EZE, FRANCE - I’m grinding the gears of a 1956 Porsche 356 Speedster, transforming what should sound like the purr of a big randy cat into the anguished groans of a wounded grizzly as I haltingly navigate a stretch of French Riviera coastline. The sea breeze has reduced my Grace Kelly-style bun to a wind-whipped travesty, and my terrified companion in the passenger seat wears the frozen expression of a skydiver who can’t remember if they packed their parachute.
Yet when a man lounging at an al fresco café whips his head around as I pass, shouting “Belle! Belle!” into my fuel-injected wake, the whole scene is suddenly rendered in romantic, super-saturated Technicolor … in my mind, at least.
Whether his hoot of approval is for me or, more likely, for my rented wheels hardly matters. I’m determined to enjoy my movie star moment, ensconced in a red bucket leather seat as I head for the hills. My convertible is the same model favoured by James Dean, and, voila!, I’ve finally found second gear. All that’s missing now is a jazzy score by Henry Mancini to drown out the carnage I’m inflicting on the engine.
Above: The drive takes our writer past dramatic coastlines and romantic sunsets.
Cruising in a vintage car is the perfect complement to a film-themed tour of the French Riviera, where dozens of seminal flicks have been shot since the 1950s. I begin, appropriately enough, in Cannes.
Every May, celebrities descend upon this coastal city for the Cannes International Film Festival. They preen and pose like a flock of Prada-clad peacocks for the paparazzi before disappearing into the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès to scrutinize the most hotly anticipated movies of the year.
As Cannes’ Stage Management Department Director for more than 30 years, Philippe Octo was charged with ensuring that the screenings run smoothly. To his everlasting disappointment, the glory days of potential glitches have gone the way of the silent film, thanks to digital technology.
“It’s just a beam and a bit of sound, like a Game Boy. Push and play,” sighs Octo, who fondly recalls a time when reels came straight from the lab and subtitles were burned on the spot using acid. Nervous directors, who had only an hour to adjust colour and sound at a pre-screening, would beg the technicians for more time.
“They were so tense,” Octo says. “A lot of them were drunk. It was fun.”
The festival was founded in 1946, but the Riviera has been luring the artistically inclined for nearly a century. In 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald penned Tender is the Night in a seaside villa at my next stop, Juan les Pins in Antibes.
Above: There's a market and more stunning views around every bend in the road.
Now reincarnated as the Hotel Belles Rives, Fitzgerald’s erstwhile home still draws the rich and famous. Woody Allen fans may recognize its dramatic Art Deco decor from the period film Magic in the Moonlight, starring Colin Firth and Emma Stone.
Nearby, the 16th century Fort Carr has also enjoyed its 15 minutes of fame. It featured in the 1983 Bond movie Never Say Never Again, with Sean Connery and Kim Basinger improbably jumping off the ramparts into the sea (on horseback, no less).
Further along the coast, Nice has “guest starred” in films ranging from To Catch a Thief (Cary Grant and Grace Kelly) to Ronin (Robert De Niro). Strolling through the aromatic flower market or negotiating the crowded seafront Promenade des Anglais, it’s easy to understand why cinematographers have found Nice’s energy irresistible.
In my opinion, however, the best supporting village award goes to Villefranche-sur-Mer, with an imposing fort and brightly painted houses that cascade downhill to the coast. If it seems rather familiar, that’s because Villefranche-sur-Mer has served as a backdrop for so many films, including An Affair to Remember (Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr), The Jewel of the Nile (Kirk Douglas and Katherine Turner), and Never Say Never Again (yes, again).
Above: Romantic Villefranche-sur-Mer has served as a movie backdrop many times.
The Hotel Welcome, nestled alongside the harbour, has hosted dozens of legendary visitors, including Jean Cocteau (who painted the interior of the local chapel), Gerard Depardieu, Catherine Deneuve and U.S. president Harry Truman. It’s located next to Mere Germaine, an intimate seafood restaurant that’s a favourite among celebrities like Madonna and De Niro.
The climax of my tour is a stay at Chateau d’Eza in Eze, a 13th-century stone village high above the coast. My chateau, formerly the Prince of Sweden’s residence, was voted the most romantic hotel in the world by Conde Nast Traveler a few years ago, and it was here that Bono, who owns a home in the town below, proposed to his wife. (She said yes, of course.)
On my final night, I dine at the neighbouring Chevre d’Or, which has welcomed a who’s who of elite actors, from Leonardo di Caprio to Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, who filmed a scene from The Bucket List here. Dinner at the Michelin two-starred restaurant was — not surprisingly — on the men’s list of “things to do before we die.”
Having already faced what I feared was my own imminent death in a bucket seat, I’m happy to have simply survived this cinematic thrill ride. I’m not so sure I can say the same for the Porsche.