Enjoying a hassle-free Monaco F1 Grand Prix experience: a full practical guide for first-time visitors

23 Mar

(C) K. Hin

The Monaco Grand Prix is probably the biggest and most prestigious regular event on the French Riviera calendar, ahead of the Cannes Film Festival and the Carnival of Nice. Each year, it brings a magical atmosphere to the Principality, really kick-starting the summer season with plenty of private parties on the yachts in the harbour, a very cosmopolitan atmosphere and huge amounts of visitors (and therefore VAT income for the Monegasque government!). Of course, the Grand Prix completely changes the face of the Principality for 3 months, as the roads are full of temporary grandstands, crash barriers, tyres and blockades which are prepared two months in advance and take a month to dismantle afterwards, so there are huge logistics behind the event, the statistics provided by the Automobile Club of Monaco are impressive (see the “presentation” tab). Since the turn of the millennium, there has also been a Historic Grand Prix, which runs every even-numbered year two weeks before the main race, rather interesting to remind spectators of the race’s heritage as the first Monaco Grand Prix was run in 1929, though the first official race in the Formula 1 calendar was in 1950.

Poster for the 1933 Grand Prix

Poster for the 1933 Grand Prix

This special atmosphere has its drawbacks: it’s very crowded on the French Riviera as the Cannes film festival also tends to take place at the same time, transport infrastructure is stretched and prices tend to be inflated, especially for accommodation in Monaco itself, so you need to plan ahead.

Yachts in the harbour, embodying the glitz and glamour of the Monaco Grand Prix

Yachts in the harbour, embodying the glitz and glamour of the Monaco Grand Prix

Therefore, if you are intending to be part of the 120.000 spectators who come to visit Monaco at the end of May this year (the 2014 Grand Prix will take place from Thursday 22 to Sunday 25 May this year), and especially if it is your first time to Monaco, follow the practical advice that I am sharing in this article gleaned from almost 3 decades of experience and especially plan everything in advance for a hassle-free visit, there’s very little room for improvisation if you want to optimise your stay.

1.      Booking race tickets and optimising your schedule

There’s no way around it, the Monaco Grand Prix is a special experience and tickets are very expensive, much more so than a football match or another sporting for example (except perhaps the World Cup final)… But there are different degrees of expensive which I’ll outline.

There are two main solutions to view the race: either booking a grandstand seat (tribune) through the official ticketing agency or renting out a private balcony or boat, in this article I’ll concentrate on the first (and more accessible) option. Naturally it’s always possible to buy tickets through touts in the screen but this practice is illegal and the police keep a strict eye out for these, mainly penalising the purchaser, so I wouldn’t even think about it.

The place to buy tickets if you are abroad is via the Automobile Club of Monaco website – if you have a friend on the spot, they can also be purchased physically at their headquarters in Monaco, on Boulevard Albert 1er.

ACM

You can find a full programme for the 4 days on the official website. Bear in mind that there isn’t just Formula 1 all day, there are also plenty of other races for alternative championships of lesser interest unless you are a motorsport fan, such as GP2, the Porsche Supercup and Formula Renault.

Prices vary according to the day and what’s going on, here’s a quick overview:

-          Thursday (lowest prices): the first practice session where you can see the F1 cars and stars, one session in the morning and another in the afternoon.

-          Friday: nothing going on involving F1 cars and only a few minor races in the morning, so the track reopens at 2.30pm and access to all the grandstands is free.

-          Saturday (medium prices): F1 practice session in the morning and final qualifying session in the afternoon to determine who gets pole position, followed by the GP2 race.

-          Sunday (highest prices): F1 warm-up in the morning then the big race in the afternoon

The drivers' parade that takes place about 90 minutes before the start of the race

The drivers’ parade that takes place about 90 minutes before the start of the race

There are also two or three day packages if you really want to experience the whole weekend, though only the three day package offers real value for money.

Ticket prices also vary according to the stand you will have chosen, depending on the location, the degree of visibility of the whole track, the cars, the pit lanes and the big screens. Full details can be found on the ACM website as usual, with prices and an interactive location map. In all cases, be aware that the temporary steel stands are made like scaffolding and aren’t covered (so plan ahead in the event of either rain or bright sunshine), there’s no food on the spot and you’ll have to walk and wait a while to use the nearest Portakabin, so don’t expect luxury facilities unless you’re invited to one of the sponsors’ boxes, in which case you won’t be reading this article anyway.

One of the big screens on the GP circuit, essential to follow the action from the grandstands

One of the big screens on the GP circuit, essential to follow the action from the grandstands

Here’s a rough overview of the most popular locations (use the interactive location map for some photos):

-          Rocher: this section is located on the hillside just beneath the Old Town with great views over the whole circuit and is very popular as it is by far the cheapest (70€ on race day) with no seat allocation, simply because there are no seats, you need to find a flat piece of land and stay put. Plenty of people decide to camp there overnight to get the best spots for the next day, so if comfort and personal hygiene are your thing, give it a miss. Also bear in mind that although you get an amazing panoramic view over the whole harbour, you’ll need a good pair of binoculars to see the cars or the big screen on the opposite side of the harbour.

Spectators amassed on the hillside during the 2009 Grand Prix

Spectators amassed on the hillside during the 2009 Grand Prix

Happy campers who spent the night on the hillside to support Alonso

Happy campers who spent the night on the hillside to support Alonso

-          Tribune P: located on the harbour (350€ on race day), on the southern side of the swimming pool facing the hillside, you can see a slow bend and that’s about it but you’re close to the departure grid and can hear all the noise.

(C) K. Hin

-          Tribune T: this is the newest stand (480€ on race day), built on the harbour facing the pits so you have a great view of the tyre changing/refuelling etc. The downside is that your back is facing the sea so you don’t get the overall atmosphere of the race, though there are several big screens directly facing the grandstand.

(C) K. Hin

-          Tribune K: this is the most popular location on the port (480€ on race day), located at the northern end, giving a whole panoramic view from the exit of the tunnel and the slow part of the course around the swimming pool, with also a good view of the biggest screen located on the avenue d’Ostende slope.

(C) Lesley Young

-          Casino: this is the most expensive grandstand (550€ on race day), located (you guessed it) on Casino square and directly facing the emblematic building. This is obviously the classiest location with the fast curve coming out of the uphill section but the drawback is that you are cut off from the rest of the race and only see the action on the harbour on the big screen.

Source: (C) Getty

So take your pick!

As I mentioned, if you want to enjoy the Grand Prix in style and comfort, there are also some reliable private companies that you can easily find on the internet that offer spaces on private balconies with champagne buffets and views over the race track from around 1000€ per person on race day. Private boats are also available for similar prices depending on the service and the location.

Vioew from a private balcony over the departure grid, 2009 Grand Prix

View from a private balcony over the departure grid, 2009 Grand Prix

2.      Sorting out your accommodation during the Grand Prix weekend

The wonderful Hotel Hermitage, overlooking the circuit on avenue d'Ostende, but sadly hideously expensive for the Grand Prix weekend!

The wonderful Hotel Hermitage, overlooking the circuit on avenue d’Ostende, but sadly hideously expensive for the Grand Prix weekend!

There are several solutions for this:

-          Accommodation in Monaco: obviously most convenient as you’re in heart of the action but extremely expensive for the duration of the Grand Prix, we’re talking for example around 700€ per night for a 4-night minimum stay in a 4-star hotel (that’s about double the normal rate), so unless you’re very rich or want to splash out to impress somebody special, forget about it.

-          Accommodation in Beausoleil, the French town bordering Monaco, which has the advantage of having a few reasonably priced family-run hotels located within walking distance of the casino and the Monaco harbour and is therefore pretty convenient in the evening as you won’t need to commute. Prices will again be double the standard rate, but will still be a bit more reasonable than the Monaco hotels simply because the base rate is lower, budget maximum 300€ per night in a 3* hotel located 5 minutes walk from the casino. However, as the supply of rooms is quite low, these hotels tend to fill up very quickly each year, so make sure you book at least 6 months in advance.

-          Accommodation in Nice and the surrounding towns: plentiful but they also tend to hike up their prices for the Grand Prix. If you are on a tighter budget, I would suggest finding a hotel in central Nice within walking distance of the train station as it’s a big city where you can also do other things and it’s close to the airport. You can still find deals in 2/3* hotels there about 2 or 3 months ahead at around 150€ per night – certainly not bargains but OK given the prices of the options at this time of year.  It’s also possible to find accommodation in other towns if you don’t fancy Nice but in any case I would advise always sticking to hotels within walking distance of a railway station on the main Riviera line and wouldn’t go further afield than Nice or Ventimiglia. The downside is the commute in the morning and the evening (see the next section about getting around).

3.      Getting to and from Monaco during the Grand Prix weekend

Unfortunately this locomotion method isn't available to carry you to Monaco...

Unfortunately this locomotion method isn’t really an option to take you to Monaco…

This especially applies if you have taken the third accommodation option above and decided to stay outside Monaco, for example in Nice.

To get to Monaco, there are several options:

-          By car: just forget it, most roads are blocked off near the circuit and it will be very difficult and expensive to park.

-          By bus (if you are staying between Nice and Menton): line 100 runs regular services every 15 minutes all day at 1.50€ for a single trip. Allow about an hour from Nice and 30 minutes from Menton. This option is pretty convenient but the buses tend to get very crowded and bear in mind that the last bus leaves from Monaco at around 8pm. You can download the latest timetables on this link.

-          By train: 25 minutes direct line from Nice and Ventimiglia, reasonable prices (around 8€ return trip from Nice) and the last train leaves Monaco at around midnight so great if you want to stay around, party and enjoy the atmosphere. You can download the latest timetables on this link (select line 04) and the different grandstands are very well signposted when you arrive at Monaco-Monte Carlo train station. However, just pay attention to wildcat strikes that the French rail workers tend to organise during the Grand Prix weekend at the slightest hint of them having to work harder… In that case, it becomes a logistical pain as the last train leaves Monaco at around 8pm. If you want to get back later than that, the only option available to get home is…

Crowds heading back to the train station after the race

Crowds heading back to the train station from Place d’Armes after the race

-          By taxi: budget around 80€ for a trip to Nice, cash only, ouch (unless you’ve just won some money at the casino of course)!

