The Côte d’Azur (French pronunciation: [kot daˈzyʁ]; Occitan: Còsta d’Azur; literally: Azure Coast), often known in English as the French Riviera, is the Mediterranean coastline of the southeast corner of France, also including the sovereign state of Monaco. There is no official boundary, but it is usually considered to extend from the Italian border in the east to Saint-Tropez, Hyères, Toulon, or Cassis in the west.This coastline was one of the first modern resort areas. It began as a winter health resort for the British upper class at the end of the 18th century. With the arrival of the railway in the mid-19th century, it became the playground and vacation spot of British, Russian, and other aristocrats, such as Queen Victoria and King Edward VII, when he was Prince of Wales. In the summer, it also played home to many members of the Rothschild family. In the first half of the 20th century, it was frequented by artists and writers, including Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Edith Wharton, Somerset Maugham, and Aldous Huxley, as well as wealthy Americans and Europeans. After World War II, it became a popular tourist destination and convention site. Many celebrities, such as Elton John and Brigitte Bardot, have homes in the region. Officially, the Côte d’Azur is home to 163 nationalities with 83,962 foreign residents, although estimates of the number of non-French nationals living in the area are often much higher.
Its largest city is Nice, which has a population of 347,060 (2006). The city is the center of a communauté urbaine – Nice-Côte d’Azur – bringing together 24 communes and over 500,000 inhabitants and 933 080 in the urban area.
Nice is home to Nice Côte d’Azur Airport, France’s third-busiest airport (after Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport and Paris-Orly, which is on an area of partially reclaimed coastal land at the western end of the Promenade des Anglais. A second airport at Mandelieu was once the region’s commercial airport, but is now mainly used by private and business aircraft. The A8 autoroute runs through the region, as does the old main road generally known as the Route nationale 7 (officially now the D N7 in the Var and the D6007 in the Alpes-Maritimes). Trains serve the coastal region and inland to Grasse, with the TGV Sud Est service reaching Nice-Ville station in five hours and a half from Paris.
The French Riviera surrounds the principality of Monaco with a total population of over two million. It also contains the seaside resorts of Cap-d’Ail, Beaulieu-sur-Mer, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, Villefranche-sur-Mer, Antibes, Juan-les-Pins, Cannes, Saint-Raphaël, Fréjus, Sainte Maxime and Saint-Tropez, It is also home to a high-tech/science park or technopole at Sophia-Antipolis (north of Antibes) and a research and technology center at the University of Nice Sophia-Antipolis. The region has 35,000 students, of whom 25% are working towards a doctorate.
The French Riviera is a major yachting and cruising area with several marinas along its coast. According to the Côte d’Azur Economic Development Agency, each year the Riviera hosts 50% of the world’s superyacht fleet, with 90% of all superyachts visiting the region’s coast at least once in their lifetime.
As a tourist centre it benefits from 300 days of sunshine per year, 115 kilometres (71 mi) of coastline and beaches, 18 golf courses, 14 ski resorts and 3,000 restaurants.
The Counts of Provence and the House of Grimaldi
Some peace was restored to the coast by the establishment in 879 of a new kingdom of Provence, ruled first by the Bosonids dynasty (879–1112), then by the Catalans (1112–1246), and finally by the Angevins (1246–1382, elder branch, 1382–1483 (younger branch).
In the 13th century, another powerful political force appeared, the House of Grimaldi. Descended from a Genoese nobleman expelled from Genoa by his rivals in 1271, members of the different branches of the Grimaldis took power in Monaco, Antibes and Nice, and built castles at Grimaud, Cagnes-sur-Mer and Antibes. Albert II, the current Prince of Monaco is a descendant of the Grimaldis.
In 1388, the city of Nice and its surrounding territory, from the mouth of the Var to the Italian border, were separated from Provence and came under the protection of the House of Savoy. The territory was called the Comté de Nice after 1526, and thereafter its language, history and culture were separate from those of Provence until 1860, when it was re-attached to France under Napoleon III.
Provence retained its formal independence until 1480, when the last Comte de Provence, René I of Naples, died and left the Comté to his nephew, Charles du Maine, who in turn left it to Louis XI of France. In 1486, Provence formally became part of France.
