Touring the French Riviera on foot reveals what ships, buses would never let you see
By JOSH NOEL | Chicago Tribune | Published: March 4, 2019
Warned of absurdly high cab fares, I shrugged off another warning about Nice — its robbers and pickpockets — and decided to walk to my hotel from the train station.
That mile of sidewalk was cracked and dirty, and the soft October breeze smelled of garbage and dog waste. Every other storefront was vacant, and laundry hung like the national flag. It felt nothing like Paris. It didn’t even feel French. It was Barcelona, Rome and Miami in a blender, and the names on apartment buzzers backed it up: Gasteau lived beside Marchi, who lived beside Evans.
The Riviera may conjure images of lounging sun-kissed beauties in black sunglasses, but all I saw were hunched, hurried locals who withheld eye contact. Yes, there was a promise of grandeur — the gleaming Mediterranean Sea bobbed at the foot of the sloping avenues. But the street-corner condom vending machines were covered in graffiti.
This was the South of France?
Indeed, and it was an appropriate, if inauspicious, introduction to a place I’d be exploring for the next week on foot. I was about to embark on a growing European rage: the self-guided walking tour. My travels would take me from Nice to the Italian border — about 20 miles in a car but closer to 75 miles the way I’d be doing it.
My boots would take me beside buzzing highways, up dirt trails and along seaside stone paths. A couple of short taxi rides would allow me to skip the most disagreeable patches, while several detours up mountains and around rocky peninsulas would let me savor the most beautiful.
The allure was simple. Tourists most often experience this corner of the globe by cruise ship or bus. Locals, depending on their economic lot, prefer trains or helicopters. I wanted none of the above but to see all I could; I wanted to pull back the curtain and experience the real Riviera, its good and its bad. So I walked. Most of the time I followed a set of route instructions, but at times I called my own shots.
And the first was walking from the train station, dragging my suitcase though western Nice — still unrobbed. But where were the high rollers? The glamour? Those sun-kissed beauties? The answers, of course, were on the road.
The next morning, I asked the front-desk clerk at my hotel about a neighborhood called Cimiez. Perched high above the city, it was supposedly one of Nice’s finer areas. She said it was worth a visit and circled on the map where I could catch the bus. I asked if I could walk.
“I don’t think so,” she said. “It is too much walking up.”
I didn’t explain my new and perhaps irrational dedication to walking. Instead I went out to side streets that were absent a single tourist’s guidebook or dangling camera, until reaching the wide, soulless corridor of pavement and cheap shopping that is Nice’s modern downtown (most of these Riviera towns have a new and an old downtown, the latter being the tourist center).
I turned north, away from the sea, and began ascending. And up, up, up I went along twisting streets, past faded pink, yellow and green homes built into the hills to overlook the glistening water. At its lower reaches, where the tourists moved, Nice was grim and poorly kept. In the hills, it became sedately beautiful.
A couple miles on I reached Cimiez, wandering its 2,000-year-old Roman ruins and the neighboring Matisse museum, housed in the 17th century villa where the great French artist lived. At the heart of the neighborhood, in a large circular park, Sunday in France unfolded. It was a remarkable time of revelry and companionship: Dogs frolicked after kids who frolicked after soccer balls. Dads kicked soccer balls with their sons. Teenagers traded turns as goalie and shooter.
Couples ate sandwiches and drank wine, a blond boy’s 6th birthday unfolded with a French rendition of “Happy Birthday to You” (same melody, just insert joyeux anniversaire), and ancient couples moved slowly hand in hand.
As dusk approached, I headed back down the residential streets toward the shops and tourists of the “old” downtown, stopping at a library where dozens of university students studied at long tables with headphones in their ears. The scene was remarkable in its ordinariness; I couldn’t remember walking into a library while visiting another country, but that’s what happens when you are on foot and follow any whim.
Then it was back to the boardwalk along the Mediterranean to watch the sun sink in a warm orange haze while a band of giggly French Boy Scouts chased each other beside the sea.
From Nice I headed east, to the 1,000-year-old narrow stone streets of the next town over, Villefranche-sur-Mer; I stopped there for a mushroom risotto and red wine lunch. Then I kept heading east, along the Riviera highway closest to the sea, called the Basse Corniche. A bus load of tourists pointed cameras at the water and, farther on, a bottle of wine three-quarters full sat abandoned on the side of the road — Chilean, of course. I walked along the highway’s twisting edge until hitting the next seaside town, Beaulieu-sur-Mer.
My hotel was run by M. and Mme. Henri Albert, a middle-class couple with halting English who left the Paris suburbs 15 years ago to move here. The tidy, spacious lobby doubled as their living and dining rooms. Their daughter, Anne-Louise, a pretty 18-year-old in her last year of high school, studied last year in Chattanooga, Tenn., and spoke nearly perfect English. I asked how she liked living in one of the world’s most revered addresses. She can’t wait to leave.
“I understand why people come here,” Anne-Louise said. “It’s beautiful. But I’d rather live in New York City.”
Early the next morning I walked from the hotel to a boardwalk overlooking the Mediterranean, ready to traverse Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, a peninsula jutting into the wide blue ocean. Just then a woman dressed in all black, except for a brown scarf in her hair, tapped my shoulder. Patricia Ely, a 76-year-old Brit, needed help with her camera. She said she had seen much of the world but keeps coming back to the French Riviera because it feels like home — a warm, glowing and surprisingly modest home.
