The Glamorous French Riviera

The French Riviera or the Côte d’Azur as we know it was invented by the arty expatriate set in the 1920s. Picasso painted it. Cole Porter crooned it. But no one celebrated the Côte d’Azur more tenderly than F Scott Fitzgerald. The legendary novelist lived it up on the Riviera and left his mark on the region. From the glamorous summer season to the glittering guest list, it’s still his Riviera party that we want to be part of. And the party is in full swing – even if you’re a gatecrasher.

Juan les Pins view from road with trees, sea then buildings in background
Juan les Pins. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Jazz Age

B/w photo of Charlie Parker 1947 playing the saxaphone
Charlie Parker (‘Yardbird’ or just ‘Bird’) in 1947. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

It’s 90 years since Cole Porter and Scott Fitzgerald resided here, raised hell with their Hollywood friends and persuaded the glitterati the Côte d’Azur was the place to party. His great novel,The Great Gatsby captures the essence of the era fondly known as the ‘Roaring Twenties’, as does Tender is the Night. The French Riviera is still romancing the Jazz Age, from the glittering parties to the restless spirit that chimes with our times.

Scott Fitzgerald’s France

Paper cover of the Great Gatsby
Great Gatsby. Public domain via Wikimedia

Midwesterner F Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) sought a change of scenery to spark his creativity. By burnishing that scenery, he sparked our imaginations and the myth of the irrepressible French Riviera was born. F Scott Fitzgerald is best-known for The Great Gatsby, the novel which captures the spirit of the Jazz Age. For France lovers, Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night (1934) is the truest portrait of ‘the Roaring Twenties’,  and was inspired by his racy Riviera life, from the mid-1920s onwards.

Follow in Scott Fitzgerald’s Footsteps

Juan les Pins at night with lit up bars in foreground and sea at back
Juan les Pins at night. OT Antibes/Juan les Pins/Gilles Lefrancq

The novelist who shaped the Côte d’Azur is still a legend on this glitzy coast. Following in Scott Fitzgerald’s footsteps reveals a glamorous route back to the Jazz Age. Cap d’Antibes and Juan Les Pins recall those Roaring Twenties.

View over trees to sea from the Cap d'Antibes
Cap d’Antibes. F. Trotobas/Antibes Juan les Pins

The ravishing promontory of the Cap was the epicentre of ‘the Roaring Riviera’. Here, the summer season swept away memories of the coast as a winter sanatorium. Sunbathing and gambling, the twin 20th-century vices, were celebrated instead. This restless writer loved the Riviera, from the cheap rents to the fast women and hard partying: “One could get away with more on the summer Riviera, and whatever happened seemed to have something to do with art”.

A Little History of the French Riviera

Old b/w photo of Lucy Schell win front of her Delahaye in Juan les Pins 1937 competition
Lucy Schell wins the Elegant Motoring Rally in 1937 in her Delahaye in Juan les Pins. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In the 1920s, the Jazz Age was in full swing and the French Riviera became a summer playground in which “to forget or rejoice, to hide its face or have its fling.”

Hotel Negresco in Nice lit up at night with palm trees in foreground
Hotel Negresco was always a favourite for visitors. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The pale English invalids who had retreated to the French Riviera in winter were replaced by the American expat party set. For them, it was always summer.

It Starts to Change

narrow cobbles little streets in antibes with stone houses and flowers
Antibes back street. OT Antibes/Juan les Pins. Gilles Lefrancq

F Scott Fitzgerald’s Antibes and Juan Les Pins was on the cusp of change. As he enthused, “Lately it has become a summer resort of notable and fashionable people; a decade ago it was almost deserted after its English clientele went north in April”. Antibes had burst out of its medieval ramparts before the turn of the century.

Open top car driving along road towards Juan les Pins
Juan les Pins. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

But it was Juan Les Pins that really embraced the Jazz Age, with its villa-living and beach-life. Tender is the Night was a bitter-sweet tribute to the ‘Roaring Riviera’ but, not to be outdone, Woody Allen’s 2013 film, Magic in the Moonlight, is set in the same period and places.

