Queen Victoria trampling merrily through flowerbeds and admiring the local shepherd boys, King Leopold of Belgium secretly marrying a 16-year old girl and Graham Greene a fugitive on the run from tax evasion….did you know the sunny French Riviera had so many shady secrets? Let's find the skeletons lurking along the jaw-dropping coastline, in this French Riviera itinerary.
“Only mad dogs and English men go out in the midday sun”. In the French Riviera, this also extends to champagne swilling celebrities, hedonistic artists and superyacht captains. Beneath its glamorous shimmering surface, there is a seedy underbelly for those who can afford to get away with it.
Murder, mystery and mad lovers: keep reading for shocking stories and secret spots! I'll take you to all the best places to revisit the history of the French Riviera. Of course, after you have been transported there through these pages, it will be time to grab your swimsuit and head to the airport! In the playground of the rich and famous, you should plan your French Riviera trip just as it should be. VIP all the way!
Private Half-Day Customizable French Riviera Tour
A snapshot summary of the French Riviera
The French Riviera coastline runs from Cassis on the west of France to the border with southern Italy. The area is rich in all senses of the word, but most especially literally. The birthplace of the superyacht, the Riviera of France is now the sunny playground of the rich and famous, home to Cannes Film Festival, Saint Tropez and next to the Principality of Monaco.
The coast is also rich in history. The cavorting Queen Victoria admiring the “very handsome boys” in Menton and the wild parties of F. Scott Fitzgerald. And let's not forget the legendary wedding between Grace Kelly and the Prince of Monaco!
How did this remote rocky coastline of rural villages become the world's hedonistic hotspot?
It all began in the 1920s. The French Riviera or “Côte d'Azur” was a favourite destination for English, German and other Northern European aristocrats to escape the brutal winters of their home countries. Yes, that's right, winter! Suntans were still considered terribly vulgar and a sign of the working class. They flocked in droves to the seaside resorts studded along the Mediterranean sea for glamorous parties and gambling. This stretch of the coast continued to provide a party playground for the rich and extravagant. This continued even through two world wars.
A small and insignificant town called Cannes hosted the first International Film Festival in 1946. The nearby unassuming St.Tropez exploded onto the celebrity scene in 1952 with Brigitte Bardot's film “And God created Women”.
The post World War II decade was marked by shortages, rationing and poverty all around Europe. Except for the Riviera of southern France, where the celebrities threw away millions into the Monte Carlo Casino and poured champagne into their villa swimming pools.
Do you want to see the spot where Queen Victoria trampled her friend's flowerbeds? How about the beaches that topless Brigitte Bardot would forever tattoo onto the tourist map? Maybe you'd like to jump off the same cliffs as F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda during their champagne-fuelled parties?
Let's go on a journey along the Côte d'Azur and hear stories of scandal, tragedy and excess along the way!
French Riviera Itinerary - Explore the Scandals
Menton - Queen Victoria and the Lemon Festival
We'll begin in Menton. This quaint seaside village between France and Italy is a lesser-known spot of the Riviera. These sleepy cobbled streets were beginning of the glitzy and glamorous holiday spot. In 1882 Queen Victoria came to stay! When Royalty is in town, places get spruced up. For the visit of the Queen (and Empress of the then British Empire), railways were laid and villas built. This began the process that would forever change the Côte d'Azur.
Queen Victoria was much taken by this part of the south of France, which she described as “a paradise of nature”. Was it the scenery she admired, or the “very handsome” local shepherds?
According to her maidservant, the Queen behaved as though she were “17 instead of 72” (even trampling her friend Alice Rothschild's flowerbeds!). Was it something in that invigorating sea breeze?
Today Menton is best-known for its rustic architecture and annual lemon festival and is an easy day trip from the popular town of Nice.
Monaco - Grace Kelly and the Prince of Monaco
Cannes and the rocky strip to Monaco became the winter retreat for the rich and powerful. The billionaire Rothschild family built mansions along the coast. Later, successful artists, aristocrats, and wealthy businessmen gambled away family fortunes while drinking champagne until dawn.
In 1923 fashion legend Coco Chanel spent a summer on the yachts and mansions around Monaco, bringing the suntan back to Paris. Bronzed skin no longer suggested poverty, but was sought after by the wealthy.
Monaco was also the site of the infamous marriage between Hollywood actress Grace Kelly and the Prince of Monaco. The wedding was in the palatial grounds in front of a lion cage. Excess, glitz and glamour, where better than the stunning Côte d'Azur? The star-studded wedding guests poured into the many glittering casinos of Monaco. The actress would later be tragically killed in a car accident. Along the very same road that she drove along as a younger heartthrob in the Hitchcock film “To Catch a Thief”.
Today you can drive along this same winding coastal road, see where the illustrious wedding took place, and admire the decadent mansions clinging to the rock. Feeling flush? Why not try your hand at some of the many Monaco casinos.
