The Côte d’Azur: Best of the Best

Autumn was coming in the Côte d’Azur as we packed our bags a couple weeks ago.  You could feel it.  The crowds were somehow thinner (though still managed to surprise our friends from the Leiceistershire countryside).  It rained now and then.  Autumn fashions took the shop window spotlights.  Even Le Blue Lady Pub, the yachtie hangout near Port Vauban, began massive construction, closing its doors for some time.

Friends – from France and Canada alike – began asking whether I was ready to return to Toronto.  “Yes and no,” I told them.  “Yes,” in that whenever a change looms, you may as well get on with it.  “No,” in that, well, why leave the French Riviera?  Ever?

The place is special.  A couple days before we headed back to Toronto, I found a pretty envelope in Bellevue’s postbox with a handwritten address:  “The Owners of ‘the beautiful yellow house’, Antibes.”  Inside was a postcard of a lavender-ridden landscape.  The same handwriting appeared on the reverse:

Dear Sir / Madam,

We have been visiting Antibes for many years and admiring your beautiful house.  For the last 4 years we have stayed in Antibes with our 2 sons for holidays in a small apartment.  Next year – 2011 – we would like to bring my ‘special cousins’ as a surprise for their 40th anniversary.  We wondered if you hire out your house and that we could rent it for 2 weeks in August . . . We would take great care of it . . .

Many grateful thanks, The Ellis family

A charming enquiry.  But lovely as this family may be, I am pleased to report that my family will live within Bellevue’s stone walls during August next year.

Locals appreciate the place, too.  A couple hours after discovering the Ellis family’s note, I walked through Old Town Antibes with five-year-old Lolo in search of a host gift for our neighbours across the street, who’d invited us for a glass (or five) of wine that afternoon.  It was Lolo who spied a small oil painting by Marylène Souverain, a local artist, along the rampart walls.  The scene depicted a small piece of the local Salis area – the Port de la Salis’ jetty with its hoisted, French flag, and two adjacent homes – the neighbour’s and ours.  We bought the painting.

This summer my family and I solidified what we knew from our prior, year-long venture into the Côte d’Azur.  We re-visited our old stomping grounds and forged new memories.  We renewed relationships, underlining with folks that yes, despite the distance, we do want to remain in touch.

What better way to wrap up this series of French Lessons – at least until next June – with my own “best of” along the storied Côte d’Azur?  But first, a warning:  Some of these highlights are definite tourist-ing options.  Others are better suited for armchair travel.  Consider them at your own discretion.

Monte-Carlo is a superlative...
Monte-Carlo is a superlative… (Photo: Steve Muntz)

Best People-Watching:  Has to be at the Café de Paris and its neighbour, the Casino de Monte-Carlo.  Meander through the Ferraris, Rolls and Lamborghinis, and if (admittedly like me) you don’t recognize the Kardashians, watch everyone else who’s gawking.  They’ll clue you in.

Club 55 in St Tropez is probably runner-up, though we missed the famous faces – except for possibly Liz Hurley’s.  That said, our local host told us that Nikki Beach has become the “in” spot.  Next time, we said.

Best Gossip:  Take Bernard and Angela, our real estate agents, to lunch.  We usually head to Café Kanter in Antibes for lobster salad and emerge bursting with stories of wealth gone wrong.  (They were the sources, incidentally, of the best Madoff information in my earlier blogs – January 22, 2009 and June 11, 2009.) many ways.  (Photo: Steve Muntz)
…in many ways. (Photo: Steve Muntz)

What we learned this year:

    • The Aga Khan’s former property, a 2.5-hectare plot on the top of Cap d’Antibes, is back on the market.  Once a grand estate, the property had turned over to Leonid Rozhetskin, a billionaire Russian financier and lawyer and outspoken Putin critic.  Rozhetskin proceeded to demolish most of villa, only for the French Government to halt everything.  Then in 2008, Rozhetskin’s body was found back in his homeland, pickling in a bath of acid.  (This last bit is Philippe’s contribution, which he heard through business connections; for my husband’s sins he twice dined with the Russian.  Truth be told, Mr. Rozhetskin’s whereabouts are a mystery.  The Russians claim he’s living in California under the Federal Witness Protection Program.  Western news reports mentioned finding Rozhetskin’s blood at his Latvian home on the night he disappeared in 2008, and noted that his private jet then went missing for 48 hours before turning up in Zurich with no passengers.)

