There are three sides of the French Riviera. The touristic (most visible), the charming village (hidden) and the air of wealthy elitism that lingers from 1864 when the new railway ushered in the likes of Tsar Nicolas II, Queen Victoria and—later—Somerset Maugham, Picasso and Fitzgerald. This third side is invisible but palpable, kept alive in historic buildings and plaques that bear heavy-handed stories. Traveling there for the first time, I was equally fascinated by all three facets of the weird, old history coupled with the newness brought in by easy travel and cheap flights. A round trip flight from Paris to Nice can cost as little as $60. Traveling with a Beaulieu sur mer native revealed the hidden charming village vibe without feeling like I was intruding. The whole coast is an area entrenched with history and the kind of mystery associated with unspoken old school rules like Wharton’s “Age of Innocence” (written in Provence). As Somerset Maugham aptly observed, the French Riviera is “a sunny place for shady people.”
The South of France is predictably touristy. Confounding reveals of culture clash happen on the beach, in the stores, in the little towns way up in the hills that look like secrets but are filled with junky stuff for non-locals ("I really need a big acrylic portrait of Hugh Laurie," said no one ever but I saw one hanging in a window.) Accents from everywhere are everywhere and natives are slightly hostile. “Slight” might be the best word to use to describe the area, actually. Or maybe subtle. Just walking by, everything feels authentic and old but closer inspection reveals new plaster and menu items that definitely aren’t French. It’s charming in its own way, really. From the entirely hand-painted Chapelle Cocteau to the creepy garden populated with tortured, naked, life-size and very detailed sculptures, there's something for everyone.