Coast to Château: Hidden History of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin
Located between Monaco and Menton, east of Nice you’ll find the commune of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, an idyllic area of the French Riviera that is not as esteemed as the popular yacht charter destinations of Cannes or Saint Tropez, but with all the appealing elements that are unmistakably Côte d’Azur.
Roquebrune-Cap-Martin has a photogenically Mediterranean setting with a medieval Château dominating the village before the landscape drops down to the sea. There are three distinct parts that make up the commune – the town with coastal resort, Cap Martin and the medieval village.
Coastal Fancy: From Chanel to Le Corbusier
The Roquebrune-Carnolès resort town is located below the medieval village with a pleasant seafront promenade that stretches from Cap Martin to Menton. The main pebble beach, Plage de Carnolès, is mostly public access with restaurants and water sports hireage; there are a few private beach zones and you’ll also find two sculptures of Jazz Age singer and dancer Josephine Baker who lived in the town from 1969 to 1975.
Cap Martin is the wooded peninsula area, peppered with lavish villas owned or holidayed in by famous visitors in the past. As with much of the French Riviera, the climate attracted dignitaries and the affluent crowd to Cap Martin; Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld, King Edward VII, Napoleon III’s wife Empress Eugénie, the Empress of Austria, King Oscar II of Sweden, Winston Churchill, William Butler Yeats, Marlène Dietrich and A.A Milne, the creator of Winnie the Pooh.
Villa La Souco hosted artists including Matisse and a number of Nobel Laureates including Yeats and Rudyard Kipling and Villa La Pausa welcomed Picasso, Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau.
Villa La Pausa on Avenue de la Torraca is probably the most famous villa in Cap Martin – built in 1928 by architect Robert Streitz for Coco Chanel and Hugh Grosvenor, the second Duke of Westminster who she met in Monte-Carlo.
Chanel spent six years as a child at a 12th century Cistercian abbey orphanage in Aubazine where she learned to sew and later repurposed the intertwining ‘C’ on the abbey’s stained glass windows into the now world-famous Chanel logo. The abbey also inspired elements of Villa La Pausa’s design such as a cloister around a courtyard, stone staircase and hall. The Villa also alludes to Chanel fragrances; a recurring pattern of five windows on the façade gives a nod to Chanel No. 5 and another Chanel perfume directly refers to the year of purchase and name, ’28 La Pausa’.
Chanel lived there from 1929 to 1953 after which she sold the property after the Duke’s death. La Pausa was then bought by Emery Reves, a publisher and journalist. Reves and his wife Wendy’s guests included Greta Garbo, Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco, the Duke of Windsor, Somerset Maugham and Winston Churchill who used to write there and paint the view of the gardens filled with orange and olive trees, lavender and iris.
Much of the history of La Pausa is attributed to Chanel because of her fame, however during their years at La Pausa the Reves owned a substantial collection of decorative art as well as important paintings by Monet, Rodin, Bonnard, Renoir, Van Gogh, Cézanne and Degas. After Emery’s death, Wendy donated 1400 items in 1985 including impressionist and post-impressionist paintings, porcelain, sculptures, rare European furniture and decorative objects to the Dallas Museum of Arts. Known as the Wendy and Emery Reves Collection, the collection is presented in five rooms that are a reconstruction of various rooms at Villa La Pausa with original furnishings, décor and books. There are also rare books and paintings from Winston Churchill.
One of the most popular things to do when visiting Roquebrune-Cap-Martin is to walk the picturesque coastal path. Named after Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris who is better known as Le Corbusier, the Promenade Le Corbusier follows the shoreline of Cap Martin past rocky coves and the exclusive mansions with magnificent views of Menton, Mont Gros and Monaco.
From the western end of Roquebrune-Carnolès town, to reach the pathway you walk past ‘Le Pirate’ a kitschy seaside restaurant which back in its heyday used to welcome all the celebrities from the ’50’s onwards including Brigitte Bardot, Frank Sinatra, Kirk Douglas and Roger Moore. Continuing along avenue Winston Churchill you reach L’Hippocampe, a family-run restaurant with a traditional welcome. Established in 1963, L’Hippocampe is open for lunch from Tuesday to Sunday and variable evenings for dinner reservations. Their menu is strong on fresh seafood and the simplicity of the décor adds to the ‘wow’ factor from the prime location – we recommend a quick ocean swim from the private pontoon followed by a meal of oysters and Sole Meunière (www.hippocampe-restaurant.com)
Further along the road you shouldn’t miss La Cigale Vista Beach, a chic waterfront restaurant designed by architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte with incredible views to Menton and Italy. Open seasonally, it rates as one of our recommended places to spend a day ashore for any yacht charters on the French Riviera. Try their quinoa salad with lobster before settling down on the panoramic terrace for a cool drink (www.lacigalevistabeach.uk)
Continuing around the cape, the coastal path goes under a concrete passageway beneath the swimming pool of the large residence of Grand Hôtel du Cap Martin. The Grand Hôtel du Cap Martin was designed by one of the most significant architects of the Belle Époque, Danishman Hans-Georg Tersling. He designed a number of major buildings on the French Riviera including the Hôtel Metropole in Monte-Carlo, the Russian Orthodox church and Palais de l’Europe in Menton, Hôtel Bristol in Beaulieu-sur-Mer and the Musée Massena in Nice.
