A tale of two rivieras

Back in 2011, we set out glamorously from Provence to a midway perch at the charming hillside Templar town of Les Arcs sur Argens, home to a campervan-friendly cooperative of rose wine makers, Cellier des Archers.

Established by the Knights, its clutch of stone village houses and church are now renovated and bijou hotels, hostelries and holiday lets. It seemed almost every property was either being worked on or had an invitation to buy, rent or stay for the night.

It was a lovely way to spend a hot afternoon in the French sunshine before sampling the Côtes de Provence wine from our host at the aire.


Driving south to the Mediterranean shores we glimpsed the Cote d’Azur from high above Cannes before dropping down onto the coastal route around the French Riviera at Antibes.

In the pleasing Old Town, sheltered from the hot sun in the narrow winding streets of boutiques and brasseries, it was sleepy and empty of party goers and high-end luxury shoppers.


We emerged out of a covered flower market and onto the windy and walled sea defences. Families and couples squashed onto the tiny patch of hot sand at the Plage Publique whilst the jet-set thundered past on jet skis, and Russians rowed noisily with each other onboard designer yachts.

The modern town, like many along the Riviera, has sprawled rather unbecomingly along the coast and inland. We strolled for a long while to find the perfect vantage point for a photograph to sum up this coastal city. We came to the conclusion that the best view is from the sea and our £35 daily budget wouldn’t even proffer a pedalo here. Onwards!

Around the corner at Nice, the atmosphere was more genteel and we enjoyed exploring the large squares of Belle Epoque mansions, the two busy marinas, the original Roman settlement and olive groves.

The Côte d’Azur has captured many a visitor with the beauty of its light. Not least Matisse, Chagall, Picasso and Renoir, who all fell in love with the city.

Chagall’s Noah’s Ark

We had a choice of three excellent art museums to visit and opted for Musée Marc Chagall, a wonderful exhibition hall filled with large and dream-like paintings by Gordes-based Chagall. The building was constructed during Chagall’s lifetime and was originally built to house a large proportion of his own collection.

After a hike up to Castle Hill via a very steep stone path, we had a late afternoon stroll through the flower and spice markets to join the well-dressed throngs along the iconic Promenade des Anglais.

Promenade des Anglais

For any lover of French and Italian culture, Nice would appear to be the perfect hybrid. Long affiliated with Piedmont and Liguria to the east, Savoy to the north and Sardinia to the south, the city only joined France in 1860 and has always kept one foot in Italy.

Driving past Monaco (it’s not every day you can say that) we left the well-heeled and well-groomed French Riviera to arrive in the dusty and somewhat ramshackle Italian version at San Remo.

San Remo aire

Touring on the road is interesting particularly as you get to see the side of places that are not in the tourist brochures. Lots of the places we stayed were by their very nature on the edges of town, or away from the must-see sights.

Our impressions were that away from the postcard images even the larger towns had an edgy and unkempt feel to them.

A few miles along the coast

There was a special charm to the not-quite-in-season coastal towns, and the glamorous sounding but rather decrepit looking Italian Riviera resorts.

Often a lane or two behind a buzzing centre was a maze of narrow dirty alleyways hung with washing lines, electrical and telephone wires, and home to sleeping cats on clapped out balconies.

High above the glistening casino and coloured tiled dome of the Russian cupola-topped church at San Remo we got lost in the maze of winding streets of La Pigla.

San Remo’s La Pigla rooftops

Down at heel and evidently poor it boasted the best street food we’d eaten yet from a wood-fired pizza oven. We sat on a bench in a square surrounded by ramshackle apartments and busy with families picnicking and watching tiny children play at the feet of elderly, and black-clad, grandparents and great grandparents.

La Pigla sat at odds with the exclusive marina below which bristled with the masts and satellite receivers of multi-million-pound yachts.

Waterside free parking at Finale Ligura

Bertha our van did us proud. She negotiated hair pin bends swinging high above the Mediterranean as well as holding her own in pushy town centre and ill-disciplined Italian traffic.

Our sat-nav ‘Doris’ proved mischievous and sent us down tricky narrow streets, at least one of which was one way, and on more than one occasion tried to get us to ‘turn right’ over a rocky precipice to plunge into the sparkling azure sea below. She found herself in the glove compartment in shame.

The famed Riviera beaches were all rocky coves, manicured sands, pay-for-sunbeds-and-parasols and surprisingly quiet.

All alone for the first dip of the trip

White teethed and immaculately dressed lifeguards posed as they patrolled the shores and beach restaurants filled the salty air with aromas of garlic breads and cooked seafood.

A favourite stop was pretty Noli. This mediaeval fishing and trading port retains its defensive walls and 11th century castle, now a romantic ruin and part of a walled complex that once boasted more than 30 stone towers.

Pretty Noli

Its inner centre was packed with locals enjoying the early evening heat under the, really rather unnecessary, light of decorative iron lamps. Chatter and cigarette smoke filled the air which reached 35 degrees according to our own barometer, back at Bertha.

We wondered when would ‘the season’ would start, and the locals would doff their well-worn Italian leather jackets?

Riviera i Ponente