The most glamorous places in the French Riviera - Citimarks

Crème de la crème

Portrait of Queen Victoria
Aerial view to Monte Carlo from the Hotel de Paris

Bird’s-eye view of Monte Carlo’s port Hercule from the fabulous Hôtel Hermitage Monte-Carlo © Hôtel Hermitage Monte-Carlo.


“Dinners set the stage for a dazzling parade of diamonds, pearl necklaces and tiaras. [...] The need to lavish money and visibly display that opulence was unmistakable.”
Victor Ardouin-Dumazet, Voyage en France, Berger-Levrault, 1898.
chapter 1

International elite

Behold the cosmopolitan crowd flooding the public garden and the Masséna quay. Oh! They are bursting with life, health, luxury and thirst for pleasure. Take a look at the splendid horses and carriages; the automobiles, bicycles, riders, amazons, and a mass of pedestrians adorned in elegant gowns that animate this privileged corner of France.

This serves as a meeting point for all idle millionaires seeking entertainment; for adventurers on the prowl; for girls on the lookout for an affluent husband; for young – or older – ladies attracted by this influx of wealth…

Amidst this bustling scene, the air is filled with restlessness, as the only thoughts that occupy their minds are those of pleasure and luxury. Their concerns extend not only to spending but also to the imperative need to flaunt their ostentatious prodigality.

Who are they? Where do they come from? Why have they come? How do they live?

The distinguished guests are none other than royalty—the Emperor and Empress of Austria, Empress Eugenie, Queen Victoria, King Leopold, King and Queen of Wurttemberg, King Milan of Serbia, the Prince of Battenberg, Lord Salisbury with his “country house” in Beaulieu, (Prime Minister) Gladstone in Cannes and more. Among them are scattered princes, dukes, and counts with authentic titles -for the most part-, along with adventurers of stately demeanor. The adventurers, though lacking official recognition by nobility, don titles that shine brilliantly, a testament to their created prestige rather than inherited status. […]

Here, the hotel staff exclusively speaks and understands English and German; French is a foreign language. One can easily encounter cute young American ladies who warned their fathers -many of them own butcher shops and the likes- that they were going to Monte-Carlo for the winter. “All right!” their daddies replied, and so they came! These winter visitors number around twenty thousand. They permeate the scene, riding carriages, mingling with well-bred guests, filling restaurants, and crowding casino tables, lendind an air of joy, elegance and charming prestige to the entire area.

Drawn by the pleasant climate and the enchanting natural beauty of the bay of Angels—escalated rocks, grandiose mountains, flowery plains, gigantic olive groves, dramatic cliffs, and gently caressed beaches—they converge in this haven.

This is the place where all the elements of the most comfortable and elegant life converge: no city -not even Paris on Rue de la Paix- boast a lineup of stores like those on Masséna and Saint-Jean-Baptiste quays. Luxury items—from jewelry, costumes, hats to antiques and works of art—captivate passers-by, offering a glimpse into the wonders of the most refined civilization. Villas and mansions, tastefully furnished, provide the wealthy owners with a luxury equivalent to their permanent residences.

Victor Ardouin-Dumazet,

Voyage en France, Berger-Levrault, 1898.


The facade of the Massena Palace Museum in Nice

The Massena Palace Museum of Art and History is an emblematic edifice in Nice.

Teapot service featuring Czar Alexander II. His wife, Katia, lived in Nice for almost 40 years.

the grandiose staircase of the Massena Palace.

The grandiose staircase of the Massena Palace.

Detail of a reception hall at the Massena Palace.

One of the Palace’s salons that served as a smoking room. The pedestal table, decorated with sphinxes in gilded bronze, was part of the furniture at the prestigious Tuileries Palace in Paris.

chapter 2

The day of an aristocrat

Now, let’s take a look at the distinguished winter visitors. […]

Their mornings are devoted to captivating day trips: With admirable punctuality, Madame managed to be ready by 11 o’clock; she orchestrates her morning attire, adorning herself in a lovely dress with braids and a floral greatcoat. She is driven for lunch to the Réserve de Nice, […] or to the Hôtel de Paris in Monte-Carlo, or the “Righí d’hiver” in La Turbie. […]

The afternoon is reserved for lawn-tennis, five o’clock teas, elegant soirées featuring white balls, and musical events. […] Yacht rides are equally de rigueur, with approximately twenty yachts permanently anchored in Nice. Members of yacht clubs from England, France, and America consider it a duty to grace the city with their presence, participating in regattas held in Marseille, Cannes, and Nice. The female yacht uniform boasts white and pink flannel or blue Scottish wool, embroidered anchors, matching straw boaters, and stylish yellow lace-up ankle boots. […]

Dinners set the stage for a dazzling parade of diamonds, pearl necklaces, tennis bracelets, tiaras, diadems. […] Foreigners, unburdened by any qualms, proudly showcase the exquisite contents of their jewelry boxes.