Back in the late 19th century, the Grand Hôtel du Cap Martin was a luxury hotel with guests that included royalty as well as attendees for an annual horse race (Concours Hippique du Cap Martin) that previously existed at a racecourse on the Cap Martin in the Torraca district. During World War I, the hotel was transformed into the Michelham Convalescent Home No. 8 for British officers, funded by Lord and Lady Michelham. Today, it is home to some fabulous apartments, many of which can be rented for holidays.
Further along the pathway, you can see the seafront annex in Byzantine style for the historically-listed Villa Cypris. Villa Cypris is adjacent to Empress Eugénie’s Belle Époque Villa Cyrnos.
The coastal pathway also hides some of the minimalist architectural masterpieces of the 20th century. In 1929, furniture designer Eileen Gray completed her first architecture project, a landmark building called Villa E-1027 furnished with one-off replicas of her most iconic furniture. Yacht charter guests keen on modern architecture and design can take two-hour guided tours that visit Villa E-1027 as well as Le Corbusier’s tiny UNESCO-listed beach cabanon and Étoile de Mer, the neighbouring restaurant decorated in Corbusier’s murals. The tours must be reserved in advance via capmoderne.com
“I have a chateau on the Côte d’Azur, It’s for my wife. It’s extravagant in comfort and gentleness.”
Below the buildings, Plage de Buse and Plage du Golfe Bleu are pebble beaches with lovely views. Le Corbusier himself drowned in the sea there in 1965 and his gravesite beside his wife Yvonne is in the cemetery Saint Pancrace in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin.
Continuing westward, you will see the buildings of busy yacht charter destination Monaco soar out of the coastline starting with the Monte-Carlo Beach Hotel, the Monte-Carlo Bay Hotel & Resort and Monte-Carlo Country Club which is the venue for the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters.
Medieval Castle & Village Traditions
The medieval village is perched above the coast with spectacular views across the narrow cobblestoned alleyways, arched passages and restored townhouses, seemingly built on top and into the rocks.
It’s the quintessential French Riviera setting with a quiet charm where fame goes unnoticed to most of the locals – double winner of the Prix Goncourt, Romain Gary lived at 4 Impasse Scarouget and a scene from 50 Shades Darker was filmed here but you won’t find masses of tourists clogging the streets to find out hidden secrets.
Sightseeing here is not about supercars or luxury shopping but focuses on traditions and history. The 13th century Church of Saint Marguerite, extensively restored over the centuries has beautiful paintings and a copy of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, albeit much smaller than the Sistine Chapel version.
East of the village on Chemin de Menton on the way to the Chapel of La Pausa you can see an ancient olive tree, olivier millénaire, one of the oldest olive trees in Provence and estimated to be over 1000 years old.
Traditional festivals have high importance to the Roquebrunois including Fête des Genêts in June where children decorate costumes with broom flowers, and the reenactment of scenes from Passion of the Christ every 5th August honoring a vow made by villagers who survived the Riviera-wide plague in 1467. One of the most interesting Roquebrune festivals is the Procession des Limaces (also called the Procession of the Entombment of Christ) that occurs yearly on Good Friday when thousands of snail shells are filled with oil and wicks to be illuminated in the evening and placed on the village window sills, squares and steps.
If you’re hoping for an impressive vantage point for a photo, drop into Hôtel Restaurant les Deux Frères just below the Château that has unbeatable views of the coastline. For a dining experience with lots of character-filled charm, make a reservation at Au Grand Inquisiteur in the village. The menu simplifies gastronomy with just 5 starters, 5 mains and 5 desserts but you can’t miss trying the wild boar stew with polenta (www.augrandinquisiteur.com)
The Château is the main attraction of Roquebrune village, reached via a huddle of cobblestoned steps and vaulted alleyways. Built in 970 by Conrad I the Count of Ventimiglia, it was a defensive post against Saracen attacks. The Château was restored in the 13th and 15th centuries, and again in the 19th century. It was sold at the beginning of the 19th century to Sir William Ingram (who built Villa La Vigie overlooking the Monte-Carlo Beach Hotel) and he then donated it to the municipality in 1921, after which it was listed as a historical monument. The Château has a small open-air theatre that hosts dance performances and classical concerts in summer, you can imagine the views from the Château are breathtaking!
For yacht charter guests interested in hiking, Roquebrune-Cap-Martin is very close to the port in Menton and is a good base to enjoy a number of hiking trails through Mediterranean scrub, forest and mountains. Take Chemin de la Coupière above the medieval village where you can lead up to Mont Gros (690 m) to join the hiking trail, Les Balcons de la Méditerranée (GR 51). Mont Gros is a popular take-off point for hang-gliders and parapenters who land at Plage du Golfe Bleu. The GR51 continues to the villages of Gorbio, Sainte-Agnes, Monti and Castellar before the GR52 trail continues back down to Menton.
This article was written by Rebecca Whitlocke on behalf of Bespoke Yacht Charter.
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