"Nice unfolds before me like a captivating courtesan, reclining gently on the rim of her azure mirror, beneath the shade of blossoming orange trees. Her long hair cascades freely in the sea breeze, as waves tenderly caress her bare feet."
Alexandre Dumas, Une Année à Florence, Dumont, 1841.
A journey I had yearned for years! Ever since that summer evening when I watched the movie “How to Catch a Thief”, the memory of the French Riviera lingered in my mind like a ghost. Alfred Hitchcock encapsulated perfection in one shot: a dramatic view of the Mediterranean, sprawling like a giant blue carpet at the feet of a rocky precipice; a serpentine coastal road, known as the “Corniche,” adorned with pine trees and flowers. A blue-gray convertible enters the frame, and an ethereal young lady graces its steering wheel: Grace Kelly. In the script, Kelly drove Cary Grant to a romantic picnic on the cliffs. Little did she know, she was scripting the first act of a plot that would lead her to the steps of the Monegasque royal palace, transforming the American girl from Philadelphia into Princess Grace of Monaco. “That’s the Riviera!” I told myself: a land of turquoise seas, purple sunsets, drives with dramatic views, and picnics on velvet sand… a land where legends are born. This fantasy of mine was woven from a fairytale fabric, and only a visit could dispel its magic.
Embraced by nature
Happiness! Up close, the Riviera surpassed even my wildest thoughts. I landed in Nice, perhaps the most relaxed city I’ve ever visited. I was immediately drawn to the fact that Nissa (its Occitan name) is built on a human scale: its small size creates a sense of intimacy and control. Nothing is too far from the beach or the mountains of nearby Provence. A short walk from the Bay of Angels to the closest cliffs reveals the tight embrace between the city and nature. It’s just as quick to transition from the old city of Cours Saleya, with its picturesque food markets, to the more modern areas around Garibaldi Square—a square that French historian Max Gallo described as utterly “Mediterranean by its vibration, roof colors, loud voices, and radiant light.” I find something revitalizing in the variety of scenes in this small Mediterranean city: for every golden beach, there is a mountain; for every rose garden, a rocky cliff; for every shady alley, a sun-washed promenade; and for every humble grocery, a flashy boutique. I realized that the capital city of the French Coast is a colorful patchwork of perfectly balanced poles.
The vibrant, colorful landscape of the Coast is a timeless hallmark and a reason why this place feels like home to residents and visitors alike—a joyful, lively home. Like an orange dripping its juice, the Riviera drips a rainbow of colors spanning the entire spectrum: green for the olive and pine trees, the cypresses, and well-trimmed villa gardens; yellow for the blinding sunlight, sandy beaches, and ocher buildings; pink for the old fortifications; fuchsia and carmine for its flowers; red and purple for the flaming sunsets; black and silver for its starry nights… Writers and painters felt deeply moved by the sensation of this color explosion. Matisse, upon realizing he would have “this light every single day,” couldn’t believe his “good fortune”; Nietzsche regretted not being able “to send some of the coloring of Nice” to his friends. Prosper Mérimée, Virginia Woolf, Alexandre Dumas, Scott Fitzgerald—artists who made similar remarks in their travel notes.
With such a vibrant natural landscape, the Riviera inevitably became one of the world’s most coveted vacation spots and one of the oldest: the area took center stage in the mid-19th century when Russian Czars and Queen Victoria made it their second home. A playful group of Princes, Counts, and Barons followed suit, solidifying the Riviera’s name as synonymous with prestige and luxury, a reputation that remains intact to this day.
At the dawn of the 20th century, a passerby could hardly navigate the freshly paved streets of Monte-Carlo, Nice, or Cannes without encountering a fancy carriage, the Bentleys of the time. Hotel-palaces, such as the Excelsior Hotel Regina, were designed to meet the high life standards of their distinguished guests. Stately casinos were erected to accommodate the frenetic spending habits of the era. Ladies and courtesans filled gleaming music halls, adorned with pearls and diamonds, conquering a world of nobles, tycoons, and impostors alike. The “Belle Otero,” reportedly the most captivating courtesan of them all, went down in history with her countless lovers, some of whom protested her rejection with acts of suicide.
