Cannes, Master of Disguises - Treasures of Provence

Cannes, Master of Disguises

While other towns and villages along the French Riviera hold constant throughout the year, Cannes has an extraordinary way of transforming itself in the blink of an eye.

If you remove the hype and glitzy apparel that covers it during the Cannes Film Festival in May and the numerous other events it hosts during the year, Cannes holds an historic presence which can be very easily overlooked. It is past master at combining opposites: the old and new, the luxurious and the modern, the town and nature.

Exploring Cannes
I like to begin my walk around Cannes by parking at Quai St Pierre which is the old port of Cannes.  The quay-side has been totally revamped and widened and is now a really lovely walk as you pass alongside gleaming yachts and different sized boats and of course the traditional fishing-boats called “pointus”.

Just between Quai St Pierre and Boulevard Jean Hibert is a charming, but very small, square (Esplanade Maréchal Leclerc).

Surrounded by tall, lush palm trees, are several memorials to the Cannois marines fallen for France during the Naval Battle (Barfleur La Houge) of 1692. There is also a huge and somewhat impressive anchor, placed on top of another tomb, to honour other brave marines who have died for France.

As in so many other fishing ports, you’ll find a selection of pretty restaurants and sunny terraces lining the harbour and which also overflow into the narrow streets of the old town of Cannes.

Marché Forville – a delight for the senses
If I’m early (ie before mid day) I’ll stroll up towards the impressive Hotel de Ville and pop into Marché Forville. The name comes from the Provençal foro vilo, meaning ‘outside of the town’ – which in December 1884, when it was inaugurated, it was. This is a covered Provençal market and fun to visit. It’s a great way of discovering local produce which is brought in fresh every day, as well as immersing yourself in the hustle and bustle of traditional French life.

The French are very particular about their food, and although they may well do their weekly shop in supermarkets, they still prefer to go to their local market for fresh produce whenever possible. Open daily, Marché Forville has the most amazing choice of fresh fruit and vegetables, cheeses, wild mushrooms, olive oil, wine, freshly cut flowers and locally caught fish.

Le Suquet Quarter
Le Suquet is the oldest part of Cannes. It is here that the first people settled in the Middle Ages, protected by its hill and church. The name comes from the provençal word, suc, meaning head or summit. Thus suquet means little summit/hill. Rue Suquet was created in 1624.

The climb up to Le Suquet is quite steep so you may want to stop and catch your breath (I did) from time to time. At one point I found that I’d stopped in front of a large wooden arched door, almost fortress-like in style. At the top of the door someone had bolted a metal mask, the size of a human head and above that was situated a square window protected by a rusty old square grill.

It is hard to describe my impression as I stood there, but it was one of distinct foreboding. The mask itself generated much to my “frisson” although the heavy wooden door emphasized the feeling of alienation.

Of all the sites I’ve visited along the French Riviera, I can honestly say that so far this door and its rusty mask is the only place where I’ve felt uncomfortable and troubled. Although I continued on my way I did return a few days later to see this door again and then do followed my visit up with some research to see if I could find anything about it. You can read my follow-up article here.

Leaving the strange door and mask behind me I continued walking up to the top of Le Suquet Hill. Here you’ll come to the Musée de la Castre which is housed in an old 12th century castle which once belonged to the monks of the Isles de Lérins as did the church of Notre-Dame d’Espérance, which dates from the 17th century and was built to guard against Saracen attack.

The views from here are incredible and well worth the somewhat steep climb to get there. After taking in the marvellous panorama you can make your way slowly walk down, going through a small but charming public garden as you do so.

Depending on your mood, you either stroll along La Pantiero which runs parallel to Cannes’ sandy beach and merges with La Croisette, or walk along Boulevard de la Croisette which has all the high-class boutiques selling haute couture and jewellery: Christian Lacroix, Hermès, Chanel to name just a few.

More often than not I like to walk along La Croisette passing Place Cornut where the local artists display their work and groups of ardent “Boullists” come to play Pétanque. If it’s close to lunchtime I’ll buy a baguette or sandwich at a local vendor on the Esplanade Georges Pompidou, and then find either a bench or a seat (offered freely by the municipality of Cannes) along La Croisette to enjoy my tasty meal while enjoying the incredible views of the bay.

The Little Cross
I love uncovering little stories while researching details about my chosen town – and came upon one about La Croisette and how it got its name. At the beginning of the 19th century there used to be a soap factory and a slaughter house on the outskirts of Cannes which could only reached by walking along a narrow stone track. In the middle of this track was a small cross – so the locals called the path: The Track of the Tiny Cross”.

Time passed and the track grew wider, a few trees were planted, a number of wood and stone benches placed for the pleasure of the well-to-do. In May 1838, under pressure by Lord Brougham, work commenced in creating a new port (to permit his high-ranking friends to moor their large yachts). The local council took the opportunity to change the track’s name to “Promenade de la Croisette” in memory of the little cross that no longer existed.

Today it is simply known as La Croisette. Starting at the Renaldo-Hahn Gardens, after the municipal casino and opposite the church of Notre-Dame-du-Bon-Voyage, on the site where Napoleon camped out on the night of 1st March 1815, it ends at the Palm Beach peninsula, site of one of the most celebrated casinos on the Côte d’Azur, which was built in 1929.

Palm Trees on La Croisette
One of the glories of La Croisette is, of course, its tall majestic palm trees but they were only planted in 1871; before that there were no trees here at all aoart from a few magnificent umbrella pines. It is only due to the arrival of Lord Brougham and the increase of interest in Cannes that the then mayor of Cannes conceived the idea of cutting them down and replacing them with palms to give the town a semi-tropical appearance.

