Off Season

No Movie Stars, No Red Carpet, But Off-Season Cannes Is Still Magic

Everyone knows Cannes for its famous film festival. When the stars and paparazzi have departed, it’s an even weirder place—with rich Russians and topless old ladies—but still enchanting.

I am no stranger to Cannes and the French Riviera. For many years I have been going to its eponymous, crazy film festival—as well as its TV festival--to watch and report on the deals being done, the premieres, the dresses, and the rich and famous cavorting on red carpets and yachts.

But what is it like with no Penelope Cruz pouting in sheer red satin, without the massed paparazzi, and screaming publicists? I decided to visit in September, to check in on Cannes’ intriguing population of rich Russians, prostitutes, and bejeweled old ladies to see how they fare away from the world’s flashbulbs.

At the festival, one encounters figures like Harvey Weinstein, who once threatened to punch a colleague at his opening night soiree. So we took a photograph of Jessica Simpson instead. But the Cannes that exists beyond the jet set has its own characters, just as out there—way out there—as its annual, fly-by-night Hollywood guests.

A chaotic journey—canceled trains, obstreperous train guards, screaming babies on a late-night coach—led to me on a coach shuttling along the dark coast road from Nice, passing through small towns filled with revelers and bars, until the driver asked one of my fellow travelers, “Where is your yacht?” I heard the question right: Cannes is famous for its film festival, but also has a yachting festival in September.

Heaven, I thought. Not a movie producer in sight.

If there is a reason to visit, apart from the endless trade shows and beautiful villages that surround Cannes, from Mougins to Grasse, it became apparent the next morning. I awoke to the most glorious weather, that brilliant, white sun-filled light that has long drawn artists like Picasso here.

Better yet, it was Sunday, the day of Cannes’ fabulous farmers’ market in the old town, where dozens of small producers gather in a vast market hall. Paella, berries and goat cheese in hand, and a chickpea pancake devoured for breakfast, I wandered past seaside restaurants and secured my spot on the busy beach.

I found, shock horror, old ladies with orange hair sunbathing topless. Only the old ladies, save for the odd young woman, dared bare their breasts. Cannes, it would seem, still embodies the free spirit that has long drawn artists to the south. But then again in France one need not be an artist to parade half naked in public.

On my way back into town, I walked by the fortress of tents surrounding the harbor, readying for the yacht show. Vast sailing vessels twinkled in the bay. I was reminded of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s yacht party at the film festival on one of the world’s largest yachts, parked miles out to sea where he performed on the guitar and film stars mingled.

Back on the Croisette, the seafront promenade, Prada, Chanel, Louis Vuitton and every designer you can think of, are situated between the vast hotels that hark of the glamour of the Riviera of yesteryear, like the Carlton and its outdoor terrace. But the windows in the blazing sunshine were dressed in dark winter clothes which made the town seem even more out of synch.

I ambled down the Rue D’Antibes, the main shopping street, filled with dress shops selling tacky red carpet looks and, I learned, designer dog-wear. That’s nice, I thought, peering through the window at an unusual-looking black outfit. 18 euros—what a nice price, just right for my new niece Tilda. Then I gasped. It was 180 euros and it was a designer dress that looked like a mini Beatle suit designed for a dog. Even without the excesses of the film festival, Cannes is a little nutty.

Thank goodness for the old ladies in the boulangerie Belliard, who served up an earthy, delicious lunch of salmon and ratatouille: Cannes suddenly felt like a quaint Provençal town again. I spent the rest of the day in the thermal marine spa at the Raddison Blu which overlooks the mountains—six hours inside smiling at rich Russians, enjoying the massage chair, saltwater swimming, French people twittering in the hot tub, a water bed with headphones playing soothing sounds, and a shower which sprayed me in tropical waters colored pink and yellow. Then the locals arrived for water aerobics conducted by a Riviera coach in lurid pink-and-black Lycra to French pop.

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That evening, I ate at Astoux et Brun, one of Cannes’ best restaurants, with its fresh seafood, and then I delighted in the Zen corner of the beautiful garden in the Hotel de Provence. Cannes is full of such secret spots: The next day I swam and sunbathed at an old favorite, the Resideal pool in a secluded gardens in the middle of town.

Busy off season and on is the Cannes restaurant Al Charq, where people sit outside drinking tea into the small hours and hide from the hipsters hanging out at the Martinez Hotel, which once was a good pool-crash option until it got taken over by a new chain.

For a short escape, the 30-room La Napoule castle, a few miles out of town, is inevitably a popular choice for wedding parties. The casual visitor can enjoy the exhibitions in their beautiful gardens.

Or go to Mougins and get a local realtor to tell you stories of Edith Piaf's haunted house. As the story goes, the 5-year-old daughter of the current owner one morning complained that she was woken up each morning by a lady singing. When the realtor that sold them the house gifted them an Edith Piaf CD, the little girl saw the face on the cover and said, “That is the lady that comes to sing.”

To escape Cannes for one night, I took the boat to stay the night with the monks who live on the pretty Ilse des Lerins where they preside over an Abbey that accepts guests.

The perfect escape after the film and TV festivals, one can wander through this holy island’s lavender fields and vineyards and find decaying statues of Mary Mother of Christ hidden in the fields, swim in the harbor, and sunbathe on hidden beaches, before yoga in the library after lights out.

Landing back in Cannes after this island idyll is always a bit of a shock, festival time or not. Out of season, one finds pensioners walking their dogs and yobbish youths on motorbikes whizzing down razor-sharp bends, playing up like young people stuck in a dead, small town. Old ladies sit in their finery on the blue chairs overlooking the bay eating hot dogs from the tacky tourist stands that line the beach, and fat Russians and women dressed in their white-trash finest wander about in orange tans.

And then, of course, there was the scandal of the Lebanese pimp spending eight years in jail for running a Cannes prostitute ring which he sulkily defended in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter in 2013, saying the girls could earn $40,000 a night. They are, however, mostly hidden from sight on yachts and in hotel rooms.

The glamour and anti-glamour of Cannes is all too tangible. The Boulevard Carnot, the seedy, downtrodden street that leads out of town, proved the point on my last night there. A Chinese restaurateur ran to the window as I wolfed down roast duck for my farewell dinner, as shots were heard across the way.

Thankfully, when the time came to leave, there was no crazy coach trip as there was to usher my arrival, just a smooth plane ride—and then into the London Underground, filled with gloomy, depressed, sun-deprived Brits. I was home.