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The French Riviera is home to some of the most spectacular drives in the country – perhaps even the best in the world.
Roads carve into mountain ranges and curve above the sea, dipping low by rocky shorelines and skimming above sandy beach resorts. They wind across sheer cliff faces and cruise by gravity-defying hilltop medieval villages with castles.
While many of the Côte d’Azur villages, towns and beaches you’ll pass are best explored on foot, the roads that stretch like patchwork wings from Nice are best explored by car.
You have three options for the drive between Nice and Monte Carlo in Monaco: dramatic coastal views, dramatic coastal views or, well, dramatic coastal views. Each of the three Corniche roads unfurls like a ribbon fluttering in the breeze, with varying heights offering different vistas of the mountains and coast.
The rather unfairly named Corniche Inférieure (or Basse Corniche) is actually a superior bet if beach-combing is your aim, as it hugs the coast more closely than its pretty much parallel cousins. You’ll skim past – and maybe stay awhile at – beach resorts Villefranche-sur-Mer, Beaulieu-sur-Mer and Cap d’Ail before rolling by Monaco’s sleek, yacht-filled ports to downtown Monte Carlo.
Next up is the Moyenne Corniche, which can be followed all the way to Italy. It was built in the 1920s to help ease tourist traffic on the lower road. Pick it up from Nice Airport and drive towards Menton, known for its botanical gardens. Allow time to visit hilltop villages and to stop at coastal overlooks.
And then there’s the granddaddy of them all, the Grande Corniche – sometimes called the Haute (high) Corniche. Perched higher than the others, it traces the Ancient Roman road, Via Julia Augusta, and a route marched by Napoleon I in 1815. A little more recently, the mountain pass by Col d’Èze featured in James Bond film GoldenEye.
Head west from Nice in the direction of Marseille and you’ll hit yet another incredible coastal stretch. The Corniche de l’Esterel or Corniche d’Or slices through the Esterel Massif mountains, at times dipping low next to the shoreline.
Terracotta, tangerine or blazing red – the volcanic rock seems to change colour depending on the angle of the sun and time of day. At sunset, it glows like fiery embers. Dense clumps of pine and eucalyptus trees make the colours pop even more.
The road joins the Bay of Cannes to Fréjus, a port town with a Roman amphitheatre and aqueduct. Stretching for 40km, it’s easily doable in a couple of hours – though you’ll probably want to stop a lot, and maybe drive it just one more time.
Sometimes it’s the softer side of nature that provides high drama – take the mimosa trees planted along the French Riviera. Between January and March, the roads erupt in vivid yellow, as fluffy blossoms adorn the trees like miniature baubles. Follow the Route du Mimosa (of course) or ‘golden road’, linking eight blooming lovely villages along a 130km stretch.
It begins in Bormes les Mimosas. The hillside village added the floral element to its name in the 1960s and holds a parade in February to celebrate its abundant flora. It ends in equally fragrant Grasse, known as the capital of perfume.
Most visitors to the Côte d’Azur fall fast and hard for its charms, and the world’s most celebrated artists certainly weren’t immune. Modern masters including Pablo Picasso lived and worked here.
A series of 60 lecterns making up The Painter’s Trail is dotted along the coastline, with information about the places that inspired those creative minds, and the legacy they left behind.
Close to Nice, the Musée Picasso in Old Antibes has a collection of his paintings and sculptures, within his one-time seaside residence. Picasso lived and worked here on and off for half a century.
Perched on a hilltop, St-Paul-de-Vence is a strong contender for the highest number of galleries per capita. Picasso was a regular wanderer of the zigzagging streets, and his paintings hang in the dining room of La Colombe d’Or. Don’t miss Joan Miró’s Labyrinth and gardens dotted with his surreal sculptures by the Fondation Maeght.
In summer, the roads from the Côte d’Azur to Provencal towns are winged by rolling lavender fields. Drive inland from Nice towards Luberon, one of the most prolific lavender-growing areas, and prepare to be enveloped in a patchwork of purple hues.
The fields are in bloom from June and, in July and August, they’re joined by towering golden sunflowers – just to pretty things up a little.