Film stars, aristos – and the rest of us, too
Granted, it’s much smaller than Nice, but Cannes positively gleams on the surface. In fact, there are few city promenades more dazzling than La Croisette. Since British aristocrats rolled in to what was then a tiny fishing village in the 1830s, the place has been fashioning itself in the image of the fashionable. More recently, its real achievement has been to spin out across the whole year the sparkle generated by the world’s most notable film festival.
Of course, the bay is glorious and there are sandy beaches – but what sets Cannes apart is the shiny veneer with which it has coated these elements. Thus is the international-class collection of palace hotels kept turning over happily. The ambitious boutiques, too. And so the story of a modest little town in the South of France continues to hold the world’s attention.
Hot right now . . .
48 hours in . . . Cannes
Start on the great, curving Croisette promenade, as the early sun spangles the sea. Walk right to the Pointe-de-la-Croisette headland. The little cross (“croisette”) protecting sailors setting out to sea – whence the name of the prom – has now been replaced by a casino: that’s contemporary Cannes in a nutshell.
Stroll back, in front of the grand palace hotels lined up like grandees, and the big-name boutiques. Appreciate the Croisette spectacle of beautiful youth, handsome families, joggers and the rest of us. The Croisette itself, broad and engulfed in greenery, runs to the Palais des Festivals (1 Boulevard de la Croisette; 00 33 4 9299 8400), HQ of the May film thrash.
Note the handprints of movie stars in stainless steel down the side of the building, then lunch – on, say, redfish fillet or pork in ginger – at the Bistro Gourmand (10 Rue Pierre Gazagnaire; 00 33 493 687202); a three-course lunch here is €24 (£21). Inside, there’s light-wood panelling enlivened by daubs of modern art; outside, beyond the French windows, a little pavement terrace.
Continue to Suquet Hill where working people stacked up steep, in sinuous streetlets and stairways, when Cannes’ main business was fishing. The labyrinth survives, now colonised by bars, restaurants and shops selling inessentials.
At the top of the hill, you’ll find the 11th-century castle, which once belonged to the monks of Lérins . Now it’s the Musée-de-la-Castre (6 Rue de la Castre; 00 33 4 8982 2626), which houses musical instruments, landscape paintings and primitive art, including a shaman’s belt whose chimes “connected the costume to the entire universe”. The castle tower affords startling views.
Then nip to the Croix-de-Garde hill where ex-Lord Chancellor Lord Brougham, the first British noble to end up in Cannes (in 1834) built his Villa Eleonore. This was the initial step in Cannes’ ascent to world-glam status. The villa’s still there – at number 24 Avenue Dr Picaud – and, though now in flats on a private development, it retains trace elements of 19th-century dignity. It’s a key part of Riviera history – and all the evidence we need that the English effectively created the Côte-d’Azur.
Dine in one-Michelin-star style at Christophe Poard’s Le Park 45 within the Le Grand Hotel Cannes (45 La Croisette; 0033 493 381545) where you can expect light, sunny Mediterranean cooking full of invention. The view from here is also delightful, looking out across gardens and greensward to the sea.
Later totter across to the Casino La Croisette (5 Rue François Einesy; 00 33 4 9706 3690) within the Palais des Festivals, and lose whatever money you have left.
Bob along the main Rue-d’Antibes where – reasonable retailing gathers – to Forville Market (6 Rue du Marché Forville). Pick up the makings of a picnic, then go to the port’s Quai Laubeuf to catch a ferry to one of the two Ile de Lérins, which are 15 minutes away. Unfortunately, you cannot take a round trip to both islands. If you want to go from Ile St Honorat to Ile Ste Marguérite, or vice versa, you must return to Cannes and start again.
Ile St Honorat is colonised by Cistercians, for prayer and the production of scandalously expensive wines and spirits. Despite the fortified monastery at St Honorat’s tip, I’d choose Ste Marguérite, the larger of the two islands and rich with pine and eucalyptus aromas.
Upon disembarking, make for the island’s Fort Royal (00 33 4 9343 1817). Like most French coastal forts, this wasn’t much use for defence but proved an admirable prison, notably for the Man In The Iron Mask. He was locked up there for 10 years from 1687, as were Protestant pastors during France’s wars of religion. Cells have been preserved, and prove more fascinating than the adjacent Maritime Museum (00 33 4 9882 2626), though, if you’re passionate about marine archaeology, you may disagree.
Next, take your time wandering the forest and rocky edges of the island. It’s easy: Ile Ste Marguérite is just two miles long by half a mile across. So it’s more of a park stroll than a country hike. Settle in one of the mini-coves for the picnic.
Then simply relax, swim and snooze a while before taking the ferry back to Cannes. There you can do more of the same or, if the weather isn’t too warm, simply amble. Avoid the private beaches, and head for the Plage du Midi – the other side of the port from Cannes centre – where there are great expanses of public stretches of sand and fewer people.
