With the Alps and pre-Alps playing bodyguard against inland winds, and the sultry Mediterranean warming the sea breezes, the eastern slice of the Côte d'Azur is pampered by a nearly tropical climate that sets it apart from the rest of France's southern coast. This is where the real glamour begins: the dreamland of azure waters and indigo sky; white villas with balustrades edging the blue horizon; evening air perfumed with
jasmine and mimosa; palm trees and parasol pines silhouetted against sunsets of apricot and gold.
There has been a constant march to this prime slice of the Côte d'Azur, going back to the ancient Greeks, who sailed eastward from Marseilles to market their goods to the indigenes. From the 18th-century English aristocrats, who claimed it as one vast treatment spa, to the 19th-century Russian nobles who transformed Nice into a tropical St. Petersburg, to the 20th-century American tycoons who cast themselves as sheikhs, all have left their mark: Moroccan palaces in Menton, a neo-Greek villa in Beaulieu, the Promenade des Anglais in Nice planted with tropical greenery, to suit English fancies.
The beauty of the coast, however, is merely skin deep—a veneer of luxury backed by a sharp ascent into relatively ascetic heights. Day-trippers seeking contrast head inland behind the Baie des Anges, which has been transfigured into something of a Provençal theme park, filled with historic towns and villages perchés (perched villages). Towns such as Mougins, where Picasso spent his last years, and Grasse, with its factories that make perfume from the region's abundant flowers, have transformed themselves to fulfill visitors' dreams of backcountry villages, and galleries, souvenir shops, and snack stands crowd the cobblestones of St-Paul, Vence, and Èze.
But let's recall that most of the earliest inhabitants of this region were fishermen, and peasants who grew wheat and olives, and grapes for wine. This was not one of those lush regions of France where the living was easy. There were no palaces or gracious châteaux, only small villages, with fortifications here and there for use when Celts, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Saracens, and pirates from Algeria's Barbary Coast were on the rampage. It was only in the middle of the 19th century that a troupe of kings and queens (including Victoria and dozens of her relatives), Russian grand dukes, princelings from obscure Balkan countries, English milords, and a rabble of nouveau-riche camp followers began taking prolonged visits here. They had mansions and gardens built; luxury hotels sprang up in imitation of their palaces back home. The newcomers called the coastal strip the French Riviera. The Frenchman Stéphan Liégeard named it la Côte d'Azur in 1887, the blue—literally, sky-blue—coast. To the French, "Riviera" refers to the Italian coast farther east and is a word used only by tourists.
All these rich invaders withdrew to the cooler north for the summer months. No person of quality, and above all no lady of quality, would risk getting tanned like those laboring field hands. Until World War I, in fact, many hotels closed at the end of May, reopening in October. Up to that time, sea bathing was shunned by all, except as a drastic medical remedy. Then came the fun revolution. In the 1920s and 1930s, people began to like it hot. The peasantry of the West was now pale factory and office workers, and their new badge of leisure and pleasure became the tan that their aristocratic predecessors had so assiduously avoided. Chanel, the famous couturier made tans the chicest of fashion "accessories" in 1923 when she accidentally got scorched on a Mediterranean cruise.
More and more hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs were built. Fun became livelier and more informal. Toplessness, and even bottomlessness, arrived on the beaches. Eleven million passengers passed through Nice–Côte d'Azur airport in 2012 and for many travelers, the Côte remains a demi-paradise.
You could drive from Cannes to the Italian border in two hours and see much of the region, so small is this renowned stretch of Mediterranean coast; the swift A8 autoroute lets you pick and choose your stop-offs, and the three parallel Corniches allow you to explore without retracing your steps too often. But like the artists and nobles who paved the way before you, you will likely be seduced to linger.