The Cannes beyond the cliche

Festival glamour isn't all Cannes has to offer.
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The Independent Culture
A Good deal of inverted snobbery surrounds Cannes. It's true that the place is unlikely to appeal to those who favour the 11th arrondissement of Paris or some unknown corner of the Ceven-nes, and that it lives up to every cliche in the book. Genuinely twinned with Bev-erly Hills and Kensington & Chelsea, this is a town where perms and tartan jackets are the norm for poodles; you can rent a Lamborghini Diablo almost as easily as a Peugeot 306; and a karaoke night means champagne at 100Fr a coupe in Jimmy'z, the nightclub under the Palais des Festivals.

At the same time, that great truism of human behaviour, that everyone sticks to the beaten track, is particularly true of Cannes, and if you want to avoid the jetset vulgarity (or can't afford it) there is plenty else on offer. The beaten track is the Croisette, the long sea-front prom- enade of grand hotels, palms and haute couture municipal flower beds, built on infill rubble last century and named after a small pilgrims' cross at the point where the great bulk of the Palm Beach Casino now stands. The Croisette, the parallel rue d'Antibes - all smart clothes shops, art galleries, chocolatiers - and the area between them, constitutes a micro- environment from which many visitors never emerge, be they cineastes at the Film Festival, orthodontists at the Journees Bucco-Dentaires, purchasing executives at the duty free exhibition, or members of any of the other dozens of professions whose annual conventions and festivals keep Cannes in lucrative business all year round.

In escaping from this platinum card quadrilateral, a key address, a sort of border post, is the Petit Carlton. This bar/restaurant is well known to the less pecunious Festival-goers. It offers good food at modest prices. It has a nice long bar, with hard-boiled eggs and a thin line of neon following the ceiling mouldings. Its two shifts of staff are hard working, human and idiosyncratic: crew cut, ear-ringed Georges, who'll take messages for customers; Jean-Pierre, who recounts how he used to read the Daily Worker during the memorable holiday he once spent in Brighton.

The Petit Carlton has a symbolic significance, too, which begins with the longevity of family ownership: this is not some anonymous offshore capital job, like the Noga Hilton, the latest of the five-star palaces on the Croisette. There's the name - a reference to its position behind the grand, twin-domed 1910 Carlton Hotel. And then there's its position at the extreme seafront end of the Boulevard de la Republique, a thoroughfare which leads directly back inland to old Cannes, making the Petit Carlton, in effect, the first point of a journey out of "Beverly Hills" into the world of ordinary small- town France.

A meandering walk up Boulevard de la Republique is a vital experience, as interesting as and less touristy than the one most visitors do manage to make along the narrow rue Meynardier and up the hill to the old fortress of Le Suquet. The first 100 yards of Repub-lique are unremarkable, and then comes the brutal multi-lane tarmac barrier of the voie rapide, a 1960s nightmare of road planning which slashes a wide semi-circular swathe through the heart of the town. Yet on the other side of the voie rapide lies a different world. There is the shabby little Hotel les Glycines, a museum to 1950s petit bourgeois life from its name - Wisteria Hotel - almost down to its prices, 170Fr for the heavy brass key to a double room, 50Fr-menu - crudites, rabbit, chips (not frozen). The "restaurant", reached through the ancient proprietress's living-room, has plastic table cloths and curtains and an old one-bar electric heater in the winter. Further up the boulevard, just after the excellent little Lion D'Or, Bijon's herbalist has a perfectly intact Thirties interior, a matching owner and a sign in the window: "The Maison does not accept the prescriptions of healers." Further still is the quarter kilometre of enticing bric- a-brac shops, stuffed with vast cobwebbed rococo wardrobes and piles of dusty books. At the triangular Place du Commandant Maria with its little morning market, you can turn left down the rue Mimont and head for the tiny North African quarter, a micro version of Paris's Goutte D'Or, centred around Islam Viande, the Bar des Sports and the supermarket for stocking up on couscous, henna, Tunisian cider and nylon Oriental carpets.

Turning right at the Place Maria leads you into another world again, up the winding tree-shaded Avenue Isola Bella towards the rich turn of the century suburbs of Super-Cannes and La Californie, with grand villas swathed in pine, eucalyptus and mimosa. Here you find the Chateau Scott, a massive Highlands-style Gothic pile built by the English inventor of Scott's Emulsion on the profits of his cod-liver oil sales, and the Villa Kazbeck, a winter retreat with 25 bedrooms (plus eight for staff), two grand salons, ballroom, billiard room and two smoking rooms built by the uncle of Tsar Nicholas and frequented at one time by the Duke of Edinburgh.

Retracing the past is an excellent form of escape here, as modern Cannes looks only to its present. For instance, given the historic importance of the Auberge Pinchinat, you might think it would be a museum. It was the first lodging place of Lord Brougham, the British chancellor, who started the Riviera ball rolling in 1834 when his journey to Italy was blocked by a border closed due to cholera. Brougham was so captivated by the little village, the lovely empty bay, the light and, like a true British tourist, by the rouille accompanying his fish soup, which he had never tasted before, that he built himself a villa and invited friends. Before you could say "bouillabaisse" the place was stiff with archdukes and soap magnates.

The Auberge Pinchinat, now a private house belonging to a Mrs Renee Lombardat, whose mother bought the property in 1943 from the last of the Pinchinats, is almost hidden behind a garish new Sofitel hotel. Mrs Lombardat gets the occasional tourist ringing her doorbell and will obligingly show off the stone-flagged floors and the pretty little balcony from which today's view is a fabulous close-up of the back of the Sofitel.

For a trip further back in time, the monastic island of St Honorat is 20 minutes boat-ride off the coast. The abbey of St Honorat, founded in the fifth century, owned all of the territory of Cannes through the Middle Ages, and from the battlements of the squat little defence tower, you can see its twin structure over in the town in Le Suquet and imagine their role warding off pirate attack when the sprawling con-urbation now surrounding them didn't exist. The monks of St Honorat are still big local landowners and the wine from the abbey vineyards, a remarkably pricey but gluggable VDQS, is served at municipal functions and exported to Japan. Accommodation on the island - up to a week at 150Fr a day - is particularly suitable for retreats, but equally good for discreet adulterous trysts, and above all getting a break from cocktail chitchat. The St Honorat monks are Cistercians, and therefore silent.

Back on land, the immediate environs of the railway station, finally, is the epicentre of one of Cannes' least known glories: budget gastronomy. The Croi-sette may have lauded superstars like Christian Willer at the Palme D'Or, but the tatty station patch has old family businesses with terrific 80Fr-menus like Jean and Jeanine Hugues' Au Bec Fin. The Bec Fin's rabbit with polenta, bourride and aoili garni are reasons in themselves to linger a day or two in Cannes, and I'm sure Lord Brougham would back me on this one.

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