By Sharon Whitley Larsen
ANTIBES JUAN-LES-PINS, France — “With our being back in a nice villa on my beloved Riviera (between Cannes and Nice), I’m happier than I’ve been for years. It’s one of those strange, precious, all-too-transitory moments when everything in our life seems to be going well.”
I was reading the plaque quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald in the lobby of the Hotel Belles Rives. It was here, in 1925, where Fitzgerald, residing in the rented Villa St. Louis with his zany wife Zelda, reportedly began writing “Tender Is the Night,” setting the scene in the heart of the French Riviera.
This sun-splashed region, popularly known as Cote d’ Azur, has for decades attracted writers, musicians, artists, sculptors, dancers, actors and architects — Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, Marc Chagall, Ernest Hemingway, Rudolph Valentino and Charlie Chaplin. It continues to be known for its 2,400-year-old history, cultural activities and joie de vivre.
Not to mention its jazz.
Just around the corner from the hotel a walk of fame honors some 50 musicians who have performed here, including Ray Charles (who played his first European concert here), Little Richard, Dave Brubeck and Fats Domino.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Jazz a Juan International Jazz Festival, Europe’s longest-running, which started in 1960 as a tribute to Sidney Bechet, who wrote “In the Streets of Antibes.” Since then it has attracted such jazz luminaries as Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, B.B. King, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins, as well as contemporary stars Jamie Cullum and Norah Jones.
This summer’s festival will be held July 14 to 25, and the lineup includes Marcus Miller (with the Monte Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra), David Sanborn, George Benson, Kyle Eastwood, Diana Krall, Melody Gardot and Maceo Parker. The electrifying event will also feature a marching band from New Orleans, jam sessions, gospel, blues and all kinds of jazz, ranging from Latin to modern. Well-known musicians will perform along with new talent.
“The stage is magic,” said Beatrice Di Vita, spokeswoman for the Antibes Juan-les-Pins Tourist and Convention Bureau. We were strolling along the vivid blue Mediterranean in this town of some 70,000 on a crisp, sunny day. “It’s the only festival in the world that’s in front of the sea, and that’s the reason it attracts so many performers.”
Some 30,000 are expected during the festival, with about 2,000 attending each night. Several special events are also planned between now and the July 14 Bastille Day kickoff.
“It’s the 50th anniversary, but it’s also the future of this music,” noted Jean Rene Palacio, the artistic director of the Jazz a Juan Festival and the director of the Monte Carlo Jazz Festival. He’s also involved with the Monte Carlo Sporting Summer Festival — showcasing a range of music including pop rock and jazz — which will be held in Monaco July 9 to Aug. 21 at the Monte Carlo Sporting Club.
Another popular jazz festival, the 13th annual Nuits du Sud will be held nearby in tiny Vence (population 18,000) on weekends from July 8 to Aug. 7. The festival will feature music from various cultures, this year including musicians from Africa, Egypt, Japan and Spain. It will also incorporate dance workshops, a talent competition and autograph sessions, as well as carnivals and cultural activities for children. Noted performers will include Suzanne Vega, the Crenshaw Gospel Choir, and George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic — all from the United States.
“There’s a family-style ambience; people sing, dance, meet — it’s an atmosphere that’s very special,” said festival manager Teo Saavedra via an interpreter as we sat in his small office across from the town square, where the outdoor festival will be held, with some 6,000 expected to attend each night. “It’s really called ‘the world music’ because it’s all styles, not just one. There’s not one night and one concert that’s the same; every night is totally different. Every one is a headliner. Some artists are known worldwide; others are new. In France, no matter what politics we have, there’s always a very strong cultural appreciation.”
The French Riviera was initially put on the map in the late 19th century as a resort destination by Britain’s Queen Victoria and other European royalty and elite, including Russian czars, who took the train here to escape bitterly cold winters. The area hosts the Cannes Film Festival and the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix, and it is a vacation hotspot for glamorous celebs.
“Because there are a lot of millionaires, people have the impression that it’s very expensive,” noted driver/guide Piero Bruni as we drove one afternoon past several large yachts in the marina. Earlier he had pointed out a row of private jets parked at Nice Cote d’ Azur airport.
“But there’s camping, and one-, two- and three-star hotels,” he said. “There’s a choice for everybody. The rich or poor can share the same sunshine, the same sea, the same beaches.”
During my own exploration I had noted rooms for about $75.
According to Bruni, regional buses that run along the coast — in any direction of the French Riviera, from Cannes to Monaco — can be ridden for just one euro. Transportation is also available via train, car rental or personal drivers.
One weekday evening I popped into Bastion Restaurant and Lounge Bar to enjoy the music group Jobim Project, featuring Brazilian artist Nina Papa.
Once the summer jazz festivals conclude, there’s still something to look forward to: The Fifth Annual Monte Carlo Jazz Festival Nov. 23 to 27, held in the glitzy Monte Carlo Opera House in Monaco, about an hour’s drive from Antibes. Two well-known nightclubs are Moods Music Bar (where I enjoyed popular British musician Murray Head in concert) and Jimmy’z.
“A lot of people assume that Monaco is all about royalty and casinos,” commented Guillaume Jahan de Lestang, spokesman for Monte Carlo tourism. “They don’t know about the culture which is behind that.”
“Here in Monaco we have ballet, opera, an orchestra,” added Palacio. “It’s really rich in culture for a little country.”
IF YOU GO
French Riviera Tourist Board: www.frenchriviera-tourism.com
Antibes Juan-les-Pins: www.antibesjuanlespins.com
Jazz a Juan International Jazz Festival: www.jazzajuan.com
I stayed at the four-star Garden Beach Hotel, where I left my windows open to hear the waves lapping outside. Rooms range from $165 with off-season specials; check the website for current rates: www.juanlespinshotel.fr/en/
Nuits du Sud Jazz Festival tickets go on sale May 15; the website will soon be in English in addition to French: www.nuitsdusud.com
For information about Monte Carlo: www.montecarloresort.com and www.visitmonaco.com
Piero Bruni, driver/guide with French Riviera Executive Transport Service: www.executive-transport-service.com
Air France flies from various U.S. gateways to Nice via Paris: www.airfrance.com
For additional information on planning a trip to France: www.franceguide.com/us
Sharon Whitley Larsen is a freelance travel writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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