Old Town Antibes : 10 Surprising Facts You Didn’t Know
Antibes was originally a Greek trading post known as Antipolis and it became heavily fortified over the centuries, most notably by King Louis XIV’s military engineer Vauban, who improved both the main port christened in his name and Fort Carré, the 16th century star-shaped fort used as a defensive post for Antibes at the time due to its prominence as the last French port before the border with the County of Nice.
Vieil Antibes (Old Town Antibes) is a popular summer magnet for Greater Antibes, and proud of its connection to the sea with the largest marina in the region (Port Vauban), numerous yacht-related businesses based there and dynamic events and festivals including Les Voiles d’Antibes, Antibes Celebrates Yachting and Fête de la Saint Pierre making it one of the influential hubs of maritime life on the French Riviera.
Outside of yachting, Antibes is a town of culture, art and heritage with famous writers, artists and politicians having lived there, an annual Antiques Fair (Salon des Antiquaires) attracting buyers interested in antiques or contemporary art, and a tiny ‘blink-and-you-miss-it’ community that staunchly clings to old traditions.
Here are 10 interesting facts about Vieil Antibes:
1. Marché Provençal was voted one of the most beautiful markets in the world
Vieil Antibes’ covered food market was classed as one of the ‘Top 10 most beautiful markets in the world’ (CNN, 2013) and last year the market was also awarded a ‘Certificate of Excellence’ by TripAdvisor, one of the most influential user-generated review websites.
Situated on Cours Masséna by the Antibes Town Hall, the market overflows with stalls bedecked in flowers, cured meats, herbs, spices, olive oils, fruits, vegetables, cheeses and conserves.
At the far end of the street, the archway – Porte Marine – was for centuries the only opening to the port. Just steps from the market on rue Sade is a bar dedicated to preserving the tradition of absinthe where you can order a glass of the ‘green fairy’ and choose from a collection of quirky hats to wear.
Open June-August daily from 6.30am-1pm / September-May daily except Monday from 6.30am-1pm
In the afternoons from 3pm, a craft market is set up with vendors selling paintings, sculptures, soaps, ironwork and ceramics. The craft market operates mid-June to September daily from 3pm / September to mid-June Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 3pm.
2. Commune Libre du Safranier has its own Mayor
Commune Libre du Safranier (Free Commune of Safranier) is a tiny community at the western end of Vieil Antibes that is independent of the town of Antibes and elects its own Mayor, councillors and event committee. Its cluster of pretty streets are among the most photographed streets in Antibes with vine-covered terrace houses, brightly painted doors and flower pots balancing on window sills, most notable on rue du Haut Castelet and rue du Bas Castelet.
Tourists often only discover Safranier by accident and are mostly unaware that some of Antibes’ interesting history is found there including the ancient fountain and wash house for Antibes (Fontaine and Lavoir de la Tourraque), the residence of Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis who wrote the novel ‘Zorba the Greek’ (he lived at 8 rue du Bas Castelet) and a commemorative statue bust of Victor Hugo near the remparts.
The Safranier district is a lively place especially when observing traditional festivals – some of the best to join include their renowned ball and party on July 14 for Fête Nationale, the unique square boules competition (boules carrées), and Fête des Châtaignes and Fête des Vendanges where they celebrate the chestnut and grape harvests by dishing out roasted chestnuts and free wine to revellers.
3. Musée Picasso is the first museum in the world dedicated to the artist Pablo Picasso
Formerly the Château Grimaldi, the museum is the first museum in the world dedicated to the artist with almost 250 of his artworks displayed there.
It was renamed the Musée Picasso in 1966 – two decades after Picasso had occupied a castle guard room there for six months and left after the second floor workshop became too cold to work in as winter approached and his emerging interest in ceramics drew him away to Vallauris. He gifted 23 of his paintings including ‘La Joie de vivre’ and ‘Ulysse et les sirènes’ to the museum which became the core of the collection, with his second wife Jacqueline donating more art to the museum twenty five years ago.
Alongside Picasso’s artworks are pieces from Nicolas de Staël, Joan Mirò and Fernand Léger. The back terrace with sculptures is particularly lovely with panoramic views easterly to Bastion Saint Jaume at the port and westerly to the Cap d’Antibes.
Insider Tip: Three times a year, the Musée Picasso offers free entry:
- On the European Heritage Days in September
- From the first Tuesday after the 1st November to the following Sunday
- From the first Tuesday in February to the following Sunday
4. Musée d’Archéologie is Antibes’ only municipal museum to have archaeological exhibits from land and sea
Located in two vaulted galleries at Bastion Saint André, the small but historically significant Musée d’Archéologie (Archaeology Museum) displays mosaics, models, coins, tools, amphorae, tombstone inscriptions and everyday items (some dating back to the 4th century) recovered from excavation sites in Antibes as well as Etruscan, Phoenician and Roman shipwrecks.
5. Vieil Antibes’ most magnificent church is not the most visited one
Located in a prominent spot beside the Musée Picasso is the Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-la-Platea, better known as Antibes Cathedral.
Listed as a national monument, Antibes Cathedral has been rebuilt a number of times and is the most visited church in Vieil Antibes with a beautiful ochre-coloured façade and religious treasures including a marble and bronze Baptistery, altarpiece of the Virgin of the Rosary and a linden wood statue of Christ uncovered behind a wall in the 1930’s during renovations.
As beautiful as Antibes Cathedral is, the most spectacular church interior is found elsewhere in Vieil Antibes, just off the tourist path inconspicuously obscured by shopping boutiques and foot traffic.
