What could be more French than the French Riviera?
Bonne question. If you’ve ever explored the pretty city of Nice in the south of France, you probably strolled along the seafront. Along a wide path, dotted with people and palm trees, which unwinds within pebble-throwing distance of the bright blue Mediterranean. This famous four-mile stretch is known as the Promenade des Anglais, which translates as ‘Walkway of the English’.
Attention! Why is a major pathway in one of France’s most sparkling cities named after the residents of another country?
The answer lies far in the past, when well-off Brits first fell in love with the balmy air and lush scenery of the Côte d'Azur (‘Azure Coast’). This legendary sweep of southern Provence extends from Cassis in the west, right up to Menton near the Italian border. There’s a cool contrast between the glitzy seaside towns and medieval hill villages a short drive away – and the sheltering Alps explain its warm year-round climate.
Nice first became a hit after novelist-slash-doctor Tobias Smollett stayed there for a couple of years in the 1750s – after which he declared the healthy air had completely cured his poorly chest. Génial!
From then on, many wealthy (and unhealthy) English people came in search of hearty breezes and winter warmth to ease their ills. Another British doctor called James Henry Bennett claimed to have been cured of TB during his visit to Menton, where he just happened to have his own medical practice, ready to service needy visitors…
Sick or fit, rich Brits visited in droves simply because the Riviera was SUCH a lovely place to be. Victorians who spent winters there were known as hivernants (winter = hiver in French). They tended to head home in summer, when the sizzling sun got too much for their northern complexions.
Queen Victoria herself was a huge fan. Seeking solace after being widowed, she became a familiar sight exploring Nice’s bijou alleyways in a little carriage pulled by Jacquot, a grey donkey she rescued. Her respect for the locale earned her the legacy of monuments in Cimiez and Menton, though the original Menton statue was thrown in the sea by invading Italians in 1939. (The Mentonnais kindly replaced it in 1960.)
Queen Victoria Statue in Menton
Unsurprisingly, the aristocrats’ annual visits transformed parts of this paradise into little colonies of the Empire. They created English quartiers, with churches and grand mansions, in towns all the way from Menton to Grasse. So, no prizes for guessing who funded the construction of the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. And no wonder why French locals took to calling all tourists les Anglais!
Come the 1920s, the French Riviera really took off as an international summer destination. Cue more magnificent villas, flashy casinos, botanic gardens and luxury hotels. But alongside its profile as a haven for jetsetters, a seedy underbelly was also building, fuelled by corrupt politicians and organised crime.
One popular spot (if your pockets are deep) is the iconic Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc, perched on a cliff at Antibes, originally a peaceful haven for creatives. The setting’s soft light and stunning scenery drew French artists Chagall and Picasso, as well as US writers Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald (who immortalised it in his 1934 novel Tender is the Night).
Hotel Du Cap Eden Roc by Slim Aarons
Et bien sûr, the Brits came too. Following the shock abdication of Edward VIII Duke of Windsor in 1936, it became a prized bolthole for he and his American paramour Wallis Simpson.
No Riviera tribute is complete without a mention of the once-humble fishing village of St Tropez – an old haunt of Brigitte Bardot. Non, she’s not anglaise but how could we miss a chance to namecheck one of bloobloom’s favourite sunglasses-wearers?
Further along the coast in Cannes, aristocrats made space for more starry visitors when the Cannes International Film Festival began in 1946. Superstars and creatives continue to glide up the red-clad stairs of the Palais des Festivals every summer.
It’s not rare to see risqué flashes of flesh on Riviera beaches. Sad to say, the most unforgettable swimsuit ever to grace the sands was worn by a… Brit. Namely the acid-green ‘mankini’ sported by UK actor Sacha Baron-Cohen to promote his 2006 movie ‘Borat’. For the health of your eyes, don’t Google it.