Monaco and Eze Half-Day Small Group Tour from Nice
Cap Ferrat - The Butcher of the Congo and the Lizard of Oz
What does the Riviera have in common with the Congo? King Leopold ruled Belgium, and was responsible for murder and chaos in the Congo (earning him the name “The Butcher of the Congo”). He also bought huge swathes of land in Cap Ferrat. This hitherto sleepy part of the Côte d'Azur became home to decadent mansions to rival Versailles. (In one of these, his scandalous relationship with a 16-year-old girl was sealed with their wedding two days before he died).
The Cap was a magnet for the wealthy and carefree. The writer Somerset Maughn hosted legendary poolside parties, frequented by Ian Fleming, Pablo Picasso and even Winston Churchill (to top up his tan or splash about with a martini?). Maughn threw a fabulous party, but his biting wit and cutting tongue earned him the nickname the “Lizard of Oz”.
Today you can walk around the fabulous Villa Ephrussi built by the Rothschild family. Wander around the blooming rose gardens, or sip some cool French wine while gazing at the boats bobbing on the Mediterranean horizon.
Cap d'Antibes - Villa America and the literary greats
The story of the French Riviera begins with Queen Victoria in Menton and continues with the Murphy's in Cap d'Antibes. These sun-loving American socialites made the bold move of staying in the Riviera through the summer months. Villa America was born. It became the summertime retreat of Hemmingway, the Fitzgerald's and Picasso. Sailing, dining under the moonlight and evenings of cards. Like so many of the Riviera stories however, there is a shady side. It is a story of loss. The Murphy’s lost two of their children, the Fitzgerald's all of their money and Zelda Fitzerald lost her mind and died in a sanitorium fire.
There are both dangerous and magical aspects to the Cap d'Antibes. It inspired works of great literature, from Fitzergald's “Tender is the Night”, to Jules Verne's “Around the World in 80 Days”. Writer and ex-spy Graham Greene also spent 24 years here as a fugitive of tax fraud.
Today you can visit the Picasso museum, admire the yachts in the harbour and jump off the very same cliffs as the Fitzgerald's during one of their wild summer parties.
St. Tropez - Bridgit Bardot and big bucks.
The French icon and sex symbol Brigitte Bardot put St.Tropez on the map in 1952. This was the year of the filming of “And God Created Women”; the sunbathing Bardot attracted attention and tourist traffic that continues to this day.
Ironically, the actress turned animal rights activist now claims the same Pampelonne Beach from her youth is now exclusively for millionaires and movie stars
. Being the favourite haunt of A-list celebrities from around the world has made St Tropez shockingly expensive (one day at the beach will set you back 96 dollars on average!). Nevertheless, the old world charm, glittering turquoise sea and fabulous megayachts make this a decadent holiday spot. (If you do go to rub shoulders with the rich and famous, book a French Riviera itinerary
ahead of time to save yourself a pretty penny!)
Cannes - Culture, Cologne and Celebrities
Cannes is best known for its world famous International Film Festival which began in 1946. This was another brick in the path to the sun-splashed and expensive Riviera of today. Film stars and millionaires walked the narrow streets and strolled the promenade La Croisette.
It was also where superstar Rita Hayworth married the Riviera's most bankable bachelor: Prince Aly Khan. The reception to the million dollar wedding took place at the Prince's royal Chateau d'Horizon. In line with the characteristic modesty that marks celebrity weddings, he poured 200 gallons of cologne into his swimming pool. Classy!
There is a dark side to the history of Cannes too. In the Cannes Marina Queen Victoria's youngest son Prince Leopold fell and bled to death suffering the family curse of haemophilia.
Once a year, the film industry descends upon Cannes. It brings both gleaming stars to the hotels and glittering rubbish to the beaches. If you put Cannes in your French Riviera itinerary, avoid the month of May. The film festival prices ordinary travellers out of the city.
Think of Nice as the capital of the Riviera of the French coast. A quaint and picturesque seaside town located by the Italian border. It brings together the best of Italian cuisine and French class. This winning combination attracts visitors from all around the world.
The long summer evenings and dramatic sunsets made Nice a favourite haunt of artists such as Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall. They laboured to capture the colours, romance and beauty of this Riviera town.
Today you can stroll along the same Promenade des Anglais in the footsteps of the dapper aristocrats of former years, visit the museums of Matisse and Chagall and sample Italian-fused Provençals cuisine at the many restaurants studded along the coast. End the day with a panoramic sunset from Castle Hill!
Best of the French Riviera Full-Day Tour from Nice
Have a Nice day.
The perfect day in Nice could include anything from visiting Roman ruins to skiing
! This special corner of southern France caters for anyone. Art galleries and flower festivals for the leisurely, casinos and convertibles for the fast-paced. If you go to Nice in the winter, you can even hit the snowy slopes an hour away and be back in time for sunset over the Mediterranean! Nice will be the highlight of your French Riviera itinerary. If you head to Nice, France will show you its sunny and playful side. Here is your guide to the best activities
on offer. Don't forget your copy of “Tender is the Night”!