Meanwhile, alongside the morbid backstory, the Aga Khan’s old pad on the Cap remains a wrecked half-shell.  But in the last six months or so, our estate agent friends said, a developer has bought the property and has been tidying the debris.  (You can spy the work behind the estate’s opaque wall if you hop off your bike and scale the stones.)  Even with no sea view, the asking price is a cool EUR 25 million.  Offers have been forthcoming for EUR 14, 15 and 18 million.  The big hitch, according to Angela:  the rebuild must mirror the original Aga Khan house – windows, turrets and all.

  • Villa Pamplemousse – the 4.5-or-so-acre property on Cap d’Antibes that sold for somewhere between EUR 21 and 25 million three years ago (and the property at which Angela had suggested Philippe toss EUR 21 million) – is back on the market.  The purchaser tarted up the mediocre house, adding a lick of paint to four-decade-old style, and now rents the place for EUR 300,000 – 400,000 a month.  He’s offering the estate for EUR 50 million – and already has turned down an offer for EUR 40 million.
  • Château de la Croë, Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich’s palace at the tip of the Cap, is being remodeled.  Again.  Angela has rented out a flat for the chef and new construction crew.  But heh, styles have changed since the château’s facelift done a couple years ago for EUR 300 million.  (No, that’s not a typo.)
Volupté serves up some of the best cappuccinos in the Côte d’Azur.
Volupté serves up some of the best cappuccinos in the Côte d’Azur.

Best CoffeeVolupté on Rue Hoche in Cannes.  The cappuccino is becoming famous along the shoreline, and the trendy barista tells me it’s all in the milk.  I’m thinking it’s his swirling motion before the pour.  The Italian owner says it’s the full-cream latte they import from Italy.  While you’re seated in this casual cafe, try a Volupté salad with home-cured salmon, or a sundried tomato-provolone-avocado-arugula sandwich, or a peach iced tea, or a homemade fruit crumble – or basically anything on their freshest-of-the-fresh menu.  The people-watching isn’t bad either.

Best Rosé Wine:  Rosé is the wine of a Côte d’Azur summer.  For the price – and for a good French rosé, you needn’t tear out your pockets – we like Château Rasque.   Château Minuty was our fave last year.

You can hardly go wrong with this choice in a Côte d’Azur summer.
You can hardly go wrong with this choice in a Côte d’Azur summer.

Best Ice Cream:  Has to be where the heart is, and this would be Lolo’s heart.  Her self-declared boyfriend is the cupid-winged Eros, and his parents own the Gelateria Pinocchio franchise in Juan-les-Pins.  The gelato is scrumptious, and they arrange it in a cone in the shape of – get this – a rose.  It’s sweetness that goes straight to the heart.

Best Pan Bagnat:  It’s basically salade Niçoise on a bun.  Try Chez Josy, the beach kiosk with a blue-and-white-striped awning on Antibes’ Plage de la Salis.  The boulangerie across the street (on l’Ilette) does a bang-up job, too, but a pan bagnat tastes better with sand between your toes.

Best Baguette:  Depends what you like.  We like crusty on the outside, chewy on the inside, so I head to our local Boulangerie de l’Îlette in Antibes for une baguette du grand siècle.  Bread made the old-fashioned way.  But get there early.

Best Brioche aux Raisins:  Ditto.  The under-baked ones are especially luscious.

Best Pain au ChocolatBoulangerie L’Epi d’Or, the boulangerie along Old Town Antibes’ Rue de la Republique.  Or as Lolo would say, try absolutely anywhere.

Best Breadsticks:  Yes, crackers.  They’re not what you’d expect to find in a fresh, French boulangerie, but these sticks are a bit chewy and very tasty – and frankly, it’d be a shame not to mention Boulangerie Hasselbach, a favourite Old Town Antibes boulangerie where you can’t make a bad choice.

I worry:  Is it all about food?

Best Choquettes:  Taste these sugar-crusted, airy, two-bite pastries (dubbed “posh Timbits” by one Canadian visitor) from the boulangerie on Rue Chabaudin Cannes.  If they don’t make choquettes on the day you stop in, try their gorgeous craquelin.  Then quick, get on your bike.

