The town of Cap-d’Ail celebrated its centenary in 2008. It is one of the towns that resulted from the creation of new coastal destinations driven by tourism. The movement began in the Alpes-Maritimes region in 1891 with Beaulieu-sur-Mer, followed by Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat in 1904. These two towns had once been part of Villefranche-sur-Mer. The same year, Beausoleil was carved out of La Turbie, as was Cap-d’Ail in 1908 (Ill. 1). Because tourism began earlier in this eastern part of the Côte d’Azur, the towns west of Nice were created later, including Le Lavandou in 1913, Théoule-sur-Mer and Cavalaire in 1929, La Croix-Valmer in 1934 and Le Rayol-Canadel in 1949.
A tourist destination created from scratch
The railroad arrived in Nice in 1864, in Monaco in 1868 and in Ventimiglia, Italy the following year. At first, there was no train station in Cap-d’Ail simply because there was nobody living on this coastal strip of La Turbie, whose village was located on the hillside 400 meters above. In 1870, the coastal area between Villefranche-sur-Mer and Monaco was totally undeveloped due to the lack of a road.
The completion of the railway and the Basse-Corniche road in 1883 greatly improved access to the coastline, and spurred transformation under the influence of real estate developers who recognised its potential. In 1881, the Baron de Pauville purchased 21 hectares of poor agricultural land in the Cap Mala area.
He had a two-fold plan to build a hotel and a neighbouring subdivision. The strategy was to attract tourists with luxurious accommodations and then encourage them to purchase plots in the adjacent subdivision. It is worth noting that a few years later, the development of Cap Martin near Menton followed a similar strategy. The Baron de Pauville successfully convinced the PLM company to build a train station below the future hotel.
From 1881 to 1884, significant roadwork and earthmoving were carried out to allow access to the future hotel and to create the flat areas necessary for the construction of the houses. In 1885, the Baron sold the developed land to the Comptoir d’Escompte de Paris (CEP), at a significant profit, and CEP completed the development of the subdivision and marketed the villas. With the acquired profits, it is assumed that he was able to complete the Hotel Eden (Ill. 2). In 1897, weakened and in difficulty, he sold his hotel and the remaining land to Auguste Thomas, another financier attracted by the success of the new resort town, who formed a real estate company, the Compagnie du Littoral de la Méditerranée (CLM). CLM bought the Hotel Eden and the land belonging to CEP.
This hotel was the most remarkable building in the new district. It was a luxurious establishment, with all the rooms equipped with bathrooms. A coal-fired electric plant on the seashore provided electricity, and it even boasted an elevator, a real attraction at the end of the 19th century. In 1910, an annex was added to the west.
There was little for the guests to see and do in the area, however, so in 1901 a seaside promenade was opened from Cap Mala to Cap Rognoso, with a pigeon shooting range in Cap d’Ail. The attraction of summer sea bathing, starting in the 1920s, proved fatal to the hotel, which was isolated on its perch 90 meters above the sea with no access to Mala beach. In the 1930s, plans were made to build a funicular to provide easy access to the sea, but it never materialised. The hotel was transformed into apartments in 1947.
The hotel was surrounded by a stunning subdivision of luxurious villas. All the initial owners of these homes were once guests of the Hotel Eden, proof that the real estate strategy was effective. The Lumière brothers owned three of the villas, and the one we now call the Villa Lumière, built in 1902, is a perfect example of the layout of this tourist enclave. It faces the hotel instead of the sea (Ill. 3).
Originally, this cape was very dry and rocky. Today, it is covered in rich and diverse vegetation made up of numerous exotic species. Significant levelling work was carried out, including cutting into the rock and building reinforced concrete platforms supported by pillars. The lots were between 1,000 and 2,500 m2. The specifications called for a wall on the road side, with access usually from the north. To have the largest possible gardens, the villas were located at the back or the corner of the lots. Most of them were three to four storeys high.
The villa Les Violettes is characteristic of the tourists’ desire for light and air. The villa has many sunny places to relax and enjoy the views protected from the wind, including corner patios and balconies in the bedrooms. A bit further along Boulevard Gramaglia stands the villa Les Funambules, purchased by Sacha Guitry in 1927. Here again, the villa takes full advantage of the view and climate, with numerous windows, belvederes, and a roof boasting a lovely terrace. The villa Castel del Mare, built in 1911, has a staircase with a rustic design in the form of branches, echoing the appreciation for cement rockery that prevailed from the 1870s to the First World War. Rockery was used to create caves with stalactites, jagged rocks, pillars supporting terraces, and as decorative elements on gate pillars, stairs, railings and more.
