J&D's Travelog


Côte d'Azur, France

May 6-13, 2006

Since D was on temporary assignment in France, we arranged our last few trips (Cinque Terre, Alsace, Geneva, Savoie) around his base of operations. So following suit, we booked a week on the Côte d’Azur in May to live in the lap of luxury. Unfortunately, D was recalled to the US several months early, so we were faced with the dilemma of cancelling our arrangements (not without financial penalty) or making the trip abroad. In the end, we chose to renew our love-hate relationship with la belle France.

Downtown Cap d'Ail on market day.
Our cliff-top hotel.

Haute cuisine.
Dining al fresco on the terrace.

The water in the  hotel's overflow pool was still a bit chilly in May.
Evening at the pool.

Part of Nice most people don't get to see.
Nice - off the beaten path.


We climbed these stairs about 25  times during the course of our stay.
The dreaded 3rd stage of the Escalier Costa Plana.

Settling In

Safely on the ground at the Nice airport, we hopped a bus for Nice proper. D was too impatient to wait for the bus to the train station, so we elected to grab the more frequent bus to the downtown bus station because the posted schedule stated that the driver would stop at the train station upon request. Well, the driver didn’t see it that way, and we found ourselves hoofing it to the train station with full packs. Wanting to get to our hotel in Cap d’Ail as soon as possible, we jumped the first train in that direction and got off in Monaco. The underground train station in Monte Carlo runs almost the length of Monaco, so we were able to take advantage of the moving walkways until we exited close to the western limits of the principality that borders the community of Cap d’Ail.

It is easy to forget that much of the French Riviera is vertical. It is, after all, where the Alps meet the Mediterranean, and the seaside towns grow from the shore up the mountain sides. As we strolled into Cap d’Ail looking for our hotel, this fact could not have been clearer. Perched 300ft up the side of the calanche was our destination for the night. After traveling for 12 hours, taking full advantage of the liquor available on British Airways, and nearly walking the length of Nice and Monaco, we had to dig down deep to climb the 271 steps of the Escalier Costa Plana to our bed for the night. It was a climb with which we would become very familiar over the next few days.

The hotel that started it all in Cap d'Ail.
The Hotel Eden.

Among Auguste and Louis Lumiere's inventions was the addition of sprocket holes to advance film to produce moving pictures.
One of the Lumière villas.

A fixer-upper
A fixer-upper.

Villa Helios
Villa Helios.

Cap d'Ail

The temperature along the Riviera in early May can be particularly unpredictable. While it’s never quite cold, it can hover around the high-sixties, meaning the appearance of the sun will dictate whether it will be jacket and long pants or shorts and a t-shirt. Our first day was partly cloudy but the sun looked to peek through at one point. This coupled with the slight jetlag was the deciding factor in our choice to hang around locally and scope out the town.

Cap d’Ail itself is unimpressive as is its history. While the name translates to “cape of garlic”, it is actually believed to come from Cap d’Abaglio or “cape of the bee” which explains the bees on the town’s crest as well as its choice to host an annual bee festival in the summer. Thank God we didn’t choose that week to visit. Upon the completion of the railroad in 1880 that connected the string of Riviera resort towns, the Baron of Pauville, a financier of renowned reputation, tried to throw his considerable weight around to attract the wealthy to invest in the environs of Cap d’Ail. At the turn of the century, the Riviera was already booming, and Pauville built the grand Hotel Eden to capitalize. Soon, the upper class began to come, and aristocrats such as the writer Gabrielle Reval, the actor Sacha Guitry, and the fathers of cinematography, the Lumière brothers, built elaborate villas along the Cap d’Ail coastline. The town quickly became a center for health enthusiasts and has since played host to the likes of the Prince of Wales, Greta Garbo, and Winston Churchill.

Today, droves of French come for their August vacations to bronze on the beaches and to explore the Sentier Littoral, a 3 km path that leads past many of the Belle Époque villas – not unlike the Cliff Walk in Newport, RI. Cap d'Ail's oldest monument is the 12th century Tour de Sarasine which guarded the route eastward, making it then, as it is today, the gateway to Monaco.

Seaside mural
Seaside mural.

OK. I'm not really sure that it's the world's larget, but it's pretty damn big
World's largest vending machine.

The Sentier Littoral winds along the coast of Cap d'Ail
Sentier Littoral.

