From prehistory to the Bronze Age
The Côte d'Azur has been inhabited since prehistoric times. A paleolithic site of a nomad people dating to 950,000 B.C. was discovered in the cave of Vallonet, near Roquebrune-Cap Martin, with stones and bones of animals, including bovines, rhinoceros, and hippopotamus. Other sites were found at the cave of L'Escale, near Saint-Estève Janson (600,000 B.C.), and at Terra Amata (400,000 BC), where a fireplace was discovered, one of the oldest in Europe. The Cosquer Cave, an undersea cave between Cassis and Marseille discovered in 1991, has the oldest man-made art in the region: drawings of bisons, seals, horses and penguins, and outlines of human hands, dating to between 27,000 and 19,000 B.C.
Stone dolmens, monuments from the bronze age, can be found near Draguinan. The Valley of Marvels (Vallée des Merveilles) near Mount Bégo, at 2000m altitude, was apparently an outdoor religious sanctuary with over 40,000 drawings of people and animals.
Beginning in the 7th century B.C., Greek sailors from Asia Minor began to visit and then build trading posts (emporia) along the Côte d'Azur. The first known settlement was at Massalia (now Marseille), with colonists from Phocaea, modern-day Foça in Turkey. Other emporia were started at Olbia (Saint-Pierre de l'Almanarre, near Hyères); Antipolis (Antibes); Nicoea (Nice); and Tauroentum and Rhodanousia (Arles). These settlements, which traded with the inhabitants of the interior, became rivals of the Etruscans and Phoenicians, who also visited the Côte d'Azur. Greek traders went far inland from these emporia by river (the Rhône and the Durance or overland to Burgundy and Switzerland. One enterprising navigator from Marseille, Pytheas, traveled as far as Cornwall in about 325 B.C. in search of tin.
At the beginning of the 4th century B.C., the Ligurians, a nomadic Celtic people, invaded the south of France and traveled all the way to Ancient Rome. The Ligurian tribes of the Oxybii and Deceates settled in what is now the Alpes-Maritimes and the Var, building hilltop forts and settlements. They were soon at war with the inhabitants of Massalia, and they helped the passage of Hannibal along the coast on his way to attack Ancient Rome. In the 2nd century B.C., the continuous conflicts persuaded the inhabitants of Massalia to invite the Romans to be their ally against the Ligurians.
To subdue the Ligurian tribes in the 2nd century B.C., Roman legions entered the region three times. In 181 B.C., a Roman army defeated the Ligurians at Genoa; in 154 B.C., the Consul Optimius defeated the Oxybii and the Deceates, who had besieged Antibes and Nice; and in 125 B.C., another Roman army crushed a confederation of Celtic tribes and their allies. The Romans decided to establish permanent settlements, first at Aquae Sextiae (Arles) in 122 B.C., then in Narbonne (118 B.C.). In 102 B.C. the Roman general Marius defeated a new invasion of Cimbres and Teutons, and began to build a system of Roman roads through the region to facilitate the movement of troops, as well as trade, with Rome. In 49 B.C., Marseille took the side of Pompey against Julius Caesar, leading to a decline in its influence, and the rise of Arles. Veterans of the Roman legions were settled at Arles and Fréjus.
In 8 B.C., the Emperor Augustus built an imposing trophy monument at La Turbie to mark the pacification of the region. Roman towns, monuments and amphitheaters were built throughout the region, and many still survive: the amphitheater at Cimiez, above Nice; the amphitheater and Roman walls at Fréjus; farther inland in Provence, the theater in Orange; the amphitheaters in Arles and Avignon; and the triumphal arch at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.
The Trophy of Augustus at La Turbie
Barbarians and Christians
Roman Provence reached its height of power and prosperity during the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. In the middle of the 3rd century, Germanic peoples began to invade the region, and Roman power began to weaken. The Western Roman Emperor, Constantine I, was forced to take sanctuary in Arles at the beginning of the 4th century.
During the same period, Christianity became a powerful force in the region. The first cathedrals were built in the 4th century, and bishoprics were established in Arles in 254 A.D.; Marseille in 314 A.D.; Fréjus at the end of the 4th century; Cimiez and Vence in 439 A.D.; Antibes in 442 A.D.; and Toulon in 451 A.D. The oldest Christian structure still in existence on the Côte d'Azur is the baptistery of Fréjus Cathedral, built at the end of the 5th century. The end of the 5th century also saw the founding of the first two monasteries in the region, Lerins Monastery on an island off the coast of Cannes, and Saint-Victor monastery in Marseille.
Lerins fortified monastery
The fall of the Western Roman Empire in the first half of the 5th century was followed by invasion of Provence by the Visigoths, the Burgundians and the Ostrogoths, followed by a long period of wars and dynastic quarrels, which in turn led to further invasions by the Saracens and the Normans in the 9th century.
