We tend to think of the South of France as a beach destination. But in the spring and autumn shoulder seasons, when temperatures are not as oppressive as they can be in the summer months, Nice and its environs have plenty to offer those who like to take in a bit of culture between glasses of rosé.
his cultural richness is the legacy of the artists who have always flocked to the Côte d’Azur — but especially in the first half of the 20th century. And while the area has a reputation for being pricey today, a well-planned cultural itinerary doesn’t have to cost the earth. Most of the highlights are an easy day trip from Nice, and accessible by public transport, either by bus or the handy train line that runs along the coast east and west of Nice. (It’s also worth checking out Riviera Pass to see if the places you want to visit are covered; frenchrivierapass.com).
Nice itself is home to the Matisse Museum, housing one of the world’s largest collections of the French painter and sculptor’s works. Matisse lived and worked here from 1917 to 1954 and donated many of the works to the museum himself — the collection ranges from early to late works.
The city is also home to the Marc Chagall Museum, dedicated to the Russian-French modernist artist — with a particular focus on his religious works. There’s also the Asian Arts Museum, the archaeological museum of Cimiez (the Roman town of Cemenelum) located on a hill on the fringes of the city, and museums dedicated to modern and naive art, and the Belle Époque, as well as an observatory. The Musée des Beaux-Arts Jules Chéret is housed in the former private mansion of Russian Princess Elizaveta Vasilievna Kochubey, and its collection focuses on works by French artists of the 19th and 20th centuries.
You’re spoiled for choice when it comes to good restaurants in Nice, but the reasonably priced and excellent Chez Davia and the charmingly old-fashioned and tiny La Merenda (the chef, Dominique Le Stanc, was formerly head chef at the two-Michelin-starred Negresco on the Promenade des Anglais) are two to consider booking ahead.
In Antibes, the Picasso Museum — open mornings only between September and June — is a 15-minute walk from the station that will take you past the marina so you can have a good gawk at the luxury yachts and a mosey around the old town. Housed in Grimaldi Castle, where the artist lived in 1946, the collection comprises 246 paintings, including his famous ‘La Joie de Vivre’ and a selection of his ceramics. The Renoir Museum in Cagnes-sur-Mer (open year-round, with a free shuttle bus from Nice during the summer) is a little beauty, located in what was the artist’s home in his later years and giving a real insight into his daily life with his family.
A trip inland to St-Paul-de-Vence can take more than an hour and some dedication to figure out the best route, depending on bus timetables, but if lunch on the terrace at La Colombe d’Or is the reward at the end — order the panier de crudites and the hors d’oeuvres — then it’s worth it. Inside, the walls are covered with works of art by Miró, Braque, Chagall and Calder, among many others. Legend has it that many of the artists featured paid for meals and lodging with their art.
By the pool is a large ceramic work by Sean Scully, for which we can assume the Irish artist was paid.
The Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence — more often known as the Matisse Chapel — is in use today by Dominican nuns. Matisse designed every aspect of the chapel, from the architecture to the stained-glass windows, the murals and the priest’s vestments. Though not particularly religious himself, his pure white chapel is considered one of the greatest religious sanctuaries of the 20th century.
Back down on the coast and heading east, the Cocteau Chapel — correctly the Chapelle Saint-Pierre de Villefranche — is a bite-sized art experience, with the frescoes of scenes from the saint’s life painted by the artist who spent so much time here. It’s just the thing to work up an appetite before lunch at La Mère Germaine on the waterfront, where the bill can add up if you’re not careful.
The Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat was designed by French architect Aaron Messiah and built between 1907 and 1912 for Baroness Béatrice de Rothschild, the wife of banker Baron Maurice de Ephrussi. She donated the mansion and its contents — antique furniture, Old Master paintings, sculptures, objets d’art and an extensive collection of rare porcelain — to the state, and the gardens are classified by the Ministry of Culture as one of the Remarkable Gardens of France.
On the coast at Beaulieu-sur-Mer, a little further east, the Greek Revival style Villa Kerylos was built in the early 1900s by French archaeologist Théodore Reinach, and has been listed as a monument historique by the French Ministry of Culture since 1966. It’s a short walk from the station as, conveniently, is Le Traiteur des Halles, where you’ll find all manner of delicious edibles, close to Patisserie Mesiano, with its sweet and savoury pastries. Beaulieu also has an excellent wine shop, La Cave de Beaulieu.
Further east again, past Monaco, the train will bring you to Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, the location of Eileen Gray’s 1920s seaside villa E-1027. It’s only open to visitors from April, but if you are organised enough to plan ahead and book the guided tour (in English, unless your French is particularly good) you will have modernist bragging rights for many months to come, and will have worked up an appetite for lunch at one of the beach restaurants — La Cigale is very smart — before hopping on the train back to Nice, replete with culture.
Irish architect Eileen Gray’s modernist E-1027 house at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, designed with her partner, Romanian architect and critic Jean Badovici. Book a guided tour in advance at monuments-nationaux.fr
Ryanair flies direct from Dublin to Nice year-round several times a week. Aer Lingus has a seasonal service that recommences on March 26. ryanair.com; aerlingus.com
For a real treat, book into the Colombe D’Or in St-Paul-de-Vence for a night or two. While the village is undeniably touristy, the hotel is a gem with a museum-worthy art collection and a wonderful terrace. Rooms from €250 off-season. la-colombe-dor.com