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Cannes – The Film Festival City

But what’s there to do in the other 50 weeks?

It all started with a cholera epidemic in Italy. There would have been no glitzy Cannes International Film Festival; no generously endowed nude starlets posing for the paparazzi; no movie deals signed on napkins at the Carlton Hotel terrace; no fleets of late model Mercs, BMWs, Jaguars; no Cannes as we know it . . . had it not been for a cholera epidemic in Italy, circa 1834.

Lord Harry Brougham, Lord Chancellor of England, and his daughter had crossed France, on horse-drawn coach, from Calais to Cannes, on their way to Italy when feverish reports reached them of a cholera epidemic in Italy. Forced to change their vacation plans, father and daughter decided to spend a few days in the one-boat fishing village. It didn’t take serene and sunny Cannes too long to charm the British nobleman and his daughter. The Broughams decided to stay the whole winter. As a matter of fact, the Milord spent the next 34 winters in Cannes.

An inveterate letter writer, Brougham wrote to his friends, back in Britain, about his unexpected discovery. It didn’t take long for the word to spread in London salons and elsewhere about Lord Brougham’s serendipity. British nobility and Continental aristocrats and their entourages, including mistresses, headed to Cannes. Brougham built the first grand house. Other exquisitely sumptuous mansions mushroomed among the lush vegetation. The pilgrimage trail, along the beach, called La Croisette (“Little Cross” in Provencal) became thick with coaches and phaetons. For the next century Cannes basked as the Mecca of the super-rich. The land of champagne, caviar, and yachts.

Although the demographics of the town began to change in the ‘30s, Cannes is still wrongly imagined, by the world, as the snooty, super exclusive, prohibitively expensive hothouse.

But the town changed in the years just prior to the Second World War, thanks to French legislation, which allowed paid vacation. French vacationers rushed to the Riviera and to Cannes. To accommodate the new market, 19th century ornate mansions were converted to apartments and to apartment hotels; two- and three- star hotels proliferated. While Cannes had traditionally been a winter destination, the French holidaymakers came mostly in the summer. Within a few years, Cannes had transformed itself to a year-round and “democratic” destination. The jet setters and mass tourism quickly learned to live side by side.

City Born on A Hill

Despite the postcards and calendar pictures, Cannes is more than the boutique-plastered Croisette main drag, hotels, star-and-car watchers, the film festival, and a marina chockfull of snow-white yachts.

Unlike many North American cities that follow the sun as they grow, Cannes has headed in the opposite direction — east towards the sun. Old Cannes is a gentle hill called Le Suquet and the area around its slopes. The town started here, around a medieval fortress, which still stands. The “climb” to the hill is an easy walk through narrow, cobblestone streets and whitewashed, leafy, red brick roof houses. Ancient wine cellars and anchovy warehouses have been converted to charming restaurants. The 17th century church of Notre Dame d’Esperance, the 12th century St. Anne Chapel and the Museum de la Castre (housed in the fortress) sit at the crest of Le Suquet.

At the foot of Le Suquet is the 19th century La Forville Market. Fresh flowers, fish caught early in the morning, fig, dried carob fruit, prickly pear and Coeur de Boeuf giant tomatoes coalesce into a colorful and vibrant tapestry. The Brobdingnagian tomatoes are called ‘heart of the cow’ not just because of their size but because it’s said they have the texture of meat. La Forville is open every day except Mondays when it is transformed into a flea market. Another flea market is at the nearby Alles de la Liberte, which is open on Saturdays. While strolling among the stalls of French memorabilia, in the shade of the giant carousel, you can watch pensioners play boules, and petanque — the ancient iron ball game of Provence.

A minute walk from La Forville is the Frommagerie Ceneri cheese shop. Owner Jacqueline Ceneri claims to sell 300 varieties of cheese. Since La Croisette prices are prohibitive to most tourists, head to rue d’Antibes, behind the main street, where some of the best of Cannes’ 3,500 stores are located. Clothes, jewelry, leatherwork, the latest in accessories are on sale.

Palace Hotels

No city, save Las Vegas, owes so much to its hotels as Cannes does. Cannes without its ritzy hotels would not be Cannes, resort city par excellence. While the city has close to 100 hotels (5,000 rooms), when you say Cannes hotel, you mean the five-star hotels — Carlton, Martinez, Majestic and Noga. These four palatial hotels are not called hotel in Cannes — they are rightfully referred to as “palais.” The whiter-than-white Carlton (338 rooms and suites) is the symbol of Cannes. Built in 1912, it dominates the Croisette. The bust of Belle Otero, a famous 19th century courtesan, inspired the two distinctive conical domes hanging over the corner turrets. The exterior of the Art Nouveau Carlton is adorned with cornices of flowers and mythical figures. Scenes from “To Catch a Thief”, “A Man and a Woman” and “French Kiss” were shot in this pride of the Riviera hospitality industry. The Carlton regularly enjoys occupancy rates of 90% plus.

