12 Days of Christmas on the French Riviera

Ho ho ho! The festive season has crept up on me once again and I’ve been so busy with my kids picking up every cough or virus found on a school playground, and juggling lots of Christmas events that I didn’t get around to compiling my annual Christmas Market list.

Not to worry, I have put my candy cane-where-my-mouth-is and have been inspired to write a new post. If you are visiting the French  Riviera during the festive season, here is Access Riviera’s take on ‘12 Days of Christmas’ with travel tips, things I like and a few sneaky gift ideas (I promise there will be no partridges in pear trees, or geese-a-laying!).

Joyeux Noel!

1.  Visit the Christmas Markets (Marchés du Noel)

I was slow off the mark in compiling my Christmas Market list this year, however most towns will have a Christmas Market leading up to Christmas Day and some even extend until early January.

We usually visit Antibes and Cannes; other impressive markets are held at Nice and Monaco. For next year, if you want to visit a more traditional market head to Le Rouret (which has already passed a few weeks ago).

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Christmas Markets are great for the whole family with wooden chalets selling everything from tree decorations to candy floss and woollen scarves. There are often amusement rides for children, ice skating rinks or luges.

This link has an overview of some of the region’s best markets:

http://sortircotedazur.com/agenda/les-marches-de-noel-sur-la-cote-dazur/

  1. Buy some delicious macarons in Cagnes-sur-Mer

Macarons are quintessentially French, and the flavour combinations can be quite surprising. I have to quickly walk past one of our local patisseries because every time we pass by the shop assistant shouts out ‘Bonjour’ to my eldest son who dashes in and immediately starts ordering ‘une fraise et vanille macaron, s’il vous plait’. You know you spend too much time in a patisserie when they are on a first name basis with your child 🙂

If you love macarons, don’t fight the temptation any more – head along to Mic Mac Macaron in Cagnes-sur-Mer for amazing creations from Bruno Laffargue.

Flavours include the classics such as lemon, vanilla, salted caramel and passionfruit through to the more exciting combinations of licorice, apple and cinnamon and chestnut and litchee. Monsieur Laffargue even whips up savoury macarons with notes of truffle and parmesan.

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  1. Relax in Juan les Pins

Winter is quiet season in Juan les Pins; if there were tumbleweeds available you would definitely see them rolling down the street. So, it’s the perfect time to take advantage of having the seafront promenade, parks and restaurants all to yourself.

I recommend a meal at the beautiful La Passagère at the Hôtel Belles Rives, and if you return to Juan les Pins and want a low-key suggestion for somewhere to stay in warmer months that has good hospitality, book a room at La Villa. La Villa is within walking distance to Port Gallice and Juan les Pins and has modern rooms, free Wifi and free carparking. Don’t forget to ask to buy a bottle of champagne as the hotel owner Vincent is originally from the Champagne region and he and his brother own 2 vineyards there and sell the champagne to hotel guests.

  1. Art and indulgence in Mougins

Mougins is filled with top notch restaurants and interesting art galleries and has attracted many creative types – it has been a visiting place for Cocteau, Leger, Man Rey and most famously Pablo Picasso who spent the last 12 years of his life there.

My suggestion is to roam the streets as there are plenty of galleries to see just walking around, or if you prefer a more structured tour visit this link courtesy of the Mougins Tourist Office website here for directions to the town’s galleries and workshops.

I recommend any art / history enthusiast visit the excellent Mougins Museum of Classical Art – highly under rated as an attraction in this region with eclectic collections of Greek and Roman coins and busts, armoury and contemporary art including Damien Hirst’s ‘Happy Head’ skull, ‘Birth of Venus’ by Andy Warhol and ‘Venue Bleue’, the striking blue torso by Yves Klein who is buried in La Colle sur Loup.

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After a morning of art overload, head to the 5-star surrounds of Le Mas Candille where you can enjoy a meal at Le Candille overlooking the Mougins valley, or be pampered at their Shiseido Spa with facials or a massage. Check their website prior to booking as they have special offers for the Spa, hotel and restaurant.

  1. Scents of France

The French are renowned for perfume creation, and if you have a tendency for olfactory purchases you’ll find it difficult to visit the French Riviera without acquiring a bottle of parfum or two.

Most tourists make a bee line for Grasse, the historic perfume-making centre where you can visit the Musée International de la Parfumerie, or tour one of the perfume factories to learn the process and perhaps join a workshop to blend your very own scent.

