Travel editor Neil Sowerby starts his South of France road trip on the Cap d’Antibes, millionaires’ playground and writers’ retreat. His bases were two very different but fabulous Relais & Chateaux lodgings – the Hôtel Impérial Garoupe and the Cap d’Antibes Beach Hotel.
THE covered market in Antibes’ Cours Massena offers a delicious respite from the relentless Cote d’Azur sun. A chance to covet a slice of suckling pig or sample the best olives in the world; to savour a fig or smell the coffee... and perhaps haggle over a blindingly blue Provencal table cloth to take home.
But now the noon bell rings in the church tower beside the Picasso Museum – the equivalent of “past the yardarm” – of which there are plenty down in the oligarch-friendly Port Vauban, Europe’s largest yacht harbour. It’s time for our date with the Green Fairy.
'Lying on the beach to sunbathe was almost unheard of. The Fitzgeralds did that and more, boozing and skinny-dipping as if there were no tomorrow – one an alcoholic, the other mentally disturbed'
Olive oil and wine is for sale in the ground floor shop at No 25 but step down into the cellar and you enter the twilight world of Absinthe, nicknamed "La Fée Verte" (the Green Fairy). You know the back story – banned because it drove Belle Epoque tipplers crazy and sometimes killed them. In fact, it wasn’t so much the drink itself – a high alcohol, distilled pastis-flavoured blend of anise, fennel, wormwood and Dieu knows what – but the impure, toxic versions drunk in vast quantities that wrecked a generation.
We weren’t up for any kind of herbal hallucinogen just before lunch in perhaps my favourite town along the whole French Riviera, but we were buoyed by the knowledge this rediscovered spirit is strictly regulated these days and even kind of cool.
The celebrated Absinthe Bar turned out be a quaint gem dating back to the 1850s, though it also displays a fragment of Roman wall dating back to the 9th century – Antibes is an ancient port. The bar is a living homage to the absinthe preparation ceremony amid a clutter of vintage headgear and spirit-related apparatus/memorabilia/posters.
Staff encourage you to try on the hats as they pour one of the varieties of the drink on offer, anything up to 70 per cent proof. It’s served in the traditional way – your glass will be accompanied by a carved silver spoon with a sugar cube on top. Dilute the anise-flavoured liquor with water from a vintage spigot till it turns milky, and then go for it and explore the far side of mellowness.
We staggered off for lunch in the Rue Auberon at a lovely little, very French, bistro called Le Forge, run by an Englishwoman, Barbara. It’s in the heart of Old Antibes, a good place to shop and wander, but our mission took us beyond there and the dazzling spectacle of Vauban, dominated by Jaume Plensa’s giant latticework sculpture, Nomade, and the Vieux Carre fort.
In La Résidences des Fleurs – Les Cyclamens, an architecturally undistinguished apartment block on the Avenue Pasteur, not far from the TGV Station, lived for almost a quarter of a century (the last three years of his life were spent in Switzerland) that most enigmatic of self-exiled writers, Graham Greene. Today, a simple plaque by the mailboxes reads “Graham Greene vécut ici – 1966-1990”. After an altercation with the taxman in England, this became the base where he could live close to his long-time squeeze, the married Yvonne Cloeta, and from where he conducted a public feud with the corrupt political godfathers of Nice.
After the plaque, le vin. We popped into the harbourside Cafe (formerly Chez) Felix, where Greene lunched most days in the company of Yvonne and her dog, Sandy – a dry martini without lemon before and the local Château des Garcinières to accompany his repas. If he didn’t finish the wine, the owner would leave it in the bottle for him for the next day. His mail was delivered there; the chef’s wife was his cleaner. Routine, routine.
I have a great regard for Greene’s works, but the 20th century novelist I love more than any other is Scott Fitzgerald, whose name is inexorably associated with the Cap d‘Antibes, indeed with the whole creation of the French Riviera as a summer playground for the rich, famous and (in his case) talented. It’s hard to credit that before the Twenties no tourist would contemplate spending summer on the coast.
Ironically, Scott and his wife Zelda, had fled America because they couldn’t afford the Jazz Age lifestyle they had been instrumental in creating. The South of France was cheaper, especially with havens among rich friends, in particular fellow American expats, Gerald and Sara Murphy.
In 1923 the Murphys convinced the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc to stay open for the summer so they could entertain their bohemian friends. Its reward was to become the Hôtel des Etrangers in Tender Is The Night. Previously the well-to-do had fled to the Riviera only for the winter. Lying on the beach to sunbathe was almost unheard of. The Fitzgeralds did that and more, boozing and skinny-dipping as if there were no tomorrow – one an alcoholic, the other mentally disturbed.
