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.

THE Côte may jump either of two ways. It may go the way predicted by a real-estate man who told me (around 1980), "In 1990 this coast will be one motel from Nice to Saint-Tropez." He was looking forward to that. Well, it hasn't come true yet, but enough of it has materialized to make local people speak of le mur de beton, "the cement wall," as the great threat to their way of life. In a developers' paradise, and everyone else's hell, there would be no seasons, no peaceful winter days, but an unbroken sequence of "events," from film festivals to bathroom-appliance festivals; little beaches asphalted over into basketball courts (as happened to the beach in Miramar-Théoule, where I used to rent a house); colored lights and jabbering public-address systems; contests for jet skis and other motorized contraptions; and above it all airplanes trailing advertisements. The well-known slaughter of the golden-eggs goose.

What is pushing the place in this direction is political corruption. When I first visited Saint-Tropez, more than thirty years ago, its mayor told me, "We have room for thousands, and nothing will be changed. Our beaches cannot be franchised, subdivided, or built on." We were standing below the Cap du Pinet, on a wide stretch of sand touched by a sea so clear and pure that one hardly knew when one entered it. Ten years ago that same beach was a row of shops and stands, and the high-water line was a wall of debris. The same man, now the ex-mayor, said to me, "Every breach of those ordinances of ours which you see here represents just one buddy-buddy phone call to a senator in Paris."

A more benign future is now looking likelier. The locals no longer smile or shrug about the tricks of the old-pals network. Local politicians have discovered with amazement that they are no longer jailproof: this is the one place in France where environmentalism is getting political clout. The sea has been cleaned up considerably; sloppy, negligent Italy is a handicap. There is now a land-use plan shifting responsibility from distant prefects to local authority, and last January the Minister of the Environment made history (maybe) with a decree declaring the Esterel, west of Cannes, a zone classée, where nothing further can be built. The Esterel meets the sea from Saint-Raphael to Cannes with its famous red hills, les roches rouges, and climbs inland toward the lower Alps. It is a land of olive trees, pines, lavender, heather, myrtle, mimosa, sheep, and shepherds (read Marcel Pagnol). Of course the developers aren't taking the ministerial decree lying down. Three separate groups are filing appeals in the administrative courts. One group wants the borders of the Esterel redrawn; one wants compensation; one wants to kill the decree. But I was told "it will be years" before the courts rule, and in the meantime the decree stands.

TRAVELERS to the Côte right now have to make some thoughtful choices. They can go for the trilingual menus and le fast-food and the hotel with the roof Jacuzzi and piped-in music 24 heures sur 24 heures and the mini-golf, and if that is their pleasure, who's to gainsay them? However, those delights are available closer to home, and more cheaply. Having come all the way, why not go for the "good" Côte?

That Côte is the place of the unique balance, where all your senses are soothed or excited as the case may be -- where you feel a special sense of well-being, not a hedonistic, fat one but a happy and enterprising one. Brougham found it by superimposing his ideas of comfort and luxury on the simplicity of the fishing village. It made him stand out, but he was a big (literally) milordand he was used to standing out. Most of us will be more pleased with not standing out, even at the price of walking around with the Nice-Matin instead of the Herald Tribune. Brougham's specific kind of luxury is still around: not in the latest space-age hotel, where they give you a minibar key to help yourself and a form to hang on your doorknob if you want breakfast in bed, but in the almost Victorian places that have isolated and insulated themselves, for instance on the tips of the peninsulas sticking out from the coast.

I'm thinking of the Cap d'Antibes and Cap-Ferrat. On the first you have the Hôtel du Cap, which has a restaurant, the Eden Roc, sitting on a rock at the shore like a castle ready for a siege. Cap-Ferrat has the Voile d'Or (among others), which some think the best small hotel on the Côte -- and that would be about the same as the best in the world. The Hôtel du Cap defends itself against the madding crowd and against the passage of time by sitting on land's end, and by being very expensive indeed. The same goes for the other hotels in which you can live as if you were a contemporary of Guy de Maupassant or Pierre Bonnard. But lunch at the Eden Roc beside one of those huge windows with the Mediterranean all around you just might be worth a week of pizza or beans on toast afterward. It is more than food and wine and the sea; it is the soothing of a sort of painful nostalgia, nostalgia for a world we know only from hearsay.