Jazzy Juan les Pins

Hotel des Belles Rives, Juan les Pins
Hotel des Belles Rives, Juan les Pins

In Juan Les Pins, Fitzgerald fans should make a pilgrimage to the beachfront villa that was once Scott and Zelda’s Riviera retreat. It comes alive in Tender is the Night: “On the pleasant shore of the French Riviera, about half way between Marseilles and the Italian border, stands a large, proud, rose-colored hotel. Deferential palms cool its flushed façade, and before it stretches a short dazzling beach.” Now reborn as the Hotel des Belles Rives, the villa makes a wonderful escape, whether for the full Jazz Age fantasy or just a toast to the legendary writer.

Grand piano inforeground in Fitzgerald Bar with cocktail waiter at back. Belles rives, Juan les Pins
Hotel des Belles Rives Fitzgerald Bar.

Slip into the hotel’s Bar Scott Fitzgerald for a ravishingly retro Champagne afternoon tea but stay until sunset. Sit on a faux leopard-skin bar stool and sip a Jazz Age cocktail. If you’re lucky enough to be there during the Jazz a Juan summer festival, the Grand Piano might even be commandeered by a jazz legend. If not, simply remember F Scott Fitzgerald’s favourite toast: “Here’s to alcohol, the rose-colored glasses of life”.

Classy Cap d’Antibes

Racing yacht off Antibes half way over at full tilt
Racing in the Voiles d’Antibes today, but it could be the 1920s. OT Antibes/Juan les Pins/Thomas Eibenberger

The Cap d’Antibes still represents the loveliest ramble in the Riviera, with plunging scenery matched by movie-star mansions and a smooth procession of mega yachts. 

View of Alain Delon's villa on the Cap d'Antibes fromthe sea
Alain Delon’s Villa on the Cap d’Antibes. Mary Anne Evans

So far, so Scott Fitzgerald. The glamour lingers on in the gorgeous villas where the ‘pyjama set’ partied themselves into the pages of a Jazz Age masterpiece. These are villas fit for Flappers. In Fitzgerald’s day, such beaded Flapper dresses were donned by Zelda, similar to the pearl-studded organza party-frocks Prada designed for the movie of The Great Gatsby.

Villas for millionaires

Antibes lighthouse
Antibes Lighthouse La Garoupe. OT Antibes/Juan les Pins/Gilles Lefrancq

In Villa America, set below the Cap d’Antibes lighthouse at La Garoupe, the American socialite Murphys held court and staged the wildest parties, the crazier, the better.  In Tender is the Night, Dick Diver, modelled on Gerald Murphy, says, “I want to give a party where there’s a brawl and seductions and people going home with their feelings hurt and women passing out in the cabinette de toilette”.

And Villa Eilenroc

Villa Eilenroc with classic facade and gardens in front
Villa Eilenroc on the Cap d’Antibes. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Fitzgeralds danced the night away in in the Belle Epoque Villa Eilenroc, concocted by Garnier, the creator of Monte Carlo Casino. Nostalgics can visit both the Art Deco interior and the rose gardens, with a newly created path leading down to a sparkling cove.

Chateau de la Croe, Antibes, once owned by the Duke of Windsor. Grand villa set beside the sea.
Chateau de la Croe, Cap d’Antibes. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Through the umbrella pines are glimpses of Villa de la Croe, once the palatial residence of the exiled Duke of Windsor, the former Edward VIII. Now owned by Russian tycoon Roman Abramovitch, the property proves that the higher the hedge, the steeper the price tag. Even so, the ‘billionaires’ bay’ beyond is framed by a ‘smugglers’ path’ which provides tantalising peeks of extravagant pools. If 1920s villas were judged by the grandeur of their gardens, 1930s villas were judged by the splendour of their swimming pools, marking a shift to a more ostentatious culture.

Laidback Antibes

Antibes ramparts and castle seen from afar with snow-covered Alps in background
Antibes from La Garoupe. Mairie: antibes/Juan les Pins/f. Trotobas

By day, the carefree crowd moved to La Garoupe beach, where picnics and a portable phonograph were de rigueur. Summer friends such as Cole Porter and Picasso helped persuade the glitterati that the Côte d’Azur was the place to party.