Popularity with the British upper class in 18th and 19th centuries
Until the end of the 18th century, the area later known as the Côte d’Azur was a remote and impoverished region, known mostly for fishing, olive groves and the production of flowers for perfume (manufactured in Grasse).
A new phase began when the coast became a fashionable health resort for the British upper class in the late 18th century. The first British traveller to describe its benefits was the novelist Tobias Smollett, who visited Nice in 1763 when it was still an Italian city within the Kingdom of Sardinia. Smollett brought Nice and its warm winter climate to the attention of the British aristocracy with Travels through France and Italy, written in 1765. At about the same time, a Scottish doctor, John Brown, became famous for prescribing what he called climato-therapy, a change in climate, to cure a variety of diseases including tuberculosis, known then as consumption. The French historian Paul Gonnet wrote that, as a result, Nice was filled with «a colony of pale and listless English women and listless sons of nobility near death».
In 1834, a British nobleman and politician named Henry Peter Brougham, First Baron Brougham and Vaux, who had played an important part in the abolition of the slave trade, travelled with an unwell sister to the south of France, intending to go to Italy. A cholera epidemic in Italy forced him to stop at Cannes, where he enjoyed the climate and scenery so much that he bought land and built a villa. He began to spend his winters there and, owing to his fame, others followed: Cannes soon had a small British enclave.
Robert Louis Stevenson was a later British visitor who came for his health. In 1882 he rented a villa called La Solitude at Hyères, where he wrote much of A Child’s Garden of Verses.
Railway, gambling, and royalty
In 1864, five years after Nice became part of France following the Second Italian War of Independence the first railway was completed, making Nice and the Riviera accessible to visitors from all over Europe. One hundred thousand visitors arrived in 1865. By 1874, residents of foreign enclaves in Nice, most of whom were British, numbered 25,000.
In the mid-19th century British and French entrepreneurs began to see the potential of promoting tourism along the Côte d’Azur. At the time, gambling was illegal in France and Italy. In 1856, the Prince of Monaco, Charles III, began constructing a casino in Monaco, which was called a health spa to avoid criticism by the church. The casino was a failure, but in 1863 the Prince signed an agreement with François Blanc, a French businessman already operating a successful casino at Baden-Baden (southwestern Germany), to build a resort and new casino. Blanc arranged for steamships and carriages to take visitors from Nice to Monaco, and built hotels, gardens and a casino in a place called Spélugues. At the suggestion of his mother, Princess Caroline, Charles III renamed the place Monte Carlo after himself. When the railway reached Monte Carlo in 1870, many thousands of visitors began to arrive and the population of the principality of Monaco doubled.
The French Riviera soon became a popular destination for European royalty. Just days after the railway reached Nice in 1864, Tsar Alexander II of Russia visited on a private train, followed soon afterwards by Napoleon III and then Leopold II, the King of the Belgians.
Queen Victoria was a frequent visitor. In 1882 she stayed in Menton, and in 1891 spent several weeks at the Grand Hotel at Grasse. In 1892 she stayed at the Hotel Cost-belle in Hyères. In successive years from 1895 to 1899 she stayed in Cimiez in the hills above Nice. First, in 1895 and 1896, she patronised the Grand Hôtel, while in later years she and her staff took over the entire west wing of the Excelsior Hôtel Régina, which had been designed with her needs specifically in mind (part of which later became the home and studio of the renowned artist Henri Matisse). She travelled with an entourage of between sixty and a hundred, including chef, ladies in waiting, dentist, Indian servants, her own bed and her own food.
The Prince of Wales was a regular visitor to Cannes, starting in 1872. He frequented the Club Nautique, a private club on the Croisette, the fashionable seafront boulevard of Cannes. He visited there each spring for a three-week period, observing yacht races from shore while the royal yacht, Britannia, was sailed by professional crewmen. After he became King in 1901, he never again visited the French Riviera.
By the end of the 19th century the Côte d’Azur began to attract artistic painters, who appreciated the climate, the bright colours and clear light. Among them were Auguste Renoir, who settled in Cagnes-sur-Mer, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.
