During the 10th century, the Château Grimaldi was built by a Count of Ventimiglia to protect the burgeoning community against the Saracens. The castle, which is one of France’s oldest existing battlements, still stands, as does the town’s famous olive tree. It was already more than 1,000 years old when the fortress was first erected, but is dwarfed in terms of history by the sabretooth tiger teeth and stone tools that were discovered in the town’s Vallonnet Cave. These date back one million years.
For five centuries (1355-1848), the citizens of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin lived under the rule of its powerful neighbour: Monaco. All this came to an end, however, with the Italian Risorgimento or Unification. The town became a free city under the protection of the County of Savoy, but this too changed in 1860 when Roquebrune’s 210 eligible voters (the population was 886 then compared to 13,000 now) voted on whether to join France. 194 cast the ballot in favour and Roquebrune was officially purchased the following year by Napoleon III for four million francs.
“If the roquebrunois had voted against [the move], we would all be Monegasque today,” says the City Council’s cultural representative, Jean-Louis Dedieu. The town, whose name comes from the brown rocks that surround it, nevertheless benefited from its historic affiliation with the principality.
"Roquebrune developed in step with Monaco,” explains Dedieu, who also has close ties with the enclave via his many years as a clarinettist in the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra. He still conducts the Solistes de Monte-Carlo today alongside his role on the Roquebrune Council.
When the Casino opened in the Carré d’Or quartier in 1866 (and the Opéra Garnier a decade later), it created untold splendour and an image of glamour for this stretch of coast that otherwise wouldn’t have existed. The transport links the principality helped provide – the extension of the railway in 1869 and the completion of the Basse Corniche between Nice and Monaco in 1881 – also had a lasting effect. “Without Monaco, Roquebrune couldn’t have become what it is today,” he summarises.
At the turn of the 19th century, Roquebrune had evolved into an upper class retreat for Europe’s aristocracy and celebrities. The princes of Monaco hunted in its forests and the Grand Hôtel du Cap-Martin was finished in 1890. Danish architect Hans-Georg Tersling was the man responsible for its elegant design as well as that of the numerous private properties that sprung up on the peninsular during that period. Tersling was an acquaintance of Charles Garnier and is believed to have first come to the region at his request.
The town got its name in 1911, as Dedieu explains: “Although the rumours go that it was to distinguish Roquebrune from Roquebrune-sur-Argens in the Var, the townspeople actually wanted to make a point to the population in Menton: ‘Ha! Cap Martin is ours!’”
This area in particular attracted many artists and prominent people: Eileen Gray who built her still celebrated E-1027 property here; architect Le Corbusier; Romain Gary, one of France's most popular and prolific writers of the 20th century; publisher and collector Emery Reves; surrealist Salvador Dalí; singer-songwriter Jacques Brel; Empress Sisi of Austria and her husband, the Emperor Franz Joseph I; the artist Monet, who painted at least two works featuring Roquebrune... What was it that brought them here?
“The peace and privacy,” Dedieu suggests. Indeed, there are so many luxury homes and estates on the Cap that the public is fairly limited in its exploration. At least there is the coastal path.
Not far from Coco Chanel’s Villa La Pausa, which was recently rebought by the Chanel brand, stands Roquebrune’s most enduring resident: its Olivier Millénaire. Gabriel Hanotaux, a former French Minister of Foreign Affairs who is often accredited with developing the identity of the commune, happened across the olive tree in 1931. When he learned that the owners of the land wanted to cut it down, he was so incensed that he bought the terrain to protect the extraordinary specimen. The tree is between 1,800 and 2,200 years old and has a total circumference of 23.5 metres. It still produces the region’s famous black olives.