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French Flair

The world’s most upscale playground of the top movers and shakers, is also a land of joie de vivre, discovers Inder Raj Ahluwalia as he strolls along the French Riviera

Hemmed in by the hills and the sea-face, Menton - the ‘hidden or secret’ Riviera - is trendy, chic and inundated with tourists all year round

Screening the sun with its freshness, the Menton’s 316 annual cloudless days and microclimate has spawned exotic gardens and plants

The French Riviera has never been embarrassed by its fame. There are many faces to the region. Monte Carlo with its upscale casinos, quietly charming Grasse, ultra-fashionable Juan-Les-Pins, and trendy Nice and Cannes with their glittering hotels and world-famous boulevards. Twice blessed by nature, this little pocket of France features a 72-mile coastline, the famous headlands of Cap Martin and the Pointe Croisette in Cannes, beautiful lakes at Allos, majestic forests at Turini and Boreon, 150 historical villages, and over 300 annual days of sunshine.

Our sojourn started in Nice, the capital of the Cote D’Azur. Growing in harmony with its beautiful surroundings, the town has become the rendezvous of celebrities from around the world - the hunting ground of the rich and famous.

Morning time, the sunshine was a golden blessing, lighting up the snowy Alpine peaks at one end of the town and the deep blue Mediterranean at the other. We did the celebrated stroll along the Promenade des Anglais, the world’s most famous sea-face boulevard, passing chic boutiques, cafes and gleaming hotels, their white facades and golden balconies now part of local legend and folklore. A charming world unfolded in the Old Town, as we soaked up the charms of the Cours Saleya, which has held on to its Greek character. Time means nothing as one walks through flower, fruit and vegetable markets, explores narrow streets, samples traditional cuisine, guzzles wine at little taverns whose tables spill out on to the pavements, and souvenir shops with little outlets bursting at the seams with little mementos. This is a town for celebrations, and local festivities peak at the Carnival with its colour, fun and pageantry. This famed local event features beautiful floats, excited participants, and an inimitable flower battle. Come evening, and Nice glitters. Besides the famed Opera, there are soul music sessions, nightclubs with a fairytale setting, roulette and baccarat at the casino, and horses to be backed at night at the Hippodrome.

The next day showed up a diverse facet of the Riviera - Cannes. We passed low hills, deep blue sea, and luxurious villas with the proverbial swimming pools. Dotting the harbour were hundreds of sailboats, their tall masts etched across the skyline. Cannes is elegance personified. A glittering parade of European archdukes, princes, kings and consorts transformed the town into an enchanted domain studded with fabulous villas and palaces. The result was a town unsurpassed in glamour. Those glittering times of Grace Kelly and Cary Grant on location with Alfred Hitchcock to shoot, ‘To Catch a Thief’, and Elizabeth Taylor signing the visitor’s book as Mrs Hilton, Mrs Todd, Mrs Eddie Fisher and Mrs Burton. And those tragic times of Isadora Duncan, dancer of the veils, who was tragically strangled to death by her own billowing scarf. The annual film-festival is still among the world’s best and most glamourous. La Croisette is still one of the most renowned promenades, and the old quarter of Le Sugvet still watches over the sun and star-struck city.

Another day, another Riviera landmark. On the boundary of the French Riviera and the Ligurian Alps, hemmed in by the hills and the sea-face, Menton, the ‘hidden or secret’ Riviera, is trendy, chic and inundated with tourists all year round. Plants and fruits have made Menton internationally famous. From the sweetness of an orange to the sourness of a lemon, this is certainly the citrus fruit country. Screening the sun with its freshness, the city’s 316 annual cloudless days and microclimate has spawned exotic gardens and plants. The climate is also one major reason for the town’s tourist fame, the other being its quietness and quality of lemons. Yes, lemons.

This is a town of gardens. From the Val Rahmeh botanical garden of exotic plants, now part of the National Museum of Natural History, we got what are arguably the best views in the Riviera. We moved on to the Villa Maria Serena with its Napolean 11 architecture and tropical plants. At Les Colombieres, the Mediterranean trees fill the air with their fragrance among statues and arrangements created by Ferdinand Bac. It was a long, but extremely pleasant morning.

Its rich heritage has placed Menton among France’s 120 Cities of Art and History. The town bears the stamp of prestigious builders making it the showcase for various architectural styles that fashioned the secret Riviera.

With its narrow streets that look down on the Mediterranean, giving way to the sea-face with boats lining the quays, the Old Quarter turned out to be a real delight. We strolled past little houses and glazed tile-covered church towers, designed by Stephen Liegeard who invented the very concept of the French Riviera. A brief stop at the Saint-Michel Church, and we ended up at the famous sea-face landmark, the former bastion (1636), which is today a museum dedicated to Jean Cocteau.

As our rendezvous with the Riviera drew to an end, we could not help, but fondly reminisce this playground of the world’s rich and famous... indeed, the best place to be seen.

Nice To Know
Accessibility: Nice has air connections with Paris and several other European cities. Air France operates direct flights from Delhi and Mumbai to Paris, and from there to Nice.

Time Out: The Riviera is a mariner’s paradise with some 27 ports, 24 yachting and boating clubs, over 50,000 boats and 14,000 berths. While ports like Antibes are ultra-modern and famous for pleasure yachting, older ports like Monaco, Cannes and Menton offer old-world charm. Nice, Cannes and Monaco offer numerous theatres, operas, ballets, hundreds of artistic extravaganzas, and Europe’s classiest casinos. There are also watersports like sailing, diving, water-skiing and windsurfing. And the nearby mountains enable one to enjoy the pleasures of the sea and the joys of Alpine sports like downhill racing, paragliding, mountain biking and hiking on the same day.

French Fare: There is a wide choice of food, including vegetarian. Nice has the maximum three-star restaurants per square km in Europe. A meal for two at a standard restaurant costs from 30-50 Euros. All the flair of French cooking and cuisine are brought home in a gastronomical extravaganza. Complimenting standard fare like fish soup, ravioli, dumplings and stuffed vegetables, are world-famous local recipes like ‘Pissaladiere’ (hors d’oeuvre), ‘Pan Bagnat’, ‘Ratatouille’, ‘Secca’, ‘Tripes’ and ‘Wild Beet Tart’. Ballet’s, the region’s toast, having been classified as ‘guaranteed vintage’ in 1941, is the wine to choose here.

Shopping: Radiating from famous boulevards and promenades like La Croisette and Promenade des Anglais, are shining symbols of haute couture. Chic shopping outlets in Nice, Cannes and Monaco sell top labels like Pierre Cardin, Yves Saint-Laurent, Lanvin, Hermes and Chanel. Grasse is the world capital of perfumes and offers competitive prices.