The French Riviera is just as darkly glamorous as it’s always been – minus the Russians

The Cannes Film Festival, 1959 - Keystone
The Cannes Film Festival, 1959 - Keystone

The closing ceremony of the Cannes Film Festival takes place today, the pinnacle of the annual event and the culmination of a two-week parade of stars and starlets drifting between the red carpet and their suites at the sold-out Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc, where neither love nor money can get you a room this summer.

It’s closely followed by tomorrow’s Monaco Grand Prix, where superyachts line the tiny principality’s harbour and the ultra-rich squeeze themselves into its narrow confines to feast in extravagant restaurants, while untroubled policemen patrol pavements so pristine you could lick them without fear of contamination. And on and on the party goes, yachts and helicopters zigzagging the coast between Saint-Tropez, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and beyond until at least mid-October.

It all sounds like business as usual. But according to an extensively researched new book (400 pages long) by cultural historian Jonathan Miles, Once Upon a Time World: The Dark and Sparkling Story of the French Riviera, the famously idyllic playground is now but a crumbling husk of its glorious past – an ‘overcrowded’, in parts ‘architecturally monotonous’ and ‘vapid’ playground for the rich and their ridiculous displays of wealth, plus a haven for money laundering, crime, prostitution, racism, unspeakable behaviour and shady characters.

In the book Miles, who is married to a Frenchwoman, goes on an entertaining roller-coaster ride through the region’s glamorously decadent and licentious history, from its earliest uninhabited days to the moment ailing British aristocrats descended in droves in the 18th and 19th centuries, often for months at a time, to convalesce from bronchial complaints in the soothing and temperate Mediterranean air.

Crowds at Cannes - Corbis
Crowds at Cannes - Corbis

The area was so beloved by our countrymen that on a visit to Nice in 1787, Thomas Jefferson, who would later become US president, declared it a ‘gay and dissipated… English colony’. It turns out we are largely responsible, more than the French themselves, or indeed any other visiting foreign contingent (pre-Revolution Russians were early adopters, followed by the Germans and the Italians, and then the Americans in the 20th century), for laying down the imprint of the Riviera.

But if it felt like a giant health spa for Brits in the 18th and early 19th centuries, it morphed into a louche enclave thanks to the arrival of gambling when the first casino opened in Monaco in 1856. ‘How can France tolerate such a moral infection on its doorstep?’ cried Léon Pilatte, a vocal Nice-based pastor, railing at the ‘princeling on a denuded rock’ (a reference to the principality’s ruling Charles III of the Grimaldi family, who have been in situ since 1419; it is today governed by Grace Kelly’s once-playboy son, Prince Albert II) who ‘braving universal condemnation, enriches his coffers with this shameful industry’.

Meanwhile, the 19th century Cannes-based Scottish essayist and novelist Charlotte Dempster remarked, ‘the Casino is the thing that all Europe, Asia and America talk of, that all moralists decry, and that all pleasure-seekers declare to be a paradise’. It was from that period that the Riviera as we know it properly took off.

Perhaps the greatest writer to capture both the magic and moral dissonance of the Côte d’Azur was F Scott Fitzgerald, following a sojourn with his wife Zelda and their daughter Scottie at Villa Saint-Louis (better known today as the five-star Hôtel Belles Rives) in Juan-les-Pins. There he wrote Tender Is the Night, his allusive novel set on the Riviera, which he described as possessing a ‘diffused magic of the hot sweet South… the soft-pawed night and the ghostly wash of the Mediterranean far below’. Its opening scene is clearly modelled on the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc and the social shenanigans he observed while carousing there himself with friends.

Apartment blocks near Nice - Rainer Hackenberg
Apartment blocks near Nice - Rainer Hackenberg

It wasn’t that long ago (until 2005) that guests at the Hôtel du Cap paid for everything in cash and would arrive with suitcases stuffed with various currencies. I was recently told a story about how, in the early noughties, one Russian oligarch always sent £1 million to the hotel before his arrival to ensure he got everything he wanted when he wanted it. If there was spare change at the end of his stay, the hotel could keep it.

Until very recently, the Riviera was crawling with Russians. I speak to Jonathan Miles and ask him how much he thinks their presence affected the area. He cites a report by the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, published in 2000, which concluded that Monaco would become a key European centre for Russian money and finance.

‘The oligarchs came,’ Miles writes in the book, ‘rich from the seizure of state assets that communism had appropriated on behalf of the people… [and] invested in Riviera gold – prestigious real estate – often choosing villas built in a style of architecture that the Revolution had suppressed.

