A star from the Sixties is still swinging

Peter Sarstedt immortalised Juan-les-Pins in his pop hit of 1969. Now upstaged by bigger, brasher Nice and Cannes, the resort has old-time appeal
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The Independent Travel

Once upon a time the singer Peter Sarstedt demanded "Where do you go to my lovely?" before answering his own query. "When you go on your summer vacation/You go to Juan-les-Pins," he told us.

Sarstedt was singing about a girl called Marie-Claire, who despite her humble origins, had risen in the world to consort with the likes of the Aga Khan and Sacha Distel. Sarstedt wanted to look "inside her head" – which is a bit creepy. His modern counterpart is more likely to be a Facebook pest than a songwriter. But that was 1969, when stalking was respectable and Juan-les-Pins was presumably le plus sélect destination of the day.

I have to confess that the song was the first, and only, time the aforementioned resort registered in my consciousness. But then my friends Paul, David and Celia had a bit of a Marie-Claire-ish turn and chose JLP for a short break, and they kindly let me crash the party. So I find myself in a très chic brasserie in Antibes old town (part of the same conurbation as Juan-les-Pins) asking them why: Why Antibes, why Juan?

"It was a result of the Cannes Festival," David explains, "We work in TV and film – and the festival is an absolute monster. After about a day and a half of that you say: 'I can't spend another second here.' So Celia and I hopped on the train, never having been here before. We walked down past the harbour, on to the beach and said: 'Actually, this kind of works.'"

Being sandwiched between Nice and Cannes has been both a curse and a blessing for Antibes. Upstaged by its brasher and bigger neighbours on the Côte d'Azur, it has a lower international profile.

But that's no bad thing says David. "It feels like a very French town. Although there is lots of transient traffic with all the boats in the harbour, it still feels small. And it's kind of unrushed. For somewhere so close to a big city like Nice, it feels quite off the beaten track."

Compared with Nice or Cannes – maybe. But it's a matter of degree. In truth nowhere on the Côte d'Azur is really "off the beaten track", and the vapour trails of glitz and obscene cash are never quite out of sight. On the cab ride in, the driver wastes no time telling me that Roman Abramovich has parked one of his aircraft-carrier yachts in the bay. The shared confidence implies that all of us in the vicinity are touched by this benediction. Feel-rich vibrations are positively radiating from Roman's toy boat.

But Antibes does have prior claim when it comes to glam. It was at the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc on the peninsula south of the town where Joseph Kennedy Sr (famously randy dad of President JFK) romanced Marlene Dietrich in 1938. The hotel also features in F Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night as the Hotel des Etrangers. Every year the most A-list of parties during the Cannes film festival are hosted here, secure behind a cordon of terrifying wealth, away from prying paps and tittle-tattlers. All that jazz provides the mood music, but it's not as raucous here in Antibes as it is in other parts of the Riviera.

Juan-les-Pins on the other side of Cap d'Antibes was once a village in its own right, but it is a suburb of Antibes now. Its character, however, is quite different – less folksy, more resorty. The beaches are more sweeping, the sun beds are more regimented and the promenades are more suited to sashaying. From afar Juan seems young enough, but on closer inspection it looks a bit tired. Not unlike its clientele. There is a fair sprinkling of gilded youth here, but I also see some disturbing sights in the al fresco cafés – women d'un certain âge whose faces have been contorted into horror masks by misogynistic cosmetic surgeons.

After dark, though, the pavement terrace of Le Crystal cocktail bar opposite the casino square starts to pulse, and there is an echo of the glamour that might have drawn Sarstedt's social climbing princess to the town in the Sixties – "But you live on a glittering stage, yes you do, yes you do". In 2009 they introduced sushi at Le Crystal. Times they are a changing – but not much.

We decide we enjoy Juan-les-Pins in a slightly post-modern way – with a layer of irony. Though we are all staying in Juan, we tend to gravitate towards Antibes old town. David even prefers the poky Plage de la Gravette tucked away behind the harbour to the more generous sea front at Juan-les-Pins. "It isn't the best beach in the world but it's a good place to have a beach. It's small, it's quite crowded, but it's close to the stuff that we would want to do."

