The Russian Riviera

Never trust a travel writer
The enduring Russian love affair with the French and Italian Riviera has left an indelible mark. The Russians helped launch the Riviera as a winter playground and shaped the Riviera in their own image. And the Russians are still there.  
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From San Remo to Cannes, the Russians are still coming. The Russians came for the mild winters, stayed for the wild summers, and remain entranced by the languid lifestyle.  Russian art, opera and ballet are celebrated on the Riviera this year. But, in a sense, it’s been Russia’s year for the last 150 years. The oligarchs may be less in evidence since sanctions and the economic slump but are still ensconced on the priciest peninsulas.

The Russians have long had designs on the Riviera. As early as the 1850s, Admiral Popov tried to purchase Monaco but was rebuffed. The invading Russians had more success with Villefranche, a port conveniently close to Nice. The Riviera was a winter playground for rich idlers and hypochondriacs, and the Russians led the way, or at least jostled the snooty British in the sandpits and sanitaria.

In 1864, as soon as the Riviera railways opened, Emperor Alexander II and his Empress descended on Nice. Carnival became a Russian party, with carriages of society ladies disguised as Riviera roses and violets. The sluggish St Petersburg-Nice-Cannes Express delivered wintering Russians to the Riviera shores. After Grand-Duke Michael decided it would be bad for his heart to travel at more than 30 miles an hour, the train timetables were adapted accordingly. The Russians had clearly arrived.

The Russian legacy lingers on in the exotic, onion-domed churches and in the largesse of their lifestyles. In his villa above Cannes, Prince Cherkassky expected his 48 gardeners to change the garden floral displays nightly. His neighbour, Count Apraxim, required his pet cellists to play night and day, but always with a servant positioned behind his chair as powerful music led him to contemplate suicide. Details of local police protected the Grand-Dukes and Grand-Duchesses from assassination. Empress Maria Feodorovna rewarded the local police force with gifts of Champagne and gold watches.

As for Monaco, the Romanovs and the Grimaldi came to power within a year of one another, between 1612-13, and this oddly respectful State relationship has flourished for over 400 years. The dynastic bonds have survived both the Russian Revolution and the Russian takeover of Monaco football team. The Principality recently celebrated the Year of Russia with tributes to Chagall and Kandinsky.

Russian love affair with Nice

Beaulieu towards Villefranche © Lisa Gerard-Sharp
Beaulieu towards Villefranche © Lisa Gerard-Sharp

With its naval base in neighbouring Villefranche in 1856, Russia also considered Nice a favourite haven. After Nice became French in 1860, Cimiez became a retreat for Russian aristocrats and intellectuals. It was a cradle to the grave experience, with Russian bathhouses and barbers, churches and cemeteries, as well as grandiose mansions and dedicated libraries in Russian districts. From writers as revolutionary as Chekhov to real revolutionaries such as Lenin, later Russians considered Nice home to freethinkers and émigrés. Russian architects graced the Promenade des Anglais with Art Deco facades while Diaghilev and his troupe danced with gay abandon in Monte Carlo. In Nice, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky composed while Chagall created masterpieces under the Riviera sun.

Russian churches still adorn the Riviera but none is bolder than the newly-renovated St Nicholas Cathedral. Constructed in 1903, this Orthodox extravaganza was inspired by the ancient, onion-domed St Basil's in Moscow. Stuffed with glittering treasures, this is the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedral in Western Europe. Despite the gilded icons, the cathedral was built in the Riviera spirit, fashioned out of French and Italian stone. The white stone is from neighbouring La Turbie while the terracotta is from Tuscany and the marble and rose granite from elsewhere in Italy. In the grounds stands a memorial to Grand Duke Nicolas, who died on the same spot in 1865, aged 21. This Byzantine-style chapel, built on the site of the princely Villa Bermond, was consecrated in the presence of the future Tsar Alexander III.

The Russian diaspora cherishes this symbol of pre-Soviet splendour but no longer looks after it since Russia successfully claimed the cathedral in 2010. The courts determined in the State’s favour, accepting that the cathedral ground was donated by the Imperial family, who were later replaced by the Russian Federation. Cynics see such land grabs as a cynical power play by the Russians. Although once a magnet for Russian aristocrats who flocked to the Côte d'Azur before the 1917 Russian Revolution, the cathedral became a rallying point for exiles who fled to Nice during the Soviet era. To the Russian diaspora, it represented a slice of Mother Russia on the Riviera. To President Putin’s critics, the takeover of the cathedral is seen as part of a policy of enlisting symbols of Russian grandeur to stoke patriotism at home.

