Mention Cannes and one automatically thinks of the star-studded Film Festival, the fabulous Croisette, designer shops, five star hotels and all manner of glamour. However, it’s not always been that way! Like many a resort on the Cote d’Azur, Cannes has humble beginnings. It was once a fishing village, but go even further back and its history is rather more colourful than you might expect!
The town dates back to almost 1,000BC. Archeologists found evidence of human life in the Neolithic and Iron ages. Its first recorded settlers were probably a Ligurian tribe who inhabited Le Suquet (Cannes Old Town). An archeological dig revealed an early settlement that dated back to 6th Century BC – an acropolis, a true urban settlement with public buildings. The Romans – those boys got everywhere! – occupied Cannes and its nearby islands for almost five centuries during the Republican period when the islands served as a large Naval Base. The period after the collapse of the Roman Empire, the so-called “Dark Era,” was characterised by attacks from all sorts including the Visigoths, Lombards and Saracens.
What then followed was a period of re-building, largely to protect the existing settlement, including Le Suquet’s castle, from the threat of Barbarian pirates. To reward the feudal lords who’d helped to expel the Saracens, the Count of Provence gave Rodoard, the head of a powerful local family, the rights to Cannes. In 1030 Rodoard’s son became a monk on the Lerins islands and subsequently, with the Pope’s blessing, donated Cannes to its Abbey.
The name “Cannes” first appeared in this deed of donation with the mention of “De Portu Canue”. The word Canue is derived from a Ligurian word meaning ’height’ or ‘peak’ – a perched settlement.
Between 13th and 16th centuries, Cannes was disrupted by the plague, and in 1520, an epidemic broke out killing over half of its population. Ownership also changed hands frequently during this period going from the monks to Catalan counts, then the Angevins, who were both Counts of Provence and Kings of Naples, the House of Savoy and finally France.
The British in Cannes
The Lord Chancellor of England, Lord Brougham came to Cannes in 1834. He was on his way to Italy via Nice but due to a recent cholera epidemic in Nice he made an unscheduled stop at the tiny fishing village of Cannes. Lord Brougham was delighted by what he found and decided to build a holiday villa there. In one of his letters back home he wrote:
….enjoying the delightful climate….the deep blue of the Mediterranean glimmers before us. The orange groves perfume the air, while the forests behind, ending in the Alps, protect us from the North winds.
In his honour the council erected a bronze statue of him which is next to the town hall in Cannes old Town. Unsurprisingly, Lord Brougham opened the flood gates for large numbers of British aristocrats and Royals to have residences in Cannes. Possibly, the first wave of Brits to have European holiday homes.
After the British came the Russians – the most famous being the incredibly wealthy Alexandra Fedorovna Tripet Skrivistkin. This established Cannes as a resort for wealthy Europeans, Russians and Indian viceroys who came in the wake of Lord Brougham and built beautiful ornate residences. Cannes was a favourite haunt of Guy de Maupassant and Stephen Liegeard who first coined the region’s French name the “Côte d’Azur”.
Further examples of ornate residences are the wonderful ‘Belle Epoque’ hotels: The Carlton, The Martinez and The Majestic – all now popular places for brunching – which were built in order to accommodate Cannes’ growing popularity amongst the wealthy European aristocrats. Cannes’ port was built in 1838, followed by its train station in 1863 thereby dramatically shortening the journey between Paris and Cannes to 22 hours and 20 minutes. The village soon became a city and expanded westwards towards La Bocca. Its population rose dramatically from 3,000 inhabitants in 1814 to 30,000 in 1914 though WWI halted this growth and many of the hotels were converted into hospitals for the sick and wounded.
WWII and beyond
The inaugural Cannes Film Festival was scheduled for 1939 but was cancelled due to the outbreak of WWII, during which Cannes was occupied firstly by the Italians and then the Germans. In August 1944 it experienced its final attack from the sea during which an American actor, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, the captain of a US Naval ship helped Cannes defeat its enemies. The Film Festival was reinstated and the town’s popularity increased beyond its wildest expectations.
We regularly visit the town either riding through it on our bikes, for Sunday brunch or just for a pleasant stroll around its streets, shops, markets and to admire its architecture. I particularly like the views afforded from the Old Town of Le Suquet. What do you like best about Cannes?