Facing the sea, impressive hotels such as The Majestic- Barrière (previously called Beau Rivage and opened in 1863 until rebuilt in 1926 in Art Deco style); the Carlton with its noble architecture and legendary domes (opened in 1912), the Martinez (opened in 1929) and Noga Hilton (inaugurated in 1992) built on the site of the former Palais des Festivals and the most recent of Cannes’ luxury hotels line the avenue.

Located also on La Croisette is La Malmaison once formerly part of the “Grand Hotel”. It was used after the war for the first exhibitions organised by Aimé Maeght. While the second floor houses some municipal services, the ground floor is given over to the Modern Art Museum as well as temporary exhibitions devoted to works by leading contemporary artists.

Talking about Lord Brougham, it is perhaps time to write about Cannes’ history and how this once small sleepy fishing village became another jewel in the Côte d’Azur’s crown.

History of Cannes
The first civilization dates back to the 2nd century when Cannes was a Ligurian outpost inhabited by the Oxybian tribe. It seems they settled on the promontory (Le Suquet) where they erected a fortified oppidum. From this belvedere they could observe other members of their tribe who had fortified their position on the rocky eminence on the Isle de Sainte-Marguerite where Fort Vauban now stands.

Such strategic assets did not go unnoticed by the Romans who, while rushing to help the Greek colony is Antibes in 154 BC, took advantage of settling in the region whilst taking over the Isle de Lérins and Cannes as they went along.

However, the Roman reign came to an end with invaders such as the Visigoths, Saracens and other mauranders. Then, in ca. 950, Count Guillaume of Provence swept across the region and ousted them. But, in doing so, much was destroyed and buildings needed to be rebuilt. This is why the Count of Provence built (or re-built) a castle on the ridge of Le Suquet, which he entrusted to a lord named Marcelin (the first inhabitant of Cannes whose name is known in history); it was called Castellum Marcellini, Marcelin’s castle.

To reward the feudal lords who had helped him expel the Saracens, the Count of Provence gave Rodoard, the head of a powerful local family at the origins of the House of Grasse, the rights to Antibes and the region, including Cannes. Later, in 1131, the Count of Provence confirmed the donation of Cannes to the Abbey and the Pope himself sealed this confirmation.

That is when the elements essential for the construction of a true feudal settlement were set up on this maritime site; castle, settlement, hospital, church (Notre-Dame du Puy, which, after Notre-Dame de l’Espérance was built became Chapelle Sainte-Anne, now part of Musée de la Castre). It was a castrum, meaning a fortified village, grouped around its castle (today’s Place de la Castre): in 1178, there is mention of Castrum Francum.

Cannes was now able to resume its life and the people went back to work. That is, until the death of Queen Joan of Naples (1382) and the devastating struggles for her succession. This caused an upset in the balance of power in the region n 1388, when the House of Savoy took over the easternmost part of Provence, later to become the Comté de Nice, bordered to the west by the Var River.

Cannes had the uncomfortable privilege of being a border town, and bore the brunt of the first hostile encounters both by land and by sea in the conflicts between the great powers. In 1481, Provence became part of the Kingdom of France “like one principality with another principality”. Cannes remained, however, on the front line, as vulnerable as ever in the face of international powers struggling for control.

Years of war and strife were to follow, culminating in the French Revolution. Although it did not wreak too much havoc in Cannes, it did put a strain on the budget of the commune. In Cannes, as elsewhere in France, the clergy’s possessions were also sold at auction.

On March 1, 1815, the people of Cannes (who tended to be Royalist) were shocked to learn that Napoleon had escaped from the Isle of Elba and landed at Golfe-Juan with the intention of setting up camp in Cannes. Preceded by Cambronne, the Emperor requested several thousand rations in order to put out false rumours as to the size of his force. He camped outside the town, among the dunes which then surrounded the chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Voyage, before marching on Grasse.

After surviving Napoleon, Cannes, like the rest of Europe, then suffered a serious cholera epidemic in 1834. In Nice (which belonged at the time to the Kingdom of Sardinia Piedmont) all travellers were prevented from crossing the border from France; separated in those times by the Var River.

The Arrival of Lord Brougham
That year the destiny of Cannes changed forever as the former Lord Chancellor of Great Britain, Lord Brougham and his daughter Eleanor arrived on their way to winter in Nice. Forced to turn back due to the epedemic, Lord Brougham stopped first in Antibes and stayed overnight at Château Salé. Finding it less than satisfactory he decided to resume their journey by way of Cannes where he and his daughter stayed at Hotel Pinchinat – originally known as the Auberge de la Poste-aux-Chevaux where Victor Hugo and Pope Pius VIIth stayed once), and still stands today.

Lord Brougham fell in love with Cannes and within a week had bought a plot of land to the west of Le Suquet and had made arrangements for the construction of his villa which he named Villa Elenore-Louise after his daughter (today converted into flats). He returned every winter for 34 years until his death in 1868, gradually bringing with him the whole of the English aristocracy. His statue, by the artist-craftsman Paul Liénard (1849-1900), can be found on Square Brougham – tucked between a MacDonalds’ and the Palm Square restaurant.

On 10 April 1863 the railway station opened, a staggering sign of progress that placed Paris within 22 hours and 20 minutes of Cannes. The village became a city and expanded westward to the district of La Bocca. Its population rose from 3,000 inhabitants in 1814 to 30,000 in 1914 to reach 72,400 today. However this literally doubles, if not triples, during the Cannes Film Festival and the summer season.

World War I put a stop to this growth as hotels were converted into hospitals. When peace returned, the winter resort of Cannes became a summer seaside resort thanks to the fashion of sun bathing and the advent of paid summer holidays.