As the French Riviera celebrates the 67th annual Cannes Film Festival, fasten your seat belts for a whirlwind ride along the Cote d’Azur.
“Belle! Belle!” a man calls out from a corner café as I round a bend in my 1956 Porsche 356 Speedster. Whether his hoot of approval and accompanying wolf whistle are for me or, more likely, for my rented wheels hardly matters. With the top down and the sunshine of the French Riviera casting a golden glow across the landscape, I’m smiling ear-to-ear either way.
I only hope I’m out of sight when I stall the car on a slope, the gears grinding and growling like an angry grizzly as I try to cajole the temperamental stick shift back into first.
Never mind. I’m going to enjoy my movie star moment, ensconced in a red bucket leather seat as I clear the coast and head into the pine-scented hills.
This is silver screen country, after all, where dozens of seminal films have been shot since the 1950s.
My hired ride from Rent a Classic Car is the same model favored by James Dean, and my hair is pulled back into a wind-defying blonde bun, a la Grace Kelly. All that’s missing from this picture is Cary Grant…and a snazzy score by Henry Mancini to drown out the carnage I’m inflicting on the motor.
Cruising in a vintage car is the perfect complement to my cinematic tour of the Cote d’Azur, which will take me from Cannes to the ridiculously picturesque mountaintop village of Eze, with stops in Antibes, St. Paul de Vence, Nice, and Villefranche-sur-Mer along the way.
The Cannes International Film Festival is held every May, but the scent of flash cash virtually perfumes the air throughout the year. Expensive yachts (is there any other kind?) line the harbor, and high-end boutiques flank La Croissette along the waterfront.
A mural atop the bus station serves as reminder of the city’s dedication to the movie industry, depicting characters like Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe and Star Wars’ C-3PO and R2D2. (Perhaps Nicole Kidman can be stenciled in, too, as she recently filmed the Cannes-screened Grace of Monaco biopic along the Riviera).
Outside the Palais des Festivals et des Congres, visitors gawk at the concrete-cast handprints of stars, including Sharon Stone, Michael Douglas, and Sylvester Stallone.
But the real action happens inside the 2,300-seat auditorium, where films are projected before the festival jury and a bevy of celebs each spring.
Philippe Octo, the Stage Management Department Director since 1983, is in charge of making sure there are no glitches—which, much to his chagrin, there rarely are since movies have gone digital.
“It’s just a beam and a bit of sound, like a Game Boy. Push and play,” Octo sighs. He misses the days when films came straight from the lab and subtitles were burned on the spot using acid (gee, what could go wrong?). Nervous directors, who had only an hour to adjust color and sound at a pre-screening the night before, would beg the technicians for more time.
“Just to be around that energy…” Octo muses. “They were so tense. A lot of them were drunk. It was fun,” he grins.
The festival was founded in 1946, but the Riviera has been luring creative movers and shakers since the 1920s. In 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his mercurial wife Zelda moved into a seaside villa in Juan les Pins in Antibes, my next stop.
Fitzgerald somehow found the time to pen “Tender is the Night” here, in between popping bottles of bubbly with Ernest Hemmingway, Rudolph Valentino and Pablo Picasso.
The villa, which has preserved much of its Art Deco décor, still draws celebrities like Sting and Bruce Springsteen in its incarnation as the Hotel Belles Rives. Other recent visitors include Colin Firth, Emma Stone and Woody Allen, who filmed scenes from Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight here.
Nearby, the 16th century Fort Carré has also enjoyed its 15 minutes of fame. It featured in the 1983 Bond flick Never Say Never Again, with Sean Connery and Kim Basinger improbably jumping off the ramparts into the sea (on horseback, no less), and it served as Prince’s villa in Under the Cherry Moon.
But for the most part, the appeal of this village is its ability to “keep it real.” Fishermen hawk their catch at the harbor, restaurants boast silly names like The Happy Face and Eat and Smile, and locals shop at the central market, perhaps pausing for a glass (or two, but never more than three) of absinthe at the underground, atmospheric Absinthe Bar on the Cours Massena.
By contrast, St. Paul de Vence in the hills above looks like an old movie set come to life, with a maze of cobblestone streets which seem to be entirely populated by art galleries.
The village’s most famous hotel and restaurant, La Colombe d’Or, is a favorite celebrity destination.
Among those who have wined and dined or bunked down in this hilltop hideaway are Orson Welles, Roger Moore, Tony Curtis, Michael Caine, and Kirk Douglas, as well as artists like Picasso and Matisse, who would sometimes pay their bills with paintings—hence La Colombe’s museum-worthy art collection.
Back on the coast, Nice has featured in films ranging from To Catch a Thief (Cary Grant and Grace Kelly) to Ronin (Robert De Niro).
