How to Perfectly Explore the Côte d’Azur

From traversing the mountaintop towns to relaxing on the breathtaking beaches along the Mediterranean Sea, there really is no wrong way to capture the beauty that is the Côte d’Azur. But it is possible to expertly mix the two — along with a serious side of art and culture — for the perfect stay on the southeast coast of France. That is exactly what my husband (then fiancé) and I did on our early September 2015 pre-wedding journey.

Yes, you read that correctly. It wasn’t exactly planned as a pre-wedding honeymoon, as we booked this getaway months before I even knew we’d be engaged and planning a wedding in four months (I really wanted that fall wedding). But it worked out to be just that. [Side note: As long as you are well-organized and have amazing parents who will stuff your invitations making sure each stamp is aligned perfectly in the corner of each envelope, I highly recommend an “engagement moon” of sorts to relax and recharge and escape the gazillion to-do lists if only a few hours at a time. And I say only a few hours because email, of course, still works abroad.]

So the timing was indeed a bonus, and a possible return to the region in the somewhat near future has me reminiscing about the details that made this vacation absolutely magical. [Disclaimer: Hopefully not much has changed in almost three years.]

Where to Make Home Base: Menton

In mapping out our travels, we nixed certain Hollywood hotspots, such as Saint-Tropez and Cannes, and opted to drive roughly three and a half hours southeast from Milan (where we later ended our vacation) to Menton, which sits between the sea and the Maritime Alps on the French-Italian border. We had read that this laidback seaside town is a favorite of French retirees, but we certainly found it more storied and culturally-rich than a sort of Parisian Palm Beach. It extends from the seaside Promenade du Soleil …

Menton promenade sunset
Menton Promenade

…. into the colorful, winding streets of the village and beyond.

Menton street
The streets in the old town lead to the Basilica Saint Michel (peeping through in the distance).

Menton is famous for both its lemons (yes, lemons) and its gardens — so combining the two results in the perfect early morning treat. We began our first full day of vacation by scouting out a quiet garden to enjoy a delicious lemon tart and other delectable pastries from Au Baiser du Mitron, a boulangerie in town.

Menton garden

Au Baiser du Mitron paper

In a Menton garden
This is what waking up in Menton looks like.

While the scenery and awe-inspiring day trips (more on those to follow) took precedence over food, we enjoyed quite a few lovely meals during our stay. We ended up eating most of our dinners in Menton during our six nights in the region, with both our first and last nights at Brasserie du Cap, which seemed to be a local favorite. There, we sat outside both times, leisurely enjoying the Mediterranean breeze, friendly service, wine, and classic dishes, such as plates with pistou (think pesto without pine nuts) and caprese salad. We also ate at Le Galion, a restaurant on a port close to the border that definitely draws both French and Italian locals and flavors. (We thanked our hotel — scroll down for those details — for the recommendation after a delicious mixed grill plate of seafood and a starter of spaghetti alla chittara.)

Of course, we made sure to make a reservation at Mirazur — chef Mauro Colagreco’s two Michelin-starred restaurant that overlooks the Mediterranean to deliver panoramic views of the sunset (if timed accordingly). We opted for a bottle of Syrah (although the sommelier also graciously poured us some dessert wine and tastes) and a six-course tasting menu that included homemade bread with lemon-infused olive oil, a tomato salad fresh from the garden, and a fig granita palette cleanser. The experience overall was superb.

Outside Mirazur

Menton is also home to the modern Musée Jean Cocteau, which showcases the work of the French avant-garde painter, filmmaker, poet, and playwright who had ties to the city. The modern museum and the accompanying Musée du Bastion (below) were a perfect reprieve from a brief afternoon drizzle.

Musée du Bastion (Cocteau)

Walking from the city center east along the coastal promenade brings you to Hotel Napoleon, the comfortable beachfront (well, across the street from the beach) spot we called home during our stay. Decorated in characteristic Mediterranean blues and whites and with art such as that of Cocteau, this boutique hotel offered all the amenities, including a parking lot off the main strip, that we wanted during our stay. It was the perfect hub for our Côte d’Azur adventures.

HotelNapoleon

View from Hotel Napoleon
Our mountain-facing view …

Where to Explore: Gorbio and Sainte-Agnès

As for adventure, we decided to drive straight up a mountain (seriously, straight up a mountain that my husband would successfully climb on a bike a few days later) to Gorbio, a populated medieval village brimming with a sense of serene that will erase any trepidations you might have had getting there.

