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Vive le Vélo: Discovering the Côte d'Azur on two wheels

From Pussy Galore to Brigitte Bardot, the classic 1950s scooter was once de rigueur on the Côte d’Azur. It’s making a comeback alongside some of the modern electric bikes, says Tristan Rutherford, and is the ideal retro toy for anyone venturing inland for a day

It’s mid-morning in mid-July, in Port Vauban of Antibes. Superyachts cluster on the dock and the billion-euro parade to Plage Pampelonne, Cap Ferrat and Île Saint-Honorat is just about to start. But all eyes are on me as I weave through the harbour on a Solex scooter.

These vintage motos beloved of Audrey Hepburn and Steve McQueen returned to the Riviera in spring 2015. The first Solex rental joint in the South of France is the brainchild of Olivier Durin; this Antibes local has lovingly restored a dozen classic scooters. He can accompany sailors like me on a historical tour anywhere from San Remo to Saint-Tropez, while those who explore alone are given a “roadbook” that highlights every café, beach and fruits de mer bistro — the gems of the Côte d’Azur. For yacht owners and guests, breezy adventures on the scooters (which can be delivered to boats) are a respite from the glamour-fest on the water.

They were designed to mobilise post-War Paris, its public transport in tatters and, like the VW Beetle or Alessi lemon squeezer, are simplicity itself. They feature bike brakes and the pedals are starter motors. But their adoption by the likes of Catherine Deneuve and Jacques Tati made them France’s answer to the Vespa. Their wind-in-your-hair experience embodied the Côte d’Azur’s 1960s spirit.

That same 49cc charge is now powering Durin and me past ramparts en route to Cap d’Antibes. In 1946, the same year the Solex was born, Pablo Picasso moved into Château Grimaldi, which towers to our right. Several of his canvases portrayed the scene to our left: quicksilver waves crashing into the Cap past Plage de la Salis. The Catalan gifted these works to the château, which now houses the Musée Picasso. “He also painted the Marché Provençal in Vieil Antibes,” shouts Durin as we roar round the foot of the Cap. “I guided an owner from his yacht around there last week.” Cars are banned from the old town, so you have to leave the Lamborghini at home.

The Solex’s allure is further apparent as we blast along Boulevard de Bacon. A Ferrari – as common as a Mondeo here – is stuck behind a Škoda on a sightseeing tour. With a McQueen turn of speed we skim past both cars alongside the Restaurant de Bacon, one ofthe best rustic restaurants in the Mediterranean. This restaurant’s rags-to-riches tale mirrors our Solex story. Bacon started as a humble seafood shack in the 1940s, but its 30-year-old bouillabaisse recipe garnered it a Michelin star – which it retains – in 1985. We forgo its €55 set menu (truffle ravioli then cod aïoli) because Durin has lunch strapped to his scooter.

We park up for a picnic at the Chapelle de la Garoupe church atop Cap d’Antibes. The Château de la Garoupe (previous guests and owners include Cole Porter and Boris Berezovsky) shimmers in the distance – but we have the best panorama on the peninsula. “See Monaco over there?” asks Durin from the viewing platform under an Aleppo pine. “After the Grand Prix, I was asked to escort 11 guests around the city circuit.” While Durin makes clear these yachties didn’t race around the mile-long track, cruising that tarmac still fresh from the fight was a special experience for the Formula One fanatics.

From our panoramic platform Saint-Tropez sprawls to the west. It was here that the Solex spirit spread from the South of France courtesy of its greatest fan. When local girl Brigitte Bardot shimmied suggestively in And God Created Woman (1956), the whole world took note. Photos of Bardot scootering from Café Sénéquier to Club 55 proved a brand endorsement as successful as George Clooney selling Swiss coffee. Until production ceased in 1988, some eight million Solex were sold across 70 countries worldwide.

That popularity has reignited, it seems. “We even had a private client who wanted a Solex delivered to Antibes so she could drive to Saint-Tropez,” says Durin. “We explained the route, through Cannes, Théoule and the Esterel Natural Park, plus the scooter’s 35kmh limit [22mph], but she still wanted to go.” Durin extends a scooter’s 60-mile range by securing a canister of premix fuel to the front wheel, just like Bardot did in the 1960s.

The next day I, too, head out to explore solo. Durin lets me choose my scooter from his open-air rental office in Juan-les-Pins. I settle on Caroline, a 1966 3800 model in fire-engine red that he restored from scrap in 2013. A luxe edition, Caroline features such flourishes as a headlamp and reflectors on her pedals. At Antibes I follow an artists’ trail that no yacht can access: up to the fabulous village of St-Paul-de-Vence.

The hill-hopping ride is achingly glamorous: yes, Caroline receives catcalls; yes, I am stopped at traffic lights to explain the Solex story; and yes, I do have to top up the 49cc motor with pedal power on the incline by the Fondation Maeght art museum. But parking up beside St-Paul’s La Colombe d’Or restaurant is something you can do only on two wheels, not four.

It’s easy to see why Picasso and pals Raoul Dufy and Paul Signac adored La Colombe d’Or’s sun-kissed terrace. They could tuck into the restaurant’s signature anchoïade dip, then exchange a canvas for room and board with owner Paul Roux. The guesthouse now hosts one of the finest private art collections in France (think paintings by Matisse and sculptures by Calder), which diners may view after lunch. Fame begot fame and soon Sophia Loren, Cary Grant and Bardot herself were dropping by for dinner. If Debrett’s authored a guide to late 20th-century hedonists, La Colombe d’Or’s reservation book would list them all.

Caroline and I careen back down to Biot en route to Antibes. Again, she gets the looks, while I’m lucky to get a wave. Durin helped a wedding planner last month when seven Solex were used to make a triumphant entrance by the groom. “But I think the bride was jealous because people looked more at the Solex than her,” he says. I know how she feels.

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