During the 18th century when the British upper class was holidaying and chilling under the warm skies of the French Riviera, they couldn’t have imagined that in the 21st century, these spots would turn into holiday hubs, and people would fly in from all over the world, every day, every hour, crowding these beaches along the Mediterranean. The Cote d’Azur, known in English as the French Riviera, is definitely one of the most popular summer holiday destinations of our times. With the Cannes Film Festival pretty much endorsing it every year, tourists are buzzing around all year long. One among them, I finally booked myself in for a southern delight this summer.
Almost the peak of summer, I flew in to Nice on the first weekend of August. Although summer was at its peak in Paris too, but the sun in the South has its own feels. So I landed in Nice, and took the bus to the center from the airport, and took in the sight of people walking their dogs and running along the Promenade des Anglais. The first thing that really struck me was the architecture, which was nothing like what I’d seen before in France. Of course I wasn’t used to seeing house with huge balconies and terraces, because my home city in France, i.e., Paris is known for its almost non existing balconies. Which has its own charm, but let’s not get to that. Nice, on the other hand, was very, very different from Paris. I just couldn’t stop staring at the pretty houses, sometimes painted bright yellows and pinks, looking onto the beach.
But Nice wasn’t the place I was staying the night. I was somehow more excited about visiting towns other than Nice, mostly because I didn’t want to go to super hyped places. But yeah I know Cannes and Monaco aren’t less hyped either. But after a small walk around Nice, I headed straight to the station and boarded the train to Monaco. A cheap ticket, a short ride, but amazing views of seaside towns as the train passed along the French Riviera, towards Italy. Pretty much every small stretch of sand was packed with people. Somewhere hidden on tiny hills were houses, mansion rather, looking like a bird’s nest far from the hustle and bustle of the city ; looking out on to the bright blue Mediterranean, a perfect escape from the world so full of life and troubles. But like dreams, these houses passed out of sight, and soon the train entered the Gare Monaco Ville.
Of course, I should have known that this was another touristy little place. A small country, surrounded by France and the Mediterranean. Monte Carlo- a town straight out of a Hollywood movie set. With its yatch-lined harbor, the belle-epoque casino, and streets filled with high-end fashion boutiques, I did feel for a moment that I was in the wrong place. Monte Carlo is for the rich. But these days you don’t need to be rich to travel. SO, I was pretty happy not spending euros and euros like a typical tourist, but taking in the sights and observing a new place with keen eyes of a traveler. Not concentrating much on spending lavishly, I concentrated on walking around. But the most crazy (in a nice way) thing about this place was that most of it was hilly, and quite interestingly there were public lifts to take help you climb up! It took me 20 minutes to figure out where my airbnb was – even though it was just on the street next to the station where I got off! I thought I was pretty good with maps, but a new realization is that map skills work differently for hilly towns!
Well, I didn’t do much in Monaco except walking around in the old town, in narrow streets, admiring the architecture, window shopping brands that I had never even heard of, climbing till the highest point of the town for an amazing view, and visiting the entrance hall of the casion of Monte Carlo (You can’t go in to gamble unless you’re suited and booted and look rich enough). Drinks and dinner by the harbour, ofcourse, and that was the end of my time in Moncao. Next afternoon, I boarded a train to Cannes, and eager for a day at the beach!
Cannes, though still a rich people city, had its own charm. Much different from Monaco, Cannes was all about the beach life. I got off further away from the central station, and walked alllll the way from Cannes La Bocca to the hotel, along the beach. Pretty exhausted by the time I reached the hotel, but the beach had to be done. So poof! I was at the beach in no time! What I noticed there was that from where I had started walking, the beaches were pretty empty, but reaching closer to the center, it was a bazar! The beaches at the center seemed no fun – it was just tooooo packed! There was literally no place to sit. These are the beaches of La Croisette. So if you go to Cannes, avoid these touristy beaches and walk further away from the town, where it’s much nicer and peaceful for a beach day.
That night, dinner was not touristy at all. Having taken some local advice from a friend from Cannes, I went to dine at a very fancy place, where apparently only the locals go. Situated in the heart of the touristy area, in a narrow street next to lanes full of exotic restaurants, this little restaurant, if you don’t know about it, you might never find. Its pretty much a local secret in the heart of the buzzing touristy quartier and is quite rightly called “Le Jardin Secret” – The Secret Garden. At the entrance, it doesn’t even seem like a restaurant. You go in, and you ask for a table, and then they take you in to the garden, which is decorated with candles, lights, and hippy stuff. A beautiful place to spend a summer evening, with French food and wine. And that was the end of day one in Cannes. But the next day was going to be the best adventure of this trip!
I was pretty convinced that all these towns along the Mediterranean are super touristy and with no peace and calm. I wanted to go somewhere quieter. I still hadn’t found a beach where I could just relax, away from the crowds. And then – an island happened. I have this habit of checking google maps all the time to see what is around. Before the trip, when I was looking at Cannes in Google maps, I saw an island pretty close to it. I wondered if one could actually go there. So when I reached the hotel, I made it a point to ask the reception about this island. And turns out – we can go there! Now this island is not an island where people live. So pretty much an island-island! It used to be inhabited during Roman times, and was captured by the Spanish at some point and then recaptured by the French. During the 17th century, the fortress prison which still exists on the island was constructed and it was the home to many famous prisoners including the mysterious prisoner called the Man in the Iron Mask, who has been mentioned in the works of famous French writers like Voltaire and Dumas. The prison was shut down in the 20th century. Today, most of the island is a reserved forest with tiny rocky bays, umbrella pines and ancient eucalyptus forests. And of course, beaches all around! Although most of the beaches are rocky, there is a long stretch of sand beach too. But what makes it even more exciting is that you can pick any small stretch of rocky beach and make it your own private beach for the day!
How to get there? Well, there’s a ferry from the Vieux-Port of Cannes to this island every 1-2 hours from the morning till the evening. A 15-minute ferry ride. But the last one back to Cannes is around 6 in the evening, so if you don’t manage to get back, you’re stuck on the island and you sleep under the stars. Although the rides go pretty full during the summer, the island still seems deserted when you’re walking in the forest. The island is almost 3 kms in length and 900 metres across. So you’re not running into people when you’re walking in the forest. But occasionally you see families setting up picnics, someone reading in peace, and people setting up their own private beach parties on tiny rocky bays. This was definitely one of the most unique places I’ve been to till now, and I couldn’t help but think of Kaho na pyaar hai while settling down on my own private bay. I walked quite a lot during the day spent on this island, but it was impossible to cover the whole island in one day. Not knowing what was next, it was pretty exciting to take random narrow paths, and so often, there was the road-not-taken moment in the forest. I also ended up finding a cemetery of soldiers, and that was really, really spooky. But as the hours passed, the challenge was to make it in time for the last ferry, which I managed and made it back in time for the last evening in Cannes.
The next morning, the last morning before the flight back, I went to the terrace of the Radisson Blu, which has an amaaaaazing view of Cannes and the Mediterranean. Followed by a quick visit to the Palais des festivals where the Cannes film festival takes place every year.
But, well, the island being the highlight of my trip to the South of France, I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much if I hadn’t discovered it on Google maps. Thank Google for that!