Strolling through the bustling flower market or negotiating the seafront Promenade des Anglais, where locals relax with the newspaper or zip through the crowds on rollerblades and bicycles, it’s easy to understand why cinematographers have found Nice’s energy and atmosphere irresistible. Allow yourself time to get lost in the narrow streets of the Old Town, and catch the free lift to the hilltop Castle Park for incomparable views of the city below.
For me, the biggest surprise along the Riviera is little Villefranche-sur-Mer. It’s a stunning town with an imposing fort and a huddle of buildings in sunny shades of yellow and pink that cascade downhill before halting abruptly beside a deep harbor.
If it all seems oddly familiar, perhaps that’s because it served as a backdrop for so many films: An Affair to Remember (Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr), The Jewel of the Nile (Kirk Douglas and Katherine Turner), Never Say Never Again (yes, again), and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Steve Martin and Michael Caine), to name a few. The local tourism office can arrange guided movie tours, complete with touch-screens depicting scenes filmed here.
Dozens of luminaries, from Jean Cocteau (who painted the interior of Villefranche’s fisherman’s chapel) to Gerard Depardieu, Catherine Deneuve, Harry Truman, and Sir Winston Churchill, have visited the charming Hotel Welcome, which more than lives up to its name, with sea view balconies and the friendliest staff I encounter on the Riviera.
Likewise, folks like Madonna and Robert De Niro have made their way next door to La Mere Germaine, a cozy restaurant founded in 1938 by a warm-hearted woman who became a sort of adopted mother to World War II Navy seamen. It’s currently run by her Tahitian-born son-in-law, the affable Remy Blouin, who produces a photo of himself with his arm around a smiling Boris Yeltsin, their necks strung with Polynesian shells.
How can I possibly hope to top Villefranche? Only by headed up…and up…to Eze, a 13th century stone village towering 429 meters (1400 feet) above the coast.
I stay at the gracious Chateau d’Eza, the former home of the Prince of Sweden. Voted the most romantic hotel in the world by Conde Nast Traveller, the hotel boasts a one-starred Michelin restaurant where Bono, who owns a home in the town below, proposed to his wife.
I’ve been invited to dine at the neighboring Chevre d’Or, another legendary hotel and restaurant which has hosted a catalog of stars that reads like the Hollywood Walk of Fame: Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Elizabeth Taylor, Leonardo Dicaprio, Robert De Niro (he does get around), Javier Bardem, and Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, who filmed a scene from The Bucket List here. Dinner at the gastronomic restaurant, which features two Michelin-stars, was–not surprisingly–on the men’s list of “things to do before we die.”
As for my own bucket list? I’ve just penciled in a return to the Riviera—and perhaps another spin in “my” trusty Porsche.
IF YOU GO
Getting around: Rent a Classic Car, www.rentaclassiccar.com. Although many classic cars don’t come with airbags—or sometimes even seatbelts–they do provide a thrilling ride.
If you prefer to be chauffeured in a modern vehicle, contact the charming Piero Bruni at Executive Transport Service, www.executive-transport-service.com.
Where to stay:
Cannes: Splendid Hotel, www.splendid-hotel-cannes.com. Classic harbor-front hotel owned by elegant octogenarian Annick Cagnat. Ask her about the lobby chair where President Barack Obama once sat. Rooms from 90 Euro.
Alternatively, consider Le Grand Hotel, www.grand-hotel-cannes.com. Decorated in retro 70s chic, this property features a one-Michelin-starred restaurant and a private beach. Rooms from 190 Euro.
Antibes: Hotel Belles Rives, www.bellesrives.com. With its Art Deco style, links to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and a great bar, this five-star hotel is THE place to stay in Juan les Pins, Antibes. Rooms from 189 Euro.
St. Paul de Vence: La Colombe d’Or, www.la-colombe-dor.com. Hey, if it’s good enough for half of Hollywood, it’s good enough for me. Rooms from 250 Euro.
Nice: The Negresco, www.hotel-negresco-nice.com/en/. Filled with antiques, this is the kind of hotel that makes you stand up a little bit straighter–especially if you’re staying in Suite 516, with its gold-flecked walls, bathtub and bidet. For a meal in an utterly unique setting, book a table at the hotel’s carousel-inspired La Rotonde Brasserie. Rooms from 194 Euro.
Villefranche-sur-Mer: Hotel Welcome, www.welcomehotel.com. Directly across from the Cocteau Chapel on the harbor, this lovely hotel and its staff could not have been more welcoming. Rooms from 135 Euro.
Eze: Chateau d’Eza, www.chateaueza.com/the-hotel.html. 11 unique rooms and suites, many with panoramic views. Visitors have included Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, and Nicole Kidman. Rooms from 270 Euro.
Nor can you go wrong at the Chevre d’Or, www.phoenixhotelcollection.com/chevre-dor. Its 37 rooms and suites—including a Presidential Suite with a private infinity pool–are scattered around the village. From 294 Euro.