On France's Blessed South Coast

The Côte d'Azur maintains a delightful, if delicate, balance between people and nature -- but it's an uphill struggle.

THE Côte d'Azur may well be the most famous resort area in the world; here the modern concept of resort was invented. The Côte d'Azur is at a crossroads now, and its future is uncertain. In ten or twenty years it may be unrecognizable.

The Côte, as they call it locally, the sky-blue southern shore of France from Bandol, east of Marseille, to Menton, on the Italian border, was put on the mental map of the "happy few" by Henry, Lord Brougham. Brougham (who also invented the carriage of that name) spent a winter month in the fishing village of Cannes, where he was stuck when Provence was quarantined because of a cholera epidemic. The year was 1834. For the next thirty-four years of his life (he died at the age of ninety, in 1868) he wintered in Cannes and lobbied the British aristocracy to follow his example. They did so in droves, and soon the rich and famous of other countries copied them; in 1898 the most luxurious train ever seen, the Petersburg-Cannes Express, inaugurated direct service between those two cities for the princes and counts of Russia. These became especially known for losing their fortunes in the Monte Carlo casino and being sent home (on lesser trains) with free tickets. The casino passed the tickets out rather than have suicides in the gardens on their hands.
Many of those princes and so on came back to the Côte after the Russian Revolution to work as croupiers, taxi drivers, and waiters. The town of Nice still has the largest Russian Orthodox church outside Russia. And it so happens that for the past three or four years a third levy of Russians has been making an appearance. They are the new free-market entrepreneurs, and their reputation is none too savory; they are mostly, an editor of the Nice-Matin told me recently, engaged in "le trafic" -- a phrase that may mean anything from pushing drugs to selling dubious real estate. (The Nice-Matin, with its sky-blue front-page title, is the paper of record for the Côte.) But since they arrive with large bundles of cash, and that in dollars, not rubles, hotel managers find it in their hearts to smile upon them. And by a whim of fate it is descendants of the impoverished ex- or pseudo-princes and counts who are now working for the trafiquants as interpreters and guides.

THE first time I laid eyes on the Côte, in the early postwar years, I felt it was clearly the most blessed place on earth. I got there by driving down the then-famous Route Nationale N7 in a war-surplus jeep. The last hours went by in the hot, scented air of the hills of Provence amid a deafening chorus of tree cicadas, and suddenly -- boom -- the horizon opened to the Mediterranean, blinding like a mirror in the sun, transparent green and in the far distance turning to that deep blue that Homer called wine-dark. That was near Saint-Raphael. There was not much there then but rock, sand, and pines. Now marinas, apartment houses, and a jumble of other structures have sprouted, but the shock of first seeing that amazing sea, even from a busy autoroute, is undiminished.

The point is, never since its Brougham days was the Côte a place of unspoiled nature. It wasn't supposed to be. It was a place of unique balance, an immensely successful combination of nature and civilization. Today it still largely is. But, again, that may not last.

Nature and the works of man fuse here. Twenty minutes from the suntan oil and deck chairs, roulette tables, art galleries, bookshops, bars with English names, little restaurants where unshaven men cook marvelous food, and famous museums rise the pinewoods and shrub-covered mountainsides that show little proof of a human presence. In the cozy heart of old Nice the road signs point up climbing streets toward the wild world of alpine routes; of the Moyenne Corniche and Grande Corniche, the latter laid out by Napoleon; and of the dark mountain gorges of whitewater streams emptying into the river Var.

Different from what you would find at our various "international resorts," the Côte retains a feeling of region, of what the French call pays, which is not one's country but the spot a man or woman identifies with. Here are still ways of living, of building, colors, scents, flowers, that have nothing to do with the chain hotel or the car rental. It is the birthplace of the very old Languedoc-Provençal culture, of the first knightly erotic poetry (Le Roman de la Rose), and of mystical Christian "heresies" exterminated by know-nothing redneck dukes from the north and center of France. An awareness of this past remains, and Provençal is not a dead language. Every other farm has a name that keeps it going.

A thousand years later the Côte's grand hotels and festival palaces may be less than harmonious with their surroundings and with one another. Nonetheless, modern humankind, tourists and all, doesn't look like the invasion it seems to be on the coasts of Spain or in the Caribbean. The climate itself, that most perfect of all climates, is never overwhelming. It is friendly and does not invite one to seek shelter behind blind walls, as in Spain or North Africa. A friend of mine calls it the "no-weather." It makes one feel happy in one's skin. The very bugs and bees seem to accept this harmony and the only creature ever to sting me on the Côte was a jellyfish during a night swim.

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