Best Pilates :  Conveniently located from Volupté’s famous cappuccinos and the boulangerie with the ambrosial choquettes, Lucille at Cannes Pilates on Rue Hoche makes exercise bearable.  Guys even do it.

Hiking the Sentier Touristique de Tirepoil is one of the best ways to glimpse Cap d’Antibes’ sumptuous villas...
Hiking the Sentier Touristique de Tirepoil is one of the best ways to glimpse Cap d’Antibes’ sumptuous villas…

Best Hike:  I’m going local with the Sentier Touristique de Tirepoil, or sometimes called the Sentier du Littoral, which is basically a hike around the tip of the Cap d’Antibes.  Start at Plage de la Garoupe and hike a stone pathway along the sea with glimpses into grand estates.  Pass alongside Abramovich’s Château de la Croë (you’ll know it by the helicopter windsock and the burly guard patrolling the sea wall.), and avoid taking the obvious path inland (called, interestingly, Chemin des Douaniers, or “Path of the Customs Officers”).  Instead twist along the coastline as far as possible into the next bay called Anse de Faux Argent (“Bay of False Money”, which has been re-titled on tourist maps as the more appealing Baie des Milliardaires, or “Bay of Billionaires”).  Glimpse what you can before returning to Chemin des Douaniers and winding through back streets to complete the loop.

Best Way to Feel Local (albeit briefly):  Be on the receiving end of this line:  “Bonjour, Madame.  Est-ce que vous connaissez cette ville?”  Do you know this city?  And then answer with a sure (but, critically, a short), “Oui.”

This summer a French woman asked me this question in Old Town Antibes.  The exchange began perfectly.  I looked like a local – one of them!  Then it all fell apart.  The actual directions came out in stumbling French.  The visitor couldn’t believe her bad luck.  She listened briefly, watched my hand wave, and then galloped off in that general direction.

...such as Roman Abramovich’s storied Château de la Croë...
…such as Roman Abramovich’s storied Château de la Croë

Best Way to Know You Haven’t Totally Succumbed:  Visit our neighbours.

Okay, this excursion is aimed at armchair travelers rather than real-life ones, but the scene is too good not to share.  And it does remind me that while our family adores the Rivieran lifestyle, we don’t actually go the whole hog.  Hearteningly so.

The H’s live across the street from Bellevue.  They’re a Vienna-based family of six, plus nannies and housekeepers and a driver.  He’s an über-quick private equity chap.  She’s a former doctor with a full figure and long, unruly hair.  During our last weekend in Antibes, the Austrians invited our simple family of three for a pre-dinner drink.  (It was here that we brought the Souverain painting.)  The H’s 13-year old son popped the champagne cork.  Their tiny, eight-year old daughter carried wine and glasses to a table on their balcony that overlooks our own Bellevue.  Then the boy disappeared, and the girl and Lolo scampered into the house to play.

...before continuing your journey onward to the so-called Bay of Billionaires.
…before continuing your journey onward to the so-called Bay of Billionaires.

The H’s hadn’t realized we were in residence – our shutters facing them remained closed – or else they would’ve invited us to meet their American friends earlier this summer.  Do we know the Pritzkers?  (You mean the family that owns the Hyatt and has placed cornerstones at both my alma maters?)  Well one branch of the famed Pritzker family rented out the Domaine la Dilecta.  (You mean you can rent out the castle on the top of Cap d’Antibes?  The place with grounds as vast as an amusement park?)  Mind you, Mrs H said, there’s no breeze up there, and no ocean view, so the family ended up sitting by the pool all day or else visiting the H’s home.

Another nearby family joined us on the second (or was it the third?) glass of champagne.  He’s a New York investment banker; she’s a drop-dead Czech.  They’d recently met their Russian oligarch neighbour, who brought them a nice bottle of wine and told them, “You can’t choose your neighbours.”

Mrs H and the gorgeous Czech lit cigarettes.  They were upwind.  They’d met a few years back at Plage Keller.  Did I go often?  (Never.)  I should join them!  Do I like going to the beach?  (Um, occasionally.  Very occasionally.  But if you mean frittering away every day on a lounger, getting pink and pickled while smoking like an old deux-chevaux, um, non.)

Domaine la Dilecta has intrigued me since I first stumbled on it at the top of Cap d’Antibes.
Domaine la Dilecta has intrigued me since I first stumbled on it at the top of Cap d’Antibes.