4.      Eating and drinking in Monaco during the Grand Prix weekend

As you will have probably guessed, most restaurant owners in Monaco will hike their prices up during the Grand Prix weekend to milk the tourists as much as they can, here are some tips to avoid getting ripped off.

Lunchtime

If you are on a grandstand, just grab a sandwich and a drink at one of the numerous snack bars or at the Casino supermarket on the Boulevard Albert 1er, just by the departure grid. One exception to this rule is restaurant la Provence, a pleasant family-run restaurant on rue Grimaldi that does pizza and pasta and has good reviews – it’s also a personal favourite of mine.

You can also get a more authentic snack at the Place d’Armes market (marché de la Condamine), located behind the harbour at the foot of the Old Town hill, where there are plenty of nice stalls with good quality food, such as Truffle Gourmet and Roger Socca (French speakers will enjoy his TV interview) inside the market building.

One of the nice eateries in the Marché de la Condamine, a good alternative lunch option for race day

One of the nice new eateries in the Marché de la Condamine, a good alternative lunch option for race day

Dinner

My favourite part of town to bring guests is by far Monaco-Ville (the Old Town on top of the Rocher) at dusk, especially after a busy and noisy day: nice and peaceful, not very many people and it’s always magical to walk around the floodlit monuments and medieval alleyways, don’t forget that it’s perfectly safe to walk around Monaco too (unlike in Nice and the surrounding towns where you really need to pay attention to your belongings). The two restaurants that I normally visit are U Cavagnetu and Restaurant l’Express. Neither does anything too spectacularly but they both have nice outdoor seating areas, are reasonably priced (without having to hike up their prices for the Grand Prix) and you can taste some Monegasque specialities. My personal favourite in the old town if you want a fine dining experience is the amazing La Montgolfière, which is a bit more expensive of course but does great French-Asian fusion dushes, all home-cooked to perfection. The place is tiny so advanced booking is absolutely essential.

The charming streets of Monaco Ville by night

The charming streets of Monaco Ville by night

Once you are done with dinner, I’d advise you to go to the Palace Square and enjoy the overall view of the parties taking place on the harbour below before heading down there via the steps.

View over the harbour from Palace square

After-dinner drinks   

The liveliest place to sample the atmosphere is on the bar street on route de la Piscine, just below Tribune T. The circuit is obviously closed during the day but reopens from around 7pm (even earlier on the Friday, at 2.30pm), which means that revellers can party on the actual circuit up until the early hours of the morning.

Walking on the Grand Prix circuit after reopening on Saturday evening

Walking on the Grand Prix circuit after reopening on Saturday evening

Obviously drinks are expensive and the atmosphere is pretty hedonistic, but it’s worth doing at least once, whilst admiring in the distance the private parties taking place on the yachts or on the Red Bull barge. The bars are, walking towards the swimming pool, la Rascasse, Before, Zest, the Black Legend, Jack’s and the Brasserie de Monaco (which has the added advantage of having home-brewed beer, unlike the others).

F1 party at La Rascasse

F1 party at La Rascasse

Naturally, some of these places also offer dinner, but unless you’re really feeling lazy, follow my advice and head up to the Old Town, let the real restaurants serve food and the real bars serve drinks to party animals!

And don’t forget to keep an eye on the clocks if you are heading back to Nice on the last train! Allow 15 minutes with the crowds to get from the bar street to the train station (in normal circumstances, 10 minutes are enough).

Conclusion    

I think this just about covers all I can say about the Grand Prix for the moment: if you think I have forgotten anything, please send me a comment via the form below and let me know about any experiences, positive or negative, that you may have as I’ll be updating this article for the 2015 race. Have a great visit to Monaco and enjoy the magical Formula 1 experience in May!

2009 race winner Jenson Button celebrating

2009 race winner Jenson Button celebrating

Saint-Tropez off season: is it worth it?

22 Mar
Morning view of the Old Port of Saint Tropez

Morning view of the Old Port of Saint Tropez

 

Whilst I ran Hotel Notre Dame in Nice, I often got questions from guests asking whether it was worth travelling over to Saint-Tropez and I basically told them no – given the hassle getting there from Nice (either a two hour minimum bus ride in summer traffic or an extortionate boat trip), people wishing to experience a snazzy and sophisticated French Riviera atmosphere could head off to Cannes or Monaco instead in under 30 minutes on the train.

But whilst writing this blog, I recently became curious about the near-mystical attraction that Saint-Tropez has over visitors and that’s why a couple of weeks ago on a bright Sunday morning I decided to get up early, see what all the fuss was about by visiting it from a tourist’s perspective and definitely figure out whether 8 years later, I would have replied the same thing to my guests. So here’s the lowdown on what Saint-Tropez is all about and what to see and do there.

Saint-Tropez in context…

First of all, just to clarify Saint-Tropez isn’t even technically on the French Riviera, if you define (like I do on this blog) the Riviera as the coastline of the Alpes-Maritimes, from the Esterel mountains to the Italian border… It’s located in the Var department, therefore in Provence, 112km west of Nice, nestled inside the southern shoreline of the gulf of the same name, giving it a very secluded setting.

The village was allegedly founded during the first century AD when, according to a fun story I read in the maritime museum there, one of Roman emperor Nero’s advisors, names Torpes, had the bad idea (at the time) of converting to Christianity, got chopped into pieces as one did, and got sent to sea in a small boat… His remains ended up in a little cove, which then grew to be known as St Tropez (distorted version of Torpes, get it?). Granted, this story is a little convoluted, but it creates part of the urban legend, a bit like that of Sainte Dévote in Monaco a few centuries later.

It then became a key fishing centre and a strategic location to defend the Provençal coast from Spanish incursions, warranting the construction of an early 17th century fortress (now the Citadel). After this, in the 19th century, the beautiful light drew in plenty of writers (such as troubled French author Guy de Maupassant, who wrote Bel-Ami there) and impressionist painter Henri Matisse, who has his own museum in Nice but still immortalised the setting with his Vue sur Saint-Tropez.

Vue sur Saint-Tropez by Matisse

Vue sur Saint-Tropez by Matisse

Then in the 1960s, Brigitte Bardot and several nightlife entrepreneurs like Eddie Barclay transformed this sleepy fishing village into a cheesy jet-set destination to rival Cannes and Monte-Carlo and a place for the Parisian intelligentsia to enjoy some Mediterranean debauchery every summer drinking Domaine Ott rosé wine or Crystal champagne on the Old Port and the nice surrounding beaches.

What to see and do

1. Soak in the atmosphere of the old port: this is the nerve centre of the town and the area that has the most atmosphere (as illustrated on this video): just walk around the waterfront, past the Annonciade Museum and enjoy the views of the yachts and the typically Provencal coloured facades with the spire of Notre Dame de l’Assomption in the distance.

Walking along the Old Port of St Tropez

Walking along the Old Port of St Tropez

The liveliest part is the Quai Jean-Jaurès where you can find some pleasantly located for people watching but overpriced restaurants, the main one being the famous red signs of Le Sénéquier.

Le Sénéquier - a great place for a memorable drink on the port, also memorable for your wallet though!

Le Sénéquier – a great place for a memorable drink on the port, also memorable for your wallet though!

Be warned, if you do decide to have a rest on the admittedly nice terrace, the cheapest glass of local wine will set you back 9€ and a cheeseburger around 30€, which probably makes it more expensive than the Café de Paris in Monte-Carlo (and definitely more expensive than the local MacDonalds). After this, walk past the Tour du Portalet that guards the harbour to the tip of the long jetty, where you can admire the splendid views and…

2. Take in the magnificent surrounding scenery: if Saint-Tropez became a famed tourist destination in the first place, there’s a reason, which is its amazing setting on the southern coast of the Gulf of Saint-Tropez, a narrow inlet located at the foot of the Massif des Maures, where the light is sumptuous and ideal for artists. From the tip of the jetty, you’ll get a great view north and east over the Maures, the calm blue waters of the gulf (with Sainte-Maxime on the other side), the red volcanic rocks of the Esterel mountains and in the distance on a clear day, the Southern Alps in the Mercantour National Park and the Italian coastline.

View from the jetty looking towards the back of the Gulf of St Tropez

View from the jetty looking towards the back of the Gulf of St Tropez and Grimaud

Of course, it’s also the best place to get nice shots of the Old Town and enjoy its charm – preferably in the morning because from noon onwards, the place starts to get packed with posers driving around in expensive cars and ladies with designer handbags, so it all depends if that’s your kind of scene

 View of the Old Town from the Tour Portalet

View of the Old Town from the Tour Portalet

3. Wander around the streets of the Old Town: the most picturesque and atmospheric streets and squares are located behind the Quai Jean-Jaurès (where the Sénéquier is) and are rather pleasant to wander around.

The Vieux Port viewed from the streets of the Old Town

The Vieux Port viewed from the streets of the Old Town

The Chapelle de la Miséricorde

The Chapelle de la Miséricorde

The only real monument is the Notre Dame de l’Assomption church (link in French), built in 1784 and which is easily identified by its Italian baroque spire. The main square of the town is the Place des Lices, surrounded by some very chic fashion stores and with a rather dusty central section where can see the locals playing pétanque (boules) during the day to remind you of the Provencal atmosphere…

Pétanque on Place des Lices

Pétanque on Place des Lices

The parallel streets between the Place des Lices and the harbour, centred on Place de la Garonne are full of more upmarket stores if you fancy getting that Prada bag you always dreamed of – this area really embodies the weird Jekyll and Hyde like atmosphere exuding out of Saint-Tropez, oscillating between cheesy luxury and old Provençal authenticity.      

Luxury stores on Place de la Garonne

Luxury stores on Place de la Garonne

4. Climb up to the Citadel: this early 17th century castle, dating back from the period when Provence had to be defended against enemy intruders.

The lovely setting of the Citadel of St Tropez

The lovely setting of the Citadel of St Tropez

In a strategic location on a plateau above the Old Port, it dominates the town and affords great views over the whole coastline which just about justify the 3€ entrance fee (though I was rather disappointed that you couldn’t see much of the actual village from the top, the view being blocked by some trees).