In the case of the Belle Otero (note: a famous Spanish dancer and courtesan), unable to adorn herself with all her jewels, she opted to showcase them in a display box at the forestage. […]

(On the French Riviera) there’s an unmistakable inclination to spend lavishly and flaunt this expenditure. An amusing anecdote illustrates this: just outside the Casino, a Monegasque jeweler presented pearls the size of thumbs for sale to departing players. The elated gambler, eager to manifest his newfound fortune, feels the pressing need to tangibly demonstrate it immediately. Only when one can extravagantly spend does the true magnitude of the windfall become apparent.

In essence, the high life of a winter visitor unfolds before us. Whether noble or less amicable, these individuals, adorned with both virtues and flaws, collectively contribute to transforming modern Nice into the wealthiest, most alluring, and perhaps slightly decadent cosmopolitan haven.

Victor Ardouin-Dumazet,

Voyage en France, Berger-Levrault, 1898.


The Kennedy family posing outside a cabana at the Hotel du Cap d'Antibes in Antibes.

The Kennedy family poses sitting among the rocks outside a cabana at the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibes, during a trip to the French Riviera in 1939. © John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, source JFK Library.

Marlene Dietrich reading newspaper on a sun lounger.

Marlene Dietrich reading newspaper on a sun lounger in Antibes in 1939. © Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc.

King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson in 1936.

Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson being greeted at the Antibes train station by the owner of the Hotel du Cap, André Sella, in 1936. From the time of their courtship, they were regulars at this magnificent hotel. ©HDCER archives from Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc: a timeless legend on the French Riviera, Flammarion, 2021.

chapter 3

The chauffeur-Czar

A dozen cabbies slept in their hacks outside the Cannes station. Over on the promenade the Casino, the smart shops, and the great hotels turned blank iron masks to the summer sea. It was unbelievable that there could ever have been a “season,” and Rosemary, half in the grip of fashion, became a little self-conscious, as though she were displaying an unhealthy taste for the moribund; as though people were wondering why she was here in the lull between the gaiety of last winter and next winter, while up north the true world thundered by.

As she came out of a drugstore with a bottle of coconut oil, a woman, whom she recognized as Mrs. Diver, crossed her path with arms full of sofa cushions, and went to a car parked down the street. A long, low black dog barked at her, a dozing chauffeur woke with a start. She sat in the car, her lovely face set, controlled, her eyes brave and watchful, looking straight ahead toward nothing. Her dress was bright red and her brown legs were bare. She had thick, dark, gold hair like a chow’s.

With half an hour to wait for her train, Rosemary sat down in the Café des Alliés on the Croisette, where the trees made a green twilight over the tables and an orchestra wooed an imaginary public of cosmopolites with the Nice Carnival Song and last year’s American tune. She had bought Le Temps and The Saturday Evening Post for her mother, and as she drank her citronade she opened the latter at the memoirs of a Russian princess, finding the dim conventions of the nineties realer and nearer than the headlines of the French paper. It was the same feeling that had oppressed her at the hotel -accustomed to seeing the starkest grotesqueries of a continent heavily underlined as comedy or tragedy, untrained to the task of separating out the essential for herself, she now began to feel that French life was empty and stale. This feeling was surcharged by listening to the sad tunes of the orchestra, reminiscent of the melancholy music played for acrobats in vaudeville. She was glad to go back to Gausse’s Hotel.

Her shoulders were too burned to swim with the next day, so she and her mother hired a car -after much haggling, for Rosemary had formed her valuations of money in France- and drove along the Riviera, the delta of many rivers.

The chauffeur, a Russian Czar of the period of Ivan the Terrible, was a self-appointed guide, and the resplendent names -Cannes, Nice, Monte-Carlo- began to glow through their torpid camouflage, whispering of old kings come here to dine or die, of rajahs tossing Buddha’s eyes to English ballerinas, of Russian princes turning the weeks into Baltic twilights in the lost caviare days.