‘They started to arrive in the mid-1990s as Cyrillic was added to restaurant menus and estate agents began to employ Russian-speaking staff. Like their aristocratic forbears, they were lavish spenders. One of the earliest Russian buyers on Cap d’Antibes, banker Andrey Melnichenko, spent more than €10 million on his wedding celebration – flying in Christina Aguilera, Whitney Houston and Julio Iglesias to perform.’

A British film producer, who lives in the hills above Nice (he asked not to be named), witnessed the Russian invasion firsthand. He recounts how he would occasionally treat himself to a two-night stay at the Hôtel du Cap. ‘I was once woken up by a transporter unloading supercars at 4am, the engines revving up as they were driven off,’ he says. ‘I remember thinking, what are they doing, shooting an episode of Top Gear?’ He called the concierge and asked what was going on; he was told they were for a Russian guest.

‘The next day I saw workers digging up the lawn and installing parallel bars. They were for the same person because that was how he liked to exercise, apparently.’ Later, the producer said he was sunning himself in one of the hotel’s famous cabanas that line the cliff overlooking the sea when he saw a yacht pull up and drop off 10 jet skis, likely another delivery for the oligarch’s amusement.

Monaco Grand Prix, 2009 - Alamy
Monaco Grand Prix, 2009 - Alamy

But it wasn’t just goods and cash. ‘I remember seeing young girls enter the bar that night and they only seemed to speak one word of English: “Bellini”. The oligarch sat on the other side of the bar with his mates.’ Apparently he was a regular guest, who stayed three weeks every summer; one week with friends, one week with family, one week with business associates. But for each of those weeks, the girls, who stayed at a hotel nearby, were always arranged around the bar (or any restaurant he visited), presumably for the purpose of eye candy.

These stories are, of course, entertaining, but they are now largely redundant because since sanctions were imposed on certain oligarchs after the war in Ukraine began, most have scarpered. Which is why another press-shy Brit I speak to (a Monaco resident for the last 20 years, who works in media and investment and advises local yacht and private jet brokers, as well as the hospitality industry) dismisses Miles’s summation of corruption. ‘Just try and open a bank account in the south of France or Monaco today. They throw out hundreds of people a year if their businesses are in a non-green sector, or their money is nefariously obtained.

‘It doesn’t matter if you’ve been an investment banker for 30 years, or work in private equity; if you don’t smell good, you’re out. And as to the Russians, no one wants them down here any more, they’ve disappeared. Take a trip to Dubai if you want to find them, that’s where they are now.’

The difference today, he says, is that the Americans are back. ‘The Hôtel du Cap is packed with Americans again; they have more money since Covid – and the exchange rate has played in their favour. They were never the biggest consumers of prostitution and money laundering. So things have definitely calmed down.’

A postcard of the Nice promenade from the 1950s - Alamy
A postcard of the Nice promenade from the 1950s - Alamy

But it’s not only the area between Cannes and Monaco that Miles decries. ‘Today, many places along the coast are lost resorts,’ he says. ‘As the decades passed, Saint-Tropez boomed out its popularity, pulling the desperate into ever-more-crowded streets, restaurants and clubs – the once-stylish resort living on cockeyed memories of the past.’

I ask Miles to explain more what he means about Saint-Tropez, because while yes, it is ridiculously busy during peak summer season in July and August, there isn’t a single ugly construction either on the beach or in town, and it still feels redolent with a strong Gallic energy. Frenchmen play pétanque at sundown in the Place des Lices, where a market takes place every Tuesday and Saturday morning and locals sell their Provençal wares.

‘No tower block or modern development exists on a beach in Saint-Tropez, nor are any coming soon,’ adds the Monaco-resident Brit, because the locals are renowned for blocking unsightly constructions. ‘They are very rigorous. [And] the vulgar hordes moved away long ago to Ibiza and Mykonos. If you want to go on a three-day partying cocaine-binge, go there.’

But Miles is still circumspect. ‘It’s a very strange place,’ he continues, ‘it was fabulous in the ’40s and ’50s when [the French novelist] Colette was there. Today it’s only doable off-season, in May, or late September and October.’

And he adds, ‘It’s the one town where you can’t find a bakery.’ I agree with him on that point. There is only one really good one, hidden down a dark, narrow street.

Grace Kelly and Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief (1955) - Alamy
Grace Kelly and Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief (1955) - Alamy

Personally, I still find the place enrapturing, no matter what month I visit. You just need to know where to go: not the obvious jet-set and Instagram-influencer magnets like Le Club 55 on Pampelonne Beach, or Hotel Byblos’s Les Caves du Roy nightclub, but the hidden Plage des Graniers, a small sandy bay surrounded by greenery, or the chic little restaurants in the hills above.