The vieille ville de Villefranche-sur-Mer
Downtown Villefranche.

These hidden passageways were intended to allow movement of defenders during an attack by sea.
Rue Obscure.

Life imitating art.
The beautiful quay at Villefranche.


While planning this trip, we had wrestled between staying in Cap d’Ail for its proximity to Monaco and in Villefranche for its beauty. Although we opted for the former, we couldn’t resist seeing what we had missed. So we found ourselves with an afternoon free to stroll around Villefranche-sur-Mer. It is as quaint a town as you can find nowadays on the Riviera. Having all the necessary elements – a medieval vieille ville with narrow, steep, and winding streets, green-shuttered and ochre-façaded cafés along the quay, and an imposing citadel staring down at it all - the town is a true gem. The unusually deep harbor has been a refuge for ships since the Roman era, prompting Charles II to declare it a villam francam.

Ochre-facaded houses line the winding streets.
Steps abound.

A little rain doesn't stop the Nice market.
The weekend market.

Not so nice weather in Nice.
The pebbly beach at Nice.

Accessible only by the Moyenne Corniche.
The hilltop town of Eze.


Getting up and down the Côte d’Azur is pretty convenient. In addition to a highway that is cut through the mountains some distance inland, there are three winding roads called corniches that hug the coastline. The Grande Corniche, following the old Roman road and built by Napolean, is the highest of the three and offers access to some of the more remote villes perchées of the Maritime Alps. The Moyenne Corniche provides spectacular birds eye views of the capes and harbors along this part of the Mediterranean. Lastly, winding through the seaside resort towns themselves, is the Corniche Inférieure. If you are sans voiture, as we were, one is pretty much confined to the buses that use the corniches or the train that runs parallel to the Corniche Inférieure. The system works pretty well but is not without its peculiarities. The bus drivers, for example, do not wait for you to sit down (or even get near a seat) before accelerating on their way. We witnessed more than a few tourists unaccustomed to this practice. In fact, J was unceremoniously groped by a woman falling towards the back of the bus looking for something of which to grab hold. The drivers are equally adept at using the brakes as they are the accelerators, so the whole ritual can happen in reverse. The sharp turns of the corniches are also navigated at breakneck speed, making bus travel a two-handed affair. Trains, on the other hand, tend to be less exhausting and faster, but they may or may not stop at your destination depending on the time of day or day of week - and, of course, we speak of France so there is always the threat of a strike.

No matter what mode of transportation you choose, you will invariably end up in Nice. It is the capital of the Riviera, has the second largest airport in France, and all the trains seem to go through its gare. Likewise, the buses terminate at the gare routière in Nice. Unfortunately, the train and bus stations are not within reasonable walking distance, so you must rely on the Nice city bus system. So this is where we found ourselves on our way to Cannes. After an hour and a half on a bus, we were now waiting for another bus to take us to the train station from which we were hoping to get to Cannes. When the 12:30 bus didn’t even show, we decided to bag the idea of visiting Cannes and spend the afternoon in Nice instead. D lived in France for a year and has since learned that planning is a futile exercise. Unpredictability, be it transportation, business hours, or the availability of menu items, is woven into the fabric of French life. The only things that run like clockwork are mealtimes.

If you only have a week to spend on the Riviera, skip Nice or at least keep your time there to a minimum. Once you get past a stroll along the Promenade des Anglais, there’s not much more to offer. It is too large, too congested, and has too little to see to make it worth the time. We strolled along the beaches and had lunch in the vieux port before heading back home.

There may have been alcohol involved.
A swimming area for police only.

"Dedicated to  sons and daughters of Nice who died for France"
Nice war memorial.

A rare non-strike day.
The ferry to Corsica.

Home to the Cannes Film Festival.
Palais des Festivals.

A good place to beat the heat with a $9 beer.
The Carlton Hotel.


The old town of Cannes.
La Suquet

Most sandy beaches have the sand imported.
The beach along La Croisette.

Just your run-of-the-mill sand sculpture.
Sand sculpture.