Here on a quiet side street, rue du Docteur Rostan, you can find Chapelle Saint-Bernardin, a 16th century church with a breath-taking interior. From the solid walnut side door, to the starry ceiling, trompe l’oeil paintings and statues of Antibes’ patron saints St Roch and St Sebastian and the church’s namesake St Bernardine of Siena, this is one of the town’s most beautifully restored places and firmly under the tourist radar.
6. Picasso was not the only famous painter to visit or live in Antibes
Picasso has done much for Antibes’ reputation, however he was not the only famous painter to visit or live in Antibes over the centuries.
Antibes was frequented and adored by many notable 19th and 20th century artists including Claude Monet, Eugene Boudin, Raymond Peynet, and Henri-Edmond Cross who were taken by the magic of the light at different times and seasons, particularly on the town remparts.
If you visit Antibes, you can join a guided tour with the Antibes Tourist Office (42 avenue Robert Soleau) or grab a brochure for a free walking tour of a ‘Painters Trail (La Route des Peintres)’ that takes in 11 lecterns placed around Antibes reproducing works of these great names in the exact spots where they created their masterpieces.
The full downloadable ‘Côte d’Azur des Peintres’ brochure also includes itineraries in Cagnes-sur-Mer, Cannes, Grasse, Le Cannet, Menton, Mougins, Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Villefranche-sur-Mer and Villeneuve Loubet.
7. A Michelin-starred seafood restaurant had origins selling tuna sandwiches
Technically not in Vieil Antibes but worth a small detour, Restaurant de Bacon sits on an enviable position at the start of the Cap d’Antibes with a view back across to Antibes remparts. With humble beginnings as a small open-air cafeteria selling pan bagnats (Niçois tuna sandwiches) and lemonade, the Sordello family have created a restaurant of acclaim that was awarded a Michelin Star in 1979.
With exceptional service, a superb wine list, great views and a worthy reputation for the freshest seafood, we recommend reservations (ask for a table on the terrace if you can). Try the bouillabaisse or choose something from their fresh fish menu where you can opt to have your fish grilled, steamed or cooked ‘en papillote’.
Insider Tip: Nearby to Bacon, are 2 lecturns with reproductions of the exact view of Antibes remparts that Claude Monet painted in 1888.
Bacon, 664 boulevard de Bacon, 06160 Antibes, France – Telephone: +33 (0)4 93 61 50 02
8. The most popular restaurant for celebrity diners in Vieil Antibes is run by an Italian
An Antibes stalwart, MAMO Le Michelangelo is run by owner Herve Mammoliti whose father Angelo left his native Calabria in southern Italy in the 1950’s in search of a better life for his family.
Opened in 1992, Herve has firmly ingrained his restaurant as a favourite of celebrities, politicians and sports stars.
Located in a non-descript side street with no view, Michelangelo as it is best known, makes up for its average location with friendly and impeccable service, and a big menu that covers everything from truffle focaccia to seafood linguini or wood fire-grilled rabbit with herbs.
Reservations are essential especially during dates of major festivals (Cannes Film Festival, Juan les Pins Jazz Festival etc).
Insider Tip: Michelangelo is closed annually between 4 January – 9 February.
MAMO Le Michelangelo, 2 rue des Cordiers, 06600 Antibes, France – Telephone: +33 (0)4 93 34 04 47
9. Lunch at a Michelin-starred restaurant can be better value than dinner at a non-Michelin restaurant
One Michelin star restaurant Le Figuier Saint-Esprit is located in a pretty street just off Antibes’ remparts with an old fig tree as its crowning glory. It is a fantastic choice for lunch with a prix-fixe €39 lunch menu available on Thursday, Friday or Saturday offering excellent value for outstanding food quality and service compared to many dinner menus presented at other restaurants in the local area.
Chef Christian Morisset has a long history in the region and aims to ensure his diners receive the ‘wow’ factor in every dish. The wine list is one of the best in Vieil Antibes.
“Delicate and measured, my cuisine is the fruit of an authentic passion. It combines the flavours and colours of the region, the perfumes of the earth and the flavours of the sea. Everything is done in order to delight the senses and to give pleasure.” Chef Christian Morisset
Reservations are necessary, especially in warmer months when the superyachts berthed at nearby Port Vauban point their guests in Le Figuier Saint-Espirt’s direction.
Insider Tip: Le Figuier Saint-Espirit often have deals on sites such as La Fourchette or Michelin with dining discounts; currently they have an ‘Offre Duo Privilège’ whereby one meal is free for every menu ‘Figuier’ that is purchased, €79 instead of €158 excluding drinks (essentially two people can dine for the price of one). The only stipulation is to quote the deal at time of making a reservation.
Le Figuier Saint-Esprit, 14 rue Saint-Esprit or 7 promenade Amiral de Grasse (two entrances), 06600 Antibes , France – Telephone: +33 (0) 4) 93 34 50 12
10. Some of the best food in town is found at small family-run restaurants
As with most cities and towns, some of the best food in Antibes is found at family-run restaurants that only the locals know about. Vieil Antibes is no exception to this rule and has a smattering of other notable mentions: Try Café Milano (2 rue de la Tourraque near the Marché Provençal) or tiny Romagna Mia (3 boulevard Dugommier) – two informal Italian restaurants with excellent food and warm hospitality.
This article was written by Rebecca Whitlocke, who with over 10 years travel industry experience loves to share ‘must-do’ destination tips and hidden spots to discover in France and beyond.
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