Trot to Suquet hill, and more specifically to Table 22 by Mantel (22 Rue St Antoine; 00 33 493 391310). At the apéritif hour, Mantel’s establishment does a tapas-style nibbles platter with a wide selection of wine. Make sure to hang around for dinner though, which is simple, brilliantly worked sophistication with a Mediterranean accent. The sea bass is particularly toothsome – and the lemon tart a triumph of the genre.
Where to stay . . .
Liz Taylor brought all seven of her husbands to the InterContinental Carlton Cannes and it remains the spot that says: ‘You’ve arrived’. Inside, it’s all white pillars, light marble, chandeliers and soaring space enough for an imperial entourage – and that’s just the lobby. Prestige suites on the seventh floor have outstanding sea-view terraces.
Doubles from £145. La Croisette, 06414; 00 33 4 9306 4006
Hotel America is a colourful four-star hotel in Cannes with multi-lingual staff and good breakfasts, in a central location near La Croisette. The place has a civilised, Old South town-house feel, with restrained colours and elements of elegance. This is, in short, a very satisfying refuge from the sometimes hectic state of affairs obtaining in Cannes itself.
Doubles from £63. 16 Rue Notre Dame; 00 33 4 9306 7575
Smart folk who want to stay in the same district as the great palace hotels – but pay less for a double room than a couple of starters in the gastronomic restaurants – opt for the two-star Le Mistral. Throughout, there is evidence of imagination and attention to detail, with bracing splashes of art and nuances of colour.
Doubles from £50. 13 Rue Des Belges; 00 33 4 9339 9146
What to bring home . . .
The finest French Med paste for apéritif biscuits or vegetable dips is tapenade – olives, capers, olive oil, garlic and maybe anchovies crushed to a spreadable consistency. There’s no equivalent for accompanying a glass of pastis. Get it at Forville Market (6 Rue du Marché Forville) or any regional food shop.
You’ll also want to pick up some pottery from nearby Vallauris, where Picasso did his ceramics work. The small town has more ceramics shops than anyone can reasonably count – from tweely Provençal to bracingly abstract. Best bet is to stroll the tight streets of the old centre, around Rue Hoche, and pause at any which grab your attention. For an overview, try the Ceramics Museum within Vallauris château.
When to go . . .
It wasn’t until the 1920s that ‘the season’ on the French Riviera, including in Cannes, began to switch from winter to summer. Prior to that, the great, good and wealthy had repaired there from autumn onwards, to escape the dismal climes of northern Europe. They then left in summer, for the sun was deemed too searing and bright for fair skins. These days, of course, it’s the other way round. If you want to be in Cannes when things are really buzzing, the beaches are packed like platters of canapés, prices are at their highest but nightlife and clubs swing through till dawn, then high summer is the time for you. Cannes is only slightly less warm, but much less crowded in the shoulder months of May, June, September and October. Most things are open, too, and the pace pleasantly less frenzied (though please see below for the dangers of visiting during the May film fest). Winter, too, still has its advocates. Walking the Croisette on a January morning, sun and sky as clear as can be, light sparkling the Med and the prospect of lunch on a restaurant terrace in the offing – it’s really not bad at all.
Do note that during the annual film festival crowds are hellish, security – both police and private – is ubiquitous, and you’re not going to get into any of the top-level hotels, clubs or – least of all – private parties. The best you can hope for is a glimpse of the back of someone famous as he or she climbs the red carpet up the Palais du Festival steps. Stay away. Go the following week, when everyone will be pleased to see you.
Know before you go . . .
Local laws and etiquette
• French law requires that you always have personal ID about your person, so keep your passport on you.
• If driving, you must have a fluorescent yellow bib in the car. It’s to be put on should you break down on a busy road and need to be visible to other motorists – and it’s a legal requirement.
• When introduced to someone, shake him or her by the hand. All that cheek-kissing comes a little later (considerably later between men), when acquaintance has been struck up.
• Note that, when offered something (a fill-up of your wine glass, more bread, a minor treat), simply saying “Merci” indicates refusal, as in “No, thank you”. This is quite different from British practice, where saying a simple “Thank you” implies acceptance, as in “Yes, thank you”. So, if you want your wine glass filled or more bread, don’t say “Merci”. Say “Oui, s’il vous plait.”
• Round-the-clock snacking is far less common in France than in the UK – as is eating or drinking in the street. French practices are loosening, but you’re still unlikely to draw admiring glances if you’re walking along at 4pm with pizza in one hand, a can of beer in the other.
Cannes is covered by the British Consulate in Marseille (00 33 491 15 72 10; Les Docks de Marseille, Atrium 10.3, 1er Etage/1st Floor, 13002 Marseille. Open Mon, Wed, Fri, 9.30am-12h30.
British Embassy, Paris: 00 33 144 51 31 00
Emergency services: Dial 112
Cannes Tourist Office: 00 33 492 99 84 22; cannes.com or cannes-hotel-reservation.com), Palais des Festivals, La Croisette
Telephone code: dial 00 33 if calling from the UK
Time difference: +1 hour
Flight time: London to Nice is around two hours
For 30 years, Cannes expert Anthony Peregrine has perpetuated the double-centennial relationship between noble Britons and the Côte-d’Azur. Few suspect he’s really a prole from Preston, Lancs.
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