Inter-war period, American visitors and decline of the aristocracy
The First World War brought down many of the royal houses of Europe and altered the nature and the calendar of the French Riviera. Following the war, greater numbers of Americans began arriving, with business moguls and celebrities eventually outnumbering aristocrats. The ‘High Society’ scene moved from a winter season to a summer season.
Americans began coming to the south of France in the 19th century. Henry James set part of his novel, The Ambassadors, on the Riviera. James Gordon Bennett Jr, the son and heir of the founder of the New York Herald, had a villa in Beaulieu. Industrialist John Pierpont Morgan gambled at Monte Carlo and bought 18th-century paintings by Fragonard in Grasse – shipping them to the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
A feature of the French Riviera in the inter-war years was the Train Bleu, an all first-class sleeper train which brought wealthy passengers down from Calais. It made its first trip in 1922, and carried Winston Churchill, Somerset Maugham, and the future King Edward VIII over the years.
While Europe was still recovering from the war and the American dollar was strong, American writers and artists started arriving on the Côte d’Azur. Edith Wharton wrote The Age of Innocence (1920) at a villa near Hyères, winning the Pulitzer Prize for the novel (the first woman to do so). Dancer Isadora Duncan frequented Cannes and Nice, but died in 1927 when her scarf caught in a wheel of the Amilcar motor car in which she was a passenger and strangled her. The writer F. Scott Fitzgerald first visited with his wife Zelda in 1924, stopping at Hyères, Cannes and Monte Carlo – eventually staying at Saint-Raphaël, where he wrote much of The Great Gatsby and began Tender is the Night.
While Americans were largely responsible for making summer the high season, a French fashion designer, Coco Chanel, made sunbathing fashionable. She acquired a striking tan during the summer of 1923, and tans then became the fashion in Paris.
During the abdication crisis of the British Monarchy in 1936, Wallis Simpson, the intended bride of King Edward VIII, was staying at the Villa Lou Vieie in Cannes, talking with the King by telephone each day. After his abdication, the Duke of Windsor (as he became) and his new wife stayed at the Villa La Croe near Antibes.
The English playwright and novelist Somerset Maugham also became a resident in 1926, buying the Villa Mauresque toward the tip of Cap Ferrat, near Nice
The Second World War
When Germany invaded France in June 1940, the remaining British colony was evacuated to Gibraltar and eventually to Britain. American Jewish groups helped some of the Jewish artists living in the south of France, such as Marc Chagall, to escape to the United States. In August 1942, 600 Jews from Nice were rounded up by French police and sent to Drancy, and eventually to death camps. In all about 5,000 French Jews from Nice perished during the war.
On August 15, 1944, American parachute troops landed near Fréjus, and a fleet landed 60,000 troops of the American Seventh Army and French First Army between Cavalaire and Agay, east of Saint-Raphaël. German resistance crumbled in days.
Saint-Tropez was badly damaged by German mines at the time of the liberation. The novelist Colette organized an effort to assure the town was rebuilt in its original style.
When the war ended, artists Marc Chagall and Pablo Picasso returned to live and work.
Post-war period and late 20th century
The Cannes Film Festival was launched in September 1946, marking the return of French cinema to world screens. The Festival Palace was built in 1949 on the site of the old Cercle Nautique, where the Prince of Wales had met his mistresses in the late 19th century. The release of the French film Et Dieu… créa la femme (And God Created Woman) in November 1956 was a major event for the Riviera, making an international star of Brigitte Bardot, and making an international tourist destination of Saint-Tropez, particularly for the new class of wealthy international travellers called the ‘jet set.’
The marriage of American film actress Grace Kelly to Prince Rainier of Monaco on 18 April 1956, attracted world attention once again. It was viewed on television by 30 million people.
During the 1960s, the Mayor of Nice, Jacques Médecin, decided to reduce the dependence of the Riviera on ordinary tourism, and to make it a destination for international congresses and conventions. He built the Palais des Congrès at the Acropolis in Nice, and founded a Chagall Museum and a Matisse Museum at Cimiez. High-rise apartment buildings and real estate developments began to spread.
At the end of August, 1997, Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed spent their last days together on his father’s yacht off Pampelonne Beach near Saint-Tropez, shortly before they were killed in a traffic accident in the Alma Tunnel in Paris.