The call of the Côte d'Azur
Desckchairs on the beach at Juan-les-Pins. Photo: Getty Images
Place names are the traveller's aphrodisiac. Martinique, Tashkent, Casablanca – these sing a siren song to the traveller, yet even in this company the names Cap Ferrat, Juan-les-Pins and Saint-Tropez stand on the podium. These are just some of the places that line France's Côte d'Azur, that strip of earthly paradise along the Mediterranean coast of southern France, between Cassis and the Italian border.
What makes this part of the world so special is the unique cocktail it serves up. Its topography is wild and intense, a series of scalloped bays separated by limestone headlands that wrap their bleached arms around the coastal towns. Sharp-edged islands dot the sea and slender cypresses, arthritic olive trees and pines with big parasols dominate the landscape.
At its western end the Côte d'Azur rises into bleached limestone hills that have been sheared straight off, rearing high above the blue Mediterranean. As a finishing touch, these cliffs have been incised by calanques – slender, fjord-like inlets that make deep notches in the coastline, as if God had taken an axe to it. Each calanque narrows to a tiny beach that looks out across a finger of surreal, opal-blue water cupped between limestone walls that rise sheer for 80 metres on either side.
Beaches are rarely a good reason to leave our own gilded shores, yet in the case of the Côte d'Azur, an exception is possible. These are the world's alpha beaches, furnished with cafes, cabanas, waiters and day beds, and populated by gods and goddesses rarely seen anywhere else, with the possible exception of Rio's Copacabana.
One of the standouts is Pampelonne, a long strip of sand near Saint-Tropez. Half is public, and free, while the other half divided among several beach clubs, the most famous of which is Club 55. This is the ultimate glamour beach hangout. If the sun is shining and you haven't notched up at least half a dozen celebrity sightings by the end of the day, your sunnies need a good wipe. You need to book, and a hefty charge applies for sun lounges, umbrellas and the other beach paraphernalia essential to a day out at Club 55.
Despite the presence of the glitterati, the impossibly glamorous and the improbably wealthy in their super yachts, there is an earthy element to the villages. In the shade of pine trees along the quays, elderly gents launch petanque balls, Gitanes plastered to their lower lips, and you can't help but feel that they are the rightful owners of the place. Cafes spill across the waterfront while the pastel-coloured facades of the bars cast a mirror image on the water and the open-topped fishing boats tied along the quay perform a seesawing jig. Throw in a handful of ice-cream shops, a bunch of boutiques and a couple of a pretty beaches where honey-toned bodies are sensually arranged in a state of casual undress, and you have the template for the villages of the Côte d'Azur.
The villagers of the Côte d'Azur have a gypsy affection for colour, taking their decorating cues from the sunflowers, the lavender fields and the turquoise sea around them, and transforming the simple elements of stonework, shutters and doors into some of the most photogenic vignettes in all of France.
Attracted by this natural vivacity, and by the possibility of living cheaply and in warmth, artists took note. It all began in 1892, when the painter Paul Signac sailed into the tiny fishing harbour at Saint-Tropez, and set off an artistic stampede that continues to this day. Some of the most famous names of 20th-century art have lived and worked in this region, drawing inspiration from the starry nights, the stony landscapes and the spare, peasant architecture of the villages.
The region still holds potent memories of these artists in its galleries, landscapes and the studios where they worked. Within the stern walls of the Chateau Grimaldi, overlooking the waterfront at Antibes, the Musée Picasso captures a blossoming moment in the creative life of Pablo Picasso. When you exit the museum, directly opposite is a gallery where you can pick up a ceramic plate, a bowl or a jug created by Pablo himself, at a starting price of around €10,000 ($15,000).
Inside a late mediaeval chapel on the Saint-Tropez waterfront, the Musée de l'Annonciade is a gem that celebrates some of the best works of the early 20th-century artists, a period when they were experimenting with the region's light and hothouse colours. And just outside Saint-Paul-de-Vence, the Fondation Maeght pays homage to some of the greats of 20th-century art.
Where to stay is crucial. Although not a huge area, getting from one coastal town to the next usually involves a tortuous journey inland, then back out to the coast, and summer traffic is murderous, parking a nightmare. At the western end of the Côte d'Azur, Cassis is a pretty town with a lovely waterfront and a couple of fine beaches. Antibes is a hot spot, with an atmospheric old city at its heart, a fabulous market and a harbour filled with glittering yachts. For something quieter, go inland – it's hard to pass up St-Paul-de-Vence, a medieval village with artsy flourishes.
It isn't all roses, of course. The waiters can be brutal, the prices extortionate and you can forget about parking anywhere near where you want to go. All the same, expect to fall under the spell of the Côte d'Azur.
It's evening, and I'm walking along the quay at Saint-Tropez. A couple of 50-something tourists are approaching when suddenly the man stops, grabs his partner around the waist and plants a kiss on her lips before they part, both a little short of breath, laughing. See? Like I said, an aphrodisiac.
Singapore Airlines (singaporeair.com)has one-stop flights to Paris. There are frequent flights and fast trains between Paris and Nice.
Where to stay
In Cassis, Le Clos des Arômes (le-clos-des-aromes.fr) is boutique hotel with charm and personality plus, just a two-minute stroll from the port. Breakfast is served in a lovely courtyard garden. Rooms start at €69 ($103) a night.
Gorgeous and refined, Le Mas de Pierre (lemasdepierre.com) sits in photogenic countryside at the foot of the hill below Saint-Paul-de-Vence. Rooms are prettily decorated and the hotel has an exceptional restaurant. From €185 ($275) a night for two.
What to wear
Casual but chic is the way to go. White is always good for showing off le tan. Accessorise with scarves and pay attention to footwear.
What to drink
Citron presse for hot-weather drinking, champagne for celebration, a kir royale when you're feeling flirty, and pastis when you're soulful.
Is your yacht big? C'est grand, votre yacht?
How long are you staying? Combien de temps allez vous rester?
Let's drive with the roof down. Si nous conduisons avec le cabriolet ouvert.
A boat ride from Nice to Saint-Tropez with Trans Côte d'Azur.
Cocktails at Pam Pam, Juan-les-Pins.
Something from the Fragonard factory in Èze, between Monaco and Nice.
Mediterranean Summer: A Season on France's Côte d'Azur and Italy's Costa Bella by David Shalleck.