The sun shines softly along the Cote d'Azur in May and gentle breezes sweep the flowered hills. The famous blue-green waters of the Mediterranean are ever brilliant but do not beckon yet because it's not warm enough to swim. In such queenly towns as Nice, it's between seasons and the familiar Promenade des Anglais has few strollers. There is a sleepy calm all along the coast -- as though the populace is catching a final catnap before the summer crowds converge.
But nearby there is already a considerable amount of confusion and fuss as Monte Carlo prepares for Europe's most prestigious car event, the Monaco Grand Prix. Scheduled this year for May 18, the race is one of the principality's major tourist attractions, and more than 100,000 onlookers can be expected to gather on this particular Sunday.
It takes at least six weeks to prepare the two-mile course that runs right through the center of Monte Carlo -- past famous, Old World establishments like the Hotel de Paris, into the Place du Casino, and directly underneath the supermodern hotel cum casino built by Loews a few years ago. Grills and wire cages must be erected along the narrow, winding streets as well as bridges and walkways for pedestrians.
The race involves the entire Monte Carlo scene during the four days of trials and competition and visitors must be extremely fit to survive it all. Not only must one become something of a mountain goat to climb the barriers and bypasses, the noise of revving engines is enough to drive off all but the most avid fans. The cars roar around corners so fast that one would expect the gems in the shop windows along the route to pop right out of their elegant 18-karat gold settings.
Guests at Loews Monte Carlo, which stands atop the course between the hairpin Speluges curve and the tunnel beside the sea, have no peace after 5 or 6 a.m. during the trials and must contend with bouncing croissants for breakfast. But they also have one of the best vantage points for the race, either from the roof pool area or the hillside rooms with balconies hanging over Speluges curve.
Although the first whine of any Grand Prix is unnerving to the novice, it is difficult not to become taken up by the excitement. The drivers even verge on the heroic (image grown men doing this for a living) and their vehicles are nothing short of stupendous. You read every word of the official program (even in French), matching games with numbers, photos, cars, and sponsors. Your lips roll expertly with Niki Lauda, Jody Scheckter, Carlos Reutemann, and Mario Andretti.
The crowds grow as "Big Sunday" approaches, and people-watching is the second favorite pastime. The cafes are jammed and sidewalk vendors get rich quickly with their sodas and ham sandwiches made from mini-loaves of crusty French bread. But the majority of onlookers bring their own picnics. One enteprising couple from Italy drew an admiring crowd, watching the two set up a table beside their car, cover it with a white cloth, unfold some chairs, and sit down to piping hot plates of spaghetti poured from a wide-mouthed thermos. l
The presence of Prince Rainier and Princess Grace makes this particular Grand Prix even more glamorous and exciting. The royal pair drive the course themselves in an antique car from the Prince's vast collection and then settle down in the Loge Princiere for the 75 tours of the race, just under two hours.
One wonders how the elegant Princess endures but she is there to present the winner's trophy, and those who watch closely can see her bend her head ever so gracefully to pop out some earplugs before she converses with the festooned driver.
And after the race, the serenity of the Riviera in spring prevails once again. You can drive leisurely again along the Grande Corniche to enjoy magnificent vistas of the coast from up high as well as monuments both ancient and modern. One of the most striking is the Matisse or Rosary Chapel in nearby Vence (open Tuesday, Thursday, and by appointment). Designed by Henri Matisse between 1947 and 1951, it was considered by the artist himself to be his masterpiece -- "the culmination of a whole life dedicated to the search for truth."
Deceptively simple in decoration, the chapel is stark white with black-on-white ceramic murals. But Matisse was a magician of color and three stained-glass windows burst into the room with the brilliant colors of the Cote d'Azur -- yellow, green, and blue.
Nearby in the medieval town of St. Paul de Vence is the collective creation of artists, architect Jose Luis Sert, and Parisien patrons Aime and Marguerite Maeght. Called the Maeght Foundation, this magnificent museum/gallery occupies a site overlooking the coast on the south and the snow-covered alps to the north.The structure, designed by Spanish-born Sert, and consists of a series of open and enclosed courts full of sculpture and paintings, the whole surrounded by pine trees, rosemary, and lavender. On permanent exhibition and open to the public daily are works of Braque, Chagall, Miro, Giacometti, Calder, Chillida, Ubac, and many, many others.
Ancient history can be relived in the town of St. Paul itself as well as the Roman excavations in the Cimiez district of Nice. A reconstructed Roman monument, the Alpine Trophy, can be found in the village of La Turbie on the Grande Corniche -- at 1,575 feet above sea level. Originally constructed in 6 B.C. to honor Augustus, the monument arises quite suddenly on the high road linking Nice with Menton, at the very point where the principal roads built during the Gaullic campaigns crossed the Alps. Even Dante was so moved by the sight that he left some verse on the side of a nearby house.