This month, for my contribution to All About France blog link-up hosted by Lou Messugo, I’m sharing a few secrets about the French Riviera.
When you live somewhere, you are privy to local tips and things that you learn about your home town or region that tourists perhaps don’t see or aren’t aware of.
Yes, TripAdvisor and tourist offices can be great sources of information but if you want to find where the tastiest food is, the most uncrowded attractions or coolest activities at a great price, then ask a local. Whenever I travel, I like to see where the locals eat, where they shop and where they party (!) because this is often where the hidden gems are!
Here are some of my Secret French Riviera suggestions:
Top chefs under the radar
One of the nicest things about living in France is the fact you can find a top chef in a humble setting and people are either unaware of their ‘fame’ or don’t make a fuss.
There are ex-chefs who run restaurants at camping sites, high-profile chefs who grill fish in summer at beachside kiosks before skipping back to the galleys of top kitchens and chefs who own orchards and vineyards far off the tourist path.
One of my great finds here is My French Burger, which is often parked at Zone Industrielle Des Terriers near Decathlon and Animalis in Antibes. The owner is Grégory Leriche, previously a top pastry chef at Lenôtre who has always dreamed of having his own food truck making burgers from scratch with homemade mayonnaise, ketchup and bread buns. Of course, he sells his patisseries which I would sell my soul for. If you’re nice, ask him to show you his photo album with photos of A-list stars he has taught to cook.
There are other great chefs in many other dining establishments across the Côte d’Azur. Most tourists are familiar with the Michelin or Gault Millau guides for restaurant suggestions, but are you aware of the ‘Maître Restaurateur’ title or ‘Un des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France’?
The title of Maître Restaurateur is the only title awarded in France by the state for professional catering whereby the chef themselves (not the restaurant) is audited by an independent body on 30 criteria. This includes signalling when recipes are home made, freshness of products, service quality and decoration. The title is valid for 4 years, after which the chef must be reaudited so the standards remain high.
To see the list of Maître Restaurateurs for the French Riviera (06 Alpes Maritimes), visit http://www.maitresrestaurateurs.com/liste-maitres-restaurateurs
Un des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (better known as MOF) is a prestigious award in France according by category of trades where the competitors are judged on technical skills, innovation, respect for traditions, speed and other criteria and awarded points. The categories are diverse – some of the categories include clockmaking, cabinetmaking and silkscreen printing. For hospitality, competitors can excel in butchery, pastry making, chocolate making and more. Some of the famous winners are Paul Bocuse, Roger Vergé and Joël Robuchon.
Famous locations mostly unknown by tourists
Napoléon Bonaparte (Napoléon I) has left a number of locations to visit on the French Riviera including Cannes (he camped at 15 Rue des Belges near Notre-Dame-du-Bon-Voyage church) and in Nice (6 rue Bonaparte was the residence of Napoléon in 1794 where he discussed plans with his generals and Palais Hongran de Fiana, a complex of holiday rental apartments beside Ma Nolans Irish pub is where he slept briefly after the building was confiscated in the late 18th century; look for the commemorative plaque on the façade).
The town of Mougins has many famous locations including homes where Christian Dior and Yves St Laurent lived. Edith Piaf stayed at La Gatounière in 1963, and Jean Cocteau, Man Ray and Pablo Picasso drifted in and out of the town. Artist Maurice Gottlob was the communal rural policeman.
Picasso has a lot of history with Mougins; Villa Vaste Horizon (previously Hotel Vaste Horizon) is the town’s cultural centre today, but back in the 1930’s Picasso arrived with his bags. He painted the walls in his room, only to be told to cover over his work with white paint the next day by the hotel owner. He used to dine at Place de Mougins which used to be Le Feu Follet. Most famously, he lived near Chapelle Notre Dame de Vie (1 Rue Eglise) at his estate, L’Antre du Minotaure (the Minotaur’s Lair). The chapel garden has a tomb that was built for the Guinness family.
You don’t need to go far to see the wide influence on the French Riviera credited to the monks from the Lérins Islands. Running a functioning monastery and vineyard (as well as a gift/liqueur shop) on Île St-Honorat today, the Lérins monks are due some credit for the town of Valbonne in its modern incarnation.
