By Utpal Borpujari in Cannes
Cannes, they say, is a place to be seen at. To be seen at, during the 12 days in May when it plays host to the world’s most-glamorous and biggest film festival. But it is also a place to see, particularly during the rest of the year, when the madness of cinema and its associated glam-quotient is missing. But that does not necessarily mean that the high-life in the city abutting the azure blue waters of the Mediterranean is any less during the non-festival times.
Cannes is not the place to be for anyone interested in exploring its nooks and corners during the days of movie madness. And the city, just a small fishing village till Britain’s Foreign Minister Lord Henry Peter Brougham settled here in the early 19th century, lured by its sunny climate, has a lot more on offer than just movies. There are numerous joys to be discovered in Cannes. Of course, that is apart from the sandy stretches of attractive beaches which lure the sun-seekers by the drove.
The Romans have been attracted in the ancient times by the beauty of the place, and so has been Napoleon in his time, and it still continues to work its charm on countless visitors, many of whom also descend on the town during the film festival just to catch a glimpse of the hot Hollywood stars and go back with memories of not only those starry glimpses but also the smells and sights of the place.
The charm starts working on you as soon as you get out of the Nice “Côte d’Azur” (blue coast) airport. Nice itself is one of the happening cities in southern France, attracting the moneyed for reasons same as that of Cannes – the high-life and the beaches. The 26-km drive to Cannes is replete with glimpses of the sylvan surroundings of the region, as you pass some beautiful settlements surrounded by lush vegetation on an undulating topography.
Cannes, located in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, is among the hot spots of European tourists because of its mostly-sunny appearance – unlike the northern areas where the weather remains gloomy for a significant part of the year. Quite naturally, the beaches at Cannes are choc-a-bloc with sunbathers, the one along the Croisette being the most popular.
As soon as you reach Cannes, the first thing to dazzle you would be the luxurious yachts and boats anchored along the Vieux port. Rarely would one see such an array of dazzling beauties at one single place. But it is practically impossible to step onto any of these, as most of them are privately-owned. That is when reality dawns upon you, and you decide to explore the city instead. That is after you dump you luggage in your chosen accommodation, which could be a studio apartment, a hotel room, a guest house, a palatial hotel or a country house, depending on how deep your pocket is. Handy information for casual tourists: accommodation rates are officially hiked during the film festival period to up to 4-5 times the normal rates.
For those with a tongue for new tastes, Cannes is heaven, as it is a place replete with joints offering the finest of French food. Though a bit heavy on the pocket, some of the eating joints offer heavenly delights. As a film critic covering the film festival, I had an opportunity to taste the purest form of local cuisine, at a lunch organised by the city mayor on the lawns of Musée de la Castre, the local museum on a hillock in the old quarters known as the Le Suquet. The menu comprised the best of local cuisine: cod unsalted during the previous 48 hours and then steamed and dressed with olive oil, steamed zucchini, carrots, string beans and potatoes with olive oil and hard-boiled eggs, and Aiolo sauce comprising smashed garlic, olive oil and smashed potato mayonnaise. Of course, all of it accompanied by a supply of some of the finest French wine, including some of the best Rose or pink wine you can ever get to taste. In fact, local food in the Cote de Azur region is known for its delicate structure, garnished with basil, garlic and black olive, which sets it apart from food from elsewhere in the country.
After you have your fill of waltzing down the Croisette, one of the most famous beach-front roads perhaps in the entire world thanks to its association with film festival, and feasting your eyes on the legendary Carlton and Martinez hotels, you move to Rue d’Antibes,
another street nearby on which stands showrooms of perhaps all of the world’s most luxurious brands, and, not to forget, shops selling bakery items and chocolates. Of course, it is after you have had your fill of gawking at the Palais des Festivals et des Congress, the main venue of the Cannes Film Festival known the world over for its red carpet walks by top film stars, and that you do even when it is not the festival time and the stairs are barren and empty! And not forgetting to visit the adjacent Allees des stars where you can see hand imprints of famous film stars cemented on the pavement. La Croisette and the streets abutting it are also the hub of Cannes’ nightlife, which for many extends till the sunrise.
Next it is time to walk ahead and visit Le Souquet, and to do that you have several winding alleys going up the hillock. It is a heaven for pedestrians, and you can walk up and down the roads, visiting the ramparts of the old city, the Musée de la Castre housing archeological objects from all around the Mediterranean as well as other continents, the 12th century square watch tower, the clock tower and the religious buildings, apart from, of course, getting an extraordinary view of the whole bay of Cannes and the Lérins Islands off the coast. One place that is not to be missed is the Forville market, because it is here you get a feel of the vibrant, local food stores selling bakery items, wines, fish, meat and vegetables. Best time to visit it is early in the morning, when fresh items are offloaded onto the shop racks. Other markets that are worth exploring are Gambetta, La Bocca, Allées (selling flowers), Bygone Times Market (for antiques), and the arts and crafts market.
Cannes for a tourist has a dream location, because from here it hardly takes an hour to reach some other high-interest places, such as Grasse, considered as the perfume capital of the world, Antibes, which houses a museum that has many of Picasso’s works, and, of course, Monaco, the world’s Formula One hotspots. Then there is Vallauris, “the capital of pottery” where Picasso, Cocteau and Jean Marais achieved some of their finest creative peaks. The old town of Mougins is another place of interest, offering some breathtaking views of blooming flowers as well as the numerous art galleries.
One can also take a ferry to the Lérins Islands, or to the Saint Honorat island, a wild pine-forest sanctuary with winding paths and private creeks. It also has a medieval monastery that owns a vineyard producing some of the finest red and white wines, “blessed” by the resident Cistercian monks. The Sainte Marguerite island is another attraction for tourists, with its remnants of an ancient Roman settlement and the Fort Royal castle where the never-identified Man with the Iron Mask was imprisoned for 11 years. You see, Cannes is not only about the film festival, but it is quite happy with the tag of being the venue for the world’s biggest such festival.