A story of paradise despoiled, Jim Ring's short book Riviera is an energetic guide to "the rise and rise of the Côte d'Azur" in all its ghastliness, a mix of social and cultural history, acerbic gossip and alarm at the way the place has been fouled up. At its best, it is an entertaining cautionary tale; at its most exhausting, it is a whirlwind package tour with no time to settle anywhere.
The trouble began with the emperor Augustus, Julius Caesar's adopted son: "he was short and plagued with chronic ill-health", and should never have built the Via Aurelia, which ended up near Nice. A few pages later, the novelist Tobias Smollett - "a notoriously difficult and surly man" - heads Nice-wards in a horse-drawn carriage. He thought the air would be good for his chest. Then follow Robert Louis Stevenson and the Countess of Blessington...
Riviera gets more interesting nearer our time. It was the Brits, not the French, who promoted its physical beauty. In their 1920s heyday, the rich and glamorous travelled there in style.
They left the "spectral gloom" of London, steamed across the Channel, reclined in first-class accommodation on the Blue Train with servants, cocktails and dinner, then woke the following day to mimosa, bougainvillea and glints of alpine snow. They stayed at Antibes, Cannes, Nice and Monaco. It was good for their health and they could breakfast with the windows open in January.
Louche royals, disgraced homosexuals, modernist painters and innovative writers created the coast's romantic reputation. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald rented a villa at St Raphael in 1924. He said the Côte d'Azur was where he wanted "to live and die", and he used it as the backdrop to the wealth, beauty, style, infidelities, alcoholism and madness of Tender is the Night.
Wallis Simpson and her abdicated King were the Riviera Royals. They took a 10-year lease on a villa in Cannes in 1938, "the best possible setting for a life without purpose", Ring remarks. They were sympathetic to fascism, but when war came and they were obliged to leave, their main worry was that they had not been invited to stay at Windsor Castle.
The problem was not particularly the individuals who went to the Riviera in search of elusive happiness; it was all that was done to accommodate them: roads for their cars - the "most pernicious" of machines, the author says (cars killed three people a week in Nice in 1899, and threw up dust) - hotels, villas, casinos, yachts, airports, motor coaches, Holiday Inns, campsites and property developers. The American multi-millionaire Frank Jay Gould was awarded the Légion d'honneur by the French government for the creation of the beach resort of Juan-les-Pins. "A more fitting tribute might have been the guillotine," is Ring's view.
Paradise turned into a tawdry place of sunburn, alcoholism, playboy princes and dusty roads. The region's demise seemed encapsulated by the marriage of Prince Rainier of Monaco to Grace Kelly. Disillusion followed their glittering wedding. He built offices and Holiday Inns and artificial beaches, she felt claustrophobic. She died in 1982 when a car she was driving went out of control on a mountain road - not far from a monument to Augustus.
Among those at the funeral, a year after her own regal marriage, was Diana, Princess of Wales. She was in tears. Fifteen years later, she took her last holiday in Dodi Fayed's father's yacht, moored off St Tropez's Pampelonne beach and with views of palm trees, villas and beach clubs.
Celebrities still holiday on the Riviera: the Beckhams, Britney Spears and so on. The more informed stay at home in the shade with a flask of cold tea.
Diana Souhami's 'Wild Girls: Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks' will be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in AugustReuse content