Entering Gorbio

In the town square, which was bustling with the sounds of school children playing and locals greeting neighbors, sits Le Beauséjour, a traditional family-run restaurant. We sat outside (although the vintage decor inside was just as charming as the patio) and enjoyed a delicious three-course lunch that began with fried zucchini blossoms, cured meats, and fresh figs and was served by the owner himself (who indulged us with grappa and limoncello after our meal). Both relaxing and filling, we were well-fueled for the rest of our day.

Restaurant BeauSejour

Beyond the town square there is beauty both within the quiet maze-like stone streets and arched passageways dotted with flowers and art …

Gorbio arch and passageway
Gorbio street

… and beyond, as the town boasts spectacular, picturesque views of the surrounding mountains.

View from Gorbio

Although we could have lost ourselves in the untouched appeal of Gorbio (country cottage, anyone?), we made sure to leave plenty of time to visit Sainte-Agnès — a nearby mountaintop village thought to be the highest coastal town in Europe. There, unlike in Gorbio, we found more tourists than locals taking in this view …

View from Sainte-Agnes
That is the sky and sea intertwining in the distance.
French flag Sainte-Agnes
Vive la France!
Sainte-Agnes cobblestone street
More tranquil cobblestone streets …

Where to Take a Day Trip (or Two): Nice

It is easy to see why Nice (which is a roughly 45-minute drive west of Menton) has served as artistic inspiration for so many modern artists … including one of my favorites, Henri Matisse. We visited Musée Matisse on the way into the city, as it is quite a walking distance from the Old Town (Vieille Ville) and the port (where we parked). The museum, which is surrounded by gardens, not only houses a collection of Matisse’s work (including, at that time, many of his famed cut-outs) and personal effects, but it captures the draw of the city and the Côte d’Azur — the sun, the sea, the colors, the character.

Musee MatisseMusee Matisse outside

After parking near the port, we stopped at Café de Turin in Place Giribaldi, where we split a massive tower of seafood that my husband seemingly conquered in seconds — a perfect introduction to the city by the sea. We would later visit Fenocchio Ice-Cream Parlour (twice!) for, hands down, the best scoop (or two) of pistachio I’ve had in my life.

We spent most of our day in the old town, exploring the shops, immersing ourselves in the culture (which, being so close to Italy, harbors a lot of Italian influence), and smelling the regional Provençal scent of lavender wafting from the soap stores.

Old City of Nice

Nice alleyway
Even the alleyways with errant trash, are good alleyways for a photo.
Nice beach
Nice’s iconic shoreline from the Promenade des Anglais …

We returned to Nice the next day so my husband could join a bike ride from Café du Cycliste and climb the famed Col de la Madone. (FYI, New Yorkers, iced coffee isn’t really a thing in France, but ask for un café glacé … with just ice, coffee, and a little milk … and you are set.) Meanwhile, I ventured into the new town, and eventually ended up in the green residential area of Cimiez (where Musée Matisse is located) to visit Nice’s Marc Chagall Museum — which displays, among his other art, some of his beautiful stained glass works and biblical paintings. On my way back to the old town, I stopped by the Musée d’art moderne et d’art contemporain (MAMAC) of Nice, showcasing artists such as Niki de Saint Phalle and Yves Klein — a must-see museum for fans of modern, contemporary, and avant-garde painting, sculpture, and installation.

Nice garden
Nice is indeed quite nice.
Nice homes
Will walk for art …

Where to Relax: Paloma Beach and Eden Plage Mala

Of course, no getaway to the French Riviera would be complete without a day or two lounging by the pristine beaches of the Mediterranean. We visited Paloma Beach in Sant-Jean-Cap-Ferrat (just a half hour drive from Nice) and Eden Plage Mala in Cap d’ail (a half hour car ride from Menton, to the west of Monaco) right at the end of the summer season. The beaches (and their accompanying restaurants) were still filled with locals and seemingly repeat European and British vacation-goers, but we managed to scoop up (aka. rent) daybeds or lounge chairs and an umbrella. We spent our final day in the Côte d’Azur at Eden Plage, which I dare say is akin to paradise.

Paloma Beach
Yep, the beach, often visited by Pablo Picasso, was apparently named after his daughter.
Paloma Beach view
Those colors … no filter necessary.
Eden Plage Mala
Few experiences are more peaceful than watching the waves at Eden Plage Mala.

We returned to NYC (after three additional nights in Milan) sun-kissed and refreshed with a week’s worth of memories behind us and a chuppah in our near future. Stay tuned for our possible return visit to the Côte d’Azur (there are still plenty of stones left unturned in this magnificent region) and the rest of Provence next year. #TravelWithBarbs

Lunch in Gorbio

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