The photographer Jacques-Henri Lartigue took a picture of his wife, Bibi, under a very large hat, lunching in the Eden Roc on a summer's day in 1920. It became a famous photograph, and has been made into a postcard. One could just buy the postcard and save a lot of money ($150 or so a person), but seeing the picture makes it hard to resist going there, with or without hat. On the other hand, just buying the picture postcard may leave some illusions intact. (René Burri, another well-known photographer, had lunch there recently, and he told me the place that day was full of loud-voiced wheeler-dealers. But then, Lord Brougham's friends must also have had their off days.)

Luckily, there is more to the "good" Côte than luxury. There is, more important by far, simplicity. I realize that simplicity, like silence, is often a luxury too these days, but there is still simplicity to be found -- not the kind bought at a high price by isolation but a natural and unselfconscious one.

In the old town of Nice, in the old port quarter of Cannes, you'll find bars and cafés that are too shabby for the tourist trade but perfectly respectable in their own right. When you come in, all conversation stops for a moment, but if you order a tomate (that's pastis with a bit of syrup -- delicious) and maybe unfold your Nice-Matin, all's well. You can sit for two hours with your tomate and perhaps ponder the different ways of one country and another -- the unaggressive, leave-you-alone but cheery, belonging mood (I put it that way to avoid the word "ambiance") of a southern-French bar at its best, all that with a dash of sensuality mixed in, not sexual but of all the senses, even in the taste of the six-franc pastis. Cannes has a little restaurant where I started going because it had no phone; that was sort of a joke reason, but it turned out to be very nice, not because they had no phone but because they didn't seem to need one.

Up in the hills you find inns built not with aluminum and plastic but with stones from the fields and, a sure sign in my book of authentic simplicity, without steps, squatting in the field or garden. A traditional house or farm here merges the inside and the outside, it's all on one level, and when you step out the door (a French door, naturally), you don't go down any steps or stoops, you're on the earth, and if it is an inn we're talking about, they'll bring you your food and drink outside under a tree, so long as it isn't raining. If you're lucky, the view will be from five miles on up to infinity.

Drive up a departmental road (marked D plus a number) climbing from Nice or Menton north toward the Italian border, or setting out from Cannes or Saint-Raphael toward Draguignan and beyond. Even simpler, take a train. They're still running here, from Nice to Tende, at 2,500 feet, with many stops, and on to Limone, in Italy -- or from Nice northwest toward Digne-les-Bains, which is no longer the Côte but is a nice little town with a marvelous hotel (le Grand Paris). Those trains cross wild landscapes and stop at villages hard to reach by car. You can get off and stay over anywhere for a drink, or a day, or a month.

Simplest, you can walk. You may wander, or follow the little color-coded signs that mark the "official" major hikes, which are called randonnées pédestres. "Official" means only that every so often there'll be a color mark on a tree; it assuredly does not mean benches, toilets, or other intrusions. Some of the footpaths go through such fierce country that you are warned off if you're not an experienced climber.

When you have done or at least considered any or all of this, you may want to put in some basic Côte time. My recipe for that would be: In the morning I'd walk with my towel down the street from my little hotel (but with clean toilets) in, say, the old port of Cannes. I'd have a café express and then install myself on the public beach as close as possible to the sea's edge, with my books and papers (Cannes has an excellent public library). I'd read and watch the people, who are somehow more pleasant and photogenic here than on the hotel beaches. For lunch I'd buy a pan bagnat at a kiosk. That is a kind of salade niçoise on a large roll.

The money saved would go toward a drink later on the terrace of the Carlton, where they bring you a plate of Provençal olives with your drink, and where you can sit and watch the sun set in the darkening sea and look down, in both senses of the expression, on the tourists streaming by. What comes later in the evening you have to plan yourself, but you'd have a perfect foundation.

The Atlantic Monthly; December 1996; On France's Blessed South Coast; Volume 278, No. 6; pages 44-48.