Most of all, there was the scent of the Russians along the coast–their closed book shops and grocery stores. Ten years ago, when the season ended in April, the doors of the Orthodox Church were locked, and the sweet champagnes they favored were put away until their return. “We’ll be back next season,” they said, but this was premature, for they were never coming back any more. 

Scott Fitzgerald,

Tender is the night, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934.

A Rolls-royce Phantom parked outside the Hôtel Hermitage Monte-Carlo
Louis Vuitton's showcase
A Ferrari parked outside a mega-yacht.
An open-air swimming-pool at the Rainier III Nautical Stadium

The open-air swimming-pool of the Rainier III Nautical Stadium, in Monte-Carlo.

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chapter 4

Velvet decadence

They arrived at the Palace simultaneously with the first regular customers—retired couples seeking coffee or liqueur. Their usual table awaited them in their preferred corner, and on the stage at the back of the brewery, music instruments were draped in gray covers. […] The Belle Otero settled into the well-worn moleskin chair with evident delight. A waitress attired in a black dress and white apron approached. […]

– “Suzanne, why don’t you bring us a bottle of champagne and some cakes… The day calls for a celebration, doesn’t it, Georges?”

[…] Gradually, the room filled with its customary assembly of elderly courtesans adorned with red, purple, or apple-green turbans, all sporting heavy, coarse makeup. Every afternoon, they gathered here to enjoy the orchestra, nibble on pastries, and sip tea or chocolate; each one bore witness to the turn of the century and harbored extraordinary memories. They exchanged smiles with no one in particular, delicately lifting their pinkies as they sipped, leaving vibrant lipstick imprints on the filters of their English cigarettes.

Simply by listening to these elderly women, one might surmise that they have all once graced the presence of kings and queens, basking in adulation, showered with gifts, and having squandered fortunes. Yet, no one pays them any mind.

They exchange sparse words among themselves, each appearing self-assured, akin to a crown nestled in its case. Some of these ladies seem so motionless, so petrified, that they could be mistaken for relics, patiently awaiting visitors with a penchant for antiques.

The orchestra’s musicians set the stage with the opening bars of a tune named Frou-Frou. “Frou-Frou carries the fragrance of a woman.” In just a few notes, the enchanted ladies cast aside thoughts of neon lights and automobiles, momentarily disregarding their age, wrinkles, and looming mortality. Frou-Frou becomes a kiss of life, a benediction. Suddenly, a realm of gaslights, carriages, and horses materializes. Beautiful breasts and lovely thighs make a resurgence. Despite having tried every conceivable method to captivate a man, the Man, they find themselves in this relic of a café—forgotten and solitary.

Their glares of indignation are directed at the grande dame of all grand dames, that “bitch of Otero” still capable of being presented with a bottle of champagne.

–  “What nerve that woman has!”

– “How absurdly fortunate she has been, right up to the very end. Once the wealthiest of them all, a lavish spender who squandered it all… And now, nearing a century in age, still managing to attract the company of the young, amorous gaze of a shorts-clad playboy.”

– “Such injustice! What could he possibly see in her?”

– “Just look at her! There is nothing left: no allure, no feminine silhouette…and those tattered old garments hers!”

– “Goodness! She appears as if she’s been stored in mothballs… A scarecrow to frighten the sparrows of La Promenade.”

– “How old could she be now? A hundred years old? Perhaps more? Living that long should be prohibited. It’s a matter of decency.”

Raoul Mille,

La Belle Otero, Albin Michel, 1994.

Jazz band at the Hotel de Paris Monte-Carlo

Music band playing jazz at the Hotel de Paris Monte-Carlo. © Hotel de Paris Monte-Carlo.

Caroline Otero

Postcard of Caroline Otero. The so-called “Belle Otero” was perhaps the most idolized dancer and courtesan of her time. © Reutlinger Paris.

Postcard of Monte-Carlo’s Casino. Photographer non-identified (possibly Jean Gilletta) source: Jean-Lucien Bonillo et al., Charles Garnier and Gustave Eiffel on the French and Italian Rivieras: The Dream of Reason, Imbernon, 2004. Archive of Jean-Lucien Bonillo.

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