Monday, April 20, 2009

STI: Soaking in the Riviera

April 21, 2009

Soaking in the Riviera

The chic resorts on the French Riviera may be the playground of the rich, but you can holiday there in style on a budget

By jovanda biston 


The name Cote d'Azur conjures images of glitz and glamour.


Also known as the French Riviera, the stretch of the Mediterranean coast between Cassis and the Italian border has long been the playground of royals, rock stars and rich bon vivants.


The well-heeled have flocked to chic resorts in St Tropez, Cannes and Nice since the late 19th century when Queen Victoria and other European royals and aristocrats made the French Riviera their vacation destination of choice.


Unlike the A-list who can travel on a whim and arrive at their grand vacation homes in private jets or mega-yachts, my husband and I, together with several friends, had to ensure we could spend a week soaking up the charm of this fabled corner of France without bankrupting ourselves.


To avoid the sky-high prices of summer, we decided to go in spring, which is from late March to May. Spring is off-peak season in France and most of Europe, because most Europeans prefer holidays in the warm summer months. Spring weather is also too cool for sunbathing or splashing in the water at beach destinations such as Cote d'Azur.


We browsed vacation home rentals online and booked a villa in Villefranche-sur-Mer, a photogenic town located in the Corniches, as the coastline between busy Nice and Monaco is known.


Last August, Villefranche-sur-Mer was thrust into the global media spotlight when it was reported that a Russian billionaire owned the world's most expensive home after paying €500 million (S$979 million) to buy a mansion here.


Splitting the cost of the rental among our travelling party of 10, each of us paid only €80 per day for a one-week stay in a five-bedroom house with a pool.


This was far more thrilling than squeezing into a small hotel room. One room in a three-star hotel costs around €140 during the off-peak season.


Moreover, many of the windows in the villa overlooked jaw-dropping views of azure water and sails, and the terraced gardens had olive trees, daffodils, fragrant rosemary shrubs and blooming lilac trees.


We enjoyed great food throughout our stay. We bought fresh local produce and cooked in the kitchen with herbs picked from the garden. Toothsome baguettes cost less than €1 each at most bakeries.


We were tempted to spend the whole week lounging around the gorgeous villa, but we did explore the Riviera and found a plethora of budget-friendly attractions for visitors.


An unbeatable way to discover the beauty of the surroundings is also free - the Riviera is a rewarding place for those who enjoy scenic walks.


Villefranche-sur-Mer was so picture-perfect, it looked like a film set. In fact, the town has served as a backdrop for many movies, including Alfred Hitchcock's To Catch A Thief and Robert De Niro's Ronin.


In the nearby seaside town of Eze-sur-Mer, there is a path not far from the train station that winds up to Eze-le-Village, a mediaeval hamlet perched 429m above sea level on a cliff.


The path is called Chemin de Friedrich Nietzsche, for it is said that Nietzsche composed the third part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra after being inspired by his walks on the very trail.


Eze-le-Village is an example of the perched villages that used to be common in the south of France. Many of these steep villages have been abandoned in recent decades, though some such as Eze-le-Village have been revived by tourism.


Many of the hamlet's old buildings have been turned into galleries and souvenir shops, but with few tourists in the low season, it was easy to imagine the fortress here in its mediaeval glory.


After the gruelling hike in Eze, it was a relief to learn that the nearby town of St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat had easy trails with sublime sea views as befit a town that is nicknamed 'peninsula of dreams'.


Here, we saw many grand homes hidden behind tall gates. Obviously, this town had a greater snob appeal than the others.


But Villa Ephrussi, the grandest of the grand homes, is open to visitors. Baroness Ephrussi de Rothschild, scion of the famous Rothschild banking family, built her chateau on the narrowest part of the Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat promontory in the early 20th century. Surrounded by nine themed gardens, the villa has views of the Bay of Villefranche on one side and the Bay of Beaulieu on the other.


But apparently the stunning sea vistas were not quite enough for the eccentric heiress. Before her death in 1934, she had her gardeners wear sailor uniforms on the grounds so that she could pretend she was on a grand ship.


From the Villa Ephrussi, it is a half-hour walk to the adjacent town of Beaulieu-sur-Mer, where Villa Kerylos, the palace of yet another wildly unconventional individual, was located.


