The Riviera is a sun-drenched stretch of coastline that hugs the Mediterranean Sea in southern Europe. It’s known for its gorgeous blue water and dreamy beaches lined with luxury hotels and opulent summer houses. Never in a million years did we imagine we’d ever visit the Riviera, playground of the rich and famous. Yet on the last night of a whirlwind European road trip from Switzerland to Spain, we ended up camping in the French Riviera – and it was soooo romantic!
In France, the Riviera is commonly referred to as the Côte d’Azur, or Blue Coast. Though it doesn’t have set borders, it more or less extends for about 385 km (240 miles) from Saint Tropez, France through Monaco to La Spezia, Italy.
Though we didn’t drive the entire Riviera, we found it utterly beautiful and quite unlike any other place we’ve been. If you want to go camping in France near some of the best beaches on the French Riviera, we’ll share info about the campground and seaside campsite where we stayed. Plus we have a few travel tips if you want to visit Monaco or road trip along the Italian Riviera or through the Alps to Switzerland.
Bonus? Driving through the Great St. Bernard Tunnel, the first road tunnel through the Alps.
Day 10: French Riviera, Monaco, Italy | 10-Day Road Trip Map
For those feeling particularly adventurous, you’re welcome to use our custom map to build your own DIY European road trip.
The purple pins mark our travel for day ten, from Camping Le Dramont on the French Riviera to Fribourg, Switzerland.
Arriving in the French Riviera
After spending the ninth day of our trip in Carcassonne, we made our way in the evening for the southern coast of France. It still didn’t seem real we would actually be there. I kept wondering if some Europeans feel that way too, that it’s such a glamorous place, it’s a big deal to visit if you don’t belong to the jet set.
It took us several hours to reach the Mediterranean Sea. With a fairly abrupt terrain change, we were suddenly cruising past swaying palm trees and luxurious sailboats gently rocking in the waves.
Unable to resist the urge to stop, we pulled off at the first place that had beach access in Saint Raphael. We had to climb down the rocks so Travis could touch the Mediterranean for the first time!
I first visited the Mediterranean in Barcelona in 1998, but this was our first time seeing it together.
Just a few more miles down the narrow two-lane coast road, we swung into a campground called Camping Le Dramont near the tiny town of Saint Raphael. It’s also called La Plage Du Dramont.
We were amazed to find that despite the hour, several tent sites were still available right on the water – for less than €20 for the night. We excitedly nabbed a spot.
Travel Tip: Unlike in the US where tent pitches usually cost a flat rate, it’s more common to itemize the cost in Europe. So you can expect to pay a set amount for the pitch + an additional fee per person + tent + vehicle + dog, etc. Considering that and our seaside location, €20 was a fabulous price!
Amazed at our good fortune, we hurriedly pitched our tent in an attempt to beat the setting sun, then headed up the hill to the little pizza shop on site that was still open. Since it was the last night of our road trip and we hadn’t eaten at a single “nice” restaurant, we decided to splurge, each ordering our own pizza.
Ten minutes later, we ran back up the hill to pick up our pizzas, returning just as quickly to the pebbly beach where we sank contentedly onto the warm low rock wall bordering the sea.
Not much is more romantic than the French Riviera with dinner on a deserted beach, watching the sun set over the Mediterranean.
Piping hot, cheesy, perfectly prepared fresh seafood pizza devoured while listening to the gentle waves lapping shore…
Warm sea breezes washing over us…
The sky pink with the last of the sun…
It was the most perfect evening!
Now more than ever do I realize that I will never be content with a sedentary life, that I will always be haunted by thoughts of a sun-drenched elsewhere.
Morning on the Mediterranean
The next morning, we awoke to the sound of warm Mediterranean waves softly lapping the pebbly beach just a few feet from our tent.
It slowly sunk in again that we were camping in the French Riviera, a place where as kids from working-class families in North Idaho, we thought only rich people visited. Not so, as our presence was proof!
Firing up our JetBoil, I boiled enough water for chai tea for us both.
When Travis woke up, I boiled more water for oatmeal, sadly using up the last two packets we’d brought from the States. Lightweight and filling, they’ve been a breakfast staple for us for years when we go backpacking or camping.
Enjoying our chai and oatmeal, we blissfully watched the early morning rays set L’ile D’or – The Golden Island – alight with shades of red and orange.