La Belle Otero and her measurements are honored once more at the Carlton’s main restaurant, which is named after the celebrated la grande horizontale. Award-winning Chef Francis Chauveau runs the 2 Michelin stars restaurant. The only other 2 Michelin star restaurant is La Palme d’Or, at the art deco Hotel Martinez. The chef is Christian Willer. The 393-room Martinez (1929) is the biggest of the four palais. Nearby is the 305-room Majestic. Its restaurant, La Villa des Lys, has been voted one of the best three restaurants in the world. The chef is Bruno Oger. The Majestic, built in 1926, is close to the fourth and youngest 5-star hotel — the Noga Hilton. Cannes has 11 four-star hotels and numerous two- and three-star hotels and hotel residences for every budget.

Carlton, Martinez, Majestic and Noga are fronted by the palm tree lined Croisette, which forms a spectacular background to the beaches. Although most beaches are private, you can swim there if you use the hotel’s beach facilities. Deck chair rental for the whole day is 100 Francs, around $25.

Man In The Iron Mask

A mile from the crowded and sandy beach are the Lerins Islands — St. Honorat and Ste. Marguerite. The former is inhabited by the Cistercians. The monks are celebrated for their wines and their liqueurs. The latter are flavored with 40 plants and herbs, found on the tiny island. The Cistercians also provide retreats for laypeople that want to get away from the madding crowd.

For a very different kind of seclusion, visit Fortress Vaubon on the adjacent island of Ste. Marguerite. Although the island is known for its bird migration sanctuary, and the Museum of the Sea (Roman and Saracen wrecks), Ste. Marguerite’s main claim to fame is the mysterious stranger who was held here, under forced seclusion from 1687-1698.

Since he wore a metal mask and no one is certain of his identity, he has been called The Man in The Iron Mask. Theories about his identity are aplenty. At least the names of 60 people have been tossed, through the years, as candidates for the miserable title — everyone from Pascal to Moliere to Voltaire, Cromwell’s son, an African slave, and even a woman. Other nominees include three counts, one duke, a finance minister, an uppity court page, and a doctor’s son who claimed Louis XIII was impotent and thus Louis XIV couldn’t be the legitimate king of France. However, the most likely candidate is the half- or twin-brother of Louis XIV, the illegitimate son of Louis’ wife, Anne of Austria, and the Duke of Buckingham.

The hapless prince was jailed to avoid succession intrigue. He was then forced to don an iron mask (steel covered with velvet) and sent to Ste. Marguerite. The mask had a chin-piece that was equipped with steel springs allowing him to eat without removing his mask. After 11 years of imprisonment, the prisoner was taken to Bastille where he died in 1703.

 Voltaire told the tale in Siecle des Louis XIV. “A few months after the death of Mazarin (cardinal and the power behind the throne), someone above average height, young, and with a most handsome and noble appearance, was transferred in great secrecy to the fort on the island of Ste. Marguerite, in the sea of Provence. During the journey he wore a mask . . .” A century later Alexandre Dumas popularized the story in his famous romance.

Of all the fantastic stories and tall tales linked to The Man in The Iron Mask, the following must take the cake. At Ste. Marguerite the prisoner, the twin brother of Louis XIV, became intimate with the attractive daughter of a prison official. The lovers were married in a secret ceremony in the dungeon. A son, maybe two, were born to the clandestine lovers. Julie, the young mother, sent the boys to Corsica, to be raised by her family. They were raised under their maternal name —Buonaparte. You guessed it: Napoleon was a descendant of the boys. Napoleon Bonaparte was a Bourbon!

You can visit the dungeon at Fort Vaubon and see where the royal prisoner was held in isolation and in absolute silence for 11 years. The dungeon windows have a triple mesh of iron bars. Louis XIV ordered that the prisoner be put in a dungeon looking north so that he would be deprived of sunshine.

Although Cannes is a mile or so away from Ste. Marguerite, it seems to be a different land, if not another planet. Ste. Marguerite is a place to listen to the sound of silence. From the ramparts of Fort Vauban, Cannes seafront seems like an oversized postcard — colorful, glossy, and serene under brazen blue skies.

When You Go…

How to get there – Cannes is only 15 miles from Nice. There are around 300 weekly flights from Paris to Nice.

Shopping – Brand name clothes, jewelry, wine, and cheese.

Cuisine – Seafood and Provencal. A good place to sample local food is at La Mirabelle, Rue du Suquet. A sumptuous dinner will cost you $50 to $60. The oldest restaurant is Auberge Provençale (1860).

Special events – Musical Nights of Suquet (Feb., March, and July); International Show Jumping competition (June); Cannes International Film Festival (mid-May); Festival of Pleasure Boating (Sept.).

Golf – There around 20 golf courses less than 20-minute drive from the Croisette.

When to go – Mid-June to mid-September is the peak season, but more and more tourists are visiting Cannes as early as February.

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