We did in fact eventually make it to Cannes. The town was already buzzing with preparations for the upcoming film festival. Giant movie posters were being hung from the luxury hotels, barricades to herd the crowds were being dropped into place around the Palais des Festivals, and camera-laden paparazzi were already roaming the private hotel beaches hoping for a payoff picture of a topless or pregnant starlet. We dined at the Miramar, one of the many restaurants on the beach, and walked the length of La Croisette to admire the palatial hotels. We couldn’t resist stopping in the Carlton’s lounge to have an outrageously expensive drink. In our shorts and sandals, we were clearly out of our element and were treated as such by our waiter.

At the end of La Croisette is the vieux port and La Suquet, the old city built on a hill with medieval narrow streets and topped with an 11th century castle. From the summit, one can see the Îsle des Lérins that host a monastery as well as a fort in which the Man in the Iron Mask was reputed to have been held.

An homage depicting memorable film characters from Laurel & Hardy to R2D2 & C3PO.
An homage to Cannes' film heritage.

Cannes has its own walk of fame with hand imprints from international film legends.
Scorcese's imprint.

Sipping a cold glass of wine and watching the sun set over Cannes was a highlight.
Sunset on the beach.

The shady square in which the weekly market is held.
Place aux Aires.

Grasse - The perfume capital of France.
Not far from the coast.

The tanneries faded away while the perume factories flourished.
The Fragonard perfume factory.


During J’s Christmas visit to Provence several years ago, D had ambitious plans of visiting the perfume capital of Grasse, but in the end, time was tight, and things fell through. So when the idea of going to the French Riviera came up, forgoing a trip to Grasse was never considered. Long before its olfactory fame, Grasse was identified with tanneries in which hides were turned into leather goods of all kinds but especially gloves. Leather gloves were particularly fashionable in pre-revolution Paris, but they had one serious drawback. The low air permeability of leather coupled with an aversion to bathing of the time meant that wearing the gloves could be malodorous. Situated in the south of France, Grasse leveraged its ingenuity and floral natural resources to produce perfumed gloves. After the revolution, the gloves faded away but the perfume thankfully remained. For years, Grasse has been home to the perfume factories of Galimard, Molinard, and Fragonard, but with the emergence of the large perfume houses of Paris, the factories now act merely as suppliers of fragrances to be used in some of the world’s most recognizable perfumes.

After a visit to the Molinard factory, D treated J to a session to create her own scent. Under the guidance of the resident nez, J was coached on creating a personalized perfume. As with most seemingly simple things, there’s more to it than meets the eye – or nose as the case may be. Perfumes are a cocktail of essences and oils that fall into seven families: citrus, floral, ambers/orientals, fougère (literally “fern”), leather, woody, and cyprus (named for the country where many of the sources are found). When constructing the desired formula, one must consider the three “notes” that dictate the strength of the scent. Fragrances forming the note de tête or “top note” of the perfume will provide the first impression with an odor that lasts several seconds. Sharp aromas like those from the citrus family are typical examples of this note. The note de coeur or “heart note” constitutes the body of the perfume and has a scent that endures up to an hour after application. Most feminine perfumes have floral essences for this note, and are used to offset the more pungent note de fond (base note) which is used to boost the other notes and is only detectable after half an hour. Common base notes include musk and resinous extracts

Depending upon individual taste, a vast number of combinations can be used to form the notes. Our nez recommended three for each which seemed rather reasonable until we saw the large number of fragrances on hand. Quick decisions have never been J’s strongpoint, so it looked as if we were in for a long afternoon. Ultimately, J sniffed her way through each essence and decided on a suite to make up her perfume. Thankfully, the nez helped with the amounts of each to include in the final recipe, or we would have been there until midnight. The result was a concoction that was primarily floral with hints of almond and fruitiness. All that remained was to name it. Twenty minutes later, we held high the first ever bottle of Simply J.

Two-thirds of the essences produced in France originate from the area around Grasse.
Flowers and perfume.


Napoleon stayed in Grasse during his triumphal march back to Paris in 1815.
La Route Napoléon.


There are only 300 certified nez worldwide.
J gets some last minute advice from the nez.

Soap extrusion.
Scented soap manufacturing.

Scents ranging  from gardenias to leather were available.
J makes her selections.

Distillation was one of the methods of extracting the oils from flowers.
The Molinard factory.

The 64th Grand Prix of Monaco was to be run the following week.
Preparations for the Grand Prix.

The distinctive arches of the  Louis II stadium are in the background

We took the bus.
Valet parking at the casino.

