Nature Reigns Supreme
The term "Cote d'Azur is misleading: if it weren't for the steep cliffs that plunge down to the sea, one might well forget that 80% of the Alpes Maritimes are composed of mountains. A trip to the backcountry soon reveals these Mediterranean heights. In just a few hours, one passes from landscapes reminiscent of Greek Antiquity to others recalling Switzerland.
From the sea to snow-capped peaks
Straddling the Alps and the Mediterranean coastline, the Alpes-Maritimes (4,229km2) offers a diverse range of scenery unique throughout Europe.The seaside cliffs between Nice and Menton form a remarkable windshield enabling exotic plants-cacti, palms, eucalyptus etc.-to flourish in France's warmest climate.
At the beginning of the century, the English were thus able to create sumptuous gardens full of tropical plants. Kumquats, orange and lemon trees thrive on the local soil: 70% of France's lemon production comes from Menton! At the other extreme, the highest peak of the Mercantour Mountains soars up to 3,143m. sheltering flora from the Artic regions which became acclimatized during the last ice-ages. Geckos, cicadas, wild sheep and hares live here in harmony... just a few kilometers from each other.
A Hikers Paradise
Fans of the great outdoors will find in the mid and upper altitudes more than 3,500 km of marked trails for their specific use. The most daring will race canoes and kayaks down the torrents and streams (325 km, navigable). In winter, cross-country skiing circuits criss-cross the highlands of La Vesubie, Roya-Bevera, Haute Tinee and Haut Var.
The diversity of its scenery, the mildness of its climate has made the Alpes-Martimes a land of pre-dilection for gardening enthusiasts. The English in particular introduced exotic species to the Riviera in the 19th century, composing incredible mosaics that incorporate vegetation from gardens the world over. In the 'twenties', this taste for eclectism was combined with the discovery of the charms of olive-trees and cypresses, typical of the Mediterranean. When visiting these little corners of paradise, you'll learn about these master-gardeners, botanists and landscape gardeners who left behind them such an outstanding natural legacy.
In the 19th century, botanists and wealthy collectors got together to create, from start to finish, exotic gardens where rare plants bloom from November to March. Then a taste for eclecticism encouraged landscape-gardens to compose some veritable 'mosaics' in which all the gardens of the world are laid out side by side. It wasn't until the 1920's that the charm of Mediterranean vegetation, characterized by cypress and olive trees, finally caught on.
Four centuries of landscape art
The Riviera's oldest garden shelters behind the walls of the Cimiez convent in Nice. Lawns and flowerbeds have replaced the fruit-trees, vegetables and medicinal plants laid out in squares in medieval fashion. The gardens of Gourdon are a good illustration of the classic period: created in the 17th century, they offer the refinement of flowerbeds and trimmed boxwood hedges. The gardens of the Baroness Ephrussi de Rothschild at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat reflect, for their part, the eclecticism of the turn of the century: a series of gardens on different themes succeeded each other around a large formal garden "a la francaise". A new era unfolded with the gardens of Menton: that of real parks, terraced right down to the sea, inventing a romantic Mediterranean landscape dotted with pergolas and ponds.
A Living Conservatory
No other region, apart from that surrounding Paris, can boast so many museums. And hardly minor ones, at that: the Chagall, Matisse and Fernand Leger Museums, the Maeght Foundation... The Riviera also pays tribute to contemporary art and is still a center of artistic creativity, as witnessed by the School of Nice. This tendency for constant renewal is also evident in architecture, exemplified by the Promenade des Arts in Nice, comprising a theatre and modern art museum. Last, but not least, the region's heritage also includes its natural beauty, with the conservation of historic gardens and the creation of new botanical parks (Parc Phoenix)
The Artists' Muse
Painters, poets, philosophers, novelists, musicians, photographers and moviemakers... all were entranced and captivated. They sand the praises of the Riviera's light, he exuberant vegetation, the tangy bouquet of her fragrances her torrid, sleepless nights. "Here, the days follow on with a beauty that I would describe as almost insolent. I have never lived through a winter of such constant perfection", wrote Nietzsche to his sister in 1883.
Rediscovered by painters
If the Riviera owes its initial success to its rich winter residents, both British and Russian, very soon after, towards the end of the 19th century, the artists were her best ambassadors. Paul Signac, Pierre Bonnard, then Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Auguste Renior, Chaim Soutine, Nicolas de Stael and Raoul Dufy were bewitched by the violence of her hues. They changed their palettes and their styles forever.
Writers and photographers also fell victim to the Riviera's charms, with all its luxury and voluptuousness: here, for an entire century, the crowned heads of Europe got together - and left behind them some ferocious portraits. Frederick Nietzsche found inspiration here for Thus Spake Zarathustra, Tchekhov for the Three Sisters. Sydney Bechet, in a completely different register, composed one of his most well known tunes here: Dans les rues d'Antibes. And finally, the cost, including the Grande Corniche, immortalized by Alfred Hitchcock in To Catch a Thief. Has been one of the temples of the seventh art since the very beginnings of the movie industry. In 1924, the American ex Ingram persuaded Metro Goldwyn Mayer to take a look at the Studios de la Victorine, in Nice, which thus became the Mediterranean's own little Hollywood. Nowadays, and since 1946, the International Film Festival in Cannes introduces new talents to the entire world.