If you want to buy perfume you don’t have to look far anywhere on the French Riviera for shelves stocked with major brands as well as limited edition fragrances from exclusive perfume houses. While I know it’s perfectly fine to buy off the shelf at Fragonard, Molinard, Marionnaud and Galeries Lafayette, here are my shopping suggestions if you want something a bit special:

  • Parfums Gaglewski is a small perfume shop located on a cobblestoned Grasse street, non-descript it could be a boutique in any French town but the difference lies in the man who owns it. Didier Gaglewski is beyond passionate about perfume and if you’re seeking an authentic and personal experience, this is a good place to start.
  • Parfumerie Tanagra on rue Alphonse Kerr in Nice is part of an Institut de Beauté that retails cosmetics, jewellery and leather goods as well as major brands and rare brands of perfumes.
  • In Monaco, the chic Paris8 retails all the luxury perfume brands you may need (Chanel, Guerlain, Hermes, D&G etc) as well as rare fragrances (they also have gift sets and gift cards if you need to buy a birthday, Valentines or Christmas present for your significant other). They are also a stockist for the Arquiste Parfumeur range, so if you can grab a bottle of their Fleur de Louis perfume do it before word gets out.
  1. Dine in a historic abbey in La Colle sur Loup

Open daily (except Monday and Tuesday in winter), Le 541 is the restaurant of the Hôtel l’Abbaye La Colle sur Loup and is a perfect place to dine in the cloister on a crisp winters day or by the fireplace when the temperature cools down.

This historically-listed monument (formerly known as Abbaye du Canadel) is popular for weddings in the 12th-century chapel (rumour has it Brigitte Bardot held one of her marriage ceremonies in the chapel) and has a rich history being owned over the centuries by Bishops, Lords, the monks of the Lérins Islands and a former Head Chef of the Negresco Hotel.

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  1. Spend the day with the kids in Monaco

Monaco has a great Christmas market and often has some of the best festive decorations and lights, especially at place du Casino.

Start the day watching the free Changing of the Guards ceremony outside the Palais Princier at 11.55am sharp, before heading to either the Monaco Oceanarium or Monaco Top Cars.

The Monaco Oceanarium has enough sea life displays to keep even the smallest members of your family entertained and a play area, turtle enclosure and cafeteria on the rooftop offer a nice place to have a break if things start to go pear-shaped inside the museum.

Highlights include the shark lagoon and watching the staff feeding the fish during school holidays. There is a touch pool which is a nice interactive activity for small children – it can’t be pre-booked online but ask at the Ticket Office; an additional €6 fee applies.

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Monaco Top Cars located on the Terrasses de Fontvieille is open 10am-6pm daily (except on Christmas Day) and is a superb vehicle collection curated by H.S.H. Prince Rainier III of Monaco with displays across categories such as military, sports cars, vintage, and prestige – there are even horse-drawn carriages to see.

Cool cars for little ones to spot include a 1921 Peugeot Quadrilette, 1928 Hispano Suiza, 1953 Cadillac, 1986 Lamborghini Countach and Maserati. The exhibition space is accessible for families with baby strollers, or persons with restricted mobility.

To finish, treat the kids to some delicious chocolates – my recommendation is the Chocolaterie et Confiserie de Monaco located not far from the Monaco Oceanarium. Kids will be charmed by the Grand Prix and Monaco Circus-themed chocolate boxes, or win them over with yummy chocolates fit for any Petit Prince or Princess shaped like Monagasque crowns.

My Top Tip: If you want to visit the Monaco Oceanarium AND inside the Palais Princier there is a combined ticket available at either Ticket Office.

  1. Coffee and culture in Saint Paul de Vence

Saint Paul de Vence is one of the most popular villages in the region, and it’s a ‘go-to’ place if you want to visit somewhere with the right mix of art, culture, authenticity and tourism.

Busy in summer, it is still worthwhile to visit in autumn and winter when the paved streets aren’t so frenetic and you can wander at your own pace without fear of being mowed down by a tourist on a hurried shopping trip before they embark on their tour bus.

For a suggested free tour, read my previous blog post where I designed 2 discovery tours of the village – the first tour is aimed at families who have baby strollers and allows for a few stairs that are manageable; the second tour is aimed at wheelchair-bound tourists and avoids the village’s stairs and tries as much as possible to stick to flat ground.   Feedback is welcome! https://accessriviera.wordpress.com/2012/06/14/sightseeing-saint-paul-de-vence/

These tours in no way replace the excellent guided tours offered by the Saint Paul de Vence Tourist Information Office but are merely my suggestions from on-the-ground knowledge to allow all tourists to experience the village.

Afterwards, stop at the Café de la Place at the village entrance where you can enjoy a coffee as you watch the locals play boules (if you fancy learning what pieds tanqués or cochonnet means, you can hire a boules set from the Tourist Office for €4 per person).

Another excellent attraction is the Fondation Maeght, an art museum surrounded by nature, exhibiting a collection of modern and contemporary paintings and sculptures. The modern architecture of Catalan architect Josep Lluis Sert surrounds the artworks of Giacometti, Adami, Braque, Chagall, Léger, and Calder. The garden encircling the main building is an open-air gallery, where Mediterranean trees coexist with sculptures by Giacometti and Miró, mosaics by Chagall, the pool by Braque, and many other artworks.

