Côte d’Azur


Published in The Sunday Telegraph in 2002

Something rather exciting happened during this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Fashion journalists Susannah Constantine and Trinny Woodall were robbed. But this was not a run-of-the-mill mugging on the Croisette in Cannes. Nor were they the victims of car crime so prevalent in this part of the Mediterranean. No, the glamorous pair were robbed of their money, jewellery and credit cards as they slept in a friend’s luxury villa. There was, it seemed, a cat burglar on the prowl.

The account almost exactly mirrored a scene from To Catch a Thief, in which Cary Grant plays a former cat burglar who, aided by Grace Kelly, sets out to trap a thief. I can never watch this quintessential Riviera movie without longing to drive along the Grand Corniche in a sports car or drink Champagne on a hotel balcony overlooking the Mediterranean while fireworks light up the night sky. Now here were Susannah and Trinny having their own To Catch a Thief moment. Perhaps it was time I had one too?

I booked a weekend at the Martinez, a five-star Art Deco hotel on the Croisette. Strictly speaking, it should have been the Carlton – that’s where Grace Kelly’s character stays and where much of the action takes place – but it was full and, anyway, the Martinez has a swimming pool, a bigger beach and a two-Michelin star restaurant.

It also has two new, ultra-luxurious penthouse suites – complete with butler and sports car – which I’m sure Kelly would have stayed in, had Alfred Hitchcock been making the movie today. The penthouse was out of our league but our room did have a narrow balcony overlooking the Mediterranean. Eagerly I checked the local events magazine. There were no fireworks scheduled.

When Cary Grant arrives in Cannes he dives off a speed boat, swims to the Carlton hotel’s Beach Club and flops down onto a sunlounger. This, as it turns out, was poetic licence. Like every other beach on this narrow ribbon of sand, the Beach Club is strictly private. There is not only a fee to use it but also a sliding price scale in operation, depending on how close your row of sunloungers is to the sea. Sunbathing is a costly business here – unless you’re prepared to walk up to the patch of public beach at the far end of the Croisette.

The Martinez charges guests to use its outdoor swimming pool too. “If we didn’t, all our guests would want to use it and it would get too crowded,” explained a member of staff.

It was too late in the day to sunbathe anyway so, after a quick stroll up to the ugly Palais des Festivals, where the most important events of the Film Festival are staged, we returned to our hotel to change for dinner.

The walls of the Palme d’Or, where chef Christian Willer creates some of the finest dishes on the Riviera, are studded with photographs of movie stars and directors. The photos reflect the town’s long connection with the movie business (the restaurant is, after all, named after the film festival’s top award) but the sight of Hitchcock behind a camera reminded us that we hadn’t had one To Catch a Thief moment so far and we resolved to try harder the next day.

After an early breakfast, we set off on our drive along the Grand Corniche. In the movie, Kelly packs a “basket lunch with chicken and beer” into her throaty little sports car and, within minutes, she and Grant are tearing along the road between Nice and Monaco. We had a VW Polo, two bars of chocolate and a packet of peanuts from the mini bar and, within minutes, were in a traffic jam on the coast road out of Cannes.

Traffic jams are unavoidable on the Riviera. The road to St Tropez is notoriously dreadful in high summer but those around Cannes can get pretty sticky too. Driving is not helped by traffic lights that seem invariably on red and drivers whose preferred method of parking is to pull up vaguely parallel with the kerb and then just turn the engine off.

Eventually, after successfully negotiating our way through Antibes but then taking the wrong road out of Nice, we found ourselves on the Moyenne Corniche. “It’s the wrong corniche. We want the grande one,” I wailed, stabbing at the map with my finger. “Quick. Turn left here.” “I can’t turn left here. It’s a no entry,” snapped my boyfriend. “Why didn’t you tell me before?”

At last we got ourselves onto the Grande Corniche. Far below us, the Mediterranean glittered and danced in the bright sunshine. Hundreds – thousands – of pink-tiled rooftops jostled to fill the space between the treeline and the sea. We wound the windows down and let the wind ruffle our hair. It was almost like being in a sports car.

Then, on a bend, opposite a school, we spotted a designated picnic spot – the Jardin Méditerranéen Plateau Saint Michel – with tables and benches, carved out of tree trunks, scattered among the pines. At the cliff edge, we found a table with an orientation map painted on it, and sat down to eat the chocolate and peanuts.

Our next stop was Eze. This pretty medieval village perché appears in the background at the beginning of the movie. Cars are not allowed into the village’s narrow cobbled streets. There are a couple of donkeys to transport luggage up the hill to one of the hotels, but guests and visitors like us have to make the journey on shanks’s pony.

Bypassing the panoramique, we trudged up to the Nid d’Aigle café at the top of the village. There, in the shade of a 300-year-old mulberry tree, we shared a lemon pie and listened to the church clock strike nine (it was actually 12.10).

On the way down, we passed a stall selling string puppets, almost all of them witches. Why witches? “It’s from when Eze used to belong to Italy,” explained the stallholder. “The Italian witches kept away evil.” He told us this in French and again in English. I still don’t understand what he meant.

We had one more stop to make in Nice before we returned to Cannes. In the film, Grant goes to Nice Flower Market for a secret assignation. “How to you like the place?” his contact asks him. “It’s a kind of travel folder heaven where a man dreams he’ll go when he retires,” replies Grant.

For once, French directions and my map reading didn’t let us down, and we succeeded in parking right under the market itself. Emerging from the gloom of the car park we were dazzled by the array of cut flowers and plants, though as we wandered past the buckets of delphiniums and roses, it was the fish at the far end of the market we could smell rather than the flowers.

As the sun began to turn pink, we were ordering cocktails in the Martinez beach bar. A few dedicated sunbathers lapped up the last of the rays but most of the action was taking place above us, as le tout Cannes began its evening turn along the Croisette: elegant Frenchwomen, overdressed Russians, underdressed Britons, barely dressed women of obvious ill-repute – all striving to avoid stumbling over the army of small dogs that yap and defecate their way along this part of the coast.

We ate in the old town that evening in a cobbled steet studded with tiny restaurants. Should we try our luck at the casino, as they do in To Catch a Thief, I wondered? In the end, though, we ordered another bottle of rose and stayed where we were.

Later that evening, we uncorked a bottle of Champagne from the mini bar and squeezed out onto the narrow balcony. There were no fireworks of course but we made do with the flashing light from one of two tiny lighthouses on the seawall. We listened to the whisper of the waves and the swish of car tyres on hot Tarmac. It was a magical moment – if not quite a movie one.

And so to bed. Tomorrow we planned to drive to St Tropez which, given the traffic, meant an early start. But there was one thing I had to do first. Mindful of Trinny and Susannah’s To Catch a Thief moment, I gathered up my jewellery, credit cards and euros, and locked them in the safe.