Sword-bearing monks adorn the Grimaldi coat of arms.
The sneaky François Grimaldi.

The vieille ville.
The immaculate streets of Monaco's old town.

The casino was once the leading source of revenue to the principality.
Casino de Monte Carlo.


It was time to see where the beautiful people live. Just at our doorstep (the 271st doorstep to be exact), we caught the bus for the five minute ride to the Principality of Monaco. Known for gambling, banking, and affluence, Monaco is the most densely populated nation in the world with about 32,000 residents living in less than a square mile. City planning is understandably a challenge, and the Monégasques have had to be imaginative in managing their land. The densely-packed high-rise apartments, the land reclamation of Fontvieille, and the sprawling underground train station are all notable examples. Despite the congestion (although many so-called residents only claim Monaco home for tax purposes), Monaco is one of the cleanest and safest places you will ever visit.

But Monaco’s history is more than just casinos and yachts. According to legend, a group of friars appealed for refuge at the fortress atop the Rock of Monaco in the 13th century. Once inside they massacred the soldiers and claimed the town as their own. The charlatans were led by the aptly-named François the Spiteful, a member of the Grimaldi family who had been expelled from Genoa. Though a French protectorate, Monaco has been under Grimaldi rule since that fateful day. So we began our tour on the very site of the Grimaldi insurrection with a visit to the Prince’s palace to witness the changing of the guards. Once the crowd dispersed, we strolled around the immaculate streets of the old town and paid homage to the former Prince and Princess of Monaco at the cathedral. We dined on fine Italian cuisine and gazed over the city walls at the preparations being made in Monte Carlo for the following week’s Grand Prix. The most renowned street circuit race was first run in 1929 when the Automobile Club de Monaco needed to organize a race contained entirely within its borders in order to gain official international recognition. This year’s race was to be the 64th running.

In Monte Carlo, it is an easy thing to live above one’s station, if only for a day. Surrounded by luxury and opulence, we lingered over a sickeningly expensive coffee at the Café de Paris. We wandered through the ornate lobby of the Belle Époque Hotel de Paris. We posed next to (but not too close to) sleek Jaguars, Rolls Royces, and Bentleys. We rubbed elbows with high-rolling baccarat players at the famed Casino de Monte Carlo. We browsed the boutique windows of Louis Vuitton, Cartier, and Hermès along the Cercle d’Or (Golden Circle). Our night of extravagance came to an abrupt end as we took the bus back to Cap d’Ail.


Get there early if you want to see.
Changing of the guard.

The Compagnie des Carabiniers have guarded the prince since 1871.
Guarding the palace.

The only true Formula 1 street circuit remaining.
On the circuit.

Only part of the casino is accessible to tourists.
The casino by night.

Nice hats.
Hey! You with the camera!

Princess Grace died along the Moyenne Corniche on her way back to Monaco from Menton.
Grace Kelly's tomb.

The Grimaldi's have ruled Monaco for over 700 years.
The royal palace.


We were due to fly out early Sunday morning, so we moved our gear to a hotel near the airport. This gave us a day to find something to do around Nice. Across the Baie des Anges sits the town of Antibes. Originally a Greek outpost called Antipolis or “the city opposite” because of its location in relation to Nice, Antibes is a charming fortified town that seems to attract a lot of British tourists. Antibes has not one but two forts, a city wall, a market square, a beach, and lots of shops and restaurants, but the main attraction is the Picasso museum which displays some of his work from the six month period in which he lived in the town. However, we will always remember our brief visit for both crime and punishment. As we were having lunch, J thought she saw a man slip a silk scarf into his cargo shorts while browsing at one of the shops across the street. She alerted our waiter who unsuccessfully gave chase. We spent the afternoon walking around town and lamenting the fact that the Picasso museum was closed for repairs, when we again spotted the would-be thief browsing at a shop. This time J tipped off the shopkeeper, and within a few minutes, two burly gendarmes had subdued the perpetrator by gently applying a knee to the back of his head. We fled for fear of having to answer questions downtown, but last we saw, our man was being hustled from the scene.

Walking in Picasso's footsteps.
Ochre-facaded buildings line the old town in Antibes.

With regard to beaches, you coud do better than Antibes.
Je vais à la plage.

One of the largest marinas on the Riviera.
Fort Carré protects the harbor.

A path allows you to walk along the ramparts.
The ramparts.

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