Scott came to finish The Great Gatsby, iconic fiction of the Great American Dream filmed again for the fourth time last year, but it is the superior Tender Is The Night, based upon his own fraught marital circumstances, that was born here – in particular around the curved, sandy Garoupe Bay, near to which the Murphys had built a house, the Villa America (still there but in private hands).
Our own base, the Hôtel Impérial Garoupe has its own private beach and cafe on the Bay, reached from the salmon-pink, Andalucian-style hotel via a “secret path” lined with lush Mediterranean foliage. Once a private mansion, the Imperiale, a Relais & Chateaux property, is owned by the debonair Gilbert Irondelle, who returned to his roots after a career managing some of the world’s best hotels. It’s in the blood. His father, Jean Claude, directed that legendary Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc Hotel for 50 years.
The hotel was the retreat for the newly-abdicated Edward XVIII and Mrs Simpson before his time, but Jean Claude was certainly in situ when Richard and Elizabeth Burton conducted their illicit affair (and later honeymooned) there. Today the Eden Roc still hosts Hollywood A-listers, particularly during the Cannes Film Festival. None appeared to be sharing with us the sinuous, stunningly beautiful Cap d’Antibes Coastal Path which clings to the rocky shoreline.
We caught just a glimpse of the Hotel du Cap through the fence from a distance, but enjoyed a stroll through the rose gardens of neighbouring Eilenroc, the Belle Epoque villa that was another of Scott and Zelda’s haunts. There’s an olive grove there, too, and a whole section devoted to plants found in the Antibes area in 1920. It’s a delight.
Also worth a visit for enthusiasts (and free) is Jardin Thuret, a botanical garden above Juan les Pins, dating back to 1857, which features rare plants from the Southern Hemisphere.
Duck in Le PavillonThe garden at the Hôtel Impérial Garoupe is less spectacular but still gorgeous, as are the public areas – from the Orangerie verandah to the fountain-cooled Seville-style breakfast patio; from the lobby and lounge bar guarded by a Giacometti statue to hotel’s restaurant, Le Pavillon, in a separate “cottage” resplendent with Mediterranean artwork. There is a similar sensuous approach in the dinner menu – after kitchen changes, the Impériale is confident a Michelin star is on the way. So am I on the evidence of our meal.
Objets d’art from around the world and carefully chosen antiques set the classic style at this hotel. Our second base, also Relais & Chateaux, the Cap d’Antibes Beach Hotel, could not be more different. It is very much of the moment – launched only in 2009. A calm riot of innovative contemporary design in a perfect sandy cove with views stretching from the Lérins Islands to the Estérel mountains, yet it’s just a 10 minute walk from the fleshpots of Juan les Pins.
It has so much going for it – a private beach in front of a casual dining terrace, Le Cap, a "Summer Beach Wellness" centre at the water's edge and large rooms and suites, many with bay-facing balconies. The sea is the dominating motif – amazing aquarium-themed frescos covert the walls and shiny fabrics recall the iridescent skin of freshly-landed fish (that's what the brochure says!). Rattan furnishings, their colours washed out, add a rope-weaving feel. There are lots of lots of wood, glass and natural minerals and the gardens showcase Mediterranean flora.
All very relaxing. Our minds suitably, cast adrift, we spent a whole afternoon on a lounger, drink in hand, watching the watersports in the small bay (water-skiing and scuba diving were originally developed here; Jacques Cousteau also took the plunge locally).
A huge draw for the hotel is its Michelin-starred restaurant, Les Pêcheurs. The name links to the 2.5 acre site’s glamorous past. By the early 20th century big estates made access to the shoreline all but impossible. Only one little path allowed the curious to discover Cap d’Antibes. It led two two little stone huts where fishermen stored their nets. The Baron, owner of the Cap, allowed the fishermen to stay on in exchange for an annual “bouillabaisse”.
In 1954, Resistance hero Camille Rayon acquired the site, added a jetty and established a fish restaurant, called La Maison des Pêcheurs (House of the Fishermen). It became a celeb haunt, attracting the likes of Brigitte Bardot (right, she arrived by 2CV), Sophia Loren and Cary Grant. And, of course, there were parties and eventually a night club, concert hall and bowling alley before a long period of decline set in from the 80s until the recent 12 million euros investment by the Ferrante family.
Juan-les-Pins, famed for its Jazz Festival every July, is perhaps unfairly saddled with a brash, pulsing image. But an evening promenade along its seafront and under a starlit sky straight out of Van Gogh was a Euro-Disco free delight. The only music came from a klezmer band at an open-air Jewish festivity.