The tip of the Gulf of St Tropez viewed from the Citadel, with the Esterel monutains and the Southern Alps in the distance

The tip of the Gulf of St Tropez viewed from the Citadel, with the Esterel mountains and the Southern Alps in the distance

View across the Gulf towards Sainte-Maxime from the Citadel

View across the Gulf towards Sainte-Maxime from the Citadel

For that price, you also get access to a brand new Maritime Museum which retraces the maritime history of the area and is rather well laid-out in the central fortress of the citadel, so pretty interesting if you are into that sort of thing, which I’m not.

The brand new Maritime Museum in the heart of the Citadel

The brand new Maritime Museum in the heart of the Citadel

To get there, just head up the hill from the old town, it wasn’t a very strenuous walk when I visited in early March, but things may be a bit different in the middle of the summer, with heat and crowds added into the equation.

The slope up to the Citadel

The slope up to the Citadel

5. Check out the Musée de l’Annonciade: this museum, located in a converted chapel on Place Grammont in one of the corners of the Old Port, is really for art aficionados who want to understand how Saint-Tropez inspired some top painters. Unfortunately I didn’t have the opportunity to visit but it is recommended by some guidebooks so check it out if you have the time or the inclination.

Musée de l'Annnonciade

Musée de l’Annonciade

6. Sample some “Tarte Tropézienne” on the Place des Lices. This local speciality is basically a light brioche, slightly scented with orange flower, and filled with cream… Not great if you’re on a diet, but worth it, especially as it’s best tried out in the place where it was created. I sampled it at the eponymous café, which invented it in 1955 but is now franchised out in the rest of France, a portion will set you back a pretty reasonable (if you are alone) 3€.

Tarte Tropézienne

Tarte Tropézienne

7. Follow the coastal walking trail and explore some of the beaches. I was in too much of a hurry but there are some stunning trails which will take you along the coast to the major beaches of the area where Parisians come to sun themselves. The most famous beach, which I accessed by car (otherwise it’s a 15km/4 hour walk from the Old Port) is thelovely sandy stretch of Plage de Pampelonne, which is actually in the commune of Ramatuelle and is packed in the summer with both a private and a public area. This fashion video captures the mood for the summer! However when I visited off-season, it was pretty badly maintained…

Plage Pampelonne in the winter before maintenance

Plage Pampelonne in the winter before maintenance

Clean-up quickly required for the tourist season!

Clean-up quickly required for the tourist season!

8. Visit the neighbouring towns of Sainte-Maxime and Ramatuelle. If you are visiting by car, these two very different destinations just about warrant a quick stopover, in this order.

  • Ramatuelle is an old Provençal village perched on a hill above the Plage de Pampelonne so about 10km from the centre of St Tropez, surrounded by vineyards and with lovely views over the coastline. It’s pleasant enough to wander around its old narrow streets but there isn’t really much to distinguish it from the other old Provençal villages in the area and besides it was totally dead when I visited.
Stunning view from the old village Ramatuelle over the vineyards and the Pampelonne Bay

Stunning view from the old village Ramatuelle over the vineyards and the Pampelonne Bay

The central square of Ramatuelle on a deserted Sunday

The central square of Ramatuelle on a deserted Sunday

  • Sainte-Maxime on the other hand is a rather brash seaside and slightly downmarket town, facing Saint-Tropez on the northern coast of the Gulf. Stop over there quickly for the coastal views and for a wander along the pleasant waterfront and in the recently renovated and bustling old town, though you won’t really find much to write home about.
Place Victor Hugo, on the Sainte Maxime waterfront promenade

Place Victor Hugo, on the Sainte Maxime waterfront promenade

The marina of Sainte Maxime, just about all there is to see there.

The marina of Sainte Maxime, just about all there is to see there.

Practical information: getting there from the French Riviera

As I mentioned in the title of this article, access to Saint-Tropez isn’t easy as it’s located at the end of a road with only pretty much one way in and one way out, a bit like Portofino… Besides there’s no train line so access by road or by boat are the only solutions.

-          By car: when I drove in early March, there was no traffic but it was still a good two-hour drive from Monaco, as St-Tropez is 112km west of Nice and 45 minutes from the nearest motorway exit, inland in Le Muy. You then need to drive down to the coast and pass through the towns of Sainte-Maxime and Grimaud, so needless to say, summer traffic is horrendous with all the roundabouts and traffic lights. When you get to Saint-Tropez, you’ll need to park either on the New Port (about 10 minutes walk to the Old Port and the city centre) or on the Place des Lices where there is a rather small outdoor parking area. Prices in the winter were surprisingly reasonable (around 1.20€ per hour), but they are hiked up for the tourists in the summer.

Access map to St Tropez. Credit: www. saint-tropez.fr

Access map to St Tropez. Credit: www. saint-tropez.fr

-          By bus: there are no direct bus links from the French Riviera to Saint-Tropez. The simplest way if you have to take public transport (though simple isn’t really a word that springs to mind) is to take a train to Saint Raphael and then one of the Varlib buses (at least they are cheap, at 2€ a trip) from there to Saint-Tropez which takes at least an hour. You can find timetables on the Varlib website (in French only of course…).

-          By boat in the summer: if you don’t have a car, this is probably the best (but also the most expensive way) to get there from Nice or Cannes. Routes are operated in the summer only on Trans Côte d’Azur with about 5 hours on the spot before the trip back. As I mentioned it’s expensive, at 63€ for a return journey from Nice and 48€ from Cannes but if you pick a nice day, you’ll enjoy some stunning views over the coastline and notably the Corniche d’Or on the Esterel mountains. Full information on the Trans Côte d’Azur website, advance booking is essential for these day trips.

The stunning Corniche d'Or of the Esterel mountains, which can be seen from the boat trip between Nice and St Tropez

The stunning Corniche d’Or of the Esterel mountains, which can be seen from the boat trip between Nice and St Tropez

Conclusion           

So as you no doubt noticed, I enjoyed my day in Saint-Tropez, especially the lovely scenery, but probably wouldn’t go back there in the off-season – there simply isn’t anything special to see or do (or even in terms of differentiating atmosphere) to warrant the time, cost and hassle of getting there especially if you’re only spending a short time on the Riviera. So I stick to my original opinion and was probably right to advise my hotel guests not to go there for a day trip.

However, I still need to check it out in the summer when the town is in full jet-set mode… Maybe if I have the time and the inclination in July or August, I’ll just hop on a boat from Nice and give it a try and will share my experiences, but it’s a big IF, as there are plenty of more interesting places closer to home that I’d like to share with my French Rivera Blog readers first!

Let me know if you agree with this verdict, look forward to your feedback!

 

Sponsored Link

If you are planning a visit to Saint Tropez, visit Saint Tropez House

 

Spring is in the air on the French Riviera – a quick update!

8 Mar

Monaco harbour on a Saturday morning, March 2014

Monaco harbour on a Saturday morning, March 2014

We’re currently enjoying a great spell of beautiful weather after a rather mild winter, which bodes well for a fabulous summer. Here’s a view taken from the port of Monaco this morning over Cap Martin and the Italian Riviera, with the crystal clear blue skies that you can only see at this time of the year.

In the meantime, I’d like to thank all the readers who have enjoyed my advice for their positive comments, we will probably hit the 200.000 visitor mark on the blog in the coming months and this gives me the energy to keep going on, despite the work it all entails! Plenty of new articles are in the pipeline ahead of the summer, I just need to find the time to write them up, so keep yourselves posted and like the French Riviera Blog Facebook page for the latest updates.

Have a fabulous weekend,

Kevin

Discovering the Cinqueterre Villages on the Italian Riviera: a weekend drive down the coast

4 Dec

Image

Discover the unique charm of the Cinqueterre villages in Italy, with their multicoloured houses, unspoilt nature and amazing food, that can be visited on a weekend excursion from the Riviera.

As I mentioned when I launched the blog, I am not just covering the French Riviera but also some places that are a bit further afield which I have had the opportunity to visit in order to share my experiences. This Easter, I had the opportunity to discover in some depth the beautiful villages of the Cinqueterre in Italy and I am going to relate my experiences in this article…

From my experience in the hotel business, plenty of visitors who visit the French Riviera, especially those from other continents, tend to use the Cinqueterre as a stepping stone before heading to Florence or Rome, and these five little gems are well worth the visit. Naturally, given that I have very little local expertise of the area, this article is no substitute to a real guide book: my sources are just the French Guide du Routard Northern Italy book as well as local knowledge I gleaned whilst speaking to the very friendly inhabitants of the villages. But I hope this article and the practical tips I will provide, written from a “French Riviera” tourist’s perspective, will help you enjoy your stay in the Cinqueterre and enable some of the inhabitants of the French Riviera to discover a beautiful and very accessible part of Italy, justa  few hours down the coast! This article is pretty long (even by my standards), so I decided to give it a bit of structure by dividing it into the following sections:

1. Background

2. In a nutshell – sample itinerary for the Cinqueterre in 3 days

3. Highlights of the Cinqueterre

4. Practical information on how to optimise your trip and getting around

5. Other highlights of the Levante Riviera

6. Recommendations on accommodation, food and drink

1. Background to the Cinqueterre

The Cinqueterre are a series of five tiny but absolutely stunning coastal villages located about 100 km east of Genoa and therefore about 300km east of Nice: from west to east, they are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. They are therefore located on the Levanto Riviera just before the large naval base of La Spezia, the same part of coastline that houses such famous resorts as Portofino, Rapallo, Santa Margherita Ligure, Sestri Levante and Portovenere.

The Levanto Riviera east of Genoa is rather similar to the portion of the French Riviera east of Nice, in that it is surrounded by huge cliffs and mountains that drop straight into the rocky sea, making it very tough to settle on the coastline. The five villages are located in coves along the coastline, making them isolated for centuries (only accessible via mule paths or by sea) and enabling them to cultivate their individualism, which gives them so much charm nowadays, as each village has its own particular character. The villages lived off fishing, olive oil culture and wine for centuries until they were attached to the Republic of Genoa. Nowadays, they mainly live off the tourism industry, even though the region still remains rather isolated compared to the rest of Italy and the French Riviera and any minor glitches in the transport system will quickly remind you of what a pain life was for the villagers up until a few decades ago.