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My Top Tip: A Côte d’Azur Card gives you free entrance to the Fondation Maeght, the Folon Chapel and the Museum of Local History, plus a tour of the village with a guide from the Saint Paul de Vence Tourist Information Office. The Cards are available for sale at regional Tourist Offices and other sightseeing locations and are worthwhile if you are doing lots of sightseeing.

  1. Nice Off The Beaten Path

Nice is a wonderful city with vibrant events, a buzzing Old Town (Vieux Nice) firmly entrenched with Italian heritage, superb restaurants and bars and the longest seafront promenade along the whole French Riviera coast. It also hosts one of the best and biggest regional Christmas markets.

So, how do you find those hidden gems in a city that attracts millions of tourists each year?

Here are a few of my suggestions:

Market life: Every visitor to Nice knows about the flower/fruit/veges/brocante market on Cours Saleya, and many are aware of the fish markets on Place Saint-François and at Marché de la Liberation.

However, in my opinion, 2 of the most interesting markets are found away from Cours Saleya at nearby Place du Palais de Justice.

Here, you’ll find a Book Market (Marché aux livres anciens et d’occasion) held on the 1st and 3rd Saturday of each month (Hours: 7am-5pm in winter and 7am-7pm in summer) with second-hand novels, old mariner’s manuals and rare books, complete with dusty and faded patinas.

The last Saturday of each month is a vintage Postcard Market (Marché aux cartes postale anciennes) where you can buy Edwardian postcards of Nice. Keep an eye out for Editions Gilletta postcards, or if you want a collection of vintage keepsakes you can buy one of their books here http://www.editionsgilletta.com/livre/promenade-des-anglais-vues-anciennes

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Artisan: Atelier de Reliure is a unique shop indeed. They specialize in using traditional methods to repair old books or photo albums by hand, adapting their working processes depending on the era of the book, leather, paper used, mounting and the binding. They can also create bespoke boxes and cases adorned with gold leaf, family crests or company logos.

Kids: Nice has some excellent children’s stores and my recommendations if you’re looking for funky kids décor, furniture, toys or storage is to head to Emilie & Compagnie or Vibel Nature.

Photography: Anyone interested in photography should make a date to visit Darkroom Galerie on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday or Saturday. They have rotating exhibitions of established and emerging photographers, and offer art tours of Nice as well as online sales of photographs.

Gifts: Located close to Place Rossetti is a fabulous shop for gifts for women (Take note my male readers because this shop will score you brownie points for life). La Boutique du Flacon is something out of a Moulin Rouge-Marie Antoinette dream with glass and crystal perfume atomizers, hand-crafted crystal music boxes, Murano jewellery, fine glass bonbonneries and bathroom jars, pretty photo frames, evening bags and hand-painted contemporary and vintage perfume bottles. Divine!

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Cascade de Gairaut: Situated on a hill above Nice, this is a peaceful place for a casual walk beside a canal that passes olive and fig trees.

The cascade is an artificial waterfall that oxygenated the water from the Vésubie before being distributed in the city and was a popular tour stopover in the early 20th century.

The whole site is listed as a Historic Monument and includes an Austrian-style chalet overlooking the cascade and drop pools with caves complete with fake stalactites – it’s an odd sight in the hills of Nice, but the view is excellent.

For a map and directions for this walk, download the free pdf here (Boucle découverte – Gairaut / Rimiez) https://www.nice.fr/fr/visites-decouverte-de-nice/boucles-decouvertes

  1. Venture to Valbonne

Valbonne, literally translated as the ‘good valley’ as it was known as Vallis Bona in past years, is comprised of 2 parts – the old 16th-century village in the northwest, and the commercial / technological area of Sophia Antipolis in the east, the French Riviera’s equivalent of California’s Silicon Valley.

The village is laid out in a grid pattern and has some lovely shops and restaurants with L’Auberge Provençal at the Valbonne Square an excellent place to sit with a drink and people watch.

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Stop into L.A. Galerie to view Ada Loumani’s beautiful glass vases that are both functional and sculptural, or visit Création Boselli – L’Olivieroi, a shop where Jean Pierre Boselli makes products such as mortars, trays, fruit bowls and unique perfume bottles from precious wood.

Afterwards, take a walk along the River Brague that falls under the designation of the Parc Départmental de la Brague; the park contains the remains of the Roman aqueduct that fed Antibes however the remains are unmarked and unsigned (which is actually one of the charms of many of the walks in the region as you stumble across ruins all the time). The trails are pleasant, cool and shaded (so make sure you come back in warmer months when you need to escape the summer heat!).

