What is the Côte d’Azur?
Côte d’Azur literally means Sky/Bright Blue Coast, mainly because – like Los Angeles – the region gets around 300 days of sunshine a year.
There are many ideas of the Côte d’Azur’s territorial limits. Some think it extends from Menton (bordering with Italy) to Marseille, or to Hyeres, or to St Tropez, while there are French locals who equate the province of Alpes-Maritimes with the Côte d’Azur.
We believe the Côte d’Azur stretches from Menton to Mandelieu/Cannes for the simple reason that this coastline has a more sunny blue, balanced climate due to the proximity of the Southern Alps on one side and the Mediterranean Sea on the other.
Further west as the mountains retreat north the weather is noticeably worse. What makes that region especially difficult are the sudden and powerful blasts of cold air emanating from the Rhone Valley, The ‘Mistral’ wind. Peter Mayle, in his book ‘A Year in Provence’, mentioned that in winter when the Mistral hit (usually without warning) the temperature could drop by 10C in a matter of minutes.
Our first personal experience of Mistral violence was sitting across the square from Avignon’s spectacular Pope’s Palace, enjoying a quite glass of wine in the sunshine when – BAM! – a massive and sudden gust of wind blew all the parasols across the square, knocking over tables, glasses and Ikuko. We have also experienced a three day Mistral in Marseille that ruined the trip, and a couple of bad days in St Raphael (which is not far from Cannes) that were likewise terminally disturbed and resulted in way too much bar time! Apparently the Mistral is a major garden party-pooper in this area, always appearing at the wrong time. But NOT on the Côte d’Azur!
The depth of the ‘Côte’ (coast) into the French hinterland is another question. Holiday villas in Grasse are classified in the Côte d’Azur but the sea is 18 kms (11 miles) away at that point. Logic dictates that the inland border extends to no more than the Southern Alps mountain range.
Where to go on the French Riviera/Côte d’Azur
This photo of the central section of the Côte d’Azur was taken from Antibes, across the Baie des Anges, with towns marked.
On this page we’re focusing on our belief of what constitutes the Côte d’Azur, also known as The French Riviera: the popular beach resorts of the Alpes-Maritimes from Cannes through Juans les Pins, Antibes, Villeneuve-Loubet Plage, Cagnes-sur-Mer and Nice, Villefranche, Saint-Jean-Cap Ferrat, Beaulieu-sur-Mer, past the Monaco principality and on to the last French Town before Italy, Menton.
Beauty or Blight?
Whatever it’s called, this section of coastline has its critics.
Anthony Peregrine of the Sunday Times calls Cannes a ‘tawdry patch of urban blight messing up a nice coast’.
But that’s a little exaggerated as the three main Riviera towns – Cannes, Antibes and Nice – all have magnificent sea fronts, warm summer water, some lovely old buildings, lively agreeable locals (except perhaps les riches of Cannes who strut around with an excessive air of self importance). They also do excellent fresh food (from restaurants or supermarkets), stunning weather most of the year, good museums and some terrific beaches (tho’ mostly stony).
There is a fair amount of corrupt-developer blight too, of course, but what popular urban area worldwide doesn’t suffer from a degree of that these days?
The Riviera or whatever you choose to call it – is in our humble opinion – less snooty than you might think and still terrific for walking, eating, swimming, renting fun apartments or just looking at people and places.
Some fine museums, too, but the killer app is the weather, which – with the occasional hiccup – is staggeringly pleasant, mild with blue skies for most of the year. Queen Victoria’s court knew how to pick a holiday spot and Nice was their choice!
When to visit the Côte d’Azur?
• Summer: May – September (October is the wettest month supposedly) when the heat is off and the crowds are at work. Just after summer is better for swimmers as the sea will still be warm then with less tourists, cheaper accommodation, restaurant availability and so on.
In the last couple of years July has been excessively hot (up to 38C/100F for 2/3 weeks in 2018 although statistically the maximum should be 28C/82F) but cooling off in August.
• Winter: November – February is generally fine, with blue skies and light-jacket cold (average lows of about 6C/43F and highs about 14C/57F), though it does rain from time to time and the weather is getting more erratic so it’s a bit of a gamble.
Statistically the wettest months are October-November, but that’s only 1/4 chance at the worst. British and North Europeans who are desperate for some UV to counteract SAD would do well to visit in winter. Italians love Nice in winter, in spite of the fact that they do not lack UV!
Main Attractions Inland
Eze cactus garden and a panorama towards Cap Ferrat.
***Eze, a superb location, panoramic views and delightful little streets, Eze is a must-see, but crowd avoidance is essential as it’s tiny and parking limited. One problem is that the obvious transport solution, the train, stops well below the village at Eze-sur-Mer and the walk up on the Nietzsche trail is horrific. It’s bad enough going down! Maybe take a taxi from the station?
An hour will do an Eze visit at a push or stay for lunch in one of the exquisite but pricey restaurants such as the Chevre d’Or.
Eze is tiny and beautiful but so overwhelmed by tourists that it doesn’t really function as a true residential space, more as a ‘museum village’. Nevertheless it’s a gorgeous place and makes an excellent day trip from Nice, along with Monaco and/or Menton.
In season go early or late to avoid the packaged hordes, there’s no entry gate or fee apart from access to the exotic garden.
**Grasse, a sizeable hillside town with a complex layout, fine cathedral and old town and their raison d’etre, perfumeries. Perhaps our least favourite Riviera city – too much traffic, too little parking, too little to do.
*Valbonne. Popular with English/North European residents for residence or holiday lets, it’s calm and convenient but very limited in scope and, IMHO, not worth a special trip.
Escaping from the busy coastal Riviera
Try the views and activities of the magnificent ‘Grand Canyon’ of Verdon Gorge a couple of hours away inland, the îles d’Hyères (resort islands with more wildness and less motors), the superb Provencal towns of Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Arles, or even a bit further away off the French mainland, head for the great landscapes, walks and beaches of Corsica (car ferries from Nice or Marseilles).