Queen Victoria and the Discovery of the Riviera



In the Spring of 1882 Queen Victoria, at the age of 62, arrived for the first time on the French Riviera. That region, which she called a “paradise of nature”, wrought a transformation to the last two decades of her life.

Whenever she arrived on French soil her face lit up and she shed many of the inhibitions of her life in England. She came to the Riviera nine times, more often than to any other part of continental Europe. “Oh, if only I were at Nice, I should recover,” she said as she was dying.

She spent much of her time on the Riviera with her strange companions, her dour Scottish gillie, John Brown, the subject of the recent film, “Mrs Brown”, and her troublesome Indian secretary, the Munshi, Abdul Karim. John Brown, who did not like the Riviera and who thought Irish revolutionaries were plotting to assassinate the Queen there, amazed the locals by wearing a kilt together with a topee. The courtiers threatened to strike if Abdul Karim came to the Riviera, but he came nevertheless.

Guests included extraordinary European royalty, such as the reprobate Leopold II, King of the Belgians, who on his death-bed married a former prostitute, and his daughters, Louise and Stephanie, central characters in two of the greatest royal scandals of the nineteenth century.

The visits to the Riviera by the Queen Empress Victoria, the monarch of what was then the most powerful empire in the world, were important to the area and to France because they affirmed and strengthened the Riviera’s role as the leading holiday centre for the British, for other Europeans and the peoples of the Americas. She showed the world that the Riviera was not just a place for convalescence, but also for holidays.

The importance of her presence is shown by the increase in visitors during the two decades of her visits, by the concern of the French at the damage which would be done to the tourist industry if she were to cancel her trip in 1899 because of bad relations between France and Britain, by the many hotels, cafes and roads named after her and by the number of statues erected to commemorate her.

The Queen stayed in Menton, Cannes, Grasse, Hyères and finally in Nice. In Nice she stayed on two occasions in the Grand Hotel and on three in the great fin de siècle Hôtel Excelsior Régina, which was built with her needs in mind. There she received President Faure and Empress Eugénie and Sarah Bernhardt performed for her. The Monarch had fun in France and particuarly enjoyed throwing flowers at the young army officers at the flower festivals. One of her ladies in waiting said that on the Riviera she enjoyed everything as if she were 17 instead of 72. She described it in her journal as “this beautiful country I so admire and love.”

The book relates the places where the Queen stayed and visited to the many buildings that are still there today.

The work is based on research in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle, the Public Record Office and in archives in the Alpes-Maritimes. It includes much unpublished material from the Queen’s journals, which give a unique insight into her character in the last years of her reign.

The book is lavishly illustrated in colour and black and white. The illustrations include reproductions of anti-British French postcards, with one of the Queen riding on a bottle of gin, extravagant Belle Epoque posters and drawings of her activities.

Michael Nelson has written five books – War of the Black Heavens: The Battles of Western Broadcasting in the Cold War (Syracuse University Press and Brasseys, London, 1997); Queen Victoria and the Discovery of the Riviera, (I.B. Tauris, 2001); Americans and the Making of the Riviera (McFarland, 2007) Castro and Stockmaster: A Life in Reuters (Matador, 2011); and The French Riviera: A History (Matador, 2016).

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