A History of the French Riviera

The French Riviera was once saturated with humble fishing ports rather than luxury yachts. Just how did this picturesque stretch of land become an infamous luxury destination?
It wasn’t always like this…Grace Kelly and Cary Grant overlooking Monaco in To Catch a Thief, 1955.

Many feel that today, the French Riviera — otherwise known as the Côte d’Azur — has been invaded by arrivistes, scoundrels and barbarians. It wouldn’t be the first time. During the 7th century BC, this sun-kissed stretch of the Mediterranean was initially settled by ancient Greek sailors, who built trading encampments at Antipolis and Nicaea (the future Antibes and Nice). The Romans came next, developing extensive communities throughout Provence in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. Soon, Germanic barbarians began crashing the party, and with the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the early 5th century, the area was beset by various marauding goths, and invaded by Saracens and Normans in the 9th century.

The House of Grimaldi — which today, of course, rules the principality of Monaco — arrived in the 13th century (when, legend has it, the first Prince Ranier kidnapped and raped a young Flemish maiden, who took up witchcraft and cursed the family to forever suffer unhappy marriages, as countless generations of the Grimaldis indeed have done). Descended from an exiled Genoese nobleman, Francesco the Spiteful, who took over Monaco by disguising himself as a monk seeking refuge then slaughtering the fortress’s inhabitants, branches of the Grimaldi clan lorded over Monaco, Antibes and Nice. The region surrounding the latter came under the protection of the House of Savoy (kings of Sicily and later, all Italy) in 1388, and until 1860, was distinct from Provence — which itself was an independent territory, ruled by Naples, until being absorbed by France in the late 15th century.

The next wave of interlopers to arrive were the British, who in the late 18th century began visiting the poor, rustic collection of fishing and farming villages in the hopes that the warm, dry climate would improve their health. Throughout Provence, wan, sickly English sufferers of ‘consumption’ (tuberculosis) soon abounded. The visiting brother of one of these unfortunate souls, British politician Henry Peter Brougham, First Baron Brougham and Vaux, took a liking to the spot and chose to rent a villa and stay on for the season — his friends and admirers followed suit, and the French Riviera started to grow in popularity as a holiday destination for hale and hearty, affluent and aristocratic Brits.


June 2017


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