What it’s like in the Côte d’Azur during this strange summer? Readers have been asking. Some contemplate trips to the region. Others sit in gardens elsewhere, drinking rosés and trying to stay in the loop about their habitual or favourite spot to holiday.
French Lessons has taken this mission to heart. A series of fortunate events led us here this summer, and we want to share. Our observations center on Antibes, the seaside town cinched by ramparts and lying halfway between Nice and Cannes, and while the situation will undoubtedly change with each passing breath, we are pleased to offer a slice of this odd, modern life.
Hordes? There has been talk about tourists swarming the French Riviera. So far, that’s not the case. The usual swell of Antibes’ summertime population is well deflated, and flights arriving at Nice Airport are indicative. Normally France’s busiest airport outside Paris, Nice welcomed roughly 400 flights a day in July 2019. The daily number this July? One airport employee told us 40. He was happy to have a job. Partly filling the gap in airborne travel are cars, but so far, there are no hordes.
Masks? There haven’t been heaps of those either – until, supposedly, this week. At first there were complaints about supply. Then there were just complaints. From Monday, masks have become obligatory in enclosed public spaces. For days we hardly suffocated in specifics, but this weekend the government defined such spaces with a list, and the fine for breaking rank is 135 Euros. Why the backward step now? Because while coronavirus cases remain low in PACA (Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, as this region is called in the statistics), the trend is edging up rather than down.
So far so good with the masks. I bought a Nice-Matin newspaper at the corner tabac on this first day of the new rules. The shop attendant lifted a mask from her chin before ringing up my paper. Then she turned to another client. “You have to wear masks inside now,” the attendant said. “There are des régulations.”
I glanced at the other client. “Ah, je suis desolée,” she said, rummaging through her handbag. Of all people to forget. She had to be a vulnerable 85 years old.
Hordes and masks are the inevitable headlines, but what is life like these days in the South of France? A long-time friend from Paris rented a unit in old Antibes for the last couple weeks simply to take in the Côte d’Azur’s “blue.” She was not disappointed. With the cigales strumming their percussive, summertime chorus from the trees, French Lessons has set out to snap local photos. As ever, each one is a thousand words – and, on reviewing them, oddly enough, they do contain broad brushstrokes of blue.
Starting in Antibes’ old town, the enormous construction project proceeds at La Poste, but regular life continues elsewhere. The main shopping streets like Rue de la République and Rue Clemenceau remain busier than social distancing would require (at least from my two-meter, Canadian perspective) . . .
. . . but even on quaint Rue Sade, you can find surprising pockets of space.
Sunday afternoon, the area around Port Vauban – the lifeblood of Antibes, economically speaking anyway – was nearly vacant. The 130-person staff of Dilbar, a 156-meter superyacht in the port, have reportedly returned, but nearby artsy Boulevard d’Aguillon remains a pleasant stroll . . .
. . . while strains of Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s Shallow serenade the sole two customers rising on the colossal Ferris wheel at the Pré-des-Pêcheurs esplanade. It feels like an abandoned amusement park, except that it’s not rundown. Nor dismal.
The same square has reopened for its traditional night market. Perhaps it’s busier then. A friend’s photo from Nice’s Quai des États-Unis last week also complicates the story. “Many people act like Covid is something happening on another planet,” she told me.
Strains of German and British English trickle through Antibes’ streets, as does a bit of Russian (we’ve worked out how), and, of course, this tiny amount of Canadian English. Otherwise, French is the language du jour – de la saison – more than it ever has been. Advertisements no longer line Antibes’ streets and places for the beloved festival du jazz in Juan-les-Pins or in nearby Nice, nor do they promote the circus in Monte-Carlo or the Festival d’Art Pyrotechnique in Cannes. This summer’s signs speak of cinémas (which are open), kitchen design, and a photo contest.
If Port Vauban is Antibes’ economic lifeblood, the city’s heartbeat must be the Marché Provençal. The market is open to business this summer with its gorgeous, locally grown offerings. Here, for those of us habituated to supermarket chains, an apricot again tastes like an apricot. One stall at the marché offers gourmet girolles (chanterelle mushrooms). Another vendor displays a box of fresh courgette flowers that haven’t yet wilted in the summer heat. A man sells macarons in an array of unusual flavours, like violet, rose, mango, Bounty, praline, bergamot, and mojito. And the tomatoes – well, les tomates are en fête.
This year far fewer vendors and consumers pack beneath the Marché Provençal’s peaked metal roof. (Mid-morning in the middle of July, we found free parking directly alongside the market. That hasn’t happened since Napoléon rode into town.) Despite the foreground in this next photo, only about 25% of those in the crowded-but-open-air marché wore masks late last week. At that point, they already were obligatory in most marchés in Cannes – and now they are in Antibes’ as well. “Marchés couverts” rank on the governmental mask list.
Just down Rue Sade from the Marché Provençal, we stumble on Nomads Coffee, a delicious new artisanal café and roastery:
The boulangerie in the l’Îlette, meanwhile, is the heartbeat of our neighbourhood, and it recently joined the Maison Kayser family. Queues continue to inspect the glass bakery cases, and coffee and croissant consumption continues apace on the patio, with more generously spread tables. The new owners have introduced a baguette Riviera (for connaisseurs, it’s something like a baguette à l’ancienne crossed with a baguette grande siècle), but the neighbourhood watering hole still serves up tartes tropéziennes, tartes au citron meringuée, and a host of other traditional treats:
Crowds have grown at the Plage de la Gravette since the initial, post-lockdown days, but the scene remains far from the fesse à fesse situation of former years:
On the Cap d’Antibes peninsula, the upscale Plage de la Garoupe also welcomes a fraction of its usual numbers on umbrellaed loungers. At the other end of the spectrum, the Cap’s small, rocky beaches can be your own this year – which suited a handful of young campers who “happened upon” a sailboat on one of these nearly deserted beaches. After frolicking in the sea, they wriggled their way into the sailboat, and with a moniteur at the helm, their voices sang a treble “au revoir” to the sole couple relaxing on the beach.
Paddleboards and kayaks are this year’s easy, in-the-open-air toys, and Antibes’ sailing school continues its weekly classes. Here a moniteur tows a string of catamarans into the open waters, while a squad of kayaks maneuver the coastline:
Speedier water toys – towed inflatables, parasailing, and jetskis – are also doing their circuits. Corto Maltese Base Nautique in nearby Villeneuve-Loubet said their business remained at 80% of normal volumes – though when we jumped onboard midday Saturday, in the middle of July, we were mostly alone.
For those living further on the edge, a Swedish outfit called Awake is showing off its eye-catching, electric surfboard (which goes for a sweet 16,900 Euros). A couple chaps have been filming marketing videos in Antibes’ Salis Bay and offer the chance for a spin for anyone brave enough to try:
Or, if like French Lessons, your attention in this magical place of “blue” wanders from time to time into the storied past, Antibes’ Archives Municipales are offering up a gem this season. The city recently purchased at auction four important parchment documents dating from 1381 to 1431; one of the scripts relates to the Grimaldi family’s purchase of Antibes’ château (now the Musée Picasso) from the Pope back in that day. A new slice of history is on view to the public this summer. It’s on our list.
And there is always shopping in the Côte d’Azur. France’s summertime soldes are finally on. We’ll share more on the markdowns in a coming post. In the meantime, masked in the shops and breathing deeply of the sea air, we are savouring the blue.