Rick Steves: Savouring joie de vivre on the French Riviera

In towns along the Riviera, graceful turn-of-the-last-century buildings line the harbor’s edge – reminders of the belle époque.

I’m in Villefranche-sur-Mer, on the French Riviera. It’s twilight and I’m eating at La Mère Germaine (Momma Germaine), a restaurant that started feeding hungry soldiers in WWII. Now Germaine’s grandson runs the place and he’s at my table – artfully chopping six different fish before lovingly serving the broth.

He explains the Riviera’s most famous dish to me as if I were planning to cook it at my hotel: “It’s a spicy fish stew based on recipes handed down by sailors from nearby Marseille. A true bouillabaisse must contain at least four types of fresh fish – although we do include six. There’s never any seafood. We cooked the fish in a tomato-based broth… flavored with saffron and white wine.” He ends the class by sprinkling on croutons and covering everything with a dollop of garlic rouille sauce.

Indulging in perhaps the most expensive dish I’ve ever had in Europe, I’m immersed in the good life of the Riviera. I’m so close to the harbor that I can throw my olive pits into the sea.

Several mega-yachts fuel envy at sea. On land, rumors swirl about who’s on board – you never know whose stern line you might be catching around here. A formal looking captain in his casual attire is hauled ashore by his stowed companion in a small dinghy… just picking up his statuesque date for the night. Germaine’s grandson gives me a wink.

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Pondering my hearty meal along with the day’s sight-seeing, I’m reminded of the heritage of hedonism unique to this stretch of Mediterranean beach.

Some of the most expensive real estate on the Riviera stretches from where I am in Villefranche to neighboring Monaco. Just behind one of the larger yachts I’m looking at is Cap Ferrat, an extremely exclusive and predominantly residential community that occupies a quiet, park-like peninsula. Although you never go through any gates, I had a delightful day here just strolling around – and this is no ordinary running trail. Following its manicured path, I caught a glimpse of the villa where David Niven lived, wandered through the elegant port of St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, visited the ultimate Riviera mansion and gardens – the Rothschild Ephrussi Villa, and stumbled across a small beach. hidden. Not very welcoming, it felt like the private domain of nymphs and aristocratic satyrs.

In towns along the Riviera, graceful turn-of-the-last-century buildings line the harbor’s edge – reminders of the belle époque. It was literally the “beautiful age”, when the world seemed to revolve around the upper class and indulgence with abandon was a way of life.

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A prime example of belle époque luxury is the majestic Hôtel Negresco, overlooking Nice’s grand Mediterranean promenade. The hotel offers some of the most expensive beds in town and the chance to step back into that era of ultimate refinement. Its exquisite Royal Salon combines the grace of the belle époque with the engineering of the great French architect Gustav Eiffel. The chandelier is made from over 16,000 crystal pieces. It was built in France for the Russian Tsar’s palace in Moscow… but because of the Bolshevik Revolution he couldn’t receive it.

Just beyond Nice is the city of Antibes. “Discovered” after World War I, he enjoyed a particularly noisy 1920s – with the help of partiers like Rudolph Valentino and the boisterous but very quiet Charlie Chaplin. Locals claim fun hunters even invented waterskiing back in the 1920s.

Picasso also enjoyed the good life in Antibes. In 1946, 65-year-old Pablo Picasso was reborn. World War II was over and Picasso could finally escape the gray skies and gray uniforms of Nazi-occupied Paris. Taking advantage of worldwide fame and the love of 23-year-old Françoise Gilot, he moved to Antibes. He painted like a madman, spent his mornings swimming in the Mediterranean, his nights partying with friends, and his nights painting again.

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Ever restless, Picasso has finally found his Garden of Eden… his joy of living. At the Picasso Museum in Antibes, his Joie de Vivre shows the painter’s daughter — Françoise. She lifts her heels and dances on a Riviera beach. Satyrs, centaurs and flute-playing fauns herald the newfound freedom of a newly liberated France and a newly liberated Picasso.

After decades in the city, Picasso rediscovered the joys of village life. Shopping at the market in Antibes, he would return home and turn groceries into masterpieces. With his distinctive Cubist style, he captured bathers… and locals alike. He was fascinated by the simple life of fishermen. Here on the Riviera, like so many others, Picasso found a pagan paradise where civilized people could relax and indulge in simple pleasures.

Traveling, like a bouillabaisse, is the happy result of good things coming together. For the French Riviera, take a variety of seaside towns, spice it up with modern art, throw in a dash of history, sprinkle some market fun and let it simmer under the Mediterranean sun.

Rick Steves (ricksteves.com) writes European guides, hosts travel shows on public TV and radio, and organizes European tours. You can email Rick at [email protected] and follow his blog on Facebook.


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