La Cote d'Azur France - A Sunny Place for Shady People

 Harley Street house                                              Port of Dover                               

We set off on our honeymoon from our house in Harley Street in Marylebone, London on Saturday September 13th, 1980. We crossed  the English Channel by car ferry and rolled gently along towards Venice, Italy, our ultimate destination, in our new Volvo, while playing music suitably romantic for honeymooners. We listened mostly to Anne Murray, a Canadian singer very popular at the time. 

We spent the first night on the continent in Brussels, Belgium at a hotel, the name of which we've forgotten, that overlooked the European Parliament. Although Belgium is beautiful, we had no time for sightseeing and pushed on the next morning to Baden Baden, Germany.  

Hotel Haus Reichert in Baden Baden, Germany

Thanks to the amazing highway system in Germany, where speeding along at 80 miles per hour is your only option if you want to survive, we made it to Baden Baden by dinner time. Not having booked ahead, we were fortunate to find a lovely place in the heart of town, the Hotel Haus Reichart. This quaint family owned establishment was the perfect place for us. The room was cozy and comfortable and the staff were friendly and very helpful in guiding us to the best nearby restaurant. Click here to read Bob's story about our return visit to Baden Baden thirty years later. 

The next day we set off for one of Bob's favorite places, a ski resort town in Saalbach, Austria. He had many fond memories of going there in his twenties with his skiing buddies and couldn't wait for me to see it. Again, thanks to the super highway system, we made it to the Hotel Saalbacher Hof in time for dinner. 

Hotel Saalbacher Hof Saalbach, Austria

The hotel offered a fun and entertaining meal which was highlighted by music and men in costume schuplattling. It is a type of Austrian folk dancing where the performers stomp, clap and strike the soles of their shoes (Schuhe), thighs and knees with their hands held flat (platt). 

They picked Bob out from the crowd and tried to teach him how to do it. It was the funniest thing I had ever seen Bob do, especially since he had several beers with dinner, which helped to instill in him a false sense of confidence as a novice schuplattler. He gave it his best shot and the guys were all very nice to him. The crowd even gave him a round of applause for his efforts. After dinner and all the dancing, we made our way to the indoor spa and hot tub so Bob could rest his weary bones and get ready for trekking into the mountains the next day.

The town of Saalbach sits in the shadow of the Gross Glochner, the highest mountain in Austria and the highest in the Alps east of the Brenner Pass. Like most ski resort towns, the ski lift runs all year long, taking people up into the mountains with well marked walking trails leading down. We were not really prepared for hiking in the mountains and didn't have the proper gear, but we went anyway. 

Gross Glochner

Looking back on it, we must have looked quite out of place, with Pat in her chic French pantsuit and Bob wearing his favorite shirt and trousers. Making our way down the mountain, we were frequently winded and out of breath, taking frequent rests at many of the benches along the way. Perhaps the most vivid memory was watching all the senior citizens in their lederhosen, passing us by, like cars in the fast lane speeding past the slower cars. They were obviously in better physical condition than us. At that time, Pat was 30 and Bob was 43 and we certainly couldn't keep up with those spry people in their 70's and 80's.

Hotel Londra Palace

After spending two nights in Saalbach, we drove over the Alps and down onto the plains of northern Italy. We arrived in Venice at the Hotel Londra at 4:00pm, exactly as planned. We set out immediately to inspect the famous old city, travelling its canals being serenaded by singing gondoliers. Walking in St Marks Square, we admired The Doge's Palace and quenched our thirst in Harry's Bar. Yet we hated Venice. Grand as its buildings undoubtedly were, the place was crowded with too many tourists and very overpriced. Even the water in the canals looked dirty; not very romantic at all and certainly no place to spend one's honeymoon. Our solution to the problem was quickly to leave Venice and to drive all the way across northern Italy from east to west, finally arriving at the little Italian frontier town of Ventimiglia on the French border. 

Trailer for the film "The Day of the Jackal"

The town looked familiar because I had seen it depicted in "The Day of the Jackal", a recently released film based on the novel of the same name by Frederick Forsyth, one of my favorite authors. It was the border point through which the Jackal smuggled into France the weapon with which he intended to assassinate President De Gaulle. Unarmed as we were, we passed smoothly through the border point and into France. We were finally on La Cote d'Azur.

We never planned to visit La Cote d'Azur during our honeymoon, as our original plan was to spend least 5 days in Venice, Italy. The picturesque French coast is little more than 125 miles in length. It's beautiful and offers magnificent beaches, a deep blue sea, and plenty of sun. Many of the rich and famous already live there or visit frequently. Located in the southeastern corner of France, it's known by the locals as La Cote d'Azur, in recognition of the azure color of the adjacent Mediterranean Sea. The English call it either the French Riviera or simply the South of France. It was always included in the Grand Tour of Europe, undertaken by every young English aristocrat in the 19th century. 

Beginning at French/Italian border, we drove westward into France, along fine boulevards with the sea on our left and some of the world's finest hotels and restaurants on the right. Drivers should guard against the distraction provided by the spectacle of many topless lady windsurfers and water skiers.

Carlton Hotel in Cannes

During the rest of our honeymoon, we based ourselves at the Carlton Hotel in the town of Cannes, world famous on account of its annual film festival. The hotel faces the sea and guests can simply walk across a boulevard to access its private beach and be served all day there by its well groomed waiters.  Many years later, in 2013, the Carlton was the scene of the world's largest jewel heist. The lone robber, who was never caught, escaped with jewels worth $136 million.  