What we want to do, what most yachties moored in the marina do, is amble aimlessly around the maze of narrow streets in Vieil Antibes, crawling from café to restaurant. For lunch we favour the al fresco pizzerias of the Place Nationale. For later, the stylish, newly reworked L'Enoteca in Rue Aubernon, with its modern take on French and Italian classics, is a happy find.

Other things to do? There is the provençal market in Cours Masséna where it's easy to while away an hour or two in the morning, though it won't spring many surprises. Part of the charm of Antibes, though, is that there isn't a long list of must-dos.

The Picasso Museum in the Chateau Grimaldi does provide a bit of cultural ballast. The fortified palace has the best views of the bay from its sculpture garden/terrace. Compared with other Picasso museums – Paris, Barcelona and even Malaga – this is a very bijou affair, small but precious. Picasso was offered the run of the place for a couple of months in 1946; it was a return to light after the grim war years. He brought his latest muse and lover, the beautiful Françoise Gilot, with him – there are photos of them in situ displayed in one of the galleries.

You don't need any biographical insight to know the great man was giddy with delight. The evidence is here on the walls. In vivid contrast to the darkness that shrouded his work during the war, these paintings have a white background and are full of dancing creatures – some human, some mythological. The most telling is La Joie de Vivre, which has a pirouetting central figure (Gilot according to some – though how can anyone tell?) surrounded by childlike renditions of fauns and satyrs. Their smiley faces prefigure the simplicity of emoticons and have just one message – happiness.

This coast has proved a magnet for artists for hundreds of years. A lot is said about the bouncing, pervasive light of the Côte d'Azur but maybe it is simply easier to wrestle with the creative process when the weather is sunny and warm and you're happy. The best bargain in the region must surely be the €1 outlay for the 45-minute bus ride that takes us to the medieval village of Biot in the Vence hills. Fernand Léger set up shop here in the 1950s (there is the requisite museum) and the village continues to make a living today as an arts and crafts colony.

The tourist office in Biot offers a list of some 70 artists and artisans to visitors. There are painters, sculptors, potters, glass makers, graphic artists, glass and wrought iron workers in every nook of the pretty cobbled streets. Picking my way past the ateliers and showrooms, I wonder who, if anyone, does the mundane jobs that are the fabric of everyday life. Where are the butchers, bakers and candlestick makers?

As if in answer, I stumble upon Ange Ros's hole-in-the-wall in the Rue de la Poissonnerie. Ange has been the cobbler by appointment to the village for 50 years, and at 86, hunched over a pair of red leather boots, he looks in no hurry to hand over the crown. His wonderful, chaotic workshop is stuffed with the tools of his trade; cobbler's lasts hang from the shelves; scraps of leather are piled up; tins of glue and jars full of tacks jostle for space. There are a few faded photos of famous clients, none of whom I recognise. Unfortunately my French is not good enough to prise the secrets of celebrity footwear from Ange.

The bus drops us back at the terminal in Antibes. As I alight I almost fail to notice that the bus station building is a deco extravaganza. It features an enormous and totally wacky clock on its cream frontage – the clock face is covered in dozens of industrial-looking cogs that are purely decorative; the numerals are represented by chunks of granite, and vicious-looking shards of rusty metal foliage fan out from the dial into the painterly blue sky.

Despite the rust, it is a crazy, exuberant timepiece. It would have been here 40 years ago when Sarstedt was immortalising his Marie-Claire. But she would not have seen it; she would never have travelled by bus. True to character she would have wafted in on the Aga Khan's yacht or private jet. She would have missed something.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Sankha Guha travelled as a guest of easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.co.uk) which flies to Nice from Bristol, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Gatwick, Luton, Stansted and Newcastle from £28.99 each way.

Further information

Four-star Hotel Ambassadeur, 50-52 Chemin des Sables, offers double rooms from £142 through Hotels.com (020 3027 8146; hotels.com)