Privately owned, the island and tower are not readily accessible for visitors, but I found myself wishing we could kayak out to explore it. In the last few years, kayaking has become our favorite hobby, especially when paired with long distance trips that combine hiking and camping.
We sold all 4 of our kayaks when we left the US, and my Dagger Blackwater is the one possession I miss most of everything we sold or gave away. Living in landlocked Switzerland makes it easier not to miss it so much, but it didn’t feel right to be on the shores of the Mediterranean without our boats.
Bah, c’est la vie. One day we’ll have kayaks again!
In the meantime, we enjoyed being near salt water again with all the wildlife that comes with it.
After breakfast, we poked around the tide pools, hopping from rock to rock in search of interesting critters. We saw the usual suspects: sea stars, anemones, seaweed, and entire civilizations of limpets.
We lingered longer than we knew we should; we still had almost 700 km to drive that day. Plus, we planned to spend several hours exploring Monaco and would also be driving through Italy, which was bound to tempt us with as yet unknown stops.
Wishing desperately that we had another day to just lounge on the beach with a good book or rent kayaks to explore the nearby national park, we instead broke down our camp site and stopped briefly at the camp store for coffee before getting back on the road.
We enjoyed such a nice stay at Camping Le Dramont, it was truly hard to leave. If we have a chance to come back for a camping holiday, we’d love to rent one of the cute little mobile homes on site, lounge in the pool, and just relax for a few days.
Or rather, the opposite of movie stars. I’m pretty sure Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt (who own a $60+ million-dollar chateau in the area) don’t drive a 20-year-old car or travel the way we do. Pity for them though. They’d have fun with us!
Regardless of what you’re driving on your Riviera road trip, it’s all about the views. And they are stunning. All along the Mediterranean past the resort towns of Cannes and Nice, past the “Billionaire’s Peninsula” of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, and eventually into Monaco, the views were so spectacular that it eased my sadness at having to leave the campground.
Even Crater Lake in Oregon isn’t as blue as the Mediterranean. Every 40 kmph hairpin turn along highway D559 reveals new and stunning vistas of sea blue perfection and craggy red rock formations.
Monaco, All Glitz and Terror
We putzed along up the coast in no particular hurry with little traffic until we abruptly came to a dead stop in a line of cars.
We had reached the border with Monaco, a country consisting of a single city and the second smallest country in the world. Only the Vatican is smaller.
Not surprisingly then, it’s also the most densely populated country in the world. Its 36,000 inhabitants are packed into an area less than a single square mile.
Simply put, I was mesmerized by Monaco. Travis, much less so.
We’re both country bumpkins at heart, but of the two of us, he’s even more so. While I love spending a couple of days seeing the city sights, he’d typically rather avoid them altogether. If it weren’t for me, I’m not sure he’d ever set foot in a city. So it was definitely my idea to visit Monaco.
And it was my idea to drive into the downtown area, park, and explore for a couple of hours. We don’t gamble, aren’t particularly into shopping (unless it’s at REI for outdoor gear), and don’t care about celebrities.
No offense, celebrities.
Mostly I wanted to explore the waterfront with all its richy-rich yachts, see the famous Monte Carlo, and visit the Palais du Prince, the Royal Palace where American actress Grace Kelly lived after her marriage to Prince Rainier III in 1956.
But it wasn’t to be.
We quickly discovered that driving in Monaco is a nightmare.
As we wound our way toward the heart of the city, we faced a confusing mass of roundabouts leading immediately into more roundabouts, intense traffic filling the narrow city streets from building to building with no room for pedestrians, and treacherous tunnels spiriting us all the way back into France with a single wrong turn – which we took.
Driving in Costa Rica, LA, and even Italy can’t hold a candle to the nerve-wracking chaos of Monaco’s downtown.
So we ended up back in France. We had to turn around and wait again at the border crossing to enter Monaco.
By the time we arrived back in the same intersection where we’d gone astray before, neither of us had any enthusiasm left to battle our way down to the waterfront. If there had been anywhere that we could’ve pulled over to park the car and leave it, we happily would’ve walked.
But it was just tunnels, narrow roads bordered with concrete barriers, and cramped residential parking with no free spots.
Though I was really disappointed, we shelved Monaco for another day and another trip.
Travel Tip: Take public transportation to Monaco if you want to see any sights in the city, especially if you’re an inexperienced driver. This is not the place to test your skills.
Instead, we enjoyed what we could see of the city’s classy opulence from our car. Following a narrow switchback up into a residential area above town, we were able to pull over for a few minutes and look out over the city.