The Counts of Provence and the House of Grimaldi
Some peace was restored to the coast by the establishment in 879 of a new kingdom of Provence, ruled first by the Bosonide dynasty (879-1112), then by the Catalans (1112-1246), and finally by the Angevins (1246-1483).
In the 13th century, another powerful political force appeared, the House of Grimaldi. Descended from a Genoese nobleman expelled from Genoa by his rivals in 1271, members of the different branches of the Grimaldis took power in Monaco, Antibes and Nice, and built castles at Grimaud, Cagnes-sur-Mer and Antibes. The present Prince of Monaco is a descendant of the Grimaldis.
The ruins of the Grimaldi castle at Grimaud
In 1388, the city of Nice and its surrounding territory, from the mouth of the Var to the Italian border, was separated from Provence and came under the protection of the House of Savoy. The territory was called the comté of Nice after 1526, and thereafter had a separate language, history and culture from Provence until 1860, when it was re-attached to France under Napoleon III.
Provence retained its formal independence until 1480, when the last count of Provence, René I of Naples, died and left the comté of Provence to his nephew, Charles du Maine, who in turn left it to Louis XI of France. In 1486, Provence formally became part of France.
Early 19th century; popularity among the British upper classes
Until the end of the 18th century, the Côte d'Azur was a remote and impoverished region, known mostly for fishing, olive groves and the making of perfume. A new phase began when the coast became a fashionable health resort for the British upper classes in the late 18th century.
The first British traveler to describe its benefits was the novelist Tobias Smollett, who visited Nice in 1763, when it was still an Italian city within the Kingdom of Sardinia. Smollett brought Nice and its warm winter temperatures to the attention of the British aristocracy through Travels in France and Italy, written in 1765.
At about the same time, a Scottish doctor, John Brown, became famous by prescribing what he called climato-therapy, a change to a warm climate, to cure a variety of diseases including tuberculosis, known then as consumption. The French historian Paul Gonnet wrote that as a result, Nice was filled with "a colony of pale and listless English women and listless sons of nobility near death."
In 1834, a British nobleman and politician named Henry Peter Brougham, First Baron Brougham and Vaux, who had played an important part in the abolition of the slave trade, traveled with an ill sister to the south of France, intending to go to Italy. A cholera epidemic in Italy forced him to stop at Cannes, where he enjoyed the climate and scenery so much that he bought land and built a villa. He began to spend his winters there, and because of his fame, others followed, and Cannes soon had a small British colony.
Robert Louis Stevenson was another early British visitor who came for his health. In 1882 he rented a villa called La Solitude at Hyères, where he wrote much of A Child's Garden of Verses.
Late 19th, early 20th centuries: railways, gambling, and royalty
In 1864, five years after Nice became part of France, the first railroad arrived, making Nice and the rest of the Riviera accessible to visitors from all over Europe. One hundred thousand visitors arrived in 1865. By 1874 the foreign colony in Nice, mostly British, had grown to 25,000.
In the mid-19th century, with the arrival of railroads, British and French entrepreneurs began to see the potential of tourism in the South of France. At the time, gambling was illegal in France and Italy. In 1856, the Prince of Monaco, Charles III, began constructing a casino in Monaco, which, to avoid criticism by the church, was called a health spa. The first casino was a failure. Then, in 1863, the Prince signed an agreement with a French businessman, Francois Blanc, already the operator of a successful casino at Baden-Baden in the Grand Duchy of Baden in Germany, to build a resort and new casino. Blanc arranged for steamships and carriages to take visitors from Nice to Monaco, built hotels, gardens and a casino in an area called Speluges, which, at the suggestion of Princess Caroline, the mother of Prince Charles, was renamed Monte Carlo, after Charles. When the railway reached Monte Carlo in 1870, hundreds of thousands of visitors began to arrive, and the population of the principality of Monaco doubled.
The casino of Monte Carlo
In the second part of the 19th century, thanks to the railroad, the Riviera became a popular destination for European royalty. Just days after the line opened to Nice in 1864, Czar Alexander II of Russia visited on a private train, followed soon afterwards by Napoleon III and Leopold II, the King of the Belgians.
Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom was a frequent visitor. In 1882, she stayed in Menton, near the Italian border, which had become the largest British colony. In 1891, she spent several weeks at the Grand Hotel Grasse. In 1892, she stayed at the Hotel Cost-belle in Hyères.
From 1895 to 1899, she stayed at the Hotel Regina at Cimiez, in the hills above Nice (the Hotel Regina later became the home of painter Henri Matisse). She traveled with party of between sixty and a hundred, including her chef, ladies in waiting, dentist, Indian servants, her bed and her own food.
Victoria and Albert's son, the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, was also a regular visitor to Cannes, beginning in 1872. He frequented the Club Nautique, a private club on La Croisette, the fashionable seafront boulevard of Cannes. He visited each spring for three weeks, took part in yacht races (he watched from shore, while the royal yacht, Britannia, was sailed by a professional crew), and he had affairs with actresses, courtesans and the wives of aristocrats in the more relaxed moral climate of the Riviera. After he became King in 1901, he never again visited the Riviera.