The Fitzgerald trail hots up again en route into town. With Gatsby a huge critical success, Scott, Zelda and family returned to Juan les Pins in 1926 and rented the opulent Villa Saint Louis, on the Boulevard Edouard Baudouin. Legendarily Scott locked a jazz band in a bedroom, forcing them to play for his guests until sunrise. In-between partying, it was there he wrote Tender Is The Night, which didn’t meet with similar acclaim.
Three years afterwards it was transformed by a Russian entrepreneur into the Hotel Belles Rive. Today it’s still in the same Russian family’s hands and with much of the original 1930s furniture and Art Deco interior surviving. We strayed into the Bar Fitzgerald, all polished oak and lemon-wood, for a sly martini and to watch the lights twinkling over distant Cannes.
By the time Tender Is The Night was serialised in 1934, the Fitzgeralds and the Murphys had long since gone. Nothing would ever be the same again, certainly for the tragic Fitzgeralds, who both died in their 40s. As Sara Murphy later said: "It was like a great fair, and everybody was so young."
It’s still a gorgeous little corner of an overcrowded Cote d’Azur. A place of dreams, where sky and sea meet in an intense blue melting pot and you can conjure up your own spirit of hedonism. We did.
Fares from London to both Avignon and Antibes start at £119 standard class return per person. To book, contact Voyages-sncf (formerly Rail Europe) on 0844 848 5 848, visit www.Voyages-sncf.com or call into their Travel Centre at 193 Piccadilly, London W1J 9EU. They are the experts in train ticket distribution, covering over 30 countries across Europe.
To make the breakfast time Eurostar train to Paris rom St Pancras, Neil Sowerby stayed at London Central Euston Travelodge at 1-11 Grafton Place, a two minute walk from Euston Station and a further 10 minutes to St Pancras International Rail Terminal. The Euston, like Manchester Central, is among the Travelodges revamped to include Dreamer Beds and other fresh facilities. Double rooms at Euston start from £78.
As an alternative, many airlines fly into Nice Airport, which is just 10 miles away from the Cap.
Staying on the Cap d’Antibes
Cap d’Antibes Beach Hotel
27 rooms and suites (breakfast inc). Special offers outside summer season: Deluxe rooms, according to season, from 220 euros to 265 euros, Privilege rooms from 380 euros to 430 euros, suites 780 euros. See their website for many specialist packages.
Fish-centric restaurant Le Pecheur holds Michelin star, but Philippe Jego has recently been replaced in the kitchen by Nicolas Navarro. Menus at 78 and 98 euros. The beach and Le Cap are opened from the beginning of April to the end of October.
10 boulevard Maréchal Juin, 06160 Cap d’Antibes. Tel +33 (0)4 92 93 13 30, www.ca-beachhotel.com
Hôtel Imperial Garoupe
35 rooms and suites. Double rooms, according to season, from 325 euros to 780 euros, suites from 515 euros to 1035 euros.
Gourmet restaurant Le Pavillon is worthy of a Michelin star, which it should acheive in 2014 after new chef consolidates. 200m from the hotel, reached by a private path, the beach restaurant Le Pavillon iBeach overlooks Garoupe Bay.
770 Chemin de la Garoupe 06600 Cap d'Antibes. Tel +33 (0)4 92 93 31 61, www.imperial-garoupe.com
Both hotels – 20 minutes from NIce Airport – are among 520 Relais & Châteaux properties, recognising the finest hotels and restaurateurs worldwide. For reservations call Relais & Châteaux: 00 800 2000 00 02 (toll free) or visit www.relaischateaux.com. Alternatively, visit the Maison des Relais & Châteaux at 10 Beauchamp Place, Knightsbridge, London SW3 1NQ, where the English-speaking Relais & Châteaux team will be delighted assist with your holiday plans.
The R&C concept grew from the vacationing traditions of well-heeled French society, who traveled to a variety of "relais" (lodges) and "châteaux" (castles) which, while different in architecture, scenery and cuisine, presented consistently high standards.
Bargain alternative in central Antibes. La Place,1 Avenue du 24 Aout, 06600 Antibes.
Eating and drinklng in town
La Forge, 10 rue Auberon, 06600 Antibes. Tel. +33 (0)4 93 67 17 16,
Absinthe Bar/Museum, 25 Cours Massena, 06600 Antibes.
Where to visit
Antibes Market takes place along the Cours Massena every day, except Monday.
The Picasso Museum up the hill on Place Mariejol is also shut on Monday.
Les Jardins de la Ville Ellenroc, Impasse beaumont Cap d'Antibes 06160.
Jardin Thuret, Villa Thuret, 90, Chemin Raymond, Antibes, France, 06160.
Antibes and Juan-les-Pins tourism information: www.antibes-juanlespins.com
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