Another option is to hire vintage motorbikes and explore the Arriere-Pays from Valbonne. Motorent offer a range of classic or retro motorbikes including the 1950’s styling of a Royal Enfield, Triumph Bonneville T100 or a Ducati Scrambler. Specific conditions apply for rentals – if you are an international visitor you will need an international license plus proof of hotel etc – and you will need to check the minimum age and security deposit required.

Suggested scenic itineraries could be the Gorges du Loup, Col de Bleine, the Vésubie and Tinée Valleys, the red rock-lined roads of the Gorges du Cians with a detour to Entrevaux (between June and September, you can visit the free Motorcycle Museum ) or the Gorges de l’Estaron where heading to St Auban you pass a surprising chapel grotto cut into the rock.

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  1. Grab your holiday essentials in Cannes

Christmas is a busy period for travel, with people arriving and departing by car, plane, bus or train to visit friends and family for the festive season.

If you’re heading somewhere over the holiday break, Cannes is a great place to stock up on last-minute gifts or any holiday essentials you’ll need for a getaway.

Tumi opened its first luggage store (24 rue du Commandant André) in Cannes earlier this year, and if you’re a frequent jetsetter you’ll easily find a stylish overnight bag or suitcase that will take the knocks and bumps that come with travelling. Grab some luggage then cross the road for lunch or coffee at Bobo Bistro.

Treat your body to goodies from French chain L’Occitane, who make things easy at Christmas with a large range of pre-packaged gift sets, then skip along to Pharmacie Anglo-Française who retail the amazing Marvis toothpaste imported from Italy. If you’ve never tried Marvis toothpaste, the apothecary-inspired tubes are beautiful and it has a range with flavours such as Ginger Mint and Amarelli Licorice. Conveniently they come in standard size and travel sized miniatures. If there was ever a time to rave about toothpaste this is my chance.

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For fun, colourful and kitschy gifts, Pylones on rue d’Antibes has everything from astronaut lamps to quirky earbuds and bento boxes. A great place for stocking fillers if you can’t be bothered with the €2 Shops or Maxi Bazaars.

Slick and modern, Projecteurs name drops Dries van Noten, Marni and Giambattista Valli among its list of designers represented in their contemporary store. Retailing clothing, shoes, skincare, accessories and jewellery for both men and women you can pick up high-end designer items pricing hundreds of euros upwards or stocking stuffers including cartoon-themed USB sticks for under €20. Check out their website as they add end-of-line stock under the ‘Outlet’ section where you can often buy designer goods at 50% discount.

I love StyleJunky’s byline – Babies Welcome, Dogs Welcome, Beginners Welcome, Try on something you can’t afford – spend now, worry later. It’s a fitting mantra for a cool store that seamlessly makes fashion more than just about style. They stock international and emerging designers as well as skin care from Mad et Len and outrageous sneakers from Golden Goose Deluxe Brand that are sure to get your feet noticed.

  1. Hit the slopes

The Alpes-Maritimes region has 15 ski resorts to suit all abilities with most set up with accommodation, ski schools, ski hire shops and restaurants. The closest resort to the coast is Gréolières-des-Neiges, though more reliable snow and more facilities are found at Isola 2000, Auron, Valberg and La Foux d’Allos which has the most extensive network in the region (180 kms of pistes).

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You can hire skis, snowboards, helmets up at the resorts though its advisable to take your own ski clothing if possible especially during school holidays when demand is high. Nothing kills a ski trip faster than having no gear.

For webcams, weather and resort info for Isola 2000: http://hiver.isola2000.com/webcam

For webcams, weather and resort info for Auron: http://hiver.auron.com/

If you prefer, you can also hire equipment down on the coast and transport it with you; sometimes the rates can be cheaper than at the resorts. A few suggested hire shops are Aventure Cote d’Azur (Nice) and Newrider (Antibes).

My Top Tips: Departing from outside the main train station in Nice, Lignes Azur operate a ‘100% Neige’ bus service that goes daily to Auron, Isola 2000, Valberg** and on weekends to La Colmiane**, and Le Boréon**. (** Valberg, La Colmiane, Le Boréon service commences 19 December). The journeys take 2 hours plus so bear that in mind.

Tickets can be pre-booked online at www.lignesazur.com from the French website as the English version doesn’t have the booking facility – cost: €4 oneway / €8 return online, instead of €5 / €10 with no pre-booking. The bus timetables are found here: http://www.lignesdazur.com/ftp/documents_FR/FlyerDec2015_100p100neigeBD.pdf

Isola and Auron have Vente Flash (Flash Sales) on Tuesdays after 8 pm where you can get lift tickets for half price, go to their websites to snap up the deals each Tuesday night as passes are limited.

Thanks for reading my ’12 Days of Christmas’ blog post! If you liked it, please share on Facebook or Twitter.

Joyeux Noel to all my readers and best wishes for a happy and prosperous 2016 from Becks at Access Riviera.

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