The legacy of the Belle Époque has been preserved, with promotional materials produced by Cap-d’Ail on its history, a discovery tour, and since 1995, support from the Ministry of Culture and DRAC for the promotion of the seaside architecture in the canton of Villefranche-sur-Mer. This is a prime example of a mise en abyme of tourism.
Centrality impossible in Cap-d’Ail
But the territory of Cap-d’Ail, despite its small size (204 hectares), is not limited to the neighbourhood around the Hotel Eden. The eastern part of the town has a destiny closely linked to the Principality of Monaco, which it borders. In the 19th century, working-class neighbourhoods developed along the border, such as Saint-Antoine and Les Salines, just like in Beausoleil. The areas were populated mostly by Italians attracted by the economic development of Monaco. And when Cap-d’Ail became a town, it was composed of two very different sections, about two kilometres apart:
- to the west, a tourist enclave that was opening up and becoming a resort town;
- to the east, a working-class neighbourhood composed of blocks of flats, workshops, garages and a police station, built in 1900 to monitor the border with Monaco.
The town never succeeded in joining these two sectors and generating a real city centre. The public buildings (town hall, school, police station and church) were scattered along the Basse-Corniche between the two historic districts. Solutions were proposed to create continuity between the two, including an unsuccessful project to create a large plaza at the corner of the Basse-Corniche and the avenue that connects it with the Moyenne-Corniche. Ultimately, the small Beaverbrook Square remains the only real central point of Cap-d’Ail, on a piece of land ceded to the town by the English Lord Beaverbrook, a close friend of Winston Churchill. By buying the Château des Terrasses in 2002 to turn it into a cultural centre, the town injected a little more centrality into this area and increased the public spaces, which are quite limited in Cap-d’Ail.
It is clear that this town of 4,500 inhabitants in 2019 is still strongly influenced by the Principality of Monaco, which employs two-thirds of its active population, even though it is part of the Nice Côte d’Azur Metropolitan Area. It was also the Principality that bought the Centre Méditerranéen d’Études Françaises in 2004, which was founded in 1953 by Jean Moreau (1917-2004). The Centre welcomes thousands of young people all year round for language courses. An amphitheatre designed by Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) was added to the classrooms and the 60 dormitory rooms.
Cap-d’Ail benefited from the development of the Fontvieille embankment by Monaco in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which covered an area of 22 hectares. The development included a marina, social housing, factories, the Louis-II stadium, and more. Cap-d’Ail, located across the border, was able to build a port and utilise the land. In the 1990s, a beach with amenities (Ill. 4), housing, and the Marriott hotel were developed. Additionally, the tunnelling of the railway line in 1999 (Gay, 2000) led to the creation of the Saint-Antoine development zone, inaugurated in 2013, which includes some fifty housing units along the border managed by the Monegasque Service des Domaines and intended for civil servants and government workers.
Cap-d’Ail is a hybrid locality. It is both a tourist resort town, with its accommodation stock comprising nearly 1,400 second homes (37%), 250 hotel rooms and a hundred or so flats in holiday complexes, after Pierre et Vacances abandoned its internationally renowned Costa Plana complex, built by Jean Nouvel in 1987.
It is also a tourist attraction because of its stunning Belle Époque district, which boasts more than 70 villas and a coastal path (Ill. 5). Finally, it functions as a dormitory town for Monaco, serving both French workers and hundreds of Monegasque residents who officially live in the Principality but reside in nearby towns. Recently, Cap-d’Ail has been in the news due to a years-long legal battle between the town and the prefecture, resulting in the demolition of the beach huts at La Mala in 2021, in violation of the French Coastal Law (Loi Littoral).
- Collectif, 2003, Cap-d’Ail (Alpes-Maritimes). Aix-en-Provence, Inventaire général des monuments et richesses artistiques de la France, 72 p.
- Gay Jean-Christophe, 2000, «Monaco enterre ses trains», Mappemonde. n° 2, en ligne.
- Gay Jean-Christophe, 2008, «Cap-d’Ail a 100 ans», Mappemonde. n° 3, en ligne.
- Sur le site Internet de l’inventaire général du patrimoine balnéaire et de villégiature: http://www.inventaire.culture.gouv.fr/inventaire_chantiers_balneaire.htm