The names St Tropez, Cannes, Juan-les-Pins, Antibes and Nice are part of the world's culture. This is the Cote d'Azur, the French Riviera. At first glance, it seems like a strange idea to leave Australia, a land of sunshine and wonderful beaches to spend time on the less naturally impressive coastline of the south of France. That's until you realise that the strip of coast from Cannes to the Italian border has very little to do with the beach anyway.

There's an explanation for this. By any reasonable standards, the climate of Europe is woeful. So when transport developed to the point that populations were mobile, those people with money (but not necessarily taste) sought the sun of the Mediterranean. Perhaps that has always been true: apparently, there were elephant hunters living above Nice 40,000 years ago.

Then, in 1835 a British politician, Lord Brougham was prevented from entering Italy because of a cholera epidemic so he stayed in the small French fishing village of Cannes instead. He fell in love with it and returned year after year, bringing friends with him. The mystique of the Riviera was born – and the beachfront Promenade des Anglais was created.

The south of France
Even now, Cannes has a population of only 70,000. But the huge hotels and the Palais des Festivals, where the world's film industry congregates for a festival of indulgence each May, makes it seem much larger. The city's edifices are spread along the dramatically overbuilt Boulevard de la Croisette facing the crowded marina. In effect, from here to the Promenade des Anglais in Nice is a ribbon development of grand hotels and apartments, ostentatious residents and tourists, sports cars, boutiques, over-dressing and jewellery. This is the strip where Isadora Duncan proved driving a sports car while wearing a scarf can be fatal.

Take a stroll around beautiful Cannes and enjoy the water view

The south of France is a very exciting place to be. It shimmers in sunshine and glamour. In the street markets of Cannes the hot sun gleams off the antiques and bric a brac for sale. You need only take a few steps to move from the string bikinis and ice creams of the beach to the ornate interiors of belle epoque Intercontinental Carlton Hotel and the Palm Beach Casino. Down the road at Juan-les-Pins there's the exclusive Hotel du Cap where Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald used to stay and Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor had one of their honeymoons.

The luxury boats
The late Jack Davey, Australian 1950s radio personality, described a boat as “a hole in the water you pour money into”. The marina at the old port of Cannes reveals just how large and deep those holes can be: there's very little water between hectares of deck space and no sky separating the bristling of radio and radar antennae. To be noticed a luxury private boat needs to be of ocean liner dimensions. The emphasis in Cannes seems to be on powerboats – who wants to risk spilling the champagne while “going about” under sail?

Luxury boats crowd the ports of the French Riviera

Exploring inland
Venturing inland, the scenery changes dramatically. Within a few kilometres you're high in hills covered in olive groves and flower gardens. The flowers here were once the essential element of the world's perfume industry. Stopping at any of the perfumeries you'll find a tour that will teach you how the flowers have to be picked in the freshness of dawn and how it takes a tonne of jasmine blossoms to produce just three grams of perfume essence. However, since Coco Chanel created artificial essences early this century, the importance of Grasse and its flowers has declined. Today, it's just a pretty town far removed from the bustle of the coast.

It's possible to loop to the east from Grasse to emerge on the coast near the Riviera's international airport. Doing this takes you to St Paul de Vence, one of the quaintest hilltop villages imaginable. Cobbled lanes lead to tiny squares with fountains at their heart, narrow archways open up to panoramas of surrounding hillsides. Colourful window boxes abound. St Paul was once a favourite haunt of artists. Of course, today it's a tourist trap with every laneway leading to a gallery selling overpriced mediocrity. But there's no denying the beauty of St Paul itself. Fortunately, old men still play boule in the town square.

French -riviera -fountains -wyza -com -au
Visit St Paul de Vence for the quaint squares and fountains

The 25-room Colombe d'Or Hotel is an institution in St Paul – it lies just outside the walls of the town. For many years, this was the summer residence for impoverished but talented artists like Cezanne, Chagall and Miro. Strapped for cash, they paid their bills with artworks – there's a Miro sculpture by the pool and the dining room looks like a Modernist gallery. The hotel is closed to passing visitors but it's well worth coming here for, what is in effect, a meal in an art gallery. It's certainly not cheap but it's worth the splurge.

Exploring Nice
Then we come to Nice (pronounced “niece”). While Cannes (pronounced “Carn” as in “C'arn Aussie”) has the atmosphere of a Cary Grant movie set, Nice actually feels like a place people live. Perhaps that comes from a long history as an important commercial centre. The traditional core of the city is Old Nice at the foot of the castle hill – the castle was demolished a couple of centuries ago. This part of the city is a maze of medieval alleys full of shops and bistros. However, the main part of town is now to the west, stretching inland from the beach and the Promenade des Anglais.

French -riviera -sun-fountain -wyza -com -au
Nice's famous Fontaine du Soleil (Fountain of the Sun)

This beach is one of the best-known stretches of pebbles in the world. Locally, these pebbles are known as “galets” and they rule out long walks along the beach. And you need to be aware that you aren't operating under home rules. As Australians we take it for granted that any beach is open to the public. Here you'll find that whole beaches along the Bay des Anges (Bay of Angels) are privately owned and not generally accessible.

Look, but don't touch – not all of the beaches along the French Riviera are open for the public

While in Nice, the only essential tourist excursion is to the Musee Marc Chagall. This has the fullest collection of Chagall's works, including his great biblical works. There's also a Musee Matisse that has one of the world’s best collections of his works, spanning all the way from 1890 to the 1950s.

Head for the Hills
East of Nice, the mountains come down to the coast. These are known as the pre-Alps. Only 50 km from the beach the Alpes d'Azur rises to 3,000 metres with some 20 ski resorts catering to active visitors with activities ranging from paragliding, caving and trekking to horse riding or, in winter, climbing frozen water falls.

There are many restaurants, cafes and hotels – this is France, after all.

The French Riviera is familiar through film and television but it’s well worth exploring the reality where the excesses are greater and the detail fascinating.

What international travel articles would you like our travel editor David McGonigal to cover next? Let us know below.