Revisit the golden era of high society sojourns to the coastal resorts of Cannes, Biarritz and Deauville
A whim, a caprice, an adoration. If you believe the legendary lore that gave rise to the sudden vogue of France’s glitziest seaside resorts, it all seems to goes back to a royal or aristocratic infatuation. Take Cannes, for example, where one steaming bowl of garlicky bouillabaisse would change the course of history and transform a sleepy fishing village – then a settlement of about 300 souls – into an ultra-fashionable winter playground for the crowned heads of Europe and the world’s wealthiest pleasure-seekers.
Back in 1834, Henry Brougham, Britain’s former Lord Chancellor, was on his way to Italy, but a cholera epidemic prevented him from crossing the River Var. Making the best of his quarantine, he stayed at an auberge in Cannes, where the innkeeper served him some thick, home-cooked fish soup. Finding the cuisine utterly remarkable, he decided to stay in Cannes, where he built himself a grand Italianate villa with a sprawl of emerald lawn. Lord Brougham then convinced his wealthy, horticulturallygifted friends from England to follow suit; soon the British were busy planting gardens with exotic non-indigenous species, from
palms and mimosa to eucalyptus and flowering succulents, that would later become emblematic of the Riviera landscape.
Globetrotting botanical expert Thomas Robinson Woolfield brought rare specimens from the gooseberry to the acacia to Cannes – all indirectly thanks to Brougham, who escaped from “Fog-land” (as he called England) every winter, and continued to delight in Provençal cooking. Above all, Brougham even
persuaded the King of France, Louis-Philippe, to finance the construction of an artificial harbour.
All aboard Le Train Bleu
Hailed as Cannes’ founding godfather, (his marble statue sits in the square across from the Palais des Festivals), Lord Brougham surely would have found it amusing that by 1878 – only ten years after his death – Cannes had become an effervescent hub of royal activity, with almost 50 hotels, including the Croisette’s snow-white Belle Époque palaces, plus Anglican churches, an exclusive yacht club le Cercle Nautique which hosted balls, croquet lawns and tennis courts.
As the droves of sun-seeking aristocrats arrived on the luxurious Train Bleu, only a few visitors were less enthusiastic about Cannes than neighbouring Nice; Queen Victoria, for example did not find Cannes to her taste, presumably because it was the favourite resort of her son, the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, whose insouciant behaviour she famously found appalling.
Though the British were the pioneers and soon joined by colonies of Russians, it was the influx of well-to-do Americans who put Cannes – and neighbouring village Juan-les-Pins – on the map as a modern destination. Fast forward to the mid1920s, when the Prohibition soured the mood for extravagant partying. Enter the new sun-bathing craze, all-night gambling, women sporting silk pyjamas on the Croisette during the day, and champagne cocktails in front of a coppery sea at sunset.
The Riviera’s bohemian atmosphere, launched early on by American painter Gerald Murphy and his wife Sara on the Cap d’Antibes, gradually evolved into a kind of celebrity circus with the arrival of wealthy New York businessman Frank Jay Gould (son of railroad magnate Jay Gould) and his patron-of-the-arts socialite wife, Florence. Gould rehabilitated Juan-les-Pins’ casino and bought the 200-room Hôtel Provençal, turning it into a glamorous landmark; Florence, who introduced water-skiing to the Côte d’Azur, hosted lavish lunches in her Cannes villa, El Patio, where she entertained the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Orson
Welles and Nelson Rockefeller. When the stock market crashed in 1929, the party was over for most Americans and the uproarious era of les années folles came abruptly to an end.
Read More: Taking the Slow Road to the French Riviera
Up on the northern French coast in Normandy, the shaping of another new resort began in the 1860s with one man’s passion for horses – or to be more precise, racehorses, which also meant stud farms, breeding stables and racing grounds. It was the Duc de Morny, half-brother of Napoleon III, who vowed to create a racecourse that would be the star attraction of France’s first fashionable beach town, Deauville.
Enterprising Morny, who was determined to make Deauville more attractive to high society than its modest resort neighbour, Trouville, made some shrewd decisions. From sand dunes, a few cottages and fewer than 100 townspeople, the town developed rapidly into a chic Paris-by-the Sea watering hole, with a port,
a new railway station, the construction of villas and an elegant hotel. And a racecourse. However, in comparison to the devil-may-care atmosphere in the south of France, the early days of Deauville’s time in the sun were relatively calm. While the gentlemen went out for their morning ride on horseback, the ladies would head down to the beach to paddle in the sea. Long champagne lunches took up a good part of the afternoon, followed by all of society showing up at the racecourse for the rest of the day.
After the collapse of the Second Empire in 1870, it took nearly three decades to jump-start Deauville with sophisticated amusements and performances by renowned artists, including the dancer Nijinsky. Tango had also come into vogue and the ‘Deauvillites’, as the high society weekenders were called, took
up the new dance craze with enthusiasm. The resort’s beach, rebaptised as la Plage Fleurie (the Flowered Beach), and a whirl of activities – polo, gambling, yachting, tennis, plus cocktails in between – attracted pleasure-seekers such as the Aga Khan and André Citroën. In 1913, when Gabrielle Chanel opened up her
second store in Deauville, the 30-year-old designer revolutionised fashion with striped jersey and tones the colour of wet sand. By the 1930s, the town had far outshone its rival Trouville, with highly unusual innovations like the Pompeiian Baths, a handsome central mosaic-tiled atrium with marble columns and a fountain where visitors would lounge to show off their latest swimwear.
Over on the western coast in Basque country in the mid-19th century, another stylish resort was born from a fond childhood memory of a deserted fishing village. This time it was the Spanishborn Empress Eugénie who in 1855 convinced her spouse, Napoleon III, to buy a 20-hectare beachfront property in the sleepy town of Biarritz and build her a palatial, E-shaped holiday home. It wasn’t long after the royal couple adopted Biarritz as their idyllic seaside retreat that the crowned heads began to take notice and another high-class resort was launched.
From France Today magazine
Lead photo credit : Trouville sur Mer beach promenade in Normandy © shutterstock
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