A combined ticket for both house tours cost €15 and it was worth every euro.


The Kerylos is the epitome of a dream home. Completed in 1905, it was painstakingly designed to resemble noble houses built in the 2nd century BC on the Greek island of Delos while cleverly incorporating modern amenities.


Its wealthy and scholarly owner, Theodore Reinach, strived to recreate the sophistication of ancient Greece in every detail in the house, from its layout to the frescoes, mosaics and furniture.


Homes cost $27k per sq ft


In the banquet hall, Reinach and his wife ate their meals reclining on high couches that were the same height as the three-legged dining tables. In ancient Greece, where tiled floors were seldom totally flat, three-legged tables made perfect sense because they never teeter.


For a good balance of past and present millionaires, we spent a day in glitzy Monaco to see how the ultra-rich of today live and play.


In this sovereign city-state, home to many moguls who love the principality's absence of taxes, it is impossible to keep track of the super fancy cars whizzing about. This despite the fact that Monaco, at 1.95 sq km, is the world's second smallest country after Vatican City.


We explored the historic neighbourhood of Monaco-ville, admiring the charming Belle Epoque buildings, the royal palace and the Cathedrale de Monaco, where Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier III.


Then there is the famous Monte Carlo casino, where the exotic spy Mata Hari shot a Russian colonel, Richard Burton presented Elizabeth Taylor with the Koh-i-noor diamond, and where many high-stakes losers had ended their lives jumping off the 'Suicide Terrace'.


Its colourful history notwithstanding, the casino, which charged an entrance fee of €10, left much to be desired. The staff appeared bored and there were no larger-than-life characters at the tables. It was opulent but quiet as a tomb.


We had much more fun walking around the harbour to gawk at the shiny yachts and beautiful sailing boats that had names such as One Toy Too Many, More and Octopussy.


Our evening ended with dinner at a chic restaurant in Avenue Princess Grace, the world's most expensive residential street, according to recent surveys. On average, homes here cost US$17,750 (S$27,000) per sq ft. Thankfully, the excellent prix fixe dinner (set dinner) was much more affordable at €25 per person.


Our palates were also given a treat at Fenocchio, Nice's legendary ice cream shop, where we tried the rosemary, cactus, orange blossom, lavender and clementine flavours.


Sampling the other 91 sorbets and ice creams would have ruined our appetite for dinner at the eponymous Keisuke Matsushima, a one-Michelin-star restaurant in Nice serving contemporary French cuisine.


Starting from €35, the celebrated Japanese chef's prix fixe menu was a steal. The main meal of luscious pan-fried foie gras and wild turbot was unforgettable. For dessert, I had violet sorbet and a remarkable lemon tart with carbonated sugar that popped and fizzed in my mouth.


There is no need to worry about overindulging in croissants and consuming too much rich food. The French do not get fat, and at the French Riviera, neither will you.


There are trails to walk and a wealth of attractions to see and they are all doable on a modest budget.


Jovanda Biston is a freelance writer.


5 things to do


1 Do compare prices between vacation home rentals and hotels before you go. Apartments and villas are often available for far less than hotels or bed and breakfasts of a similar standard.


2 Do try pastis, an aniseed-flavoured aperitif popular in the south of France.


3 Do join the free factory tours offered by the perfume houses in the town of Grasse billed as the world's perfume capital.


4 Do enjoy lemony treats in Menton, where locals are so proud of their lemons and oranges, they have an annual festival featuring spectacular floats decorated with tons of citrus fruit.


5 Do visit the Cathedrale Orthodoxe Russe St-Nicolas in Nice. The ornate building with its six gold-leaf domes is the largest Russian Orthodox cathedral outside Russia.


2 don'ts


1 Don't be so mesmerised by the beautiful surroundings that you forget to watch your step - many streets are a minefield of dog droppings.


2 Don't board trains in the nationwide rail network without validating your train ticket or you will risk a fine. After buying your ticket, put it into the small orange machines marked 'Compostez votre billet' to validate it.


Getting there


Nice is a convenient gateway to the French Riviera. Singapore Airlines flies there via Frankfurt.


Public transport from Nice to other parts of the Riviera is easy and inexpensive. The €1.50 train ride from Nice to Villefranche-sur-Mer takes less than 10 minutes. Monaco is about 20 minutes away by rail.

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