Last year I had the unique opportunity to visit many spots along the French Riviera two different times while sailing on cruises. The specific itineraries were a little different, but each still stopped at the main cruise ports in Western Europe, including those picture-perfect getaways in the south of France and Monaco. While the routes were similar, visiting in both the summer and then winter months provided me with a great opportunity to compare and contrast the regions; to see what they are like with and without the thousands of tourists who visit each year. There’s a reason why the winter months are so slow though, windy and drizzly along with other weather-related maladies means that the French Riviera is anything but the beachy getaway it’s known to be in the summer. That doesn’t mean winter is a bad time to visit though, far from it. I discovered some great cities and towns during my short stay and in this post I want to share a few reasons why I think, while not the best time of year, winter is still a fun time to explore the French Riviera.
This posh seaside community wasn’t included on the first cruise I took, but was an early stop when sailing in December with Viking. Long famous for the many celebrities and wealthy elite who spend summers boating around the harbor or just enjoying a coffee at the local cafes, Saint-Tropez is the place to see and be seen. In summer, that is. In winter, it reverts to a quiet fishing community where locals outnumber the tourists, a rarity in this popular getaway. I actually preferred that though, I enjoyed the opportunity to see the real city for myself, away from the crowds and trappings of long summer evenings. Like most towns and cities, the weeks before Christmas are more for locals than tourists, which in reality provided me with the best opportunity to learn more about the real city. That’s one of the many things I love about visiting Europe in December, I feel like I’m observing a somewhat more honest version of certain destinations, particularly touristy hotspots, and Saint-Tropez was no exception.
I’m happy to have visited in the winter for another reason; I’m not glamorous enough to hang out with the summer crowd. While I always try to look nice, the truth is I can’t match anything and I usually don’t buy anything expensive and certainly not fashionable. It’s just not in my DNA, so bundled up in a coat and hat was the perfect way for me to explore the town without worrying about fitting in. It’s silly, it’s definitely not mature, but it’s who I am. With that happy anonymity in place, I started to veer away from the colorful port into the city itself. Most shops and businesses were closed; signs in French all read the same thing “Closed for the season.” No bother though, most were high-end boutiques and I didn’t need a new pair of heels. Fashion clearly rules the day in Saint-Tropez, and even a fashion-resistant troglodyte such as myself couldn’t help but be amazed by the beauty of some of the more notable houses, including the stunning Dior flagship building located in the middle of town. Exuding pure elegance, apparently in the summer months it also features a fine-dining restaurant, no doubt a popular venue for the Real Housewives of Saint-Tropez. Meandering even further into the center, I finally found what I was looking for, the main square. All towns have them, and it’s from this public space where I usually like to explore new places. Owing to the morning hours though, it too was nearly empty. The many trees dotting the park were bare in the cold December wind, and even the Christmas market was shuttered, awaiting nightfall before welcoming children of all ages for some holiday fun.
So while I didn’t enjoy the typical St. Tropez experience, with glass of chilled wine in hand and paparazzi streaming past, I believe I had a much better experience. I was able to well and truly get to know the city, understand what makes her tick and while, yes, I would love to return in the summer to see what the fuss is all about, I’m just as happy for my wintry escape.
Monaco & Nice
Monaco was an important port of call on both my summer and winter sailings, providing me a great opportunity to see what, if anything, is different from one season to the next. I even joined the same style of excursion on both visits, taking a day trip to Nice, driving along the beautiful coastline, before spending the afternoon back in the ritzy principality of Monaco. I’ll never forget that first visit to Nice, as gorgeous a city as you could hope for. With expansive beaches and plenty of pedestrian walkways, this is a city meant to be explored. It was Saturday, the sun was bright, it was warm and the weekly market was packed with people out and about, enjoying the day. I love it when I can be caught up in these special moments, forgetting just for a little while that I’m a camera toting tourist (which I am) and instead losing myself in the experience. I browsed the stalls at the market, enjoyed a popular local snack for lunch – Socca – walked along the beach and wished I’d brought my trunks, finishing out the afternoon with a chocolate gelato. It wasn’t fancy, it wasn’t even all that complicated but it was a perfect way for me to learn more about Nice. Spending a relaxing afternoon just enjoying the city for what it is isn’t just a great way to learn more about a place, it’s an immersive experience that can’t be otherwise replicated.
Other than the necessary addition of a coat and scarf, my December exploration of Nice was almost a carbon copy. Wandering the streets of Nice decked out for the holidays made for a very special day and while there was certainly no snow down there, I found a city just as festive as any other. Otherwise, I really didn’t make any new discoveries on my second visit, other than a few side streets I had missed the first time. I still had a nice afternoon, just not one that was truly notable in any way. But the important takeaway here is that the season in no way affected my visit. No, I wouldn’t be sunbathing, but that stuff isn’t important to me. Instead spending time getting to Nice was the real treasure, easily enjoyed both in summer and winter. That can’t be said of every city, especially in Europe, but along the magnificent French Riviera it’s an easy feat to achieve.
Monaco is a special place; that much everyone can agree on. It’s not everyday that we are made to feel like rock stars, that we can walk along a stately boulevard with the world’s most famous and well-heeled elite. But then again, Monaco isn’t an everyday kind of place, it’s something special and most certainly unique. Sure, the glamour of the country is undeniable and yes, it is fun to walk along those famous turns of the car race and to amble by the casino pretending to be James Bond. But it’s more than that, it’s a naturally gorgeous country with many special moments to offer, from that quiet lunch I enjoyed in the old part of Monaco to simply admiring it at night from the water, lit up like a thousand fireflies in the evening. Unlike the other cities along the coastline, winter did not mean a quiet experience in Monaco. No, it was buzzing just as much as it was in the summer when I visited, although for different reasons. Instead of race cars careening through town, thousands of visitors took their place, all eager to capture a little bit of Monaco’s magic for themselves. Wandering through the old part of town, I did find a few quiet moments to admire the Christmas decorations but, in all honesty, in the winter I much more enjoyed being around those crowds of people, all enjoying the festive spirit of the season.
The French Riviera is the stuff of movie dreams. The rich and famous have long enjoyed their retreats to this gorgeous part of the world, and they still do. Driving along the twisting coastal roads, one catches glimpses of fantastical estates and boats larger than most people’s homes. No, this is not a destination for the average person, but that’s what makes it so special. That’s why so many of us travel to the South of France, to enjoy the history and scenery, but also to be James Bond if only for a day or two. Thankfully, unlike so many other destinations around Europe, visiting in the middle of winter in no way diminishes its appeal. In fact, with slightly fewer people hanging around, it’s easy to fall even deeper in love with the towns and villages along the coast and to live out those Mediterranean dreams, albeit for only a few days.