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Traditional agriculture is still strong in the Cinqueterre, especially close to Corniglia

There was also a sharp reminder of this on 25 October 2011, when some torrential rainstorms caused a huge mudslide that devastated the Cinqueterre and the surrounding area, killing several villagers and destroying a considerable number of businesses, especially the restaurants. The inhabitants were extremely resilient in rebuilding the area for the next tourist season but the damage is still present and when I visited 18 months later, several main attractions had still not reopened like the coastal path between the villages, a reminder of how dependent the area is on nature.

2. In a nutshell – sample itinerary for visiting the Cinqueterre in 3 days from the French Riviera

Here’s how I planned my trip, it was a great and very efficient way to see as much as possible in a limited time but was pretty exhausting, especially Day 2: use the detailed information provided afterwards to define your stay according to your own interests.

  • Day 1

-          Drive from Monaco to Monterosso with a lunch stopover in Camogli (nice medieval village by the sea just after Genoa): total 3 hours drive

-          Check in at Hotel Villa Adriana at 3.30pm

-          Afternoon walk around the Monterosso waterfront and train to Vernazza (3 hours including 2 hours waiting for delayed rain and    compensating by enjoying an extended aperitivo!)

-          Dinner in Monterosso at Ciak and walk around the old village, digestive at Enoteca da Eliseo

  • Day 2

-          Use of the train the whole day with a Cinqueterre Pass: morning visits of Corniglia then Manarola (1 hour each)

-          La Spezia (1 hour walk around the centre, way too long!) then bus to Portovenere for lunch (2 hours to discover the village including lunch at La Piazzetta)

-          Return by bus to La Spezia then train to Riomaggiore (90 minute visit) then Levanto (1 hour visit)

-          Aperitvo at Enoteca da Eliseo then dinner in Monterosso at Trattoria da Oscar

  • Day 3

-          Return to Monaco with lunch break and walk around Sestri Levante, a charming seaside resort between the Cinqueterre and Portofino. Lunch at Osteria Mattana.

3. Highlights of the Cinqueterre

Here’s a short description of the five villages, from west to east:

  • Village 1: Monterosso al Mare
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The Monterosso waterfront in front of the railway station

This is the first village that you will encounter when arriving from the west (Genoa or the French Riviera) – Monterosso is the closest to being a normal village, ie. not the prettiest of the five, but the most accessible and also probably the one with the most going on, along with Riomaggiore, giving it more of a resort feel. This is the reason why I chose Monterosso as a base during my two-night stay. The village is divided into two distinct sections – Fegina to the west, which houses most of the hotels and the railway station, and the central old village further east, which is a bit more traditional. Both areas are separated by a short pedestrian tunnel, but it is impossible to get from A to B by taxi without having to use some very tight mountain roads passing through the back.

Fegina boasts a lovely seaside promenade, ideal for the afternoon passeggiata enjoyed by most Italians with spectacular views looking west towards the imposing Punta Mesco cliff and eastwards along the coast towards the four other villages and the Portovenere promonotory. This view was particularly spectacular when I arrived at the end of a rainy day, after the brunt of the storm but before the rainclouds had cleared up over the mountains.

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The calm just after the storm in Monterosso

Walk past the train station and through the pedestrian tunnel beneath the Capucine monastery to reach the harbour and the older part of the village, complete with an old castle and some typical Ligurian old town streets full of excellent bars and restaurants. There isn’t really a huge amount to see but I found it very pleasant to just stroll around the small streets, especially at night whilst enjoying the peace and quiet of the village after dinner – also, contrary to some of the other villages, Monterosso is large enough to be able to spend a few hours in without getting too bored.

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Explore the old village of Monterosso by night, fabulous atmosphere!

  • Village 2: Vernazza
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Vernazza’s tiny harbour

Vernazza is widely considered to be the most beautiful of the 5 villages and it’s easy to figure out why, just by looking at its setting. The village is located in a tiny cove in the only natural harbour of the Cinqueterre, set around Piazza Marconi, full of colourful fishing boats in the dry dock when they are not out at sea.

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Rainbow at dusk over the main street of Vernazza

The downside however is that the place is pretty tiny so there isn’t a huge amount to do other than visiting the beautiful Santa Margarita d’Antochia church which has a distinctive maritime feel and an octagonal bell tower, wandering round the harbour and up and down the main street.

When I visited, my train back to Monterosso was delayed in a typically opaque Italian manner (first the monitor showed a 10 minute delay, then 20, then 45, then 60, then about 2 hours later it arrived), so I visited several bars for the aperitivo whilst waiting, that was pretty much all there was to do there, in addition of course to admiring the beautiful sunset over Punta Mesco, so it wasn’t all that bad!

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Beautiful sunset iover Punta Mesco viewed from the harbour of Vernazza

The best of the three bars I visited was the one located directly on the harbour, just by the church: you can’t miss it, it’s the busiest one, they mixed a great Negroni and also had a nice aperitivo buffet which was great as I was getting a bit peckish by then!

Something I didn’t have the opportunity to do was to wander up the hill behind the church, from which you can apparently get a stunning picture postcard view of the village.

  • Village 3: Corniglia
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The perched village of Corniglia

Corniglia, village number 3, is somewhat overlooked by most visitors as it is perched on top of a promontory about 100m above sea level and therefore doesn’t have any direct access to the coast, thereby giving it more of an agricultural than a maritime feel. My word of advice is to check it out anyway, it’s well worth it.

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The wine terraces of Corniglia, giving the village its distinctive agricultural feel

It is this strange location that makes the village stand out and provides its particular atmosphere – there isn’t a huge amount to see up there but just wander around the ancient streets (which remind me of some of the Val Nervia villages described in one my other articles) and discover some amazing viewpoints. Make sure that you visit the Santa Maria belvedere, which affords stunning views over the Cinqueterre coastline and the railway station below – just this view makes the whole visit worthwhile. There are also a few welcoming streets with souvenir shops and nice-looking cafés where you can stop over for a cappuccino before heading over to the next village.

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Vioew west from the Santa Maria Belvedere in Corniglia towards Monterosso and Vernazza

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View east from Corniglia towards Manarola and Portovenere

To get to the village from the railway station, there are three options:

-          Shuttle bus (recommended): if you have the Cinqueterre railway pass, it’s free and will whisk you up to the village in about five minutes, the bus times generally follow the train arrivals, which is pretty logical. Full timetables are available on the second page of the PDF document in this link: http://www.atcesercizio.it/cinqueterre.pdf . If for some reason you don’t have a Cinqueterre card (and there’s no reason not to!), it will cost a small amount per person, I think around 2€.

-          Walk up via the steps that head up from the west of the train station towards the village. There are 382 steps in total so don’t be silly – unless you are fitness freaks, just take the bus, especially as it can get pretty hot on those steps and you’ll need your energy to visit the rest of the villages especially if time is limited. The steps are so notorious that they even have a name, the Lardarina!

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The very long staircase leading up to the village of Corniglia – just take the bus up and walk down!

-          Walk up via the winding road that loops up from the railway station through the vineyards and olive groves, to the village: it will take around 20-30 minutes and is less steep than the steps, but be careful as there’s no pavement and the local drivers tend to drive pretty quickly on the mountain roads.

What I advise is to take the shuttle bus up and then walk down the steps, that way you’ll enjoy some amazing views over the beach which is located just underneath the railway station.

  • Village 4: Manarola
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The colourful fishing village of Manarola (C) K. Hin

The fourth village of Manarola has plenty of charm thanks to its tiny harbour surrounded by a very colourful mound of typical houses, all stuck together like a 3 dimensional jigsaw puzzle (or a bunch of Jenga blocks combined with a Rubik’s cube if you prefer). Once you get out of the train station, unlike Corniglia, you just have to walk through a short tunnel to be in the heart of the village.

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Fishing boats in the dry dock of Manarola

Sizewise, Manarola is pretty similar to Vernazza and is tiny so it’s easy to wander around the place pretty quickly – all the tourists tend to hog the main street (full of seafood restaurants) between the railway station and the tiny harbour which has nice views with its colourful fishing boats, but walk a bit further along the bottom of the cliff to the right (when facing the sea) to get some lovely views over the colourful houses of the village to the east and over the three other villages and Punta Mesco to the west.

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The coastline viewed west from Manarola with Corniglia in the foreground

The downside of the village is that it gets packed very quickly, but the tourist groups (who arrive in waves depending on the trains) tend to wander around the streets in herds before taking the next train – the trick is to follow a loop through the streets in the opposite direction from the groups, so that you are never in the same place as them. This applies to all the villages, but especially Manarola and Vernazza which are both accessible to groups but very small so prone to overcrowding.

Normally to cover the short distance to the final village of Riomaggiore there is the very well-trodden and therefore well-maintained footpath starting from Manarola railway station, called the Via dell’Amore. However, at the time of writing, it is still closed, so you’ll need to take the train for the moment – see the section about getting around the Cinqueterre for more information.

  • Village 5: Riomaggiore
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The harbour of Riomaggiore

Riomaggiore is the final Cinqueterre village you will encounter before hitting “civilisation” (ie. grottiness) again in la Spezia – it is the largest of the five villages and, due to its proximity to La Spezia, is the de facto capital. At the same time, it is probably the one that exudes the most character (much more in any case than the other “large” village, Monterosso) due to a spectacular setting inside another cove.

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Riomaggiore’s secluded cove setting

To get an idea, just imagine a much larger version of Manarola. There’s the obligatory main street (Via Columbo) leading from the railway station down to the tiny harbour battered by the waves, but there’s plenty more to explore inside the tiny alleyways of the village so I’d just advise you to wander around and “get lost”. Those feeling adventurous can follow the small path across the cliffs to the east for a few hundred metres and admire some beautiful sea views and just sunbathe on the rocks.

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The cliff path just to the east of Riomaggiore harbour

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Another view of the Riomaggiore cliff path, a great place to sunbathe on the rocks

Or else, if you are feeling a bit more energetic (like I did on the day of my visit, thanks to a very nice lunch in Portovenere with a delicious Vermentino white wine and a few strong espressos!), you can even head up the hill through the houses on the western part of the cove up to the castle where you will see yet more sumptuous coastline views.

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Riomaggiore harbour viewed from the castle

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View from the vantage point of Riomaggiore castle towards the inland part of the village

4. Practical notes on how to optimise your stay in the Cinqueterre and getting around

  •  Moving around by car

The main thing you’ll notice is that, unlike the French Riviera, there’s no coastal road so it’s impossible to just drive from one village to another, simply because the coast is so abrupt, which explains how isolated the villages were for hundreds of years, and still are, relatively speaking. The only road between the villages passes high above the villages in the mountains.

