Insider’s Guide: Two Sides of the Cote d’Azur
I live on the French Riviera, about 15 minutes from the sea, but my friends living ‘on the sea’ always refer to my town as being in the countryside.
Once you spend a bit of time here along the Cote d’Azur, you’ll notice there is a sharp contrast between the coastal glitz of Nice, Cannes, Villefranche-sur-Mer and Monaco compared to the small medieval villages that sit in the hills just a short drive away, such as Valbonne, Biot, Saint-Paul-de-Vence and Tourrettes-sur-Loup, just to name a few.
Life along the coast is filled with activity: lunches on the beach, cocktail bars, seafood dinners and slightly warmer temperatures than the stone villages higher up (fancy a dip after lunch?).
But when you make your way to the inland villages (arrière pays), the rhythm of life becomes slower, more pronounced. Up here, I might meet a friend at a café on a charming square, take a walk in the woods, play a leisurely game of pétanque, or perhaps simply take an afternoon nap!
Let me introduce you to two of my favourite towns – one inland, and one on the coast.
Tourrettes-sur-Loup – a history of violet
The medieval town of Tourrettes-sur-Loup (population 2,400) sits at 400 m (1,300 feet) and the best way to soak up its inimitable charm is by making your way to its historical centre for an afternoon wander.
Save your serious museum and gallery entrances for another day and combine your visit with a contemplative walk in the nearby hills.
Historically associated with its violet-growing industry, this ‘ville des violettes’ once supplied the perfumers of Grasse with its harvest. With the use of modern technology, there are few growers left nowadays, but the violet still reigns supreme in this town with an annual celebration—La Fête des Violettes—each winter.
During this celebratory period, you will find the town sumptuously decorated with violets. Not only sold in bouquets, you will even find foods and confections infused with the flower’s essence.
Locals will decorate floats with mimosas, violets and other flowers and parade through the town, before it all ends with a flower fight!
Stroll through town
Start your visit to Tourrettes-sur-Loup with an exploration of its cobbled stone streets, within its old walls behind the main square.
Although you could walk through this little town in five minutes, you will be surprised just how many photos are begging to be taking in such a short stroll.
You’ll find remnants of its past, including an old mill, its water wheel and aqueduct, a lavoir (where communal laundry was once done!) and a 15thC chateau that has been transformed into the town hall, featuring a few exhibits.
For a grand view of the sea, walk down the main street, Le Grand Rue, past the artisan shops, and exit through the medieval city gate at the back of town to marvel at the ocean.
Le Bastide aux Violettes (Violet Museum)
For a sense of the past history of the violet-growing industry there is a country house (bastide) just outside the main centre, which serves as the violet museum. It explains how violets were grown (vertically!), processed and utilized.
Dozens of shops in town highlight the handicrafts of the region, including ceramics, sculpture, jewelry, wood carvings and paintings. You may even catch a glimpse of the artists at work in their ateliers on your visit.
Chapel of Saint-Jean
One quirky little chapel to visit is just outside the town centre. The Chapel of Saint-Jean is a little unusual in that it was rebuilt in the 1950s and the interior decorated with large naïf colourful frescoes.
The images tell the stories of the Bible, with a healthy dose of local Provençal folk and scenery, including—you guessed it—violets. (For instance, the Virgin Mary is presented with a bouquet of violets).
This Michelin-starred restaurant is ideal for a special night out, featuring a creative menu and fresh, organic fare from chef Julien Bousseau.
In a rustic, genuine atmosphere, the Auberge is one of the last hotel restaurants in town offering good quality and value lunch menu in a genuine, rustic ambiance.
This adorable ice cream shop was once owned by an American and has kept his name, although the original Tom has moved on to other pursuits. Don’t miss the wonderful pistachio flavour, but save room for the unique specialty of the house, violet ice cream!
Villefranche-sur-Mer – coastal chic
Nestled in between Nice and Monaco, Villefranche-sur-Mer is the perfect example of how beachside towns exude an air of affluence and celebrity than their hillside neighbours.
For instance, the town has served as a famous backdrop for many films (Never Say Never Again, The Bourne Identity, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and more), and it’s where the Rolling Stones recorded their album, Exile on Main St. Who knew?
This exclusive village by the sea is the ideal place to dine on seafood bouillabaisse with a glass of champagne in hand, overlooking the sandy beaches and bay. Only ten minutes from Cap Ferrat, where you will find lovely coastal walks and sumptuous private villas, a combined visit of Villefranche-sur-Mer and its neighbour make a great day trip.
The Chateau St. Elmo and its harbour
Formerly a 16thC citadel, the town hall also houses a few small museums. Stand above the imposing stone walls for panoramic views ranging from the peninsula of Cap Ferrat across the way and stretching to the harbour. Stroll along the seaside walkway under the chateau, which will bring you to the marina.
Villefranche-sur-mer offers sunbathers long stretches of beach and plenty of lunch options, taking some well-deserved down time to enjoy a swim in the Mediterranean is well worth it. This is the only beach along the coast that is entirely open and free to the public. Note that the beach here features coarse sand and tiny pebbles as opposed to powder-fine sand.
Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild
Located in Cap Ferrat, this early 20thC private villa built for Baroness Béatrice de Rothschild is nothing less than extravagant. The historic villa features nine(!) uniquely manicured gardens (including a fountain that ‘dances’ to music), unparalleled views and a well-appointed art and porcelain collection.
A great option for no-nonsense, unpretentious good food, including pizza if you are craving those carbs.
If you are looking for a seaside setting with attentive service and beautiful food, this high-end restaurant is worth splurging on for a classic seafood lunch.
In the old town a few streets away from the sea, this is a great casual spot with vegetarian options, including salads and cheese plates.