Chagall's poetic vision © Lisa Gerard-Sharp
Chagall's poetic vision © Lisa Gerard-Sharp

Chagall’s purplish passion

Less controversially, on Rue Longchamp stands the oldest Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia, built before Nice became French in 1860. Financed by the Dowager Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, the widow of Nicholas I, this was where Alexander II was proclaimed heir to the Imperial throne. Less grandly, it was in this complex that the arty Prince Pierre Viazemsky also founded a small parish library in 1860.

Chagall in Nice © Lisa Gerard-Sharp
Chagall in Nice © Lisa Gerard-Sharp

To wallow in the power and poetry of Russian art, it has to be a pilgrimage to Cimiez and the Chagall Museum. Although he found fulfilment in France, the dreamy, Russian-born Jewish artist saw his art as a one long reverie on his homeland. “I don’t know where he gets those images,” said Picasso of this swirling tableau of Biblical scenes. “He must have an angel in his head.” With his purplish passion and vivid flights of fantasy, Chagall was also a supreme colourist: “When Matisse dies,” Picasso predicted, "Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is.”

Although various aristocratic Russian villas became universities or institutions, Princess Kotschoubey’s palace is recast as the Museum of Fine Art. Fittingly, on display are works by Marie Bashkirtseff, the prolific Russian painter and diarist. Marie sang the praises of her adoptive city: “Nice is my country; Nice made me grow; Nice gave me health and a beautiful complexion.” (All this praise despite brief banishment after Marie’s monkey bit Anna Tolstoy’s son).  The novelist Count Leo Tolstoy had come to the Riviera in 1860 for the sake of his brother’s health but had not factored in monkey attacks.

The Uncrowned King of Cannes

In Cannes, the Russian legacy is symbolised by another oriental, onion-domed fantasy, but also by eclectic villas. The Russian Orthodox Church of Cannes, known as Saint Michael the Archangel, was completed in 1894, and witnessed one exiled Grand Duke married and two others laid to rest in the crypt.

Russian Orthodox Church Cannes © Lisa Gerard-Sharp
Russian Orthodox Church Cannes © Lisa Gerard-Sharp

The lofty Californie district is dotted with villas linked to the Russian colony who once wintered here. Avenue du Roi Albert, the grandest stretch, is home to Villa Kazbeck, named after the summit of the Caucasus.  In 1889 this stern mansion became the residence of Grand Duke Michael (Mikhailovitch), the uncle of Tsar Nicholas II. Servants catered to his every whim. Valets were even expected to milk a cow in Cannes-Mandelieu to ensure his breakfast milk was fresh from the udder. In Villa Kazbeck, the exiled Russian lived like a ruling Romanov. He wined and dined crowned heads, including King Edward VII, who was, incidentally, the first British monarch to visit Russia.

Grand Duke Michael, the grandson of Tsar Nicholas I, and the scandal-prone `wild child’ of the Romanovs, had been banished from Russia after an unsuitable marriage. As luck had it, his disgrace helped him escape the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution and he eventually ended his days in London. While exiled in Cannes, he dallied with so many projects for casinos, hotels and golf courses that he became known as `the Uncrowned King of Cannes.’

Villa Kazbeck in Cannes © Lisa Gerard-Sharp
Villa Kazbeck in Cannes © Lisa Gerard-Sharp

Cannes owes almost as much to this exiled Russian as to Lord Brougham, the English founder of Cannes. As a city patron, the Grand-Duke laid the foundation stone for the new harbour in Cannes-Mandelieu and, in 1910, opened the tramline connection to Cannes. As a player in all senses of the word, the Russian introduced tennis and golf to Cannes and founded the Cannes-Mandelieu Old Course in 1891. Modelled on the St Andrew’s in Scotland, this is the oldest golf course on the French Riviera.

A walk around Californie reveals relics from rival empires. Further up the hill from Villa Kazbeck is the quaint Villa Les Lotus, looking like a romantic English folly. It is a charmingly overblown cottage topped by comical brick chimney-stacks. Nearby, on Avenue Jean-de-Noailles, looms Villa Rothschild, built by Baron James de Rothschild. Confiscated first by the Nazis and then by Cannes, the villa now does service as a city library.

If you want to drink like a Russian rather than read like a local, head to the Carlton, the grandest hotel of its day. Here, on the famed Croisette, Grand Duke Michael part-financed the hotel and regularly came for tea, Russian-Riviera style. Tea was taken with lemon tart, made with the freshest lemons, though not involving his personal valets in milking duties.  