Champagne for everyone!
The brutalities of the Great War turned its fortunate survivors into the wildest party animals: having brushed past their own demise, they were eager to ward off the shadow of death with expensive alcohol, fast cars, and frenetic dances. The Riviera’s established reputation in the Old World expanded to the New World. Wealthy Americans who had settled in Paris during the years of prohibition flocked en masse to the Coast for the summer. Around that time, the French government introduced the policy of paid leave, and thousands of middle-class employees ran off to live their myth in the Riviera, as the media raised awareness around the benefits of sunbathing.
Growing demand for new tourist installations fueled a real-estate speculation race around the French Coast: The King of Belgium speculated big in the town of Villefranche, while renowned industrialists such as Walter Owen Bentley and Frank Jay Gould transformed the cap of Antibes from a port hamlet into a glamorous seaside resort. From then on, the Riviera would be a permanent attraction for nobles, celebrities, nouveau riches, and socialites from around the world. In a dedicated article, Scott Fitzgerald and other writers recount the daily routines of fellow jet-setters spent in tennis courts, yachts, casinos, and dancing halls.
Capital of the avant-garde
Amidst the American emigrants settling in the Riviera during the Interwar period, a new generation of youthful designers, artists, and architects also descended upon the region. Painters like Matisse and Picasso sought inspiration in the Mediterranean light, pushing the boundaries of their art. Simultaneously, socialite artists such as, Jean Cocteau and Anne De Noailles, sought to mingle with the international elite. Concurrently, a select group of architects received commissions to construct “new-age” summer residences. The Bauhaus school, pioneering in design, prompted its disciples to apply the Modernist movement to residences along the Coast, resulting in the creation of iconic buildings.
In Hyères, Viscount Charles and Marie-Laure De Noailles engaged Robert Mallet-Stevens, a leading figure of the French Union of Modern Artists, to design a villa for hosting the avant-garde scene of Paris. This included unique talents such as Picasso, Dalì, Giacometti, Buñuel, and Man Ray, among others. Mallet-Stevens conceived a “Machine for Living in,” adhering to Le Corbusier’s standards. His cubic concrete villa impressed with its unprecedented forms, unseen by 1920s standards, and sophisticated infrastructure. This included a rooftop pool for owners and guests to engage in aqua gym (!) while basking in the Mediterranean sun. Thanks to visionary architects like Mallet-Stevens, Eileen Gray, Garabed Hovnanian, and others, the Riviera found itself at the forefront of architectural evolution. And this wasn’t the first time.
Between approximately 1850 and 1930, the French Coast experienced a remarkable surge in construction, with apartment buildings, villas, hotels, and casinos adorning its landscape. We enthusiastically invite you to delve into the region’s extraordinary architectural heritage, spanning movements such as Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Modernism. You’ll discover our recommended architectural gems in the City Maps section at the end of our article, titled Crème de la crème. This heritage not only symbolizes the Riviera’s glorious past, but also epitomizes its timeless vigor—a vibrant source of energy, ambition, and creative talent that consistently positions the Coast at the forefront of modernity.
Crème de la crème
Yacht cruises and tennis clubs, champagne and caviar, ladies adorned with diamonds brighter than the Riviera sun. How could all that glamour fit into such a small strip of land?
Altar of seduction
For over a century, the French Coast has epitomized luxury, beauty, and frivolity—a radiant sanctuary of indulgence where the more one sins, the shorter the path to paradise.
Gleaming amid golden sunrays and purple sunsets, blue horizons and green gardens, red peonies, and ocher houses, the most cheerful of the Rivieras is a vibrant rainbow of colors.