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The French Riviera Isn't Just for Billionaires

09/27/2012 07:10 am ET | Updated Nov 27, 2012

If Hollywood -- as some old cynic once said -- is a town where people from Missouri mistake each other for movie stars then the French Riviera is where tanning salon aficionados from provincial towns across Europe hope to be mistaken for the yacht owners of the Côte d'Azur.

The Oligarch's Riviera, a constellation of playgrounds for billionaires and fantasists, does exist, but it is not the whole story.

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The floating Abramovich manse.

The French Riviera, it turns out, isn't snooty about money or overawed. The Riviera merely regards the Russian oligarchs as the latest wave of foreign invaders, most of whom came here throughout the centuries with guns ablaze and daggers drawn. Megayachts, the French Riviera thinks, are better.

But it is equally true that some of the best that the French Riviera has to offer is relatively affordable, once you have accounted for accommodation and travel. (We flew with budget airline Vueling to Nice and found our holiday rental through HomeAway.)

An Active French Riviera Holiday

The Côte d'Azur offers numerous trails for short hikes of two to three hours, the perfect way to spend an active afternoon, combining great views across the sea, of splendid Mediterranean architecture and wonderful, often surprisingly undercrowded beaches.

Even better: these trails are virtually free of Russian oligarchs who generally prefer the Riviera's confined spaces to her open ones. (Because they can be more easily controlled by their security and bodyguards, presumably.)

Here are four of the best such trails: all of them conveniently located near the Riviera's main towns as their trailheads, all of them using a station on the busy route between Cannes and Ventimiglia (trains run roughly every 30 minutes.)

Antibes

This trail around the legendary Cap d'Antibes packs a lot into its rather tight two hours of scenic drama, both natural and man-made: craggy cliff formations, stairways carved into stone and everything you would expect from a walk on the Mediterranean coastline.

To get there, take a bus (line 2 from the central bus station) to Fontaine, continue straight into Avenue Mrs Beaumont and, at the end, just follow the signs to the Sentier Littoral.

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Take a bus or the train (two stops) to the quasi-suburb of Villefranche-sur-mer. Walk into town, perhaps the prettiest along the Riviera, and turn right uphill when you see the town church.

Continue all the way up, following the Campo Quadro stairway, before turning left on the Moyenne Corniche, the legendary coastal road, following the path to the semi-abandoned fortress of Mont Alban for some great views of both Nice and Villefranche.

Descend to the pine forest and back to Villefranche through some lush and deep Mediterranean woodlands.

Cannes

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Ask for a map at the Cannes Tourism Office then take a ferry to the Ile Ste Marguerite and explore the island counterclockwise around the coast - for as long as you like (the full circuit will take you app. 3 hours) before cutting in to visit the fortress.

The fort was the place where, in the period of the Three Musketeers, the Man In The Iron Mask was held, perhaps the world's most mysterious prisoner ever. (According to Alexandre Dumas, the Dan Brown of the 19th century, he was the twin brother of Louis XIV.)

Unless you come here on a weekend in the high season, you will have much of the island to yourself. Bring your swimwear! There are numerous enchanted bays around the island - but also something to cover your feet because the ground underneath the water is often quite stony.

Menton

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Walk from the train station down to the sea and turn left, continuing through the new town and the Old Town (leave a little time for the latter, climbing the Old Town hill at least up to the level of the baroque St Michael's church) all the way down the coast - past the town's two harbours - until you are in Italy.

On the other side of the frontier, you find a collection of shops, selling mainly cigarettes and liquor, but also a coffee bar with some outside tables where you can have a ristretto and shout Ciao bella! at the girls in short skirts.

Return the way you came, but look for the signs to the station of Menton Garavan on your right - from here, you can catch your train back to Nice and Cannes.

Alternatively, take a train in the opposite direction, and in 5 minutes you can be in a real Italian town, the seaside resort of Ventimiglia.