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The south of France will charm and dazzle you through the intensity of its light, its landscapes nestling between sea and mountain and its hilltop villages, perched on the very rocks. From Marseille, “the gateway to the East”, to Nice, with a stopover in Cannes, the Mediterranean unveils its greatest finery through a rich cultural heritage and natural landscapes coloured with a thousand fragrances.
Marseille, at the heart of the Provence of authors and perfumes, was founded by Greeks around 600 BC. Also known as the Phocean City, it is a melting pot of all Mediterranean civilisations and its original identity gives one the feeling of being both in a French town and an exotic city.
Strolling through “Old Marseille”, one discovers the hidden beauty of this city of a thousand faces, a blend of working class and sophistication and a hodgepodge holding countless treasures. As you wander through the narrow streets of Le Panier, a working-class neighbourhood with high houses squeezed together, you will be absorbed into the turmoil of the city’s oldest district. By the Old-Harbour, pleasure boats have replaced long ago the traditional fishing boats. One can still sense the influence of Italian art when observing the baroque Chapel of La Vieille Charité and its remarkable proportions. Since 1853, at the top of Notre Dame de la Garde ’s rocky peak, stands the basilica that shares its name and whose silhouette defines the city’s image. Extending from there, the Canebière, the famous avenue featuring splendid 18th and 19th-century facades, has reclaimed all of its splendour and its role as a promenade. For the past two-thousand years, Marseille has been reinventing itself daily. It has become a modern city, witness its southern districts and avenue du Prado. Villa Massalia Concorde Marseille nestles in the heart of a chic neighbourhood, alongside Parc Borély and steps away from magnificent sandy beaches.
One cannot talk about Marseille without mentioning its shoreline: The Frioul Islands and the Château d’If facing the Old-Harbour, and the Calanques region, a true heaven on earth.
As you leave Provence heading east, you will cross the Massif des Maures and the forest roads of the Esterel before reaching the mythical French Riviera, a symbol of luxury and Mediterranean tradition. With its architecture stamped with Belle-Epoque tourism and luxury seafronts, the French Riviera enjoys a micro-climate whose mild winters caused it to attract wealthy foreigners as early as the mid-18th century.
An Italian city until 1860,Nice, the bright southern belle, may sometimes be as exuberant as its Carnival, or simply as soft and restful as its climate would imply. On the seafront, the mythical Promenade des Anglais used to be a genuine outdoors salon, the meeting place for the upper class, the place where one just had to be seen during parties and events. Nowadays it is a splendid avenue running along the beach and showing a succession of luxury establishments such as Hotel Palais de la Méditerranée with its sumptuous, fully restored Art Deco façade. Its Mediterranean character reveals itself in the backstreets of Old Nice and from sunrise on, the hustle and bustle around Cours Saleya Market starts up, amidst the many cafés, restaurants and shops that make up the heart of the city. This modern, active city has attracted many artists, including Henri Matisse who bequeathed his abundant collection to a museum bearing his name, the Matisse Museum located oCimiez Hill. This panoramic viewpoint overlooking the city is the setting for villas and luxury mansions from the Belle Epoque, treasures all nestling within the greenery that are yours to discover as you wander around.
Heading west along the Mediterranean’s turquoise water, the road leads to
·········Cannes, the Riviera’s other pearl. Enclosed by the Lérins Islands, the Esterel and the Alpine foothills, the bay of Cannes still shelters the small fishing port that greeted Lord Brougham in 1834, an Englishman who gave it its reputation. On the Boulevard de la Croisette, Hotel Martinez, inaugurated in 1929, displays its imposing style and the architectural beauty of its façade. In a similar vein, the International Film Festival attracts every May the greatest movie celebrities. All year long, it is a joy to wander through Forville Market, the place to find all the tastes and scents of regional produce. As for dawdling through the old town, overlooking the harbour, there is no better way to rediscover Cannes’ real Provencal style, with its backstreets, its small squares and its restaurants.
Many artists have contributed in building the fame of those hilltop villages from the backcountry which have become much sought-after holiday locales.