Cannes, France: The Perfect Place for New Experiences

by Susan Hallett

The rooftops of Cannes, France
The rooftops of Cannes, France

The writer W. Somerset Maugham in “The Moon and Sixpence” wonders about one of his characters. “Perhaps when he went to Paris, he was too old to fall a victim to the glamour of his environment.” Maugham doesn’t mention Cannes, but I believe that one is never too old to be entranced by the beauty of this Riviera town.

The Riviera is a narrow coastal strip between the Alps and the Mediterranean. It extends from Hyeres in France to La Spezia in Italy. A panoramic highway runs along the Riviera from end to end. Known as the Corniche, if you drive along it you will see the luxuriant vegetation for which the entire area is known. I saw villas set in beautiful gardens and world-famous resorts which popped up in the 19th century because of the region’s mild climate.

I was told by locals that in 1834, Lord Brougham, Britain’s Lord Chancellor, was en route to Nice when an outbreak of cholera forced the authorities to freeze all travel to prevent the disease from spreading. Although he was “trapped” in Cannes, it was love at first sight and Lord Brougham built a house there to escape British winters. The English aristocracy, Russian czars, various kings and princes soon caught on and “Cannes became the community for the international elite,” signifying dignified luxury.

Cannes is on the part of the French Riviera called the Cote d’Azur, possibly at its most brilliant, when the film festival is on. But Cannes shines in May, June, September and October. In July and August it’s crowded, first with film festival goers, then with French and other European sun-worshippers who flock to the marvellous beaches.

I couldn’t believe that there are eight kilometers of fine sand beaches, many owned by the palatial hotels on La Croisette, the walkway that extends along the beachfront. The free beaches, located near Le Suquet, which is in the old part of Cannes, include the Plages du Midi and the Plages de la Bocca. Both are within walking distance of the Palais de Festival where the coveted Palme d’Or award is given each year for the best film.

We arrived on October 6th to Cannes, France on our Europe cruise. It was the first Sunday of the month and the lively flea market at Les Allees de la Liberte was in full swing. This park-like square hosts a flea market or “brocante” every Saturday and the first Sunday of each month. It is very close to the pedestrian only zone, where on the Rue Meynadier, we found a cache of fabulous restaurants and cafes. Uphill a little is the Halles of Cannes, called the Marche Forville. Vendors selling luscious fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers of the region as well as fish and cold-pressed olive oils, made us long for an apartment of our own so we could take home some baskets full of produce.

To list every twist and turn of the streets would be tedious, but things that stand out include palm trees and bougainvillea, parasols by the sea and the scent of pine and lavender. The little cafe where we tasted the wine of the region, a red Bandol wine was memorable, as were Sunday afternoon boule players, the antique merry-go-round for the children and several pleasant conversations we had with vendors displaying antiques at the Sunday “puce”.

Douce France Antiques, in business for many years, was a standout, selling Daum and Baccarat crystal, collector’s dolls, bronzes, beautiful silver knife-rests and estate jewelry.

For a late afternoon pick-me-up, we headed for Bar l’Amiral at the fabled Hotel Martinez, 73 La Croisette to try a Champagne cocktail. I was amazed to find out that there are eight “Creations Au Champagne” – all featuring Taittinger Champagne. My choice? “Miss Baccarat” which included Passion fruit liqueur, Mirabelle, Cognac, Grand-Marnier, orange juice and grenadine. Superb!

The Hotel Martinez was Liz Taylor’s favourite hotel in Cannes. It has a Michelin-starred restaurant aptly named La Palme d’Or where fabulous chefs work magic on the superlative produce on the region.

Cannes shore excursions we tried include hopping on a ferry at the Jetee Albert Edouard in the Vieux Port to visit the Abbaye de Lerins, on Ile St. Honorat, just 10 minutes from Cannes. The story goes that after the monk St. Honorat settled here around 400 A.D., seven disciples followed. The monastery eventually became one of the most powerful in all Christendom.

Another treat was taking the local bus to Grasse, which claims to be the perfume capital of the world. It is in the mountainous hill country behind Cannes and makes an interesting half-day trip. Another day-trip we took, in a rental car, was to St. Tropez. According to Colette’s “Prisons et Paradis,” St. Tropez lured too many people even in the 1930s. She wrote: “Two hundred luxury cars driving toward the port at five in the afternoon. Cocktails, Champagne on the yachts in the harbor, you know.” St. Tropez continues to lure people to its beaches, marvellous boutiques and bouillabaisse restaurants but I’ll take Cannes any day.