The Russian Bear hug in San Remo

Royal Hotel Sanremo © Royal Hotel Sanremo
Royal Hotel Sanremo © Royal Hotel Sanremo

The Russian Bear also embraces the Italian Riviera just as warmly. Every Riviera city has avenues recording Russians, such as Lungomare Imperatrice in Sanremo, a promenade named after the Imperial dynasty. Tsarina Maria Aleksandrovna, wife of Alexander II, spent the winter season in San Remo in 1874 and launched the resort as an upmarket sanatorium for the wintering Russian community. Much like the English, the Russians came to Sanremo for their health. Wealthy Russians suffering from tuberculosis swiftly adapted the resort to suit their needs. Russian bathhouses, bakeries and a pharmacy were established, along with lavish villas and hotels. It was Tsarina Maria Alexandrovna, the wife of Tsar Alexander II, who donated the avenue’s first swaying palms.

Set just off the seafront, the Russian Orthodox Church was willed into existence by Tsar Nicholas II, who donated to the building campaign in 1912. The plans were drawn up by the architect better known for Lenin’s Mausoleum on Red Square. Instead, Sanremo’s small but lavish church contains the tombs of King Nikola and Queen Milena of Montenegro, who died in exile in Sanremo in the early 1920s. At the top of hill are gardens in honour of their daughter, Elena, who became Queen of Italy, married to Victor Emmanuel III.  Given Sanremo’s Slavic soul, St Petersburg presented the resort with a symbolic statue a few years ago.

The elite Russian love affair with the Riviera continues, despite Russian sanctions and economic decline. The Romanov Imperial family link still draws rich Russians to belle époque villas close to Cannes, Cap Ferrat and Cap d’Antibes. Roman Abramovitch, the owner of the Chelsea squad, is ensconced in Chateau de la Croe on Cap d’Antibes, once the retreat of the exiled Duke of Windsor and Mrs Simpson. Today, even commoners can walk the glorious length of Cap d’Antibes and, the odd burly bodyguard aside, catch glimpses of villas peeping out behind the umbrella pines. Floating in the bay might be Eclipse, the Russian plutocrat’s superyacht, supposedly complete with missiles and anti-paparazzi shields.

Cap Ferrat, the priciest stretch of Riviera real estate outside Monaco, overlooks the bay originally favoured by the Russian fleet. Writer Somerset Maugham, who once had a home here, wittily described the peninsula as “the escape hatch from Monaco for those burdened with taste.” On this chic cape, discretion and good taste still prevail, even among plutocrats. Oil oligarchs are not in evidence, nor streams of Russians in their corporate jets. In fact, today’s bigshots are too discreet for Riviera tastes: Paul Allen of Microsoft and the Ferrero family (of Nutella fame) at best evoke an image of chocolate spread on sticky keyboards.

Somerset Maugham wittily described the Cap Ferrat peninsula as “the escape hatch from Monaco for those burdened with taste.”

In Sanremo, instead, the old Russian Riviera lingers on: no sightings of corporate jets, just signs of the belle epoque charm that captivated earlier Russians. The Orthodox church still leads to a palm-lined promenade planted by a Russian Empress. The chandelier-hung salons of the Royal Hotel Sanremo still conjure up the rackety era of the Grand-Dukes. The musty Russian icon shop reveals the odd rare find. There’s even a perfumery selling `Romanov scent’ evoking the blooms beloved by the Imperial dynasty. Daphne’s `Profumo Romanov’ is a heady mix of Riviera roses and violets. Breathe in the perfume to recall when Carnival was a Russian party, with carriages of Grand-Duchesses disguised as Riviera roses and violets.

The Riviera, Russian-style:

Russian Cathedral, Nice, French Riviera:  www.cathedrale-russe-nice.fr

Begun in 1903, and financed by Tsar Nicholas II and his mother, this magnificent Russian Orthodox Cathedral is considered the loveliest outside Russia. Newly-restored, it’s more impressive than ever, and set on Avenue Nicholas II, Nice, France.

Royal Hotel Sanremo, Sanremo, Italian Riviera:  www.royalhotelsanremo.com

Dating back to 1872, this lavish grande-dame hotel has always catered to the high society, from the Imperial dynasty to the crowned heads of Europe. The old-world charm lingers on, helped by chandeliered salons and lavish suites with wraparound sea views. The hotel is on the same boulevard as the Russian church, a boulevard named after the Russian Empress. The palm trees she presented to the resort are still thriving along Corso Imperatrice, this seafront promenade.

French Riviera Tourism:  www.french-rivieratourism.com

Cannes Tourism:  www.cannes-destination.fr

Nice Tourism:  www.en.nicetourisme.com

Liguria Tourism (& Sanremo):  www.lamialiguria.it/en

Copyright © Lisa Gerard-Sharp. All rights reserved.
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1 Comment

  1. Layla Bianchi05/09/17

    Intriguing metamorphosis of the French & Italian Riviera. The Russian Riviera is a wonderful example, among many, of how Lisa can charm her readers.

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