Coasting along

Dream locations for when the world gets back to normal – French Riviera.

There are no stretches of road quite as seductive as the Corniches that corkscrew across the plunging coastline of the French Riviera and connect its most glamorous resort towns.

9 October, 2020

Cruel choices present themselves as you prepare to drive along the sunlit Mediterranean in the south of France

Cruel choices present themselves as you prepare to drive along the sunlit Mediterranean in the south of France. There are three parallel Corniches or coastal roads, and all have their pleasures. 

The lowest is the sea-hugging Corniche Inférieure (or even more prosaically, the D6098), which squeezes through the Riviera’s most agreeable seaside resorts, once home to nineteenth-century writers and twentieth-century movie stars, and now the haunt of Russian billionaires. Art Deco mansions sit on hillsides beneath dark cedar trees and lipstick-pink bougainvillea, while yachts the size of aircraft carriers float in blue bays. 

This Corniche was laid out in 1857 by a prince of Monaco. The original and still the most stylish, it slithers past fabulous Cap Ferrat and sugary white mansions, right through Monte Carlo and around a coastline dotted with private museums and baroque churches. You can dip your ankles into the Mediterranean’s lukewarm waters at pebbly beaches shaded by umbrella pines.

The early twentieth-century Moyenne Corniche (or D6007), on the other hand, winds further uphill, skirting above the border of Monaco, and similarly missing seashore pleasures. Yet this might be the best-known of the Corniches. From it, you can squint down from well-placed lookouts at famous towns, and stare all the way into Italy. 

As a bonus, this choice takes you to Èze, a medieval hilltop village where shadowy streets give way to sublime views. For below, Cap Ferrat thrusts like a finger into a glittering sea. Corsica is a dim mirage on the horizon.

It’s a tough choice between the two, but add the Grande Corniche (or D2564) to the mix and you’re in a bind. This is the highest road, which runs 500 metres above the sea. It twists and turns, its bends not so much hairpin as safety pin. Spectacular scenery coupled with odd moments of terror made it a favourite of Hitchcock and James Bond movies. 

The old town of Eze.
The view from Eze towards Cap Ferrat.
The magical coastal road that runs from Eze.

You’d conclude it was laid out by a madman, and you’d be right. It was the work of that monstrous egoist Napoleon, and roughly follows an old Roman road, zipping up right above Èze through hillsides of pine and cactus (and occasional mists) before plunging back down again. You miss the big sights of the Riviera, but you’re wedged between sea and sky, and the drive is sublime.

The solution to these difficult choices is to drive one Corniche in one direction and return on another. If you really want, you could do all three, since each runs just 30 kilometres between Nice and Menton – as does a rather unexciting motorway. 

There’s no shortage of hotels on this glamour coast to make a base camp, and there’s no point in rushing. The driving is slow. Expect lots of bends, lots of traffic (especially in the summer) and packs of Lycra-clad cyclists puffing around corners like swarms of bees. Besides, viewpoint cafés, old towns and seaside promenades invite lengthy driving pauses.

Nice is the grand overture to this great opera of French chic and Mediterranean views. Its sweeping beach is backed by grand Victorian-era hotels and the distant hills of Provence. A ruined castle hunkers on a crag and the sea is kingfisher blue. Before you get into your car, stroll the Promenade des Anglais and venture into old-town alleys, where windows flap with washing and retirees chat on church steps, seemingly a world away from Riviera glamour. 

Leave time for an hour of people-watching in Cours Saleya, where café tables compete with market stalls selling seafood and cut flowers that explode in colour against the orange and yellow facades of surrounding buildings.

Take the lowest Corniche and you should stop for a waterfront walk on the promenades of underrated but lovely Villefranche-sur-Mer on a gorgeous bay overlooking ultra-chic Cap Ferrat peninsula. 

Nice is the grand overture to this great opera of French chic and Mediterranean views

Stunning Nice waterfront – straight from a postcard.
Cafés on Cours Saleya in Nice.

The terracotta roofs and colourful fishing boats that once inspired Impressionist painters, back in the days when the Riviera was rustic, are still here. Now they have an overlay of glass-and-steel mansions, motor launches and hotels straight out of The Great Gatsby era. 

Nearby Beaulieu-sur-Mer is just as charming, its horseshoe beach studded with parasols. Its hillside is a cascade of lemon trees and Belle Epoque villas that were once the haunt of mid-century movie stars.

If you take the high road, Èze is the famed stop-off, but dawdle in La Turbie too. Hardly anyone has heard of it, but it once stood at an intersection of Roman roads and still has a whopping bit of Roman architecture crowning it like a cathedral. The town seems to have slipped into a time warp and, if you shuffle into the countryside, the sea views are magnificent.
La Turbie floats high above Monaco, the ultimate French Riviera playground for the rich and richer. Technically only the Corniche Inférieure takes you there, but a short detour from the others will soon propel you into the tiny cliff-clinging principality. Monte Carlo, anchored by its famous casino, is the poshest district, but the princely palace looms across the harbour. Other worthy sights are the excellent Oceanographic Museum and vertiginous, cactus-filled Jardin Exotique gardens.

The Corniches start to converge again at Roquebrunne: rustic old streets, a sturdy castle, an orange bell tower and some unexpected Roman ruins. Below is wooded Cap Martin, another posh peninsula with a coastal pathway that leads all the way back to Monaco. 

The three roads all end in Menton, tucked away into a relatively unvisited corner of the Riviera close to the Italian border, and already showing a decidedly Italian panache. It feels like an ordinary town, sitting between sea and mountains, with a lovely medieval centre of cobbles and dark alleys between houses of pink and yellow perfection.

The three roads all end in Menton, tucked away into a relatively unvisited corner of the Riviera close to the Italian border

Roquebrune-Cap-Martin old town.
Menton old town and its harbour (right).