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A love affair with the Riviera

MICHAEL NELSON - The French Riviera: A History - Matador - 2016

Beware of going to book launches. Michael Nelson, former general manager of Reuters, went to one in Nice (for his own book) and came away with the passion to write a new book telling us how the French Riviera came about.

His new oeuvre is cunningly titled: The French Riviera: A History. Not: The History, which is just as well because he describes events from Pre-history to the present day and all in fewer than 100 pages. 

It’s not a peaceful story. The place from Marseilles eastwards to Cannes, Nice and Menton, the pleasure ground nowadays of millions of sun-seekers, seems to have been invaded by pretty well every power you can think of. Many of these have left traces of their influence from the Greeks, the Romans and the Phoenicians to the British, the Americans and Russians.

It has attracted all kinds from crowned heads to pirates and Saracens. If the British were first to see the delights of sunshine and this stretch of the Mediterranean coast as a refuge from the dismal offerings of winter and Spring in northern Europe, it was the Americans who made it a summer haven, first for the rich and glamorous and then for the less privileged hordes who make their way there these days.

While he keeps a firm Reuter-like grip on the wordage, Michael gives us intriguing glimpses of some of the personalities passing this way. He mentions in passing the Frankish tax collector of Roman descent who so infuriated the mob that they locked him into a church and stoned him to death. He tells us that the unfortunate man was reported to have broken wind in public places without consideration for others although that was not the reason for the stoning.

Thomas Jefferson visited Nice in 1787 when he was minister of the fledgling American republic in Paris. Michael emphasises how difficult of access the place was then. The roads were bad or non-existent; sea travel dangerous because of marauding pirates. It took 16 days of continuous and uncomfortable travel to get from London to Nice. Napoleon Bonaparte improved things a bit in his time and passed this way on his way back from exile in Elba and en route to Waterloo.  

It was the coming of the railway that really opened it all up. Queen Victoria visited the Riviera nine times between 1882 and 1889, usually travelling by rail with an entourage of 100 plus.

One of the prominent Americans settling there before the First World War was the colourful James Gordon Bennett Jr. He was a newspaper owner but fell foul of his family and scandalised others in New York when he urinated in the fireplace at a New York reception given by his fiancée’s parents. He fled to a house he built in Beaulieu. He didn’t marry that fiancée but later in life ended many years of bachelordom by wedding Maud Potter, widow of George Julius Reuter, son of our founder, Baron Paul Julius Reuter. Thus things come full circle.

Michael’s love affair with the Riviera is well documented in his two previous books; Queen Victoria and the Discovery of the Riviera, and Americans and the Making of the Riviera. His new book is a good basis, a primer for further reading. ■