Our rusty old grey 2002 VW Golf stood out like a sore thumb among the screaming red Ferraris and countless exotic sports cars everywhere we looked. I kept expecting the police to show up and escort us out of their nice neighborhood. Haha!
Even after we left Monaco and drove through France into Italy, we couldn’t escape the flashy cars.
Flashy cars everywhere.
People are so rich in Monaco, they don’t even drive their cars. They just drive around with them like they’re luggage in the back.
On to the Italian Riviera
Back on Interstate E80 heading north, we marveled at the change in landscape.
The Riviera in Italy is distinctly different than in France. In Italy, underpasses cut through one finger of land after another, all stretching out toward the Mediterranean.
That means lots of tunnels. Yet homes, vineyards, and pastures cling to every inch of land as if the tunnels weren’t there.
We saw more hilly vineyards than sparkling beaches, though Italy has its share of those too.
We passed through towns like San Remo and San Lorenzo al Mare, names that we couldn’t possibly pronounce without saying them with an exaggerated cartoonish Italian accent.
After driving as far as Imperia on the Italian Riviera, we turned inland and cut north through the mountains.
Poor Travis was sound asleep when we entered the tiny town of Bagnasco.
I unceremoniously jarred him awake just to show him how pretty it was.
I’m not sure he thought it was as “pretty” as I did.
Nothing puts him to sleep faster than riding (or driving) in a car though, and I think he was asleep again by the time we left Bagnasco.
Turin, Italy at 5 pm? Nope.
In general it’s a good idea when you’re road tripping to avoid big cities during rush hour. The city of Turin, Italy is no exception.
We hadn’t planned to drive through the city on a weekday around 5 pm, but our map app mistakenly diverted us off the main highway that loops around the city and dropped us right into downtown Turin.
Despite adding an extra hour to travel a matter of miles, we were grateful for the opportunity to experience Italian driving first hand. We learned several important lessons.
Motorcycles own the road.
Only suckers wait at red lights.
Lane boundaries are merely “suggestions.”
Following lane boundaries also makes you a sucker.
If we ever return to Turin, I think we’ll take a train.
Aosta Valley: Beautiful, but Tricksy
When we finally found our way out of Turin back to the A5 (E612) motorway, we made good time. We only had a 2-hour drive through the Italian Alps to the Swiss border.
We were making great time until we reached Aosta, a sprawling town in one of the most beautiful valleys on earth.
Throughout Italy, we found ourselves struggling to find the correct road, highway, or exit with their road signs. Even with a map app, at times it directed us the wrong way because of a tunnel or failure to correctly route our path.
This was the case in Aosta, where our navigation directed us to take a turn which sent us through a long tunnel – and Europe has some really long tunnels. The mistake forced us to drive about 20 minutes out of our way, one way. Once you’re in a tunnel, you pretty much have to follow it to the other end, even if it’s miles out of your way.
No U-turns allowed.
After considerable frustration, Trav’s incredible internal sense of direction and common sense led us to the correct road.
We were finally back on track toward the Swiss border.
It feels good to be lost in the right direction.
Great St. Bernard Tunnel
By the time we reached the Great St. Bernard Tunnel, we were pretty eager to be home.
Spanning almost 6 km, the tunnel was built in the 1950s as a convenient, faster route through the Alps between Italy and Switzerland. When it officially opened in 1964, it was the first vehicle tunnel in the Alps.
Prior to that, the only option was to drive over the Great St. Bernard Pass. At an elevation of over 8000 feet, this route – which is still in use – is only open part of the year, weather permitting. Half of the year it’s buried under snow.
Even if you have a Swiss driving vignette, you have to pay to drive through the tunnel. And it’s not cheap.
We paid the hefty price of 27 CHF to pass one way through the tunnel for just the two of us in a small car. We probably would’ve opted to bypass it in favor of driving over the pass, but the pass was still closed because of snow. We were there in April.
It’s a historic tunnel though, and it’s pretty cool we drove through it. We were greeted by friendly Customs officials, shelled out the money, and then we were back in home, sweet Switzerland!
As we drove the last couple of hours home, we more fully appreciated the glorious toll-free Swiss highways, the beauty of a perfect sunset over Lake Geneva, cows and chalets on every hillside, and the earthy smell of our small forest when we pulled into our driveway.
It was a wonderful trip, but it was so, so good to be home.
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