By the end of the 19th century, the Riviera began to attract painters, who appreciated the climate, the clear light, and the bright colors. Auguste Renoir settled in Cagnes-sur-Mer, and Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso made their homes on the Riviera.
World War I through World War II: American visitors
The First World War brought down many of the royal houses of Europe, and altered the calendar of the Riviera. After the war, larger numbers of Americans began to come, business people and celebrities began to outnumber aristocrats, and the season shifted from winter to summer.
Americans had begun coming to the south of France in the 19th century. Henry James set part of his novel, The Ambassadors, on the Riviera. James Gordon Bennett, the son and heir of the founder of the New York Herald, had a villa in Beaulieu. Industrialist John Pierpont Morgan gambled at Monte Carlo, and bought 18th century paintings by Fragonard in Grasse and shipped them to the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
A feature of the Riviera in the 1920s and 1930s was the Train Bleu, the all first-class sleeping train which brought wealthy passengers from Calais. It made its first trip in 1922, and carried Winston Churchill, Somerset Maugham, and the future King Edward VIII.
After World War I, when Europe was recovering and the American dollar was strong, more Americans, including writers and artists, began coming. Edith Wharton wrote The Age of Innocence (1920) at a villa near Hyères; she won the Pulitzer Prize for the novel, the first woman to do so. Dancer Isadora Duncan frequented Cannes and Nice; she died in 1927 when her scarf caught in the wheel of the car in which she was a passenger and strangled her. The writer F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda first visited in 1924, stopping at Hyères, Cannes and Monte Carlo, eventually staying at St. Raphaël, where he wrote much of The Great Gatsby and began Tender is the Night.
While American visitors were largely responsible for making summer high season, a French fashion designer, Coco Chanel, made sunbathing fashionable. She acquired a striking tan during the summer of 1923, and tans became the fashion in Paris.
During the crisis of the British Monarchy in 1936, Wallis Simpson, the intended bride of King Edward VIII, was at the Villa Lou Vieie in Cannes, talking with the King by telephone each day. After his abdication, the Duke of Windsor, as he became, and his wife stayed at the Villa La Croe near Antibes.
The British novelist Somerset Maugham also became a resident in 1926, buying the Villa Mauresque near the end of Cap Ferrat, near Nice.
World War II through the 1950s
When Germany invaded France in June 1940, the remaining British colony was evacuated to Gibraltar and eventually to Britain. American Jewish groups helped some of the Jewish artists living in the south of France, such as Marc Chagall, to escape to the United States. In August 1942, 600 Jews from Nice were rounded up by French police and sent to Drancy, and eventually to death camps. In all about 5,000 French Jews from Nice perished during the war.
On August 15, 1944, American parachute troops landed near Fréjus, and a fleet landed 60,000 troops of the American Seventh Army and French First Army between Cavalaire and Agay, east of Saint-Raphaël. German resistance crumbled in days.
Saint-Tropez was badly damaged by German mines at the time of the liberation. The novelist Colette organized an effort to assure the town was rebuilt in its original style.
When the war ended, artists Marc Chagall and Pablo Picasso returned to live and work.
The Cannes Film Festival was launched in September 1946, marking the return of French cinema to world screens. The Festival Palace was built in 1949 on the site of the old Cercle Nautique, where the Prince of Wales had met his mistresses. The release of the French film Et Dieu. créa la femme (And God Created Woman) in November 1956 was a major event for the Riviera, making an international star of Brigitte Bardot, and making an international tourist destination of Saint-Tropez, particularly for the new class of wealthy international travelers called the 'jet set.'
The marriage of American film actress Grace Kelly to Prince Rainier of Monaco on April 18, 1956, attracted world attention once again . It was viewed on television by 30 million people.
The 1960s through the 21st century
On May 13, 1971, Mick Jagger, singer of the Rolling Stones, married Nicaraguan model Bianca Perez de Macias in Saint-Tropez, which maintained the image of the Riviera as a haven for the rich and famous.
During the 1960s, the Mayor of Nice, Jacques Médecin, decided to reduce the dependence of the Riviera on ordinary tourism, and to make it a destination for international congresses and conventions. He built the Palais des Congrès at Acropolis, and founded a Chagall Museum and a Matisse Museum at Cimiez. High-rise apartment buildings and real estate developments began to spread.
At the end of August, 1997, Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed spent their last days together on his father's yacht off Pampelonne Beach near Saint-Tropez, shortly before they were killed in a traffic accident in the Alma Tunnel in Paris.
Today the French Riviera is not just an important tourist destination, but a centre for education, high technology, and scientific research. Nice is the fifth largest city in France, home of the University of Nice Sophia-Antipolis, with its own large technology and research park.