"The bare term, 'The Corniche Road,' is generally understood to refer to the greatest road of them all, La Grande Corniche . . . a road devoted to the seeker after pleasure. People traverse it, not with the object of arriving at a particular destination, but for the delight of the road itself, of the joy it gives to the eye and to the imagination."
-- Sir Frederick Treves, "Sergeant-Surgeon to His Majesty the King," 1921
For raw drama of mountains and sea, take the Corniche roads between Nice and Menton in the south of France. There are three alternative routes, a distance of about 20 miles whichever one you try, running more or less parallel and skirting the sides of mountains that plunge steeply into the sea.
I suggest you sample them all. They add up to total enjoyment of this sumptuous stretch of the Riviera.
From where I sit at my typewriter in Antibes, on a crystalline morning I can see the sharp contours of the Corniche and the coast as far (I think) as the headland of Bordighera in Italy. In spite of seething summer crowds and the ravages of property developers, this is still a magical part of the world.
The Grande Corniche (sometimes called the Corniche Supe'rieure) is highest of the three roads, rising to more than 1,500 feet at one point. It was built by Napoleon in 1806 in the tracks of the Via Julius Augustus, along which the Roman legions marched 2,000 years ago. The Romans were the first tourists who came to take the waters at Cimiez, now a northern suburb of Nice. The views are described by the guide books as "breathtaking," and frankly I can't think of a better expression.
The Moyenne Corniche is the middle road. It's relatively modern; the last section between Nice and Eze-Village was not opened until 1913. The views are no less spectacular, and it's the fastest road if you're in a hurry.
The Basse Corniche (sometimes called the Corniche Infe'rieure) is the road along the coast and serves the resorts of Villefranche, Cap d'Ail, Beaulieu, Monte Carlo, Roquebrune-Cap-Martin and Menton. It's a true mountain corniche, rising several feet above the sea in places.
So if you ask the locals what they mean by the "Corniche," you're likely to get three different answers. It depends on where you live and where you want to go. For example, if I have a dinner date in Monte Carlo, I'll take the Moyenne Corniche from Nice in the early evening, make a right after Eze-Village and swing down through Cap d'Ail along Monte Carlo Beach. This way I can miss the commuter (not to mention tourist) traffic along the coast. Going home late at night I can get a clear run on the Basse Corniche, which is also well lit.
There are half a dozen access roads between the three Corniches, enabling you to zoom up and down from one level to another. The locals do this all the time. Unlike Sir Frederic Treves, they would rarely drive the whole length of the Grande Corniche; generally they use it just to go up to the village of La Turbie or a particular restaurant.
The Corniche is really one big neighborhood. It used to have its own neighborhood newspaper, the "Journal de la Corniche." The issue of March 30, 1913, celebrates the completion of the last section of the "Corniche du Littoral" (Moyenne Corniche) between Nice and Eze-Village. This was a big event because up until then you could only get to Nice by way of La Turbie and the Grande Corniche or via a footpath to Eze-sur-Mer 1,400 feet below and along the Basse Corniche.
Even today the footpath is still the only direct access between the upper and lower parts of Eze. It's a picturesque walk among pines and olive trees and takes about an hour from Eze-Village to the sea. There is some jocular talk in the village that a local Swiss hotelier has plans to build a funicular railway or an elevator. But you never know.
The completion of the Moyenne Corniche breathed new life into Monte Carlo -- which at the turn of the century was no larger than Villefranche -- and opened up the whole Corniche region to modern tourism.
Two of the main sponsors of the project were Prince Albert of Monaco and Albert Figuiera, mayor of Eze. The latter's great grandson is the source of my erudition: He is a young lawyer who runs a real estate business in Eze-Village and lives in the house that his family has occupied for the past thousand years.
One day not long ago, we'd had an aperitif on the ramparts at Eze, then driven up to check the view from the golf course of Mont Agel (just outside La Turbie). Here at an altitude of 2,500 feet we could see Menton, Monte Carlo and the coast, a shimmering canopy as far as Cap Ferrat. (I don't play golf, but I can vouch for the splendor of the course, which is open to the public, and the amenities of the 19th hole.)
Now at lunch on the leafy terrace of La Bergerie -- a restaurant on the Grande Corniche almost directly above Eze-Village -- we are well into family, and local, history. Mayor Figuiera's grandfather was Francois Malausse'na, mayor of Nice in 1860, the year that Italy ceded the region (from Nice to Menton) to France. He was an intermediary in the discussions between King Victor Emmanuel and Napoleon III.
The next 50 years was the golden age of aristocratic tourism. Winter was the high season in those days, and no self-respecting monarch, minister or industrial tycoon could afford not to put in an appearance at a resort like Monte Carlo or Menton. There are echos of this elitist past in the ornate wedding-cake facades of the hotels and casinos and the Edwardian villas tucked away behind the bougainvillea between the Basse and the Moyenne corniches.
The Basse Corniche was especially popular with the Russian nobility, who steamed down from St. Petersburg in private railroad cars. Czar Nicholas was one of the first property speculators. His nephew, Prince Stroganoff, had a villa at Eze-sur-Mer.
The statue of Queen Victoria in Menton is a reminder of the upper-crust British who were attracted by the mild winters and the gaming tables.
Popular tourism really got underway in the 1950s and has been growing relentlessly ever since. There are visitors all year-round, but the high season is July and August, when the French themselves flock down to the coast.
Inevitably, there has been a giant step down in taste and standards. Beaches are sometimes polluted, and the anarchic building boom of the 1960s threatened to engulf the coast in a wall of concrete. The climate and the wealth have attracted organized crime and a legion of drifters and small-time hoodlums. Mugging is now a way of life; and the papers this year are full of an unprecedented crime wave. There are sensational jewelry heists and a new breed of road pirates who terrorize motorists.
And yet, and yet. The sea is still blue, the sun still shines, the coast is still beautiful. You can still find peace and quiet in the villages of the hinterland. And there are still gastronomic discoveries to be made.
Even when I recall that 4 million people came through Nice airport last year and that 10 million are expected by the end of the century, I still get a buzz when I shift down into third on the Moyenne Corniche and see the moon shining on the sea and the lights of Monte Carlo down below.