“People say, ‘Oh, the French Riviera, it’s so glamorous,’ and in the past I think that was true,” Ely said. “But what I like about it is it’s a bit rough. It has a lot of ordinary people — like myself. The rich, like Paul McCartney, they don’t know the real Riviera because they just stay in the rich places.”
I told her I was about to walk the entire peninsula, and she told me I was in for a good day. Indeed I was. In a week here, there was nothing more idyllic than Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, and that’s because the French have kept it for the people. Yes, the peninsula’s residents are remarkably wealthy; the former home of King Leopold II sold here last year for an estimated $750 million.
But a 6-mile stone path sandwiched between the roaring waves and the million-dollar estates traces the peninsula’s coast, allowing access for whoever wants it. Tall walls topped by video cameras make clear who is permanent and who is just visiting, but so what? The homes are so tasteful and placid that they seem to be there for your pleasure. And in parts of the United States, those riparian rights would undoubtedly be sold to the highest bidder. Here, the crashing waves, the air sweet with herbs, citrus and flowers, the craggy rocks filled with sea foam, they all belong to the people.
Propelled by a blissful inertia, I began to feel at home with everything my feet took me to that day, be it the handsome men in suits gathered around a Mercedes or the young couple chasing an easy beauty in their bathing suits.
Late that afternoon I wandered off the seaside trail to one of the peninsula’s highest points: a quiet church and its graveyard, where Mme. Damiano, Mme. Lame and M. Giordam enjoyed terminal rest in a perfect breeze. On my way back to the trail, I encountered the single moment that made me most thankful not to be distracted by a car engine. Up in the trees, in every direction, songbirds sang in what sounded like nature’s most supersonic stereo.
The next day began with a warning. Apprised of my plans to walk north into the hills, Henri Albert said he would only attempt such foolishness “if I were a young man.” He suggested taking a bus.
Instead I set out through the streets of Beaulieu-sur-Mer and into the foothills. Up I went, sweating and puffing and gaining a better view of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat with every step — the previous day’s walk in a single glance.
My destination was at 1,400 feet, a 4,000-year-old stone village called Eze. After an hour of ascending, it was a pleasure to reach the top of the mountain and realize that Eze was just 1 flat mile up the road.
But then I consulted the route instructions, and they ordered me to drop back to sea level on the mountain’s backside and climb — again — up to Eze. I won’t lie. I thought hard about taking the easy stroll across that blessedly flat mile. But I didn’t. I traversed a dirt trail down through a forest that could have been our Pacific Northwest, coming across a hunter in a bright orange cap who held a shotgun and crouched beside a small black dog. We didn’t share a language, but I managed to ask what he was hunting. He snorted like a pig.
The path curled toward the sea and landed at Eze-sur-Mer, a town that is little more than a cluster of shops and a train station beside the sea. Then it was back up a winding, rocky trail called Sentier Nietzsche, named for the philosopher who supposedly thought deep thoughts during long walks there.
After huffing and puffing back to the top, a pack of Americans arrived by bus in their Topsiders and pink polo shirts. I know it’s not fair, but it felt like they cheated.
I caught my breath, consulted the route instructions again and — guess what? — I had to go higher still, to the peak of Mt. Bastide, another few hundred feet up. While most everyone else left by bus, up I went. At the top of Mt. Bastide I ran into the universal rule of international trekking: No matter how far or high you go, Germans will already be there.
The next day in Monaco I learned the difference between being lost on foot and being lost in a car. The advantages of a car are apparent. If you’re lost enough, you can sleep in the car. If there’s a wild-eyed crazy, you drive away. Your feet don’t hurt when you’re in a car.
But the advantages of being lost on foot: You can get up stairs, an invaluable way of navigating a vertically built city (which much of the Riviera — particularly Monte Carlo — is). There is something more frustrating about having to interact with a machine when lost; on foot it’s a simpler kind of frustration; you got yourself into it and you’ll get yourself out of it. And because it’s you against your surroundings, being lost on foot is a little more thrilling.
That said, it took all of two lost hours to loathe Monaco. It’s a postage stamp-sized tangle of streets and high-rises surrounded by France on three sides and the Mediterranean on the other. One street sits above the next, and few of them connect. The ones that do are interrupted by construction.
After spending an afternoon walking the coast west of Monaco — pausing at a beautiful, jagged rocky outcropping called Cap D’Ail — I walked back to Monaco, where I wandered for what felt like days before finding my hotel. Success only came after scaling a couple of chain-link fences, asking directions three times, uttering several profanities and getting an ice cream cone to restore my spirit.
On the last day, near Beausoleil, I made a decision: Walking no longer ruled. If I wanted to spend two hours on the beach, I would. And I did, lying on the rocks with a book and a sandwich.
But then I felt guilty and returned to the route. It was time to climb again, so I turned away from the sea and went up a trail that took me past barking dogs, hyper-vigilant cats and graffiti I couldn’t understand. At the top I reached another piece of history, the village of Roquebrune, where parts of a 1,000-year-old castle still stand. I took my dutiful tour and headed back down.
Near the sea a sign alerted westbound motorists to the stops ahead: Monaco, Nice, Roquebrune, La Turbie and Beausoleil. I’d seen them all.
On foot. After an hour on yet another charmed seaside path, I was in Menton, near the Italian border. The walk was finished. I celebrated with pizza and beer.
The next morning I got up early and finished the job. I walked to Italy. It wasn’t part of the route, but it seemed like the right thing to do. At the border’s giant red, white and green flag, I turned back to catch a train that would return me to Nice. The train undid in 40 minutes what I’d constructed so carefully in a week on foot.