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Cannes - a History of Cannes

French Riviera

Ancient History

The history of Cannes dates back to almost 1000BC, archeological research revealing evidence of human life in the Neolithic and the Iron age. The first recorded settlers in Cannes are thought to have been the Oxybian side of the Ligurian tribe. The Oxybians first inhabited Le Suquet (Cannes Old Town). An archeological dig revealed an early settlement that dated back to the 6th Century BC - an acropolis, a true urban settlement with public buildings. The Romans occupied Cannes and the nearby Islands of St Honorat and St Marguerite for almost five Centuries during the Republican period when the islands served as a large Naval Base and Roman ruins can still be seen there today. After the collapse of the Roman Empire came the period known as the ‘Dark Era’ with attacks from barbarians from the North (Visigoths, Lombards…) then the Saracens attacked via the sea undertaking devastating incursions and massacres.

Medieval History

After this period everything had to be re-built; the settlement, the houses' defence in order to protect from the threat of the Barbarian pirates and the castle at Le Suquet. To reward the feudal lords who had helped to expel the Saracens, the Count of Provence gave Rodoard (the head of a powerful local family) the rights to Cannes. In 1030 Rodoard’s son became a monk on the Lerins islands and donated Cannes to the Abbey situated on the island. In 1131 the pope gave his blessing to the donation of Cannes to the Abbey and the count declared the two free and exempt of all taxes. This situation lasted until the eve of the French Revolution. Marcelins chapel became know as the Castrum Francum ( Free Castle)

The Origins of the name of Cannes

The name "Cannes" first appeared in 1030 in a deed of donation by Rodoard’s son to the Abbot with the mention of "De Portu Canue". The word Canue is derived from a Ligurian word meaning ’height’ or ‘Peak’ - a perched settlement. Cannes was a fortified town and in order to warn of invasion from the sea, towers were erected on the Isle of Saint Honorat and in Le Suquet. These towers were lit whenever there was sight of a suspicious sail and the message carried across beacons from hilltop to hilltop around the area. The name of Cannes highest hill ‘La Croix de Gardes’ ( the guards cross) was derived from this very process. Provençal became the local language spoken in Cannes and people in the town lived a relatively straightforward life. They were simple and poor but they enjoyed a certain esteem. A royal clerk studying the region describes the people of Cannes as “hardworking, diligent and less depraved than the others... Cannes was often disrupted by plague in the 13th through to the 16th Century. In 1520 Cannes experienced its worst plague ever which killed over half of the population. During this time Cannes belonged to the Catalan counts, then to the Angevins who were both Counts of Provence and Kings of Naples. The kingdom of Naples was reigned by the King of Aragon at the time.In 1338 Cannes became the front line for a battle of control. After the queen of Naples died, the balance of power was upset when the house of Savoy took over the eastern part of Provence. Cannes was in the unfortunate position of being a border town and bore the brunt of the strife between the two powers. In 1481 Provence became part of the Kingdom of France. In 1635 the Spanish briefly occupied the islands.

The Man in the Iron Mask

The fortress on the islands of Lerins became a state prison and one of its most famous inmates was the Man in the Iron Mask, who stayed there for eleven years from 1687 onwards. Another famous inmate was King Louis XVI.

The 1800's

At the close of the ancient regime two events took place in Cannes, the first was in 1777 with the separation of Le Cannet from the city centre - the French King Louis XVI granted independence to this former hamlet.The second is less well known but deserves to be mentioned: sixty-three sailors from Cannes participated in the American Revolution under the orders of the Admiral de Grasse. They were sent to help the American colonists gain their independence and many of them lost their lives.

The Story of Lord Brougham

The Lord Chancellor of England, Lord Brougham came to Cannes in 1834. He was on his way to Italy via Nice but due to a recent cholera epidemic in Nice he had to make an unexpected stop at the tiny fishing village of Cannes. Lord Brougham was delighted by what he found in Cannes and decided that he would build a holiday villa there ‘Eleonore Louise’. In one of his letters back home he wrote ’enjoying the delightful climate….the deep blue of the Mediterranean glimmers before us. The orange groves perfume the air, while the forests behind, ending in the Alps, protect us from the North winds.’In his honour the council erected a Bronze statue of him which can be seen next to the town hall in Cannes old Town. One other story is that it was the bouillabaisse (a kind of fish soup) that whetted his appetite so much that he decided to stay and thus he proved the case of the city's Provencal motto ‘ Qu Li Ven Li Vieu’ - who comes here once, stays forever. Lord Brougham opened up the flood gates for a whole number of other British aristocrats and Royals to have residences in Cannes.

The Belle Epoque Period

After the British came the Russians - the most famous being the incredibly wealthy Alexandra Fedorovna Tripet Skrivistkin. This launched Cannes as a resort for wealthy Europeans, Russians and Indian viceroys who came in the wake of Lord Brougham building beautiful ornate residences. Cannes was a favourite haunt of Guy de Maupassant and of Stephen Liegeard who first coined the region's French name the "Côte d’Azur". One such example of this is the Villa Domergue, built in 1934 which epitomises villas of this Epoque. This villa is located in ‘La Californie’ and can be visited by appointment during the summer months. Further examples are the wonderful ‘Belle Epoque’ hotels: The Carlton, The Martinez and The Majestic which were built in order to accommodate Cannes' growing popularity amongst the wealthy European aristocrats. In 1838 the port was built and in 1863 Cannes train station was built. dramatically shortening the journey between Paris and Cannes to 22 hours and 20 minutes. The village soon became a city and expanded Westwards towards La Bocca. Its population rose dramatically from 3000 inhabitants in 1814 to 30 000 in 1914. World War 1 put a stop to this growth and many of the hotels were converted into hospitals for the sick and wounded.

The Second World War in Cannes

In the 1920s tourism began to grow in Cannes, largely due to the new fashion for sunbathing and also the opening up of Cannes as a seaside resort to the lower classes. In 1939 the first Cannes Film Festival was to be inaugurated but had to be cancelled due to the outbreak of the Second World War. During the Second World War Cannes was occupied by the Italians and then the Germans and in August 1944 it experienced its final attack from the sea. During the allied landings an American actor. Mr Douglas Fairbanks Jr., the captain of a US Naval ship was to help Cannes defeat the enemies and finally Cannes was returned to peace. The Cannes Film Festival was finally launched and was to become the world's premier event after the Olympic games.