The French Riviera is quite a recent term for an exclusive part of the Cote d’Azur that has actually been inhabited since prehistoric times. Archaeologists have found tools and other artifacts that date back over a million years around the region of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin.
Documentation of the region first started happening around the 7th Century BC when Greek sailors began landing on the shoreline of the Cote d’Azur. The first early settlements were around Nice, Antibes, and Pierre-de-l’Almanarre. The settlers based there started to trade goods with people of the interior lands and became fierce rivals of the Phoenicians and the Etruscans who also visited the region.
It is hardly surprising that due to the geographical position the Cote d’Azur became under Roman rule around the 8 Century BC when Emperor Augustus decided to colonize the region. Soon after, Roman architecture was erected, and towns, amphitheaters and monuments started to crop up, some of which still exist today. Fine examples are the Roman walls at Frejus, and the baths at Cimiez.
The Christians and the Barbarians
During the second and third centuries AD, Europe was in the grips of turmoil between Christians and Barbarians. Germanic people started to invade Roman held territories and the power of Rome started to decrease. Christianity prevailed and the first Christian buildings started to appear. The oldest structure still exists on the Cote d’Azur at the Cathedral of Frejus, which was built at the end of the 5th Century. When the Roman Empire fell, the region was invaded by a whole mix of peoples including the Ostrogoths, Burgundians and the Visigoths. The Cote d’Azur was exploding into turmoil, war and dynastic quarrels which opened the province up to further invasions by the Normans and Saracens.
The House of Grimaldi and the Counts of Provence
A new kingdom appeared in the region in 879 called Provence, which brought peace and prosperity to the area. The first rulers were the Bosonids, followed by the Catalans and then finally by the Angevins right up to the late 1400’s.
During this latter period, a new power emerged from Genoa, which was called the House of Grimaldi that took control of Nice, Monaco and Antibes and fortified their domain by building castles at Antibes, Cagnes-sur-Mer and Grimaud. There was a change of name for the region as it was now called Comte de Nice and it separated itself from the culture of Provence right up to 1860 when it was once again unified with France during the reign of Napoleon III.
Provence remained independent until 1500 when the final Comte de Provence of Naples died, and left all his power to his nephew who in turn handed over the Comte to King Louis XI of France. Ever since the region has been a part of France and Provence was welcomed into the nation. In part two we learn more about the history of the French Riviera and how the upper classes began to embrace it as their own playground.