We should stay for dinner, the H’s insisted – all six adults and six kids of us.  Never mind that the family would fly back to Vienna the next day, their driver following with the bags.  The kitchen was stocked.  Out came a platter of John Dory filets.  Out came a side of beef.  Out came hot dogs and tuna casserole and shrimp and Caesar salads, all whipped up in a jiffy.  Out came six bottles of wine.  Really, they insisted, we must stay.

We all accepted their generosity.  Surely, I thought, as the family was closing up the house, they wanted to deplete their stockpile.  (Mrs H explained they habitually keep this volume of food in their kitchen.  Russian friends come knocking without notice and demand dinner.)

Conversation meandered among German bonds and French tax laws.  (The New Yorker shares a Monaco banker with French-tax-disgraced Michael Schumacher.)  The other women went for smokes.  The men and I moved onto yachts and Russian oligarchs.  Abramovich, I learned, dines out in Old Town Antibes with his bodyguards at Le Broc en Bouche.  (Quite fluent myself in Antibes’ restaurant scene, I’ve never actually heard of this spot.  The New Yorker described it as “very expensive” but said nothing about the quality of its food.)  We drank more wine and the world shrank.

Wasn’t it nice how the kids played!  Mrs H suggested a pottery outing next summer in nearby Vallauris.  And no worries!  We could pop all the kids in one car, and her driver would take them.  No need for us to join!  (Surely then we could while away the hours at Plage Keller….)

That night I stumbled back home and did a load of laundry.

Sometimes the Maltese Falcon graces the seas off the Côte d’Azur.
Sometimes the Maltese Falcon graces the seas off the Côte d’Azur.

Best Way to Feel Poor:  Walk along the so-called “Billionaire’s Row” at the furthest reach of Port Vauban in Antibes.  The views change daily but might include the three-masted, 289-foot Maltese Falcon, Abramovich’s 282-foot Ecstasea megayacht (complete with GE gas turbine – think of a commercial jet engine stuck on the back of the boat for extra power),or Russian billionaire Suleiman Kerimov’s 295-foot Ice (with colour-coordinating helicopter).  Or come back again and find Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s 301-foot Tatoosh, or German heiress Heidi Horten’s 318-foot Carinthia VII.   Strut around like you own the place – even though you clearly don’t.

Best Beach Restaurant:  Our favourite, anyway, is Vegaluna on La Croisette in Cannes.  We head there most Sunday lunchtimes for the freshest tartare de saumon or carpaccio de daurade – and there’s even an animator to entertain the kids while we sip our rosé.

Most Overrated:  The beaches – if you know anything about Florida, Acapulco, the Seychelles or Australia.  Forget the notion of powdery, white sands, though the people-watching is top-notch.

Also overrated is the romantic notion of driving in the Côte d’Azur during the month of August.  It’s hardly a surprise with everything on offer.  A local friend showed me a short cut from Antibes to Cannes that avoids the congested seaside road.  It involves maneuvering one-way circuits, scaling a cliff, and dodging bicycles and baby buggies in the city of Vallauris – and sometimes, yes, it is faster.

Best Freebies:  Sachets and miniature tubes of toiletries from the pharmacies.  The French adore their creams – and they have one for every ailment, from cellulite to split-ends.  Ask a couple questions chez le pharmacien and emerge with gifts.

Best Market:  I have to hand it to our local one in Antibes.  Le Marché Provençal is abundant, varied and regular:  it operates every day in summertime.  A great place to find tapenades, squash blossoms, marinated garlic, figs, donkey sausage, chick-pea based soccas – and more normal things like carrots, apples and cheese.

Best Cheese:  Special mention in le Marché Provençal must go to the fromager, my so-called Cheese Man, the guy with a full, bushy beard who’s situated midway through the market along the street side.  I don’t know his name, nor he mine, but we both know that my family adores enormous hunks of his Parmigiano-Reggiano.  Among his array of 40-odd goat cheeses, he’ll always find me the perfect, leaf-wrapped chèvre that’s oozing from its crust.

Best Rotisserie Chicken:  In Antibes, our favourite is Miam Miam, at the top of Rue Vauban.  In Cannes, and especially for the price, visit the Tunisian man’s hole-in-the-wall on Rue Jean Jaurès, opposite the SNCF parking garage.

Okay, maybe the good life could be measured by food….