Speaking of hotels, the famous ones along the Riviera – prohibitively expensive Babylonian temples – that still retain their opulent cachet include La Colombe d’Or in the medieval village of Saint-Paul de Vence; Le Negresco in Nice; Château de la Chèvre d’Or in Eze; the Carlton in Cannes; Hôtel de Paris in Monaco; as well as Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat.

As to property, I am told by the Monaco-dwelling Brit that while prices remain astronomical, they have not measurably risen (or tanked, for that matter) in the last four or five years and the market remains buoyant. Estate agent Paolo Risso, of RI Properties Monaco, agrees: ‘The property market on the French Riviera is very hectic at the moment… The average price in Monaco is now €52,000 per square metre. It’s also very strong in places like Cap-Ferrat, where the most beautiful houses on the Riviera can be found.’

The mass exodus Miles cites is perhaps about Russians leaving, rather than a more general departure. Though Risso adds: ‘We haven’t felt the impact of departing Russians because they have been replaced by Europeans.’

The Riviera has long provided a rich source of inspiration for artists and writers; culture has always been synonymous with the area and there are many museums. However Nice, which Miles gives as an example of decrepitude, endured a fallow period during the tenure of disgraced mayor Jacques Médecin who green-lit the construction of ugly apartment blocks along the coast, as well as the building of the urban autoroute, tunnels for heavy vehicles, and the widening of the roads during his long period in office from 1966 to 1990 (he was later convicted on corruption charges). But the current mayor Christian Estrosi is on a drive to restore Nice to its former architectural splendour and reintroduce nature in the town.

Supercars in Cannes - Shutterstock
Supercars in Cannes - Shutterstock

Similarly, St-Paul de Vence, which features a Matisse chapel and the Fondation Maeght, which holds one of the largest collections of 20th century art in Europe, including works by Miró, Braque and Kandinsky (and is currently closed for renovation), has become an important cultural destination.

Crime has long been seen as problematic on the Riviera, its flagrantly displayed rich pickings tempting for criminal gangs. But things have apparently been calmer since Covid – there are fewer targeted and well-planned robberies, more pedestrian street thefts. In Monaco, it is safer still: ‘It’s the only place you can still wear an expensive watch,’ says the film producer.

Prostitution remains a thriving industry; it always has been and probably always will be. But then again the same goes for various concentrated rich pockets all over the world, such as Miami, Dubai or London. I remember four years ago having dinner at a trendy restaurant in Monaco. There were two beautiful and elegant-looking young girls seated at the table next door. Nothing about them suggested they were anything other than regular customers until a man from a neighbouring table went over to speak to them. He knelt down and, although he spoke quietly, I could clearly hear a deal being made. They settled on receiving €2,000 each for a trip to his boat.

Speaking of Monaco, which Somerset Maugham once famously described as ‘a sunny place for shady people’, Miles tells me he has heard rumours of an ‘explosive investigation’ in the works regarding Prince Albert’s reported ‘friendship’ with Putin, something that if true could do irreparable damage to the principality. But that too may be a red herring. ‘Putin and Albert went on [a handful of] social expeditions years ago but have not been in touch since then,’ says the Brit film producer. ‘You’ve got to remember Putin was friends with lots of people years ago.’

Luxury flats in Monte Carlo, Monaco - Moment RF
Luxury flats in Monte Carlo, Monaco - Moment RF

Today Monaco is rigorously policed, but then it always was. A friend remembers having to visit the homes of his father’s acquaintances to occasionally turn on the electricity and run baths because authorities could tell whether you had spent the requisite number of days there (to qualify for residency, and therefore tax-free status) by how much water and electricity was consumed. (The current requirement is 183 days per year.)

Longtime Monaco resident Tanya Nalbantis says banks are even more hyper-vigilant today: ‘In terms of shady business, it’s just not happening any more; if €1,000 is deposited into my account today, I am immediately asked where it has come from,’ she says.

The point is the Riviera still excels at delivering the right kind of glamour to a rich stream of visitors who come looking for it now, and it will continue to do so, evolving with the needs of the time (as London has done since the ’80s) no matter how much we long for the past. Life moves on.

When U2’s ex-manager Paul McGuinness came up with the idea for the Sky drama series Riviera, he is quoted as listing its ingredients as follows: ‘Rich people behaving badly in the sun, yachts, Maseratis, great clothes, beautiful women, art fraud, money laundering through auction houses, Russians, English people, American, French. Murder, adultery.’

It’s all still there, minus the Russians. But in 20 years’ time, who knows how the ever-changing French Riviera – so adept at adapting itself to whoever occupies it – will be.

Once Upon a Time World: The Dark and Sparkling Story of the French Riviera, by Jonathan Miles (Atlantic Books, £22), is out now 

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