By Jo Morgan
A scant 100 years ago, the idea of visiting the French Riviera in the summertime was unheard of in polite society, who deemed the South of France in July and August to be far too hot and bothersome.
Instead, the first-class trains and ornate horse-drawn carriages would start to arrive as the weather cooled and the first snows fell on the Alps, delivering queens and tsars, dukes and duchesses, writers and artists for a glittering winter season of parties and operas and promenading under the palms.
In winter at the turn of the 19th century, the Cote d’Azur was the centre of the fashionable world. In summer, the carriages departed, and the opulent villas and belle époque hotels were shuttered up once more until the haze of summer cleared and the sea again held its enchanting winter sparkle.
And that’s how the French Riviera stayed—a resolutely wintertime resort— until the 1920’s, when New York socialites, Gerard and Sarah Murphy, convinced the Hotel du Cap Eden Roc to keep a wing open for them for a summer. After buying a nearby villa the next year, they invited friends F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway for decadent, endless summers of jumping off the rocks into the sea, fabulous parties, and long boozy lunches under the shade of pine trees that buzzed with cicadas. (Read more: Of Princes, Murderers, and Socialites : A Celebrity History of the French Riviera)
And so the fashion turned, quite fabulously quickly, as fashions tend to do. The French Riviera was soon—almost resolutely—a summertime resort, and the winter sojourn south rapidly fell out of favour. And so it has remained.
Which is strange, really. For the French Riviera in the winter remains utterly breathtaking, with the mantle of snow on the Alps, a carpet of yellow mimosa flowers blanketing the marquis, and the Mediterranean Sea glittering in the winter sunshine.
The French Riviera in the wintertime is perhaps the travel world’s best-kept secret. For there is so much to see and do.
Opera still plays in the belle époque theatres, medieval hill villages lose their heaving crowds, and promenading under sunny winter skies becomes an easy pleasure in the cooler air. The Christmas markets and New Year fireworks fade slowly into February, when the winter carnivals transform the coast into a riot of flower battles, float parades, and mimosa festivals. You can, quite famously, even be at the ski-fields for the morning run, before returning to lie on the beach in the afternoon.
Perhaps best of all, the waiters of Michelin star restaurants become utterly delighted to give you their best table in winter, where you’ll dine on delicacies from the winter harvest: the truffles, the oysters, and the steaming bowls of bouillabaisse that are far too hot to eat in summer.
And for those who understand the simple truth that the French Riviera must be seen from the water, luxury yachts are available for charter at remarkably reduced rates in the off season, meaning you can float along the French Riviera on a superyacht, looking up at the snow-capped Alps while you drink champagne in the heated sundeck Jacuzzi.
On a winter South of France yacht charter, you might come into port for the opera in Monaco, have a winter picnic on the Cannes islands, shop the boutiques of Cannes, or just find a deserted anchorage to have a sunny lunch on deck, the wintry Mediterranean glittering all around.
The French Riviera enjoys a famously good winter climate, with a preponderance of mild, sunny days and cool, crisp nights. For every one day of rain in Nice in winter, there is five days of delicious sunshine, making it the perfect escape from the grey, icy skies of northern Europe.
Here are some of the best bars, theatres, restaurants and museums to enjoy if you’re planning a winter holiday in the South of France, the original holiday destination for winter sun and elegance.
The program for arts on the French Riviera continues in winter, in some of the most magnificent theatres on earth.
Enjoy a performance of the opera, ballet, or philharmonic orchestra at the sumptuous Nice Opera theatre, built in the ornate Italianate style in 1885. With its plush red, gold and cream décor, and galleries towering over the stage, it’s not at all hard to imagine the aristocracy flocking to this grand theatre, as they did in the winter season over a century ago.
Alternatively, in Monaco, soak up the glamorous atmosphere of Salle Garnier, the celebrated opera house where the Monte Carlo Opera, Choir, Philharmonic Orchestra, and world-class ballet company perform. Built by the architect of the Paris Opera, Charles Garnier, the Monaco Opera House is a masterpiece of extravagance, with three types of gold, endless red velvet, and windows overlooking the sea.
It’s hard to be immune to the charms of a winter French Riviera holiday, when it means that you’re immediately ushered to the best tables in the resplendent dining rooms of the French Riviera.
In Eze, the elegance of the dining room at Chateau le Chevre d’Or takes the breath away. Perched high above the coast like an eagle’s eyrie, with ornate furnishings and stunning floor to ceiling views of the Mediterranean coastline, this restaurant’s setting is matched by its 2 star Michelin menu- a delicate representation of the region’s mountain, field and sea terroir.
In bewitchingly pretty Menton, two-star Mirazur restaurant has been recently voted the 4th best in the world. Again, jaw-dropping views of sea and sky complete the performance on the plate by superstar chef, Mauro Cologreco, who creates refined haute cuisine with an innovative touch.
Along the coast in Monaco, the Michelin stars fall like rain. The reigning chef of the principality, however, is unquestionably Alain Ducasse at Louis XV at the infamous Hotel de Paris. The restaurant earned three Michelin stars soon after opening in 1987 and has not lost a single one in the intervening decades. Almost as famous as the food here is the lavish décor, originally styled on the Palais de Versailles and modernised in a 2015 refurbishment. Eating here is an event to remember, and the perfect way imaginable to pass a winter’s day on the French Riviera.