Parking in the villages themselves is also a nightmare with only a few small car parks which are quickly saturated in the high season. So if you don’t have a hotel with a car park, I’d advise to leave your car either in Levanto or La Spezia and then just to take the train everywhere.

By far the easiest way to get around is the regular train line that links Genoa and La Spezia and conveniently passes through the 5 Cinqueterre villages: all trains stop at least in Riomaggiore and Monterosso, the non-express ones also stop in Manarola, Corniglia and Vernazza.

  • Moving around by train
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Train pulling into Riomaggiore train station

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The view from Monterosso train station

I strongly recommend the Cinqueterre (Treno) pass, which gives access to various sites, hiking paths as well as unlimited train travel between La Spezia and Levanto, plus obviously the five villages in between, for one or two days for 12€ or 23€ respectively. Not that cheap, but worth it given that you will want to waste as little time as possible. You can find all the necessary practical information on this website, as well as the train timetables. I would definitely recommend that you take a few minutes to study the train timetables at the start of your day to optimise your visit.

  • The “sentieri” (footpaths) linking the villages
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The kind of view you’ll find on the Cinqueterre footpaths, here in Manarola

If you have a bit more energy, there are some amazing trails that wind around the National Park: first of all, a coastal path (Sentiere no. 2) that runs between Riomaggiore and Monterosso affording spectacular views over the coastline: the first part between Riomaggiore and Manarola, known as the “Via dell’Amore” (the Pathway of Love), the section that most tourists walk down, the flattest and is as cheesy as the name suggests so can get pretty packed with tour groups admiring the rather tacky concrete sculptures of loving couples. The other sections further to the west are much tougher and rugged with better views but involving lots of uphill and downhill walking, so you need decent hiking boots. As there is hardly any shade on the coastal paths, you’ll also need plenty of water and sun cream in the summer.

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The coastal paths afford amazing sea views

There are also several paths running inland between the villages, known as the “Sentieri degli Santuari” after the medieval sanctuaries built above each village as refuges in the event of invasions, notably from the Saracens. I didn’t have the opportunity to try these out but the reviews are fabulous – again, be prepared for plenty of uphill and downhill trekking so don’t bother if you cannot walk much.

An important note is that several of these paths, notably parts of the coastal paths, are often closed for repairs or due to adverse weather conditions or landslides. For the latest news, check the National Park website which will tell you exactly which paths are open when. There is also an entrance fee to access the paths in the National Park (5 euros for a day pass), but if you have the Cinqueterre train pass as strongly advised, you can access them for free.

  • The Cinqueterre viewed from the sea
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Another fun option is to visit the Cinqueterre by boat: there are regular services weaving their way between the 5 villages and nearby Portovenere, La Spezia and Lerici. This option is a little more time-consuming (routes are less frequent) and expensive than the train (between 15€ and 27€ depending on whether you take a single trip or a day pass) but if you have a bit more time to spare then I’d definitely advise it as seeing the villages from the sea is pretty magical, and was the primary means of transport for the villagers up until the 20th century, though obviously not with the same type of boat. Boat routes only run from the end of March until October and can be cancelled whenever the sea is rough, which can happen more often than you would expect, here’s the website of one of the shuttle operators.

5. Other highlights of the Levanto Riviera 

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The lovely village of Le Grazie, between La Spezia and Portovenere

In addition to the five villages, you can take the opportunity of a long weekend to visit several of the other interesting towns nearby.

  • La Spezia
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The harbour in La Spezia, the nicest part of town

This is the large naval city located just to the east of Riomaggiore, so is the transport hub of eastern Liguria. Its major asset is its beautiful and strategic location inside the Gulf of Poets I stopped over there because the guide books said that despite its ugly rough harbour town exterior, the city had plenty of hidden charm (especially due to some nice museums and art galleries): unfortunately I saw plenty of the former but none of the latter, so can’t really advise you to spend a lot of time there, though it was Easter Sunday so was pretty dead and coming straight from charming Manarola, it was rather disappointing.

One issue is that the train station is a rather boring 15-minute walk to the town centre, but you do need to go to the waterfront to take the bus to Portovenere. I also noticed a nice-looking restaurant on the harbour (next to where you take the boats to go to the Cinqueterre villages) which serves very reasonably priced fresh fish straight from the fishing boats which was packed with locals, so can probably recommend it. The waterfront and the “maritime garden” is also pretty pleasant to walk around.

Plenty of guide books suggest to stay in La Spezia as it’s very easy to get to the Cinqueterre villages by train using the Cinqueterre pass and is also easily accessible from the motorway, more so than the villages of course but also Levanto, which is another frequently-used accommodation option.

As I mentioned, La Spezia is also the transit point if you are going to Portovenere by any other means than by boat: take bus no. 11P from the bus stop near the waterfront, here are the timetables. Be careful, you need to buy tickets at the machine across the road, there is no way to buy them on the bus.

  • Portovenere
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Portovenere harbour

This touristy but charming seaside/jet-set resort located on a promontory separating La Spezia from Riomaggiore at the tip of the Golfo dei Poeti can almost be considered as the sixth village of the Cinqueterre. Located 13km from La Spezia (therefore a 30 minute bus ride), this pedestrianised medieval village, which was initially a Roman port before being fortified during the middle ages, has a small marina lined with waterfront restaurants, quite similar to Villefranche sur Mer on the French Riviera, so it’s worth spending a few hours and wandering around.

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Good restaurants can be found on Via Capellini in Portovenere

The most interesting way to visit Portovenere is to walk up the hill via the main pedestrian street, Via Capellini, where the restaurants are better value for money than those on the waterfront, and wind your way up to the Castello Doria castle from which you will enjoy a fabulous view over the whole of the Golfo dei Poeti and the Isola Palmaria island opposite.

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San Pietro church and the Isola Palmara viewed from Portovenere castle

Looking down from the castle, you’ll also see a rocky promontory with the 13th century gothic-style San Pietro church. The beautiful view over the promontory is more reminiscent of Brittany or Cornwall than the Italian Riviera, with the waves crashing against the rocks and the small causeway linking the church to the mainland. Once you are down at the church, admire the lovely view west over Punta Mesca and the Cinqueterre villages.

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View from San Pietro church in Portovenere over the Cinqueterre

If you have time to spare (which I didn’t during my visit), take the boat to the neighbouring Isola Palmaria during the high season – it’s only a 10-minute ride away – and have a wander around, enjoying the splendid natural beauty of the island. According to a friend of mine, the restaurant on the island is very good.

  • Levanto
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The nice beach in Levanto

This pleasant town borders the opposite side of the Cinqueterre, and is therefore located to the west of Monterosso, on the opposite side of Punta Mesco. There are plenty of bars and restaurants and the medieval ruins are interesting enough to warrant a short trip if you have time to spare, as is the waterfront with a sandy surfing beach.

Levanto is a great base to stay as transport from Levanto to the Cinqueterre is included in the train day pass (as is La Spezia) and there are plenty of reasonably-priced bed and breakfasts, but note that the railway station is a bit of a trek from the waterfront (around 15 minutes at a fast pace, so not ideal when you’ve spent the whole day hiking through the villages). Also, road access from the motorway is much more tedious than La Spezia, around 30 minutes round a windy road which can be frustrating if you are stuck behind a lorry or a caravan (I’m speaking from experience!).

6. Eating, drinking and lodging in the Cinqueterre

Here are a few addresses I visited and can recommend in the Cinqueterre: most are based in Monterosso as that’s where I found a good hotel deal and had my two dinners:

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Three-star Villa Adriana in Monterosso, great accommodation at reasonable prices

This was my base for my 2-night visit, a very good choice in the Fegina neighbourhood of Monterosso, so just 1 minute from the beach and 5 minutes from the railway station… Free parking, nice modern room with a balcony overlooking a very pleasant private garden, free wi-fi, good breakfast and friendly staff with a swimming pool in the summer, all for just 70€ per night – that was basically all I needed to be able to go around. The hotel also has a very reasonably-priced fixed menu dinner but I’d advise you to get out and enjoy the treats of Monterosso instead.

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Nice view from my hotel balcony

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Typical Ligurian starter: nice soft anchovies in whilte wine sauce

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Main course at Da Oscar: an absolutely divine dish of Trofie ai Gamberoni

This small family-run trattoria with only a few tables was recommended to me during my aperitivo at Enoteca da Eliseo (see below) and is hugely popular with the locals. Local specialities I tasted included anchovies marinated in white wine and especially some amazing trofie pasta with gamberoni (prawns): probably the best tasting pasta sauce I’ve ever eaten! All this washed down with some delicious Cinqueterre white wine and some very friendly service, give this place priority if you’ve only got one day – it’s located in one of the small streets to the north of the Old Town, you’ll need to wander around a little bit to find it but Monterosso isn’t very big so it shouldn’t take too long!

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The famous Spaghetti Ciak, with fresh seafood served in a clay pot

This traditional seafood restaurant is located on one of the main squares of Old Monterosso (so the eastern part of the town) and is especially famous for its delicious seafood spaghetti, cooked in a copper plate. That’s all I had, but it was divinely good. On the downside, the place isn’t the cheapest if you want several courses and it can get pretty touristy.

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The wonderfully relaxing setting of Enoteca da Eliseo

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The international bar menu at Enoteca da Eliseo

This small wine bar was one of my best finds of the weekend and I spent quite a bit of time just relaxing there on the comfy sofas, listening to some opera music and chatting with the friendly owner Eliseo and his Brazilian wife Anna. This wine bar is a true temple to the Italian gastronomic dolce vita with fine foods, wines and spirits all over the walls of the two small rooms. There’s a very wide range of good wines by the glass at reasonable prices (an excellent Brunello di Montalcino for 6€), cocktails, good single malt whiskies and grappa. I tried out another local Cinqueterre tipple, sciachetrà, which is a very sweet and honey-like local fortified wine – expensive but worth tasting (once). It’s also nice to relax on the outdoor terrace during the summer months and just people-watch on the small square where the Enoteca is located.

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A nice combination of grappa and sciachetrà!

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Delicious lunch in Portovenere, with cheese, cold meats and Vermentino, just the refuelling I needed before attacking the rest of the Cinqueterre!

