By Patti Nickell – Featured Travel Writer
On my most recent visit to the French Riviera – in between stops in Cannes and Nice – I managed to sneak away to spend a day in Cap d’Antibes, mainly for the purpose of visiting the Picasso Museum.
When the artist came here in 1946 with his then-partner and muse, Francoise Gilot, he was invited to use the exquisite seaside Chateau Grimaldi as a studio. When he left six months later, Picasso gifted the town with the pieces he had created during his stay – 33 paintings and 44 drawings. Thus, was born the world’s first Picasso Museum.
Picasso, however, was only part of the Chateau Grimaldi’s illustrious history. Its earliest incarnation was as the acropolis of the 5th century B.C. Greek town of Antipolis, and later it served as a Roman fort and a medieval bishop’s palace.
The walls built by the Romans proved an effective defense from the barbarians who plundered the entire French Riviera until the end of the 14th century when Cap d’Antibes and the surrounding area came under the protection of the French king Louis XI.
For today’s visitor, Cap d’Antibes combines the glamor found in other Cote d’Azur towns with history and old-world charm.
Strolling the ancient city walls gives him/her a great vantage point of the colorful Old Town and a close-up look at the picturesque marina, the largest in Europe. Port Vaubon is the place to go to “ooohhh” and “aaahhh” over the vast array of super-yachts moored here, and to greet the fishing boats as they deliver their daily catch.
If you follow the Route du Paradise, past the open-air market, you’ll find a building dating to Roman times. Go downstairs to the underground absinthe bar for a tasting of the potent libation just as other famous visitors – F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, dancer Isadora Duncan and Picasso did. You might even say that here, in this dark cellar, they found their own Route du Paradise.
If you’re looking for a good constitutional along with the most spectacular view of the surrounding area, begin at the Plage (beach) de la Salis and take the Chemin de Calvaire up to the Garoupe Lighthouse. It’s a good half-day excursion up and back, and while you can’t go into the lighthouse, the view makes it all worthwhile.
If you want to skip the climb and just head for the beach, Plage de la Salis is one of 48 along the coastline of Cap d’Antibes and the neighboring town of Juan-les-Pins.
While Juan-les-Pin was the site of the Cote d’Azur’s first luxury hotel and casino, Belle-Rives, Cap d’Antibes has a hotel that has been considered one of the world’s best since its opening in 1870.
The Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc was originally a private mansion, the Villa Soleil (Villa of the Sun), and occupies 22 acres of gardens at the tip of the peninsula. A chateau in the style of Napoleon III, the hotel boasts a unique seawater swimming pool carved out of a cliff.
It first gained prominence in the 1920s when F. Scott Fitzgerald, a frequent guest, immortalized the hotel in his novel Tender is the Night. Since then, it has been the hotel of choice for Riviera romancers from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
Perhaps French writer Guy de Maupassant best summed up Cap d’Antibes’ eternal appeal when he wrote, “I have never seen such a surprising thing as Antibes in front of the French Alps when the sun is falling.”
Station yourself on the town walls at sunset and see for yourself.