Nice is a wonderful, buzzy city in the winter. An early evening stroll along the historic Promenade des Anglais should be followed by a meal at the palatial Hotel Negresco. The restaurant Chantecler holds 2 Michelin stars and is the epitome of high French gastronomy. The food is perfectly complemented by the dramatic setting, as you dine under chandeliers hung from the building’s iconic glass dome.
As you’d expect, there are a number of very fine restaurants in Cannes. The finest of them all, however, is the Palme d’Or at the Grand Hotel Hyatt Martinez, where chef Christian Sinicropi has held 2 Michelin stars since joining the kitchen in 2001. For visitors in winter 2018, the Palme d’Or is closed for renovations until March, but excellent alternatives include the Michelin starred Park 45.
Saint Tropez is beautiful in the wintertime. Quiet, yes, but beautiful. Those of you visiting in the off-season, can thank your lucky stars, as you’ll be able to get a table at Vague d’Or, the only other three Michelin-star restaurant on the French Riviera. Eat in the simply splendid dining room, savouring the French gastronomy plated up by Arnold Donckle, voted Best Chef in France in 2013.
What better way to channel your inner 19th century tsar (or tsaritsa), than with an evening drink at one of the plush piano bars of the French Riviera?
The ritzy Bar Americain at Monaco’s Hotel de Paris is the ideal spot to ease on into the evening, listening to live jazz and looking out at the moonlight shining on the Mediterranean far below.
In Nice, you’d be mad to miss out on the atmospheric Negresco Champagne Bar, where live jazz takes place on weekends, and it’s hard to miss the pull of history as you sip your Old Fashioned among the walnut wood panelling and 16th century tapestries. This is time-warp stuff, and a top spot to be if you’re harking back to the French Riviera of old.
In Cannes, it’s back to the Hotel Martinez, where the Bar Amiral is infamous as a place to sip cocktails in style and listen to the piano. Sinatra and Madonna are just two of the stars to have taken the microphone here.
If alcohol’s off the menu for the day, we suggest trying the high tea at the Hotel Carlton Intercontinental, one of the great hotels of the world and the first choice of countless royals and celebrities since 1911.
Winter is anything but dull on the French Riviera, with a series of events, carnivals, and festivals running through January and February.
The Nice Carnival is one of the great carnivals of the world, spanning two weeks in February and turning Nice into a giant playground. The theme in 2018 is ‘King of Space’ so expect day and night parades in themes of planets and stars, thousands of dancers in the street, and the famous flower battles that Queen Victoria herself attended back in the winter heyday of the French Riviera.
The Menton Lemon Festival is a thing of legend. This Italianate town near the border has its own microclimate, making it the warmest place in France during winter and a perfect place to grow lemons on the steep terraces by the sea. The town celebrates their prize export with two weeks of parades, light gardens, exhibitions and fireworks – and with a Bollywood theme planned for 2018, this one is set to be spectacular!
The landscapes of the French Riviera explode in a stunning display of mimosa flowers in winter, creating endless vistas of yellow contrasted with the cobalt blue sea. Fittingly, it actually the visiting British elites of the late 19th century who introduced the mimosa tree from Australia, (where it is called wattle), before it spread like wildfire across the forests, cliffs, and foothills of the Riviera. Today, the French have claimed the pretty yellow flower as their own, celebrating the mimosa bloom with a series of spectacular festivals, the biggest of which is the Mimosa Festival in Mandelieu-la-Napoule near Cannes. Expect a week of flower parades, as well as the crowning of the Mimosa Queen.
Visitors can also wander through the mimosa forest, or hire a car and travel the absolutely stunning Mimosa Route into the hills, stopping at the flowery villages along the way for local mimosa festivals.
Given how many of the great masters came to the French Riviera to paint, it is no surprise that the coast is simply littered with world class museums.
Winter is a simply fabulous time to explore these temples of art, with none of the crowds of summer, so you can admire and reflect at your own pace.
Nice holds the Chagall Museum and the Matisse Museum, as well as the excellent Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art.
In Biot you’ll find the exceptional Fernand Leger Museum, where the murals on the outside of the building dwarf anything found inside, while Antibes offers the Picasso Museum, housed in the tower on the ramparts where Picasso lived and worked following the Second World War.
In Cannes, Centre d’Art la Malmaison is the home of art, and is located on the Croisette in a pavilion by the Grand Hotel. Featuring a permanent exhibition by George Braques, the museum regularly showcases the artists that made the Riviera forever synonymous with art, including Picasso, Miro, Cesar and Matisse.
Finally, a stroll around the art-obsessed village of St Paul de Vence is a must. This dreamy perched village is often overrun in the summer months; in winter it is a delight. Browse the boutiques and galleries, buy yourself some artwork to take home— and above all, take yourself to lunch at Colombe d’Or, where the walls are hung with the artworks of those who have stayed there, including Picasso, Miro, and Matisse. What a place to dine!
History runs deep on the French Riviera, and winter is a wonderful time to take a journey back in time. As it turns out, one really doesn’t need to leave the French Riviera when the snows start to fall on the Alps.
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