We hired a boat with a driver to take Pat water skiing. However, it had been 17 years since she last skied and she had difficulty getting up on the skis. Once that was finally accomplished, the driver of the boat kept shouting at her to "bend zee knees". Needless to say, the next day Pat was sore all over from her exertions but she had a great time skiing in the Mediterranean. 

Mixed flowers in the field in Grasse

Up in the hills, only ten miles behind Cannes, lies the town of Grasse, known as the center of the French perfume industry. As we drove through the hills with our car windows down, the scent of an immense variety of fragrances permeated the air derived from the many locally grown flowers. It was a truly remarkable experience.

Comte de Grasse
This area also produced the legendary Comte de Grasse. He was the French admiral who greatly aided George Washington in his victory over the British at Yorktown in 1781, which ended the American Revolutionary War. You can read more about this on our website under the title "Cape Henry, Virginia - The Battle of the Capes".

St. Tropez
Although Cannes was our base, there were many other places for us to visit on La Cote d'Azur, which ends in the west near the fishing village of St Tropez, hometown of Brigitte Bardot. 

Brigitte Bardot

In the 1950s, Bardot starred in a series of films which made her an international superstar. St Tropez used the publicity to promote the area, turning it into a fashionable tourist resort. Bardot has lived her whole life in St Tropez and is now in her mid-eighties. Meanwhile, St Tropez has recently shown its gratitude by erecting a statue of her. 

Hotel Negresco in Nice

Of all the other places we visited on La Cote d'Azur, by far the largest was the city of Nice.  Conspicuous on its seafront is the luxurious Hotel Negresco, whose great chandelier was originally intended for the Czar of Russia. Alas the Czar came to a sticky end in the 1917 Russian revolution and he was unable to take delivery of his chandelier, which has therefore spent the last century hanging in the Negresco. The famous hotel was also featured in the movie The Day of the Jackal.

Czar of Russia Chandelier in Hotel Negresco

La Cote d'Azur is home to another country as well as France. Apart from the Vatican, it's the smallest country in the world with less than one square mile of land area and only a couple of miles of coastline. It lies between Cannes and the Italian border and is the Principality of Monaco, the capital of which is the town of Monte Carlo. 

Grimaldi Royal Palace in Monaco

The Royal palace of Monaco, perched high on a rocky promontory, began life as a fortress in 1191 to combat piracy. Granted the land by German Emperor Frederick I, Monaco has been ruled by the Grimaldi family since 1297. They were one of the aristocratic families of Genoa who were originally traders and suppliers of money, ships and soldiers to many European monarchies.   

Over the centuries, the Grimaldis have fought several wars to keep their land and sovereignty. In 1793, on the heals of the French Revolution, the Grimaldi royal family was driven from their home and the palace fell into disrepair, at one time being designated as a Poorhouse. 

In May of 1814, under the protection of France, the Grimaldi royal family once again ruled Monaco. Renowned as collectors of all things beautiful, which included 700 works of art by Old Masters such as Raphael, Titian, Michelangelo and others, they continued their centuries old tradition to fill the palace walls and galleries with all things beautiful. 

Monte Carlo Casino

In 1854, a plan was hatched to generate income and save the royal family from bankruptcy. Princess Caroline, the brilliant business-minded spouse of Prince Florestan, came up with the idea of creating a casino and turning the area into a highly desirable destination for the wealthy elites of Europe to spend their money. Under Princess Caroline's direction, the Monte Carlo Casino was created. Original investors included the Bishop of Monaco and the future Pope Leo XIII. With the Church's money and blessing, Monaco became the glamourous destination of the rich and famous. 

In the 1890s, a song very popular in London music halls (vaudeville theaters) was "The man who broke the Bank at Monte Carlo." The song was inspired by the success of a British gambler who won too much money at this casino. A film of the same name, which depicted the story of how he did it, was released in the 1930s. 

We did not enter the casino and try to emulate the formidable gambler. Instead, we dined in a restaurant atop a building that overlooked the harbor, with a bird's eye view of all the pricey yachts moored there. As we strolled along the harbor, we spotted a US Navy ship, the USS Discovery. It was a public relations type of vessel used to promote goodwill for the USA around the world. At the time, Pat was on active duty in the US Navy, and we stopped to see the ship. Sadly, it was getting late we didn't get to go onboard, but it was fun to see the ship up close and to chat briefly with some of the crew. 

In 1956, Prince Rainier III married the stunning American actress Grace Kelly. The fairytale wedding drew thousands of tourists to the tiny principality. Tourism is still a mainstay of the economy. Sadly, Princess Grace died in a road accident in September 1982 while being driven in a car by her daughter Stephanie. Prince Rainier III was still head of state at the time of our visit. He died in 2005 and was succeeded by his son, Albert II.

For most of his life, the great author Somerset Maugham lived on La Cote d'Azur. He called Monte Carlo "a sunny place for shady people". That's because so many of its very wealthy residents are there simply to avoid taxes in their own countries. There is no income tax in Monaco and low business taxes.

We arrived on La Cote d'Azur by accident and have never returned. Yet the memorable part that it played on our honeymoon is something that we have remembered all our lives.