and bean soup flavored with a sauce of basil, garlic and olive oil called Pistou, or Pissaladière, an onion tart, similar to pizza and garnished with onions, olives and anchovies. To satisfy any sweet tooth, sample crystallized chestnuts, honey from Verdon and the Tarte Tropézienne from Saint Tropez.

Stores are generally open Mon-Sat 9am or 9:30am to 7pm or 7:30pm, although some close Monday mornings. Most stores close for two hours during lunch, beginning at noon. Buy souvenirs of handmade pottery or wooden products, such as spinning tops or mortars and pestles.


passports educational travel logo

passports Educational Group Travel partners with teachers across the United States to provide high-quality educational travel experiences to their students. Educational tours visit destinations around the world - primarily France, Italy, England, Spain and Costa Rica - at low, guaranteed prices.

Passports, Inc., ToursOperators & Promoters, Spencer, MA


Facebook icon   Twitter icon   Pinterest icon   Blog icon

For updates on educational travel tips, ideas and news, subscribe to our newsletter:


51 Union Street Suite 106
Worcester, MA 01608

Email Us

© Copyright 1992-2022 Passports Educational Travel | All Rights Reserved | Privacy Policy