By a fortuitous event in December 1834, the Lord Chancellor of England, Henry Brougham, helped to put Cannes, then an obscure little fishing village, firmly on the map.
At the time the French border was just beyond Cannes and Brougham, prevented by an outbreak of cholera from crossing into Italy, had to find somewhere for himself and his daughter Eleanor Louise to stay. Eleanor was coughing badly, suffering from advanced tuberculosis, and her doctors had told Brougham to take his daughter to a more agreeable winter climate. He became captivated by Cannes and within a fortnight of his arrival had purchased some land outside the village, soon constructing a splendid Italianate villa on the site. Although sadly Eleanor died in 1839, Brougham continued to spend his winters at Cannes for almost the next 30 years.
If Brougham made Cannes fashionable, and the opening of a railway station in 1863 rendered it more accessible, the arrival of some of America’s most successful writers made the growing town famous. They extended the Riviera’s traditional winter season, preferring to cross the Atlantic in spring or summer. Among them was F. Scott Fitzgerald, who found a stroll along the Croisette, Cannes’ seafront boulevard, a delightful experience; and so it remains. Swaying gently in the sea breeze, the huge palm trees of the Croisette create ‘a green twilight over the tables’, just as they did for Fitzgerald in his novel, Tender is the Night.
Almost exactly at the midpoint of the Croisette is the Hotel Carlton, built by the Swiss entrepreneur Henri Ruhl in 1902. Ruhl had been captivated by an actress and courtesan, the half-gipsy Caroline Otero. Unable to persuade her to forsake Nice society and live with him, Ruhl incorporated her most memorable feature in his stately pleasure dome at Cannes. The twin cupolas with their nippled spikes on the roof of the Carlton represent the breasts of La Belle Otero.
The bar at the Carlton remains the pinnacle of high society. Although the hotel does not possess a garden, its private beach opposite provides a memorable lunch at a price where one’s immediate instinct is to summon the head waiter and suggest that an extra zero has been added to the bill in error – an instinct, alas, wholly unfounded. There are other private beaches with slightly lower charges for sunbeds and parasols, and a surprisingly agreeable free public beach at the eastern end of the town. Close by is a children’s playground with a gentle circuit of mock antique motor cars.
The natural beauty of the town’s surroundings, combined with its effortless self-confidence, make this the supreme image of the Riviera. As a little rhyme of 1920s vintage suggests, it has never been reticent at advertising its advantages because:
Nice is rowdy...but
Cannes is class!
Next month Cannes plays host to its annual film festival but apart from carefully staged appearances, the stars remain secluded. Most of them stay in palatial private villas nestling in Cannes’ hinterland, from where they rarely venture out: everything, and everyone, comes to them. Unless you enjoy a town full of frenetic, often unproductive activity and sky-high prices, visit it later in the year.
© Palais des Festivals, Cannes