Remember the "jet set" – those itinerant, urbane symbols of sophistication who emerged in the 1950s? They lent their cachet to the stretch of Mediterranean coastline from Cassis, just east of Marseille, to Menton on the Italian border, fondly known in English as the French Riviera.
Medical tourists from Britain started arriving here in the late 18th century, lured by the therapeutic benefits of the region's warm climate. Then the beau monde and cafe society discovered the dissolute delights of this south of France playground for other, less wholesome reasons – gambling, drinking and partying.
No wonder the region still attracts about 11 million tourists every year, despite author Somerset Maugham's famous aphorism about the area being a sunny place for shady people.
This impossibly glamorous gaggle of inlets, beaches, peninsulas, calanques and corniches has been immortalised in film and fiction for decades and maintains a raffish charm, in spite of having slid a little from high society to notoriety. The democratisation of travel has replaced a little of the cosmopolitan polish with a superficial gloss – there are more parvenus than princes these days – but it is still synonymous with style. And while Pierce Brosnan's James Bond (GoldenEye, 1995) took over the drive along the Grande Corniche from Grace Kelly and Cary Grant (To Catch a Thief, 1955), no one can forget And God Created Woman (1956) and Bonjour Tristesse (1958), both set in St Tropez and starring Brigitte Bardot and Jean Seberg respectively. So it's fitting that Cannes remains the venue for one of the world's premier film festivals (founded in 1946).
The world's oldest surviving cinema, the Eden Theatre – it opened in 1889 – still operates in La Ciotat, in the western stretch of the Riviera. Apart from being the birthplace of pétanque, La Ciotat also happens to be the last resting place for one of my passports, left at a bureau de change a couple of decades back never to be seen again, probably used by some Marseillais smuggler ever since.
In spite of that, my memories of visits to the Riviera are all positive. Whether driving from one end to the other or dropping in from the inland, I've loved every encounter. Mostly, though, I adore its smaller ports and villages.
While the extent of the Riviera is a little inexact, it's generally accepted that the fishing port of Cassis is at the western end. About half an hour's drive from France's second-largest city, Marseille, Cassis is the first place I ever ate bouillabaisse (fish stew) in France. Served on a quay beneath a jumble of pastel-coloured terraced buildings, overlooked by an ancient chateau and with boats bobbing a few metres away, it has to be one of the most memorable meals I've ever eaten.
A little further along the coast is Bandol, a small commune and home to the famous eponymous wine, a military fort, a seaside promenade and a marina. From here, it's about 90 kilometres to St Tropez.
I love St Tropez in spite of it being a bit of a cliché. This model former fishing village is a cliché for a reason: it can hardly be held responsible for attracting super-yachts and celebs just because it has inspired painters like Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard, as well as being home to Brigitte Bardot and topless sunbathing. Its harbour promenade is lined on one side by restaurants and cafes, and on the other – if you happen to be there from June to October – by huge floating gin palaces moored beside monumental sculptures.
One of my favourite small medieval towns is Saint Paul de Vence, nestled in the Alpes-Maritimes, about 10 kilometres inland between Antibes and Nice. While ancient, it's famous for its contemporary art, which can be found in museums and galleries.
The most comfortable way to soak up the town's ambience is at the famous La Colombe d'Or hotel. Although small at 13 rooms and 12 suites, it's been home to a cavalcade of talent over the years: former guests include Jean-Paul Sartre and Pablo Picasso, along with actors Yves Montand and Simone Signoret, who married in Saint Paul in 1951. Commissioned and gifted art from former guests includes works by Fernand Léger, Marc Chagall, Alexander Calder (his mobile sculpture is by the pool), Georges Braque and Joan Miró.
Having withstood the onslaught of aristos, royalty, oligarchs and hordes of red-carpet celebrities, the Riviera still oozes charm and sophistication – you just need to know where to look. Obviously Graham Greene, Françoise Sagan, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Vladimir Nabokov and Edith Wharton knew something when choosing it as their muse.