St Tropez’s carousel is the stuff of fairytales.
St Tropez’s carousel is the stuff of fairytales.

Best Carousel:  The one in St Tropez, next to the port.  It’s double-deckered and nearly as much fun for adults as kids.  (I would know.)

Best Kid Activity:  They all love Marineland (pronounced as Mah-reen-LAHND) between Antibes and Biot.  There’s a killer whale show in the main park; waterslides at Aquasplash; pony rides and climbing frames at La Petite Ferme du Far West (the Small Farm of the Far West); and miniature golf – all linked by the same parking lot.  Just expect to be in Satellite Parking 5 if you go when everyone else does.

Encroaching on Marineland’s enduring success – it celebrated its 40th birthday this year – are four adventure parks:  le Bois des Lutins, Pitchoun Forest, Labyfolies and Canyon Forest.  The ziplines and mazes suit kids and adults alike, all within shaded woods north of Villeneuve-Loubet.

Best New Discovery:  The Jazz à Juan musical festival.  It’s a seducing, two-week celebration of jazz – by the stars and under the stars – in Juan-les-Pins.  (See entry dated July 30, 2010.)

Best Sunset Drink:  On the cliffs of Èze Village.  Weave on foot through the cobbled village built into a rock face and settle onto the terrace of the five-starred Château Eza for sundowners overlooking Cap Ferrat and the endless Mediterranean.

St Paul de Vence is home to alluring cobbled streets...
St Paul de Vence is home to alluring cobbled streets.

Best Touristy Trip:  St-Paul de Vence.  At some point, you’ve gotta visit this medieval, perched village that hosts the region’s leading contemporary art scene.

Best Day Out:  Rent a boat in Antibes’ Port Vauban for a slow cruise eastward.  Pass planes landing at Nice Airport, pedestrians parading along Nice’s Promenade des Anglais, and cruise ships anchored in Beaulieu’s deep bay.  Tour around Cap Ferrat’s peninsula of homes with personal funiculars.  Drop anchor off Paloma Beach and hail the restaurant’s water taxi for an afternoon of swimming, dining and relaxing on the pebbly beach.

Best Way to Get Away:  When you’ve had enough of the high life, pop over to les Îles de Lérins.  A short ferry crossing from Cannes, Golfe Juan or Juan-les-Pins, you can meander through the islands’ shaded pathways.  The hustle of the Riveria vanishes.  On the larger of the two inhabited islands, Île Sainte-Marguerite, you can visit Fort Royal and its cell that housed The Man in the Iron Mask in the 17th century; you can visit the Musée de la Mer to learn about the area’s shipwrecks (fascinating); and you can enjoy a simple meal.  The smaller island, Île Saint-Honorat, is even more memorable in my mind.  Bring a picnic and wander the vineyards tended by the island’s resident monks.  And if you get your timing right, climb an 11th-century fortified monastery, or hear Gregorian chant at the monastic community’s mass.

St Honorat Island has served as home to a monastic order for more than a millennium. The monks still live there today.
St Honorat Island has served as home to a monastic order for more than a millennium. The monks still live there today.

By the end of August, Canadian friends began dubbing my family as “les bons vivants.”  Ready or not, it was time to return to North America.  To real life.

Toronto has welcomed us with outstretched arms.  Philippe’s back doing deals, and Lolo’s school year began with gleeful reunions.  For me, too, there’s an energy about the place – a productive energy – that doesn’t exist in the long-lunching, celeb-studded French Riviera.  And it’s invigorating.

Do I miss these best-of-the-best bits of the Côte d’Azur?  Well, let’s say I’m doing my best to overwrite them with Canadian equivalents.  A couple cafés down Yonge Street could rival Volupté’s creamy cappuccinos, and I must confess to re-familiarizing myself with Timbits.  They’re pretty, darned delicious.  What’s more, Toronto is enjoying its own moment in the celebrity-soaked sunshine with the kick-off of the Toronto Film Festival.

I’m still looking for the quintessential beach restaurant, though.  And Canadian cheeses are sold in sanitary, plastic-sealed hunks.  The French baguettes are, well, not French.  Of course the gossip is less global – with a decline in the price tags by a factor of 200.  And just a week into September, I’m already longing for the Côte d’Azur’s boring weather forecast (“it’s sunny again today, folks”).

Tant pis!  We’ll be back.

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