Augustin of Grimaldi, Bishop of Grasse and abbot of Lerins decided in the 16th-century to rebuild a town (wiped out from drought, barbaric invasions and the Black Plague) on the land beside the Abbey of Valbonne; the town layout of Valbonne is unique on the French Riviera in that it follows a Roman plan with a central street and perpendicular streets around a central square, now Place des Arcades. There is also a private estate nearby, Domaine de la Sylviane, where this former stone Monastery built by the Lérins monks still produces olive oil under the label ‘Domaine de la Sylviane’.
Other locations that exist thanks to the Lérins monks include Hostellerie Jérôme that is a wonderful restaurant in La Turbie set in the old presbytery of the Lérins Abbey, and Domaine de La Royrie, an olive grove in Grasse that was planted by the monks in the 15th-century and offers tours of the estate and tastings of their AOC Nice olive oil.
Swimming spots tourists don’t often visit
The French Riviera has some great beaches ranging from family-friendly options to full-service beach clubs for a day of lounging and soaking up the sun.
However, some of the most beautiful swimming locations are not found at beaches, especially in the height of summer. You don’t have to venture too far from the coast to enjoy some really stunning river, waterfall and lake swimming spots.
Some great places for a refreshing dip in warm months are:
The Gorges du Loup & Rives du Loup: Less than 40 minutes from the coast, Pont-du-Loup is a small hamlet best known for its aqueduct ruins and Confiserie Florian candy factory. However, it’s a great base for escaping from the summer heat; the best pools are 2 kilometres upstream along the D3 road and you can find places to jump from or sunbathe on large rocks. This area is popular for canyoning trips, so choose from a number of professional guiding companies if you fancy climbing and sliding into pools.
The Parc Departmental Rives du Loup has some great river spots that are quite shallow so ideal for small kids. For families, Ludiparc near La Colle sur Loup, has access to the river with a pebble beach as well as tonnes of fun activities and a mini water park.
La Brague: Between Biot and Valbonne, the Brague River has shaded forest trails next to refreshing water where you can dip your toes in on hot days, including this small pool where I snapped this photo of two of my favourite people skipping stones. I find there can be issues with mosquitoes, so take insect repellant! We park at Sophia Antipolis near La Veirière, a few minutes from the Air France headquarters. A map of river walks along the Brague is here: http://www.ville-valbonne.fr/IMG/pdf/BRA_DepliantA4_V10_300dpi-2.pdf
The Siagne River & Lac St Cassien: Head to Chapelle St Cassien de Bois, find a park and walk from there. The Siagne River has lots of current-free sections with some small cascades. Lac St Cassien is excellent for families with lots of watersports equipment for hire such as pedalos, inflatable climbing frames, kayaks. Lots of picnic spots and some good restaurants.
La Clue d’Aiglun, Pont de la Cerise, Riou de Pierrefeu and Clue du Riolan: About 1.5 hours from Nice, the Esteron River is a stunning colour and you can find perfectly tranquil sections of river with jade and turquoise plunge pools amidst white rocks, caves, lush ferns and medieval bridges.
From the village of Sigale, Aiglun is 7 kilometres west. Park in the village, find the canyoning sign, and follow the canyon return path for 1 kilometre down to a series of pools, about 200 metres upstream of the road bridge. You can also access the river directly from a narrow path from the road bridge, 1.5 kilometres beneath the village, and you’ll find there are pools under the bridge, too. Riou de Pierrefeu is great for families and Clue du Riolan is popular with canyoning enthusiasts.
Gorges du Cagnes (Gorges du Riou): Rocks, waterfalls, moss – it’s the French Riviera’s secret swimming hole fantasy near to Vence. Beware: The path is not well marked and there are loads of signs saying ‘rock fall’ and similar so watch for loose rocks, the stairs are not fenced and the pool is not deep enough for diving! Other than that, it is so quiet you’ll probably have the place to yourself.
Gorges de Pennafort: We discovered this little gem with many swimming holes a few years ago and the bonus is that the journey is just over 1 hour from Antibes. The best part is its proximity to some great wineries and a good restaurant across the road at Hostellerie des Gorges de Pennafort. You can find out more about the area around Gorges de Pennafort here
The Gorges du Verdon: One of the most beautiful regions in France and only a few hours drive from the French Riviera, there are many zones perfect for kayaking, pedalos and swimming. The most crowded lake is Lac St Croix, but there are other excellent places including Lac de Castillon.
Do you have any secret places you like on the French Riviera? If you liked this post, make sure you join my mailing list to get updates to your inbox – simply add your email address on the right-hand side of the home page. Feel free to share this post!