My driver turns out to be an invaluable guide. I’d planned to tour the Côte d’Azur by train, but from Jean Jacques I get the gossip that makes the hills come alive. Collecting me from my base at the Negresco, Nice’s famous seafront hotel, he drives me along one of the three corniches on the side of Mont Boron, east of the city.
The sun is out, the sky is blue and the air is fresh. He points to a cream-coloured house called Le Roc Fleuri. “That used to belong to Sean Connery,” he tells me. It’s a fitting location for 007. Higher up, next to a 16th-century château, he indicates Elton John’s pad, which the star is said to have bought for £5 million 20 years ago and spent the same to furnish it.
At Villefranche-sur-Mer, 25 minutes from Nice, we park and walk the harbour’s cobbled streets. Houses peep out from between trees. The only sound is the slapping of water against the hulls of small anchored yachts.
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Our next stop is Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, a peninsula further along the coast, where the former homes of movie stars and artists now belong to Russians with mysteriously acquired fortunes. This is the world’s most expensive real estate. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen bought a hilltop spread here and hired a staff of 12. Tina Turner’s mansion is perched above Villefranche. The U2 frontman, or “Mr Bono” as Jean Jacques calls him, has a place at nearby Eze.
It was this intriguing world where rock royalty, CEOs and art collectors rub sunburnt shoulders with oligarchs and gangsters that inspired U2’s former manager, Paul McGuinness, to outline a story that has now become Sky Atlantic’s Riviera (the star is American actress Julia Stiles, pictured above).
But although there’s glamour, from the huge yachts of Monte Carlo’s Port Hercules to the Lamborghinis and Bugattis parked on the Promenade de la Croisette in Cannes, the Côte d’Azur has much to offer the ordinary traveller: spectacular sunshine, delicious food, fine wine, fascinating shops and the best French art galleries outside Paris.
My coastal tour ends back in Nice at a large red Genoese villa in the Cimiez district that is the Matisse Museum. The artist delighted in the region’s brilliant light and strong colours. We visit a nearby Franciscan monastery and, behind it, the cemetery where he was buried beneath an olive tree in 1954. Visitors leave pebbles on his tomb.
The best of Nice is within the old city. During the day there are galleries, open churches and markets of fruit, vegetables and flowers. At night the streetlights give the buildings a honeyed glow, the alleys fill with diners and Place Masséna becomes a theatre for skaters, jugglers and musicians. Rising imperiously above it all is Colline du Château, the finest place for panoramic views. I climb the 215 steps to the Tour Bellanda (featured in Riviera) and then 155 further steps to the castle ruins.
A market in Nice's old town
I eat at Restaurant Acchiardo (38 Rue Droite) where, I’m advised, real Niçois food is served by real Niçois people. The Acchiardo family arrived here from Piedmont, Italy, in 1927 and the man who serves me is the great-grandson of the original owner. And I learn that a true salade niçoise has no potato. Egg should be the only cooked item – tuna has no place here, either.
I catch a Helmut Newton photography exhibition nearby and see the museum of Chagall, but there’s no time to visit the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, the Musée des Arts Asiatiques or the Musée des Beaux-Arts. There’s compensation at Hotel Negresco where the owner, 94-year-old Madame Jeanne Augier, has more than 2,000 art-works on display. Where else can you see one of only three authentic portraits of Louis XIV, brush past a Dalí, or eat breakfast surrounded by wooden horses from an 18th-century fairground carousel?
Riviera is on Thursdays on Sky Atlantic at 9pm
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