Cheap and chic: the hidden side of Nice and the Côte d’Azur, France

From delicious street food to hidden hikes and bays, the Côte d’Azur region can be surprisingly affordable. Alex Ledsom unearths its treasures

Hike Cannes’ beaches

After the Romans departed in the 5th century, the Lérins Abbey and its monks controlled this entire coastline, harvesting wine under a vow of silence. Nowadays, they live off the coast of Cannes on Île Saint-Honorat, an inexpensive ferry hop away. The island of Sainte-Marguerite, next door, is where the Man in the Iron Mask was held prisoner. Taste the wine on a tour of the cellars and hike the wild coves and beaches.

Discover impressionism among Nice’s leafy Roman suburb, Cimiez

The Romans founded the city of Cemenelum in the hills above modern-day Nice (the amphitheatre ruins are a great picnic spot), and Queen Victoria holidayed here centuries later. Visit the Musée Matisse (External link) , close to where French painter Henri Matisse lived, and a few streets away, fellow impressionist painter Marc Chagall’s museum (External link) , of whom Picasso said: “When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter who understands what colour really is.” Entry is free to both museums with the French Riviera pass.

Ride the oceanside train from Monaco

The major towns on the Côte d’Azur are linked by a coastal train route, which for a few euros offers unrivalled views and avoids the traffic – it takes just 25 minutes from Monte Carlo to Nice (the same again to Cannes), and only 15 minutes from Nice to Antibes. Take in some literature as you rumble through the region; think Francois Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse (set on the Côte d’Azur and one of Le Monde’s 100 best books of the century) or F Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, which used the majestic Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc (External link) in Antibes as a backdrop. Pick up some fritters from the stalls at Condamine (External link) market in Monte Carlo for your journey; they’re called Barbajuan (uncle John), named after the man who supposedly fried his ravioli when he couldn’t find any sauce to accompany them.

Discover traditional fishing life at Port de l’Olivette

The Grimaldi family’s 14th-century chateau forms the cultural heart of Antibes’ old town, and houses the Picasso museum (External link) , where he painted for six months in 1946. Traditional fishing still happens at Port de l’Olivette, on the other side of the bay. Have a drink, watching the sailors come and go on wooden boats.

Swim in Billionaires’ Bay at Cap d’Antibes

The 5km hike from Plage de la Garoupe winds its way gently up and around Antibes’ headland, over rocky outcrops and through the scent of wild herbs. Stop for a swim in Billionaires’ Bay, admiring some of the most expensive houses in the region from the turquoise waters below.

Tuck into street food at Nice’s flower market

Local farmers have been selling their wares under the striped awnings of Nice’s Cours Saleya market (External link) since 1897. Just like Marché Forville in Cannes, it’s a great place to people-watch and become acquainted with tasty street food. Legend has it that the batter for the local chickpea pancake, socca, was poured on the heads of invading Turks in the 16th century. It was later served up to peasants throughout the 19th century, as an afternoon snack or merenda. Socca is cooked like a crepe, costs next to nothing and is beloved by renowned chefs such as Yotam Ottolenghi. The region is also home to pan bagnat, a sandwich made from wheat bread called pain de campagne (literally “bread from the countryside”), rubbed with garlic and olive oil. It’s filled with the contents of salad niçoise – boiled eggs, succulent local tomatoes, fresh tuna, anchovies (optional) and Provençal olives – and drizzled with vinegar.

Cool off on Nice’s Castle Hill

Nice’s Colline du Château once housed an impregnable fortress, which was taken down and redesigned as a park in the early 19th century for the influx of European visitors. Take the tourist train from Promenade des Anglais, ride in the lift or climb the steps (the park is 93 metres above the Baie des Anges), cooling off next to the impressive manmade waterfall, built from bricks taken from the castle’s dungeon.

Visit Cannes’ medieval fortress and fishing quarter

In the 12th century, the monks built a coastal fortress called Musée de la Castre, which today houses an eclectic art collection. Climb its 109 steps for sublime 360-degree views over the small fishing village of Le Suquet, which grew over the course of 400 years into present-day Cannes. Today, these cobbled streets make the perfect pit stop for an affordable bite to eat.

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