The Europe of Rick Steves: Savoring the sweetness of life on the Côte d’Azur

I am in Villefranche-sur-Mer on the Côte d’Azur. It’s dusk and I’m eating at La Mère Germaine (Momma Germaine), a restaurant that began feeding starving GIs during World War II. Germaine’s grandson runs the place and he’s at my table – artfully filleting six different fish before lovingly pouring the broth.

He explains the Riviera’s most famous dish to me as if I were planning to cook it at my hotel: “It’s a spicy fish stew based on recipes handed down by sailors from the neighboring city of Marseille. A real bouillabaisse should contain at least four types of fresh fish – although we include six. There are never any shells. We cook the fish in a tomato-based broth… seasoned with saffron and white wine. He finishes the lesson by sprinkling croutons and covering everything with a dollop of garlic rouille sauce.

Savoring perhaps the most expensive dish I’ve ever eaten in Europe, I’m engulfed in the sweet life of the Riviera. I’m so close to the port that I can throw my olive pits overboard.

Several mega-yachts are stirring up envy just offshore. One is called Lady Maura (I was told that Maura is the ex-wife of a Saudi king). You never know what stern line you might catch here. A formal-looking skipper in his casual attire is carried ashore by his tidy companion in a small dinghy…just about to make his statuesque appointment for the evening. Germaine’s grandson winks at me.

Reflecting on my sumptuous meal as well as the day’s sightseeing, I recall the legacy of hedonism unique to this stretch of Mediterranean beach.

Some of the most expensive real estate on the French Riviera stretches from where I am sitting in Villefranche to neighboring Monaco. Just beyond the Dame Maura, Cap Ferrat, an extremely exclusive, largely residential community, fills a peaceful park-like peninsula. Although you never walk through any door, I had a delightful day here walking around – and it’s not your average jogging trail. Following its well-maintained path, I caught a glimpse of the villa where David Niven once lived, wandered the chic port of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, visited the ultimate Riviera mansion and gardens – the Villa Rothschild Ephrussi, and came across a small hidden beach. Unwelcoming, it feels like the private domain of aristocratic nymphs and satyrs.

In towns all along the French Riviera, graceful turn-of-the-century buildings line the harbor – reminders of the Belle Époque. It was literally the “golden age”, when the world seemed to revolve around the upper class, and indulgence with abandon was a way of life.

The majestic Hotel Negresco, overlooking the great Mediterranean promenade of Nice, is an excellent example of Belle Epoque luxury. The hotel offers some of the most expensive beds in town and the ability to step back into that era of ultimate sophistication. Its exquisite royal salon combines the grace of the Belle Époque with the engineering of the great French architect Gustav Eiffel. The chandelier is made of over 16,000 pieces of crystal. It was built in France for the palace of the Tsar of Russia in Moscow… but, because of the Bolshevik revolution, he could not take delivery.

Just beyond Nice is the town of Antibes. ‘Discovered’ after World War I, it had a particularly roaring 20s – with the help of revelers such as Rudolph Valentino and the rowdy but very quiet Charlie Chaplin. Locals claim that fun-seekers even invented water skiing here in the 1920s.

Picasso also liked the sweetness of life in Antibes. In 1946, Pablo Picasso, 65, was reborn. World War II was over and Picasso could finally escape the gray skies and gray uniforms of Nazi-occupied Paris. Benefiting from worldwide fame and the love of 23-year-old Françoise Gilot, he settled in Antibes. He painted like crazy, spending his mornings swimming in the Mediterranean, his evenings partying with friends, and his evenings painting again.

Always restless, Picasso had finally found his Garden of Eden, his joie de vivre. At the Picasso Museum in Antibes, his Joie de Vivre shows Françoise, the painter’s flower child. She kicks up her heels and dances on a Riviera beach. Satyrs, centaurs and flute-playing fauns herald the newfound freedom of a newly liberated France and a newly liberated Picasso.

After decades spent in the city, Picasso rediscovered the joys of village life. While shopping at the Antibes market, he would return home and turn his groceries into masterpieces. With his distinct cubist style, he captured bathers…and locals nibbling. He was fascinated by the simple life of fishermen. Here on the Côte d’Azur, like so many others, Picasso found a pagan paradise, where civilized people could indulge in simple pleasures.

The trip, like a bouillabaisse, is the happy result of the meeting of good things. For the French Riviera, take a variety of seaside towns, spice it up with modern art, add a pinch of history, sprinkle in some market fun and simmer in the Mediterranean sun.

Edmonds resident Rick Steves ( writes European travel guides, hosts travel shows on public television and radio, and organizes European tours. This column revisits some of Rick’s favorite places over the past two decades. You can email Rick at [email protected] and follow his blog on Facebook.

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