I have spent the last week falling head-over-heels (like the expensive Prada stilettos I was drooling over in Monte Carlo) in love with the French Riviera. I had been worried that after 6 weeks on the Greek islands, with all of their incredible and natural beauty, that I might be disappointed by the Côte d’Azur. But that was so not the case! I had been quite disheartened by France and everything French after my bad au pair experience. But I think that the French Riviera really redeemed France for me. I was just so in my element hopping from one beautiful village to the next on the train, wandering around old towns with quaint cobbled streets, buildings painted with a palette of powdery pastel hues and adding to my Mediterranean glow on the gorgeous beaches. I had decided to base myself in Nice at an inexpensive hostel where I could experience the glitzy Riviera in all of its glamorous glory within my very tight backpacker budget. I was only a short, few euro train ride away from Villefranche Sur Mer, Èze, Menton, Antibes, Cannes, St Trophez and the independent principality of Monaco. My location couldn’t have been better as I could easily see and visit a wide range of places at the same time as being based in one place allowing me to really get to know Nice well.
Where to stay
I stayed at Antares Hostel, Nice and it had very affordable room options. The French Riviera can be quite pricey making it pretty inaccessible for budget travellers. However, basing yourself in Nice and taking the train to each town along the Côte d’Azur is an affordable way of exploring the French Riviera.
Nice to me felt like the French city of Lyon except with a beach and an even prettier Old Town. I enjoyed spending time at the pebbled beach there where you felt as though you were getting a hot stone massage lying on the shore. Putting my head under the smooth, clear and blue water I understood why the rich and famous are so attracted to this corner of the world: the crashing of the waves against the pebbled ocean bed sounds like the jingling of a thousand coins. It literally sounds like money.
Wandering through the Old Town I fell in love with the brightly coloured buildings matching the equally bright and colourful mountains of gelato that just beckoned to be tried. Ice cream is one of my absolute weaknesses and Europe just does it so well. The choice of flavours is expansive and it is just so creamy and delicious. Most evenings would consist of a picnic on the beach, a wander through the romantically lit Old Town while happily licking on an ice cream or enjoying a crêpe au Nutella and then watching the beautifully lit up fountains or incredibly talented street dancers.
I walked along the Promenade des Anglais which was a lovely way to see the big blue coastline of Nice. I then stumbled upon a massive stretch filled with flowers, signs, letters, teddy bears and candles. I was forced to confront what had silently been screaming at the back of my mind since arriving here. It was an incredibly heart-breaking experience walking through and reading all of the letters of pain, grief, sorrow and anger. It really hit home and I was glad because I felt that I, along with I’m sure many other people, had become numb to all that is happening in the world at the moment. We hear about these attacks and the shock of the initial blow has been seriously dumbed down. It is the same old story just a new location. But we forget about the individual lives that are turned upside down by these tragedies. Wading knee-deep through that sea of grief I was reminded about those individual lives that will forever be scarred by that horrible night.
A wonderful way to see Nice is to hike up the Colline du Chateau. It was a beautiful view of the town with the terracotta rooves leading into the palm tree-lined promenade de Anglais and then the beautiful blue Bay of Angels.
Nice has a beautiful market called the Cours Saleya where fruits, vegetables and flowers are sold.
Nice is the heart and centre of the French Riviera and the perfect place to base yourself for exploring the area.
Villefrance Sur Mer
This little village was towards the Italian side of the Nice and as with everything on this side, had such an Italian influence. You see it in the colour of the buildings, the feel of the Old Towns and the accent. I literally had many times where I had to listen really closely to decipher whether people were speaking French or Italian. I had no idea the French accent could vary so drastically! I absolutely loved Villefranche. There was a stunning stretch of beach with gorgeous water, lined with walls of bougainvillea. The Old Town was deserted and so I just wandered around, dizziness with happiness, and marveled at the character of the place present in the rich colours, peeling paint shutters and French TV series spilling out of windows.
I hadn’t planned on going to the medieval hilltop village of Èze but I am SO glad that I did. I met an American lady on the bus and we ended up spending the day together. It was such a joy taking the bus as opposed to the train as it drove high up in the mountains giving you the most exquisite panoramic views of the deep blue ocean and lush green hills dotted terracotta rooves. We walked through the old stone narrow pathways and felt like we’d been transported back in time. We looked down on the bay below and were filled with awe.
