It's seriously bohemian and full of seriously rich people. Seriously, says Richard D North, you'll love it

Cézanne, Monet and Renoir were all inspired by the French Riviera when they visited in the 1880s. Renoir later lived there – his house is a charming retreat even now. But in the 1920s and 1930s a new crowd reinvented the place. Some of them – Picasso, Cocteau – were drawn here partly because of its beauty, but they also loved the presence of rich people at play, which added glamour to bohemianism.

Yes, the Riviera is a bit flash these days

No, really, the Riviera has a whole other side. There are about 30 must-see "modern" art collections within easy reach of Nice. Some of the best of the high-Modern (1930-1960) art is religious. In the Maeght Foundation at Vence, the masses of feeble Miros are outclassed by the Braque stained-glass window in a tiny chapel dominated by a 15th-century Spanish crucifixion.

Cocteau first came to Villefranche looking for men on a trawl of the bars used by the navy, but ironically his work culminated in a delicious wedding room in Menton. He faced competition from Picasso, whose War and Peace mural decorates a chapel at Vallauris. In Nice, there's the Chagall museum, devoted to the artist's work on religious themes: a bit kitsch for me. Perhaps the loveliest work of all is Matisse's Chapelle du Rosaire, still enjoyed by the Dominican nuns at Vence, who open it a couple of days a week for the rest of us to see. From floor to ceiling, Matisse designed and painted everything here.

What about something more upbeat?

Take the Matisse museum in the Cimiez inner suburb of Nice itself, close to the Hotel Regina, where he worked towards the end of his life. This is a hugely satisfying account of an entire life's creativity.

Picasso's friends, women, stripey shirts, children and beach lunches epitomise the Riviera and its life. The museum he made in an old fort at Antibes is rather a cheerful shrine. And here, too, there are several "beauty and the beast" drawings from the Vollard Suite.

The Cocteau Museum at Menton was also made at the direction of a single artist. It is another wave-crashed fort: from from pebble mosaics to tapestries, it is all his.

But isn't the Riviera terribly expensive?

It can be, if you want. But you can easily and cheaply rent a small villa in the hills behind the Riviera. There is every class of restaurant and bar. Try, for example, the dozen or so restaurants in Nice's flower market.

But the Riviera has no free public space

It seems like it, till you look properly. In the 1920s Gerald Murphy, an American millionaire and artist, amazed the locals when he took to raking the seaweed off the beach at La Garoupe, on the Cap d'Antibes. F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway came to swim here.

It was free then, and it can be free now. In June, when we went, the sun blazed but you can get parking places easily. You can swim for free on public beaches, which usually have loos and showers. If you want to be hugger-mugger with shakers and movers, £10 gets you a chaise longue and brolly on a posh restaurant beach. We swam among friendly hoi polloi at Menton (the Frinton of the Riviera). At any Nice public beach you wallow in the sea yards away from the sounds of warm tyres on sun-slack road.

At St Jean-Cap-Ferrat, there is a long public seaside footpath and we found quiet spots away from the crowds. One was in the lee of the amazing confection, the Villa Ephrussi. Another spot was on a moonscape of gleaming rocks just beside the grand Hôtel du Cap and the cape's lighthouse. Boating in Antibes needn't cost a fortune: we paid £10 an hour for a Laser dinghy from the Yacht Club d'Antibes-Juan Les Pins.

How do you fit in all this stuff?

It's a lot easier than it looks. Le Guide du Routard produces the excellent Côte d'Azur 2000/2001 (in French) for £7.99. We also used Artists and Their Museums on the Riviera, by Barbara F Freed (Harry N Abrams, New York, £12.95). Making Paradise: Art, Modernity, and the Myth of the French Riviera, by Kenneth E Silver (MIT Press, £21.95) is beautiful as well as intelligent. All of these are available from Daunt Books for Travellers in London (020-7224 2295).

Cartes Musées Côte d'Azur ( can be bought at any museum as one, three and seven-day passes, but they do not include every attraction so check that you will be getting good value for what you want to see. Our self-catering cottage, rather bleakly kitted out, was efficiently provided by French Life (08704 448877;