Once Upon a Time World: The Dark and Sparkling Story of the French Riviera by Jonathan Miles - review by Miranda Seymour

Miranda Seymour

Sun Kings & Shady Characters

Once Upon a Time World: The Dark and Sparkling Story of the French Riviera


Atlantic Books 464pp £22

In the years before the pandemic, Nice airport, which once boasted a single runway with a converted villa as its terminal, was welcoming around thirteen million sun-seeking visitors a year. Jet fumes spewed grime into the Riviera’s azure skies as engines roared above the Baie des Anges – named, as Jonathan Miles tells readers in his entertaining and wide-ranging book, after the hideous and inedible local angel shark, a local predator (the Promenade des Anglais also owes its name to the fish and not to English tourists). But then events beyond the control of any rapacious mayor or greedy oligarch overtook the beautiful but exploited coastline that Somerset Maugham, a long-term resident of Cap Ferrat, once described as ‘a sunny place for shady people’. For a few tranquil months at the start of the pandemic, no tourists came to Nice and a deserted Côte d’Azur reverted to the sleepy paradise it had been when an English peer called Lord Brougham stumbled upon it in 1835. Brougham, blocked by a cholera outbreak from continuing his journey east towards Italy, smelled the lemon-scented air, discovered bouillabaisse and decided to build a villa in Cannes. And so, in Miles’s account, began the English love affair with the Côte d’Azur.

The English were not alone in their discovery of France’s loveliest coastline, however. In 1831, a 27-year-old Hector Berlioz planned the overture for his King Lear as he mooched around the olive groves of Villefranche (while also plotting the murder of a girlfriend who had married another man). Berlioz’s friend and supporter Paganini, famous for the devilish brilliance of his playing, was only fifty-seven when he died while visiting Nice in 1840. He was embalmed and put on show, like Lenin, in a glass coffin. Count Leo Tolstoy arrived on the Riviera in 1860, grieving for a lost brother, just after the Russian navy had gladly accepted Napoleon III’s offer of a coveted Mediterranean port at Villefranche.

Russia was the first foreign power to make the Riviera a holiday home for royalty (Queen Victoria preferred her husband’s homeland, Germany). A railway line from St Petersburg ran via Warsaw and Vienna to Nice, where the tsars oversaw the creation of the splendidly domed Russian Orthodox cathedral

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