This charming little bar/restaurant on the main pedestrian street of Portovenere (running half way up the hill behind the waterfront) was an ideal pit-stop for lunch during a rather busy day trying to take in as many of the sights as possible. The warm focaccia served with cold meats and cheese, washed down with some delicious white Vermentino wine, was just what was required before visiting the rest of Portovenere.

A walk around Central Nice: the new Promenade du Paillon and the Colline du Château (Castle Hill)

13 Nov
The entrance to the Promenade du Paillon viewed from Place Massena

The entrance to the Promenade du Paillon viewed from Place Massena

The end of October 2013 marked the inauguration with great fanfare of the new “green axis” (coulée verte), officially known as the Promenade de Paillon, covering 12 hectares and 1.2 kilometres right through the heart of Nice. Given the massive amount of hype in the press and social networks and the lovely weather we’ve been having so far this autumn, I decided to head over to Nice and check out what all the fuss was about… At the same time, I also had a proper walk around the Castle Hill so what follows is a nice itinerary to fill a sunny afternoon in Nice, especially if you have kids with you.

Background

The opening of the Promenade du Paillon pretty much marks the end of around 10 years of building work undertaken by successive mayors to improve the quality of life and infrastructure in Nice, including a new tram network leading to the rejuvenation of avenue Jean Médecin, Place Massena and Place Garibaldi and the demolition of the old bus station and car park which was a total eyesore and scarred the town centre architecturally.

This was located on the bed of the Paillon, a mountain torrent that flows down from its source high above Lucéram in the Southern Alps and separates Old Nice from the new town – you can easily see the difference in terms of the architecture – and which due to numerous devastating floods was covered up in various stages between 1868 and 1972 over around a mile between the start of the city centre and the Promenade des Anglais where the Paillon hits the sea.

When the bus station – which along with the neighbouring multi-story car park was a 1970s concrete monstrosity blocking the view over the old town complete with some dreadful “hanging gardens” (definitely not of the Babylonian variety) – was finally demolished in 2011, the council decided to create a different and better quality public garden area which evolved into today’s Promenade du Paillon.

Exploring the Promenade du Paillon

The first thing that I must stress is that the Promenade du Paillon isn’t a tourist attraction in itself and there’s no reason to go out of your way to check it out if you’re just a tourist, it’s a little bit like Hyde Park in London, a place for locals to go out for a stroll during the weekend and for kids to play… But it’s in a stunning setting and it seems to be pretty well-maintained and safe, so if you’re a tourist, you’ll probably be passing through there given the central location so you may as well walk through.

The mouth of the Paillon, right in the middle of the Promenade des Anglais

The mouth of the Paillon, right in the middle of the Promenade des Anglais

You can start the walk on the Promenade des Anglais, where the Paillon hits the sea – head up through the gardens, past the Théâtre de Verdure where the Nice Jazz Festival now takes place every summer after moving away from Cimiez and past the bizarre upside-down arch shaped sculpture, then head up to Place Massena and its lovely red arcades which were recently renovated in a contemporary manner, where the Promenade du Paillon really begins.

The stretch between the Promenade des Anglais and Place Massena

The stretch between the Promenade des Anglais and Place Massena

The funky new illuminated sculpture columns on Place Massena, wonderful bird dropping magnets...

The funky new illuminated sculpture columns on Place Massena, wonderful bird dropping magnets…

You’ll first encounter the 3000m2 “water mirror” attraction which you can walk through but be careful, it’s dotted with fountains that launch in random patterns, soaking everyone in the process – probably great in the summer or on a warm day but not so fun in the winter I suppose, so walk through the basin at your own risk! There are also lots of smaller “soaking fountains” for kids elsewhere on the promenade.

The new water mirror fountains, walk through there at your peril!

The new water mirror fountains, walk through there at your peril!

As you head up, past the rather original wooden children’s playground games shaped like various animals, you’ll be able to admire the rather original 19th century architecture of the Lycée Massena, the top high school of the city to the left and the lovely colourful architecture and baroque church spires of Old Nice to the right.

The 19th century Lycée Massena

The 19th century Lycée Massena

There are also several exhibits indicating what the Paillon river bed looked like before it was covered up… It’s hard to imagine that a about a century ago, there were several bridges where the garden is currently located and that the local ladies used the bed, which was dry most of the time, to hang up their laundry to dry!

The northern tip of the garden, with the National Theatre of Nice and Place Garibaldi in the distance

The northern tip of the garden, with the National Theatre of Nice and Place Garibaldi in the distance

Finally, around the bend of the river bed, you’ll reach the tip of the garden and find the modern building complex housing the National Theatre of Nice and the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (which is free and worth a visit if you like that kind of stuff, but I don’t, so I won’t go into any detail about it!).

To get another idea of the Promenade du Paillon aside from my description, you can check out this propaganda video made by the city council – but, to give them some credit, they did do a good job.

The Promenade is open every day until pretty late, but you’ll see that there is a whole bunch of things which aren’t allowed and there are plenty of council staff to make sure the rules are respected – which is probably a good thing as they want to keep it as a family destination and not as a playground for yobs.

There are plenty of activities that aren't allowed in the Promenade du Paillon and a strong police presence to make sure that these rules are properly enforced

There are plenty of activities that aren’t allowed in the Promenade du Paillon and a strong police presence to make sure that these rules are properly enforced

Extra walk up to the Castle Hill if you want to enjoy some amazing views

If you’re still up for it and have already visited the Old Town, I’d advise you to carry on in the same direction, slightly to the right, and walk past Place Garibaldi, the recently renovated square (which was previously quite shabby) dedicated to the Italian freedom fighter who was born in Nice and its pretty arcades, then take the street that heads along the side of the Castle Hill behind the port (rue Catherine Ségurane) and climb up to enjoy the rather particular atmosphere of isolated peace and quiet in the heart of the city (which I also discuss in my “Essential Nice” article.

Place Garibaldi, also recently spruced up

Place Garibaldi, also recently spruced up

The beautiful Castle Hill juts out of the otherwise flat landscape of central Nice a bit like the Acropolis or Lycabetus hills in Athens (though the Castle Hill is a little bit greener) and is named after a large fortified castle that stood until the late 17th century when it was dismantled upon the orders of Louis XIV of France, the so-called Sun King. It was then redeveloped in the 1830s by King Charles-Felix of Savoy who decided to take advantage of the amazing view from the top of the hill and therefore to redevelop it by placing a landscaped park and an artificial waterfall in order to attract tourists from the European aristocratic circles.

One of the beautiful footpaths winding their way up the Castle Hill

One of the beautiful secluded footpaths winding their way up the Castle Hill

The relatively smooth slope on this side isn’t too strenuous to walk up and will take you through some picturesque tree-lined paths and through the park gates (it’s generally open during daylight and dusk hours, you wouldn’t want to go there after dark anyway) up to the top of the hill, which you will eventually reach: I’m saying eventually because signposting isn’t the greatest but all the paths lead to the top so just follow that general direction.

View from the Castle Hill east over Port Lympia

View from the Castle Hill east over Port Lympia

View from the same spot looking south-east towards the Cape of Nice (separating Nice from Cap Ferrat)

View from the same spot looking south-east towards the Cape of Nice (separating Nice from Cap Ferrat)

Once you’re at the top, the best advice I can give you is to wander around the different viewpoints: first visit those facing east towards the port, affording great views of the Cape de Nice, the “Port Lympia” harbour and the Mediterranean. Then head to the more westerly viewpoints which have an absolutely superb picture postcard panorama overlooking the Promenade des Anglais, Old Nice and the Baie des Anges, with further in the distance the Cap d’Antibes, the Esterel mountains, the airport and the Southern Alps: this view is best enjoyed in the morning in order to avoid the sun directly facing you in the afternoon.

Picture postcard view west over the Baie des Anges and Old Nice

Picture postcard view west over the Baie des Anges and Old Nice

You’ll also notice plenty of references to ancient Greece, notably on the eastern side of the plateau, with a fountain dedicated to the god Pan and mosaics representing scenes from the Odyssey – normal as the Greeks founded Nice in around 350BC and named it Nikaia after the Greek goddess of victory, whose name is now synonymous with a certain American sports apparel company who aren’t sponsors of this blog (for the moment) and whom I therefore won’t name…

One of the numerous references to Greek mythology on top of the hill, here scenes from the Odyssey

One of the numerous references to Greek mythology on top of the hill, here scenes from the Odyssey

The plateau also has a small snack bar and a leisure area for children to have fun, as well as some pretty mundane archaeological ruins of the castle church foundations.

The chill-out area on top of the hill, great to enjoy the French Riviera sunshine

The chill-out area on top of the hill, great to enjoy the French Riviera sunshine

Finally, it’s worth checking out the beautiful waterfall that dominates the hill when you view it from the old town (at the top of another un-signposted staircase to the right of the path leading around the western side of the hill). Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, the waterfall is artificial as it was built in the 1830s as a draw for tourists from the European nobility to come and visit Nice, a tourism strategy not too far removed from the one which is implemented nowadays.

The lovely waterfall on top of Castle Hill overlooking the Promenade

The lovely waterfall on top of Castle Hill overlooking the Promenade

The beautiful view from the waterfall over the city of Nice and the moutains to the west

The beautiful view from the waterfall over the city of Nice and the moutains to the west

Another alternative to visit the Castle Hill is the tourist train that leaves from the Promenade des Anglais and heads up the hill through the tree-lined pathways, it’s not hideously expensive (unless you are a big family) so could be another option: you can find full details on the official tourist train website. There is also a car park near the top for those unable or unwilling to walk the whole way up.

Once you’re done, head down back into Old Nice through one of the footpaths (you need to actually go through the car park)  and have a pleasant meal or follow my walking tour of the Old Town.

Hiking opportunities on the French Riviera – a practical guide

3 Nov
Vioew from the Col de Tende on the French-Italian border

View from the Col de Tende on the French-Italian border with peaks at over 3000m

When I moved back permanently to Monaco in 2002, one of the first things I did was to take advantage of the fabulous weather all-year round (which, as a Londoner, I’ll never take for granted!) and start exploring the beautiful mountains and villages located behind the coastal strip of the Riviera that had always fascinated me as a child but had never had the opportunity to visit.