We visited a perfumery where we had a private tour of the process of making perfume, the different types and how making a perfume is like composing a piece of music with different notes. We left smelling delicious. The bus then took us down to the hidden treasure of Menton.
Being the last stop before the Italian border, visiting the hidden treasure of Menton is like taking a step into Italy. I adored this little town! The harbour filled with boats is set with the backdrop of a vast network of little, colourful houses stacked on top of one another. It looks like one house built on top of another and then another was attached to that and so it goes. It reminded me SO much of Cinque Terre which I absolutely loved. Walking through the narrow streets we found beautiful art galleries, churches doused in golden light and the energy of the hour of the feeding frenzy. I tried the Mentonnaise ice cream which was flavoured with limoncello and the much celebrated lemon. Delicious! Finding a perch on the rocks, we swam in the disappearing light and watched the night encroach on the little village.
Monte Carlo, Monaco
Monaco may just be another country but it honestly feels like another world. Stepping off that train you are transported into the glitz and glamour of Porsches, Prada and People. I use a capital P for this is where those People come. It’s the place to see and be seen. I had ditched my backpack for the day and donned my red lipstick and pearl earrings, ready to fake it til I made it. I walked up the Rocher (literally the Rock) to the palace. It’s odd to think of a country with a Prince and Princess living in a palace. Honestly, just a fairy tale world. I watched the changing of the guards in all their pomp and circumstance before having my heart stolen by the Old Town. I hadn’t expected to find such quaint beauty in blingy Monaco but it was definitely one of the prettiest Old Towns.
I walked along the port with my mouth open wide, passing all the massive yachts, speed boats and cruise liners. Monaco just exudes MONEY. I had a look around the shops of Prada, Gucci, Chanel, Luis Vuitton and felt unentitled to breathe the same air as a coat costing 25 000 euro. It was fun nonetheless pretending that I could toy with the idea of spending such exorbitant amounts of money on clothes.
The Casino of Monte Carlo was made famous by James Bond movies and it really lived up to all of its glory. The round about in front is lined with Rolls Royce’s and to the side you have the Hotel de Paris (which is where Selena Gomez stayed in the movie Monte Carlo- yeah I did a little bit of research before coming) with the doorman and golden entrance. I went inside of the Casino and just had a look around the entrance hall taking in the distant sound of chips and admiring the opulence of the interior.
I really enjoyed Monaco and all of its glitz and glamour.
My friend, Jodi, from high school then joined me at this stage. It was such a joy to have a travel companion and I’m very excited for our adventures for the next month as we travel through France, Spain and Portugal together. We headed straight off and did Cannes and Antibes in the same day.
I was a little bit disappointed by Cannes, to be honest. Host of the annual film festival I’d been expecting a little more oomph. But really the venue was just a lame auditorium that you couldn’t go into and there were definitely much prettier towns along the French Riviera.
But we did find a gorgeous French market filled with vibrant colours of beautiful fresh produce; every type of tomato possible, roses of artichokes, purple cauliflower and zucchini flowers.
Antibes had an incredibly cute Old town and definitely felt like what I think the countryside of Provence will feel like.
We spent the afternoon catching up, swimming and sunning ourselves at the sheltered Plage de Gravette.
St Tropez has become famous as a spot for the famous to go and holiday. So I had been expecting a rather pretentious place. But I was very pleasantly surprised by the quiet fishing village that we found when we arrived after our three-hour journey on a train and bus. The port was still filled with over-the-top boats and the people walking around were very clearly moneyed, but you could still appreciate it without an overflow of cash.
We found a cute little beach just off from the port and spent a quite afternoon there. We had to keep pinching ourselves to realise that we were in St Tropez!
I absolutely adored the French Riviera. The towns were filled with character, the beaches were beautiful and the charm of each of these little places just stole my heart. Next we’re heading off towards the area of Provence, visiting Marseilles, Aix-en-Provence, Avignon and Montpellier.
If you’re visiting more of France on your trip why not check out my French regional guides:
Champagne Region: Epernay
A winter skiing trip to Tignes