Louise Brooks, one of the first flappers. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The beach season became a craze after Coco Chanel’s light tan was deemed sexily desirable. Free-spirited Zelda Fitzgerald, often dubbed ‘the first Flapper’, was a semi-professional dancer while Sara Murphy posed for Picasso but spurned his advances. For Picasso, the beach was synonymous with sex, and his muses, mostly his mistresses, were mythologised into sultry goddesses. Even without Picasso, this sandy bay remains alluring.

Sunbathing comes into its own

B/2 photo of Coco Chanel in 1920
Coco Chanel in the 1920s. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

On this coast, Coco Chanel made sunbathing fashionable. The couturier was famously refused entry to a Riviera casino for wearing ‘beach pyjamas.’ The so-called ‘Pyjama Set’ played on. Glittering villa parties welcomed Charlie Chaplin, Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway.

Eat at La Garoupe

walking down steps to tables with parasols at La Garoupe beach
One of the delightful restaurants at La Garoupe beach. Mary Anne Evans

On La Garoupe, Plage Keller is the chicest sunbathing beach, with the pontoon restaurant perfect for idling over a bottle of rosé. Drinkers rather than foodies, the Fitzgeralds scorned French cuisine for club sandwiches. But Scott Fitzgerald happily splashed out on Champagne:  “Too much of anything is bad, but too much Champagne is just right”.

Arty St Paul de Vence

Follow the Fitzgerald trail to St Paul de Vence and a leisurely lunch in La Colombe d’Or, one of the most celebrated spots on the Côte d’Azur.
Slip through the discreet hole in the wall to espy works by Picasso and Matisse, a mural by Leger, and a pool presided over by a Calder mobile.

Shaded cafe in st paul de vence with terrace tables at autumn
St Paul de Vence cafe with pétanque square in front. Mary Anne Evans

Set in the hills towards Nice, St Paul is a bijou village with a bitter-sweet past. Walk past the plane trees and pétanque players, just as Picasso did, on his way to a Provençal lunch in the inn. Lose yourself down arty alleys.

B/w photo of Isadora Duncan sitting on floor scantily clad!
Isadora Duncan. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Despite the beauty of the place, captured in Tender is the Night, there is a dark side to our tale. The Great Gatsby message about money not buying happiness rings true. Privilege becomes an excuse for cruelty. In real life, Zelda supposedly threw herself down a dark stairwell after seeing dancer Isadora Duncan flirting with her husband on the terrace. In the movie version of Gatsby, Leonardo di Caprio portrays the hero as a hopeless romantic, but Woody Allen might say that’s the truest version. “There’s only one kind of love that lasts – that’s unrequited love. It stays with you forever”.

Magic in the Moonlight

Menton on the hill with pastel coloured houses and towers and yachts in the water
Glamorous Menton. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Hot on the heels of The Great Gatsby, Magic in the Moonlight, Woody Allen’s jazzy period piece, celebrates the Côte d’Azur. The locals loved spotting the stars, Colin Firth and Emma Stone, on location in Antibes, Menton and St Paul de Vence. 

Jazz a Juin festival looking at the stage at night from the stands with sea behind
Jazz a Juan, one of the most famous, and best jazz festivals in France. OT Antibes/Juan les Pins/Gilles Lefrancq

The Jazz Age is Woody Allen’s spiritual home, and the accomplished jazz clarinettist even made time to perform during the legendary Jazz a Juan summer festival in 2012. Scott Fitzgerald would be toasting his compatriot’s shared sensibility.

F Scott Fitzgerland and Zelda's tomb in Rockville Maryland.
F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s tomb at Rockville, Maryland, USA. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Nostalgia has made the Riviera what it is today. Inscribed on Scott Fitzgerald’s tombstone is the final sentence of Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”. Time to return to the Bar Fitzgerald. When jazz is playing in and the cocktails flowing, the Roaring Twenties feel back in business.  As Jay Gatsby says: “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!”

cocktail glasses and drambuie bottle on bar
Who’s for cocktails? Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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