It was Stéphen Liégeard who first coined the phrase ‘Côte d’Azur’ (French Riviera) in 1887. He defined it thus: ‘the strip of coast between Marseille and Italy’. The name comes from the practice of coming to the coast during the winter months, which began in 1750.
In the 18th century, a taste for travel developed amongst the English artistocracy, especially spending the winter on the eastern coast of Provence. Viewed as a Garden of Eden, the South of France was also the natural ‘route’ to Italy and its culture, a sign of the elites. This seasonal migration of the English upper classes was quickly copied by other European elites, all in search of a mild winter. At the beginning of the 19th century, the health argument emerged – people would go to these winter resorts as a medical treatment. The 18th century created the winter resort, and the 19th century sealed it.
Along with Nice, Hyères is one of the oldest winter resorts in the world, with its mild climate, beautiful countryside, orange-tree gardens and ‘exotic’ plants. In the 19th century, it was recognised as the ‘best’ winter resort for patients. Its climate was especially recommended for tuberculosis sufferers. Its fame was such that several monarchs, including Queen Victoria, royal princes, famous writers (such as Jules Michelet) or rich men came to spend the winter here. The town still has the period casino, race-course, two beautiful public gardens, wide avenues lined with palm trees, where immensely luxurious ‘Belle Epoque’ palaces and Oriental villas lie side-by-side.
Today, the boundaries of the French Riviera, especially its western side, are unclear. For the die-hard ‘Azuréens’, the border lies along the Monaco-Nice-Cannes line, where Saint Tropez is tolerated.
The Geo magazine describes the French Riviera as the Mediterranean shore running for 200km from Bandol to Menton. The Routard Guidebook published a map which encompassed the departments of the Var and Alpes-Maritimes. The Larousse dictionary uses the definition given by Stéphen Liégeard – all of the coast between the Italian border and Cassis, the closest seaside resort to Marseilles.
This boundary is so unclear that the French find it difficult to pinpoint: according to a poll released in 2009, over half of respondents thought that the ‘French Riviera’ meant the department of the Var, in front of the Alpes-Maritimes.
However, that’s not important! The name remains attached to the mythical and idyllic image created by its inventor at the end of the 19th century. Don’t we come here, whether consciously or not, to seek this lost paradise described by Stéphen Liégeard ?