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G - 123 : Tuberculosis put the Côte d'Azur on the map

Legend has it that the French Riviera was discovered in the 18th century by wealthy, noble Englishmen who were on their grand tour through Europe. Before their arrival, the French Riviera was poor, mostly known for fishing, olive orchards and the production of perfume in Grasse. In 1765, the English author of “Travels through France and Italy”, Thomas Smolett, praised the French Riviera as a place “where the light is clearer than elsewhere, where the sky is more clement, where the sun shines more often.” The number of young aristocrats who had the means to visit the French Riviera was limited though.

La Promenade des Anglais - the Promenade of the English Patients


It would take another hundred years until the name Côte d’Azur was coined. The French civil servant, lawyer and poet Stéphen Liégeard wrote an illustrated book “Côte d’Azur” in which he described the coast as “a country of blue sea, sun and flowers”. His timing was perfect. By 1864, Nice was connected to the French railways. It was now possible to travel in 2 days from London via Paris to the French Riviera. In 1865, more than 100’000 visitors arrived.

Menton (above) and Nice were one of the first Places that offered Health Facilities

The visitors were different from today’s tourists. Most came for health reasons after the Scottish doctor John Brown recommended a change of climate as cure for Tuberculosis, Europe’s leading cause of death. TB is an infectious disease caused by a bacterium. 90% of infected people show no symptoms. Their TB is latent. 10% however progress to active TB which kills half if not treated. Until the discovery of Penicillin in 1928, there was no treatment. Sun and fresh air slows the spread of the bacteria in the lungs though. The slowdown often allowed the weakened immune system to fight back and the infected person to recover.

A clear Winter Evening on La Croisette in Cannes with the typical light after sunset


Once English people with TB heard that their chance of survival improved when spending the winter on the French Riviera, they packed their bags and came. England was the first country with a middle class that could travel. Menton, Antibes and Nice were their preferred destinations. The hotels built for them are still in business – albeit with different and more healthy visitors. By 1875, foreign residents in Nice, mostly British, numbered 25’000 people. The French historian Paul Gonnet wrote that “Nice was filled with a colony of pale and listless English women and listless sons of nobility near death.”

The Palace in St Moritz, Switzerland's Top Hotel, was once a Tuberculosis Sanatorium


The French Riviera was not the only place TB patients went to. In Switzerland, the famous mountain villages of Davos and St Moritz began their ascent as places where TB could be cured. The same is true for Colorado where Colorado Springs and Boulder started as TB treatment centers. Resort-like health spas were built in all these places to relax, rest and often die. All these hotels featured large porches where guests could breathe fresh air, take in the sun and enjoy the view on the sea or the mountains. Since these patients were wealthy, high quality and healthy food was served, orchestras and theatres provided entertainment. The community of English people in Nice was so large that there still is an Anglican church and a cemetery.

Poster Advertising Holidays on the French Riviera


With all these visitors, French and English entrepreneurs began to see the Riviera’s potential as a tourist destination. It was not the only place in Europe that caught their eyes. Tourism in Switzerland and on the Italian Riviera developed at the same time. In 1870, the railway was extended from Nice to Monaco, which the governing prince, Charles III, called Monte Carlo - to honor himself. His key asset was the casino built in 1863 – gambling was illegal in France and Italy. Guess where the bored and wealthy tourists went?

The Casino in Monte Carlo still stands and made it into many Movies


The Côte d’Azur now became famous quickly. Nobles from all over Europe made it their winter quarter. They took over entire hotel wings and brought their own staff. The most famous royal guest was Queen Victoria who was from 1891 to 1900 an annual visitor. The last years she stayed at the Hotel Excelsior which was named Regina in her honor. Kind of interesting that Empress Victoria’s favorite place was Cemenelum (Cimiez), the Roman Empire’s biggest town in Liguria.

Queen Victoria was so popular in Nice that the Citizens erected a Memorial for her


The First World War brought all this to an end. No visitors arrived any longer. Many hotels went bankrupt. The interwar period was tough too but American writers and artists stepped in. Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby was written in Saint-Raphael.

Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald on the French Riviera in 1924


The French Riviera also attracted painters like Picasso, Matisse, Dufy and Marc Chagall who made it even more famous. Apparently, Coco Chanel invented sun bathing and swim wear here and converted the winter destination to a place you visit during summer. I like the story but am sure it gives Coco too much credit. Summer tourism started when the middle class got holidays – a development which indeed started in the interwar period.

Henry Matisse "Promenade des Anglais" - Étape 7


The Second World War was even more devastating than the first. Italian troops occupied the French Riviera and the area became a war zone. In August 1944, the Allied Forces landed between Cavalaire and Saint-Raphael. Luckily, the German resistance collapsed within days - still, St Tropez was badly damaged. But 600’000 soldiers of the 7th US Army and the 1st French Army had seen the beauty of the Côte d'Azur and became its ambassadors. The French Riviera's fame went global.

Wedding Lunch of Prince Rainer and Grace Kelly in April 1956


In 1946 the Cannes Film Festival was launched, Grace Kelly married Prince Rainer from Monaco in 1956 and Brigit Bardot moved to Saint-Tropes in the 1960s. The brand of the French Riviera or Côte d’Azur had been firmly established.

Brigit Bardot made Saint-Tropez world famous


Now everybody wants to come – still true today except for the Russian Oligarchs who would loose their yachts. That many of today’s luxury hotels started as a sanatorium for English Tuberculosis patients is mostly forgotten. Penicillin and the hotels' PR Agents took care of it.

Ile de Levant where the Water is still as blue as Stéphen Liégeard described in 1887









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