The wonderful Mediterranean climate of the Côte d’Azur provides plenty of opportunities to take advantage of the great outdoors and to partake in activities such as canoeing, canyoning, rock climbing, rafting, mountain biking, skiing and hiking – since I love the great outdoors but hate sports that require equipment and effort, I’ll concentrate on the latter in this article! Over a decade after I started hiking, there are still hundreds of trails that still remain for me to discover, so you will never get bored or run out of things to do.

Waterfall close to Saint Dalmas le Selvage in the upper Tinée valley

Waterfall close to Saint Dalmas le Selvage in the upper Tinée valley

The southern Alps are peppered with some wonderful and very well-maintained and signposted hiking trails which are listed in mini-guidebooks edited by the Conseil Général des Alpes-Maritimes (the local authority which is in charge of roads, transport etc in the department) and which, a rarity in France, are a worthwhile use of public money!

Some of the Guides Randoxygène - the free hiking bibles for the Riviera

Some of the Guides Randoxygène – the free hiking bibles for the Riviera

These guidebooks, called “Guide Randoxygene”, unfortunately only in French for the moment, are available for free at some tourist offices on the Riviera (though might not be available in others as they are often out of print). You can also read the interactive versions of the guidebooks on this link or find the full details of the individual hikes on this link.

There are three types of walks depending on the time you have and the distance you want to travel from the coastline:

-          Coastal walks (Pays Côtier): these are generally quite easy walks, both following footpaths along the coastline (like the beautiful Cap Martin, Cap d’Ail and Cap Ferrat coastal paths) or across the mountains that follow the coast, like for example the Tête de Chien mountain overlooking Monaco, the Nietzsche trail up to Eze Village or the Esterel mountains west of Cannes.

The beautiful Esterel Corniche d'Or to the west of Cannes

The beautiful Esterel Corniche d’Or to the west of Cannes

Some of the coastal paths can be done with just a pair of trainers but I’d advise hiking boots for the mountain walks as the trails can very rather pebbly and therefore slippery. These can be done at any time of the year but unless you really don’t have the choice, I wouldn’t do any coastal trails during the summer months, simply as it’s not very nice to walk under the hot sun at sea level and it’s very easy to get dehydrated.

View from Mont Gros, just 15 minutes from Monaco, east over Menton and the Italian border

View from Mont Gros, just 15 minutes from Monaco, east over Menton and the Italian border

Slightly inland -  a lovely picnic on the banks of the Siagne river, close to Grasse

Slightly inland – a lovely picnic on the banks of the Siagne river, close to Grasse

For me, coastal walks are ideal on a beautiful crisp winter’s day when the daylight hours are shorter but you still want to go out and grab some fresh air, as the winter blue sky on the Riviera is absolutely incomparable (and you can sometimes get a glimpse of Corsica from the mountain tops).

-          Hinterland walks (Moyen Pays) are graded in difficulty (from easy to “sporty” ie. difficult) and generally involve hikes leaving from villages between 10km and 30km from the coast. These already provide great variety, affording some nice sea and mountain views from the summit and the opportunity to have a good traditional lunch or a coffee after the walk.

View over the Col de Brouis, between Sospel and Breil sur Roya, just 20km behind Menton and the coastline

View over the Col de Brouis, between Sospel and Breil sur Roya, just 20km behind Menton and the coastline

Another advantage is that they don’t require massive drives from the coast, maximum an hour but provide a substantial “culture shock” coming from the cities. I personally recommend the walks based to the east of Nice, especially the Tinée, Vésubie, Bevera and Roya valleys: the mountains are more abrupt and the landscapes therefore more dramatic than those to the west.

The Roya valley and the perched village of Saorge

The Roya valley and the perched village of Saorge

As hinterland walks can also get pretty hot in the summer, the ideal time to do them is in the autumn or the spring. Make sure you have proper hiking boots and sticks for all these walks.

-          Mountain walks (Haut Pays): these are also graded according to difficulty but tend to require more organisation simply as they involve a longer drive from the coastline: even so, you’re unlikely to have to travel more than 100km (so two hours) to get to your final destination, as the Alpes Maritimes are not that big.

The view from the Col de la Bonette, at 2800m the highest road in Europe

The view from the Col de la Bonette, at 2800m the highest road in Europe

These are obviously the most spectacular walks simply due to the fact that you’re really in the Southern Alps, taking the hiker across some widely varied Alpine scenery and up to altitudes of around 2.000m above sea level. Most of these walks take place in the Mercantour National park, which is subject to slightly stricter regulation but no big deal.

One of the lakes near Fontanable at 2000m altitude in the  stunning Vallée des Merveilles

One of the lakes near Fontanable at 2000m altitude in the stunning Vallée des Merveilles

These mountain walks are best done in the summer months (May to October), but be warned that even at 2000m it can get very hot in places like the Vallée des Merveilles so make sure you have plenty of water and suncream, as well as plenty of food. Don’t get off the beaten track as things can get pretty messy if you fall down, especially as there isn’t much mobile phone reception up there. Some trails are also quite fun in winter, but make sure you have snowshoes, I’d advise novices to go in organised groups which have proper insurance.

As many of these walks are a bit longer, if you have the time, find a hotel in one of the nearby villages (such as La Brigue, Tende, St Martin Vésubie or Saint Etienne de Tinée) and get there the night before so that you can enjoy a nice hearty dinner and then get up early the next morning for a nice walk.

La Brigue in th Roya valley, a lovely place to spend the night and enjoy a nice meal before going on a hike in the Vallée des Merveilles

La Brigue in th Roya valley, a lovely place to spend the night and enjoy a nice meal before going on a hike in the Vallée des Merveilles

In terms of getting to and from the hiking departure points, using a car is a must and will make your life much easier. There are bus services to some villages (pretty limited and uncomfortable if you are carsick on windy roads) and there is a train line that covers the Paillon, Bevera and Roya valleys from Nice and the Roya valley from Ventimiglia, but timetables are pretty limited so taking public transport will remove any form of flexibility in your itinerary.

As you can see the French Riviera has much more to offer than just snazzy beach resorts, so what are you waiting for? Just get your hiking gear and enjoy the great outdoors!

View south over the lush Roya valley and towards the coastline from the Col de Tende at the French-Italian border

View south over the lush Roya valley and towards the coastline from the Col de Tende at the French-Italian border

Useful links:

-          As I mentioned, the bible for Sunday hikers is the Randoxygene website run by the Conseil Général des Alpes Maritimes, which in addition to the list of recommended hikes, also contains plenty of practical advice and tips about the equipment you need and general safety. Unfortunately, the public service effort hasn’t gone as far as an English translation for the numerous foreigners on the Riviera so you’ll have to use Google translate if you don’t understand French.

-          If you want to go on organised walks, there are plenty of walking clubs that organise very interesting monthly hikes to various mountains led by professional guides, for example the Club Alpin Monégasque: just be aware that the walkers are very experienced and fit so make sure that you are in relatively good shape before joining otherwise you’ll be left behind.

-          Riviera Rambling: an interesting website in English dedicated to hiking on the Riviera, as the name suggests!

Menton and the spirit of Jean Cocteau

14 Jul
The Old Town of Menton viewed from the Bastion

The Old Town of Menton viewed from the Bastion and the waterfront

When heading down the coast from Nice towards Italy, the last town you will encounter before crossing the border is beautiful Menton. Located in a stunning setting between the Mediterranean and the Southern Alps, the town has a distinct subtropical microclimate that keeps it warm and sunny most of the year and the wonderful old world atmosphere that still pervades the place makes it well worth a stopover if you are heading to Italy or wish to combine it with a trip to the hilltop villages of Gorbio, Sainte Agnes or Roquebrune Village.

Like in most towns of the French Riviera, there honestly isn’t that much to do in terms of pure sightseeing in Menton, but I’d advise you to take a couple of hours to wander around the old town, enjoy the delights of the waterfront, have a melancholy trip around the Old Castle cemetery and discover the Cocteau museum celebrating this multi-talented artist, all in a setting that already provides a taste of Italy with its warm colours, fresh air and greenery.

A (very) brief historical note

However, the multi-cultural identity of Menton is not just due to its proximity to Italy: until 1860, the town, along with neighbouring Roquebrune Cap Martin was part of the Principality of Monaco. Since these two communes were the main revenue-raisers of the country, through both olive groves and especially citrus plantations, as opposed to the governing powers in the Rock of Monaco who had no natural resources at their disposal and who were, in their eyes, overtaxing them, they decided to secede from the Principality in 1848 and joined France in a referendum in 1860. Obviously, the outcome of the referendum may have been slightly different now with the benefit of hindsight, but history cannot be rewritten! During the Belle Epoque at the end of the 19th century, Menton was regularly visited by the rich and famous from Northern Europe and the influence is still felt today with some weird and wonderful architecture dotted all over the town.

As I mentioned, what made Menton famous at the time was the culture of citrus fruits, especially lemons, which were renowned for their delicate flavour thanks to the exceptional microclimate. Due to competition from some more efficient and cost-effective producers in Italy and Spain, demand was vastly reduced in the mid 19th century but over recent years, there has been a mini-revival in the Menton lemons, which can be found in some top quality restaurants and all over the town in the shape of soaps, lemonade (particularly tasty) and limoncello liqueur (not too bad either!). Every February, the famous Fête du Citron (lemon festival) takes place in the city centre, with large sculptures decorated with thousands of fruits on different themes – to be honest I’ve never had the opportunity (or the time, or the inclination) to attend, but if I do one day, it will be for the benefit of the blog readers, so watch this space!

The Fête du Citron takes place every year in February

The Fête du Citron takes place every year in February

What to see and do

Menton is best enjoyed just relaxing and wandering around as there aren’t huge amounts of sites, as I said in the introduction, but here’s a small summary of the main highlights of the town: the town is spread around a promontory with Cap Martin to the west and the Italian border to the east. The old town is located on the 78m Colla Rogna dominating the town centre, with a pedestrian shopping area to the west, heading towards the main railway station and the more residential and very green Garavan neighbourhood extending to the Italian border, which can easily be reached on foot after a scenic walk along the coast.

  • The pedestrian area and waterfront

This part of town is the first you will encounter when arriving by bus or train from Nice or Monaco and it’s a pleasant enough neighbourhood to get acquainted with the atmosphere of the town. The pedestrian rue Saint Michel, that runs parallel to the waterfront, has plenty of souvenir shops, clothes stores and snack bars to eat outdoors on a terrace but I’d advise those arriving from the train station to just walk past the casino (modern and nothing special to write home about compared to those located elsewhere on the coast) to the Promenade du Soleil waterfront and enjoy the lovely views over Cap Martin and Italy whilst walking towards the centre.

The Menton waterfront and pebbly beach looking west towards Cap Martin

The Menton waterfront and pebbly beach looking west towards Cap Martin

The jardin de Biovès, which links the station to the waterfront is the location of the Fête du Citron and if you look north past the train station and up the Val de Carei, you can catch a glimpse of some sumptuous Belle Epoque buildings like the Winter Palace and of the medieval perched village of Sainte Agnès, just 3 kilometres away as the crow flies.

looking north past the Jardins Biovès towards the Belle Epoque Winter Palace, with the perched village of Sainte-Agnès looming in the distance

looking north past the Jardins Biovès towards the Belle Epoque Winter Palace, with the perched village of Sainte-Agnès looming in the distance

There’s also a rather quaint Provençal market, open in the morning, where you can find all sorts of typical French food and flowers, very pleasant but the same kind of thing that you can find anywhere on the coast.

  • The Jean Cocteau museum

Cocteau museum entrance (C) K. Hin

This is one of the main highlights of the city centre of Menton and is pretty much impossible to miss if you are walking along the waterfront.

Jean Cocteau (1879-1963) was really an “all-rounder” artist… Starting as a poet, he developed his skills under the influence of various artists in the Parisian intelligentsia in the 1920s to become a painter, a playwright, then a film maker and finally a ceramist: he was especially known for his long personal and professional relation with star French actor Jean Marais, with whom he made most of his most famous films such as Beauty and the Beast and Orpheus. Cocteau moved to the French Riviera in the 1950s and, despite having lived in various towns, Menton is the place that is most associated with his stay.

Jean Cocteau in 1923

Jean Cocteau in 1923

The museum is divided into two main sections:

-          The original “Bastion” museum, which is pretty tiny and located inside the medieval bastion by the waterfront with 4 coloured towers at the foot of the harbour jetty

The original Jean Cocteau Museum in the 18th century fortress built to protect the harbour

The original Jean Cocteau Museum in the 18th century fortress built to protect the harbour

-          The new Severin Wunderman collection which is located in a much larger, purpose-built and ultra-modern structure located by the market.

The new Jean Cocteau museum, the Severin Wunderman collection, interesting architecture!

The new Jean Cocteau museum, the Severin Wunderman collection, interesting architecture!

I would advise to begin with the more modern building, which has some extracts of films and plenty of behind the scenes photos and drawings made by Cocteau in the 1920s. Despite the building being pretty impressive and immaculately white, I found it rather impersonal and lacking in charm. Which is why I much preferred the old museum: the tiny fortress was built in the 17th century by Monegasque Prince Honoré II and remained abandoned until the late 1950s when Cocteau agreed with the city authorities to make it a museum storing his Mediterranean creations – the museum actually only opened a few years after his death. The building is decorated with mosaics and pebbles and reflects much more the very distinctive atmosphere of Cocteau’s works, notably his ceramic creations and some very striking drawings of the sphinx, which is an animal he seemed to develop a certain fascination for whilst writing Oedipus.

The admission fee of 6€ gives entry to both museums, I would recommend taking the time to check them out, but only if you are artistically inclined, allow about 90 minutes to visit both locations. They are open from 10am to 6pm every day except Tuesdays.

When you are done with the visit of the “Bastion”, take a few minutes to walk to the tip of the jetty – you’ll be rewarded at the end with a stunning view over Old Menton, as well as the coastline between Cap Martin and Bordighera in Italy and over the spectacular green mountain peaks marking the Italian border.

The Old Town of Menton viewed from the harbour jetty

The Old Town of Menton viewed from the harbour jetty

  • The Old Town of Menton and the Old Castle Cemetery

Located on the small but steep Colla Rogna hill alongside the waterfront, the old town is visible from most of Menton thanks to the very distinctive dome of the beautiful baroque Basilique Saint Michel-Archange, which is the symbol of the town.

Old Menton viewed from the Boulevard de Garavan

Old Menton viewed from the Boulevard de Garavan

From the pedestrian precinct (Place du Cap), take a moderate slope uphill and then turn right onto rue Longue. You’ll see on your left a ramp that climbs up to the Saint Michel esplanade (parvis Saint Michel) but I’d first advise you to wander down rue Longue, the main artery of the neighbourhood running parallel to the waterfront, to get a feel of the ancient Old Menton, with its relatively high buildings and constant shade – don’t hesitate to climb upwards into the small alleyways, where you can encounter some very quaint gardens and try to imagine how people lived several hundreds of years ago… And also how some people still live now, bearing in mind that there’s no automobile access and that there are no lifts in the old buildings.

Rue Longue, in Old Menton

Rue Longue, in Old Menton

Once you have back-tracked to the foot of Saint-Michel, climb up the steps and you’ll enjoy a splendid view over the beach of Garavan and the Italian coastline in the distance, surrounded by some beautiful architecture. In fact, this is a double square as just above the esplanade, there is a second, smaller one dominated by the equally beautiful Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs – both the Chapel and the Basilica, dating from the 17th century, are worth visiting for their beautiful baroque interiors, though it’s hard to get a full shot of the facade of the Basilica as it is so closely surrounded by the other houses.

The Basilica and the Chapel of Menton

The Basilica and the Chapel of Menton

The splendid view from the esplanade of Saint Michel

The splendid view over the Italian coast from the esplanade of Saint Michel

If you want a very special experience, head uphill on the little street to the right of the Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs to visit the Old Castle cemetery of Menton (link only in French). I’ve never been particularly fond of cemetery visits, but this one is a pretty extraordinary experience. The city of Menton created it in 1807 on the ruins of the old castle of the town, perched at 78m above the roofs of Old Menton, and most of the tombs date from the 19th century, with local Mentonnais families mingling with those of the international communities, mainly the aristocracy of the Belle Epoque.

The Russian mausoleum in the Old Castle cemetery

The Russian mausoleum in the Old Castle cemetery

Whilst wandering through the silent alleys dotted with beautiful trees, you can admire some beautifully designed tombs and mausoleums, especially the golden Russian dome directly overlooking the spire of Basilique Saint Michel. You can also find the grave of William Webb-Ellis, who founded the sport of rugby. Needless to say, the views are absolutely stunning with a panorama over the red tile rooftops of the Old Town and over the peaks of the Southern Alps, looking away from the sea!

View over the rooftops of Old Menton from the Old Castle cemetery

View over the rooftops of Old Menton from the Old Castle cemetery

Beautiful view over the Soutern Alps from the Old Castle cemetery

Beautiful view over the Soutern Alps from the Old Castle cemetery

After this, you can either head back down the hill to the waterfront or else carry on at the same level, walking down the Boulevard de Garavan towards the Italian border, enjoying some splendid views walking amidst some lovely villas.

Walking amonst the villas along Boulevard de Garavan, a beautiful balcony over Italy

Walking amonst the villas along Boulevard de Garavan, a beautiful balcony over Italy

After about 15 minutes, you will reach the Botanical Gardens of Val Rahmeh, which will be the object of a new article soon – once you are back at sea level, just walk back along the Porte de France promenade along the beach of Garavan and the harbour towards the town centre, enjoying some more splendid panoramas over the Old Town.

Where to eat

Up until recently, Menton unfortunately had a very bad reputation for overpriced and bad quality food, but things seem to have improved and I noticed some pretty attractive and good value for money restaurants by the harbour and in the pedestrian districts, though the town seems to be missing the old family-run places you can generally find in Nice and has its fair share of easily-identifiable tourist traps. If you have had any positive experiences, please send me a comment underneath the article and I’ll check them out next time.

Plenty of nice squares to eat and relax at the foot of the Old Town

Plenty of nice squares to eat and relax at the foot of the Old Town

One restaurant that has had some pretty good press is A Braijade Meridiounale, one of the only venues in Old Menton, located on rue Longue, the street running below the Saint Michel Basilica. They specialise in all-exclusive menus with vertical skewers of meat and gambas and menus run from 25€ to 50€ including wine. The atmosphere seems rather nice as they seem to be emphasising the traditional cooking techniques of the South of France.

Another place that is very popular is the Al Vecchio Forno pizzeria on the port (Quai Bonaparte), it’s actually on the strip of restaurants facing Italy, at the tip of the pedestrian zone. The pizzas are often recommended by local friends as being some of the best on the coast, but the place is generally packed in the evening (always a good sign) so reservations are essential.

The restaurant strip overlooking the harbour of Menton on Quai Bonaparte

The restaurant strip overlooking the harbour of Menton and the Italian border on Quai Bonaparte

Finally, if you want to taste some typical mentonnais non-carbonated lemonade (called “citronnade”), have a pit stop at Au Pays du Citron on the main pedestrian street – a glass costs 2.50€ and is particularly refreshing during a hot summer’s day. This friendly speciality shop also sells all sorts of lemon-related products, such as jam, sauces and the famous limoncello liqueur.

The place to go to sample a refreshing "citronnade"!

The place to go to sample a refreshing “citronnade”!

Getting there

Menton is easily accessible from everywhere on the coastline:

-          By train: it’s a 40 minute ride from Nice and just 10 minutes from Monaco on the main line. Make sure you get off at “Menton” station and not “Menton Garavan” which is a small station close to the border with Italy. Timetables can be found on the SNCF website (only in French)

-          By bus: line 100 runs all day between Nice and Menton via Monaco and costs a flat rate of 1.50€. Allow about 30 minutes from Monaco and 90 minutes from Nice depending on the time of day and the traffic. Menton bus station is the terminus but I would advise those arriving to get off at the “Casino” bus stop, which is a bit more central. Timetables can be found on the Lignes d’Azur website (in English, alleluia!).

-          By car: it’s not that easy to park in Menton, especially in summer or during the Fête des Citrons, but on the plus side, prices are not as horrendous as they are in Nice. There is an outdoor car park by the market and the Cocteau Museum that is pretty convenient; otherwise there is also an underground car park below the town hall, one street behind the pedestrian precinct.

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