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Once upon a time …
Nowadays, Cannes is seen as the world capital of cinema, the city of sequins and starlets, of gold and of anchored yachts, the city of glitter and stars. It is a holiday paradise for the wealthy and the powerful, alive with the buzz of international conventions. In summer, the city is awash with the thrill of star-struck holidaymakers treading the red carpet of the Festival Hall steps.
This effervescence should not, however, make us forget the long centuries of isolation experienced by generations of Cannes’ inhabitants, farmers and fishermen, who lived harsh, uncertain, and often dangerous lives.
Despite the poverty of the people of Cannes, they had an undeniable treasure, a providential gift: their enchanting surroundings, sprawled under clement skies and blessed with a mild climate. Their gift was the beauty of the bay, the pleasantness of the setting, the shelter offered by the hills against the prevailing winds. They were blessed with the promontory, overlooking the beach, and the two islands which hugged and protected the coast, which had fascinated and attracted people since the dawn of time.
Our ancertors the Ligurians
The ancient Greek historian Polybius, who lived in the 2nd century B.C., spoke of the town of Aegyptna, destroyed by the Romans. Some so-called ‘historians’ of Cannes, in an attempt to acquire illustrious ancestors, identified Aegyptna with Cannes – however, specialists now agree that this cannot be correct. At this time, no one is certain of Aegyptna’s true location.
What we do know is that, in protohistoric times, the first visitors were Ligurians. It is thought they were the first to settle on the promontory (Le Suquet), where they erected a fortified oppidum, a large, defended settlement. From this viewpoint, they could observe their fellows, who had also fortified their position on the rocky knoll on the Isle of Sainte-Marguerite, where the Fort Vauban now stands.
Our islands, centres of ancient life
The islands were the primary focus of interest for ancient writers. These islands, located at a maritime crossroads, offered remarkable assets. For sailors from the west, they provided the last safe anchorage, sheltered by cliffs and an easily defensible promontory. They held an ideal maritime trading position, since the smaller of the two islands had freshwater springs, perfect for water provisioning.
The first archaeological research revealed evidence of human occupation since the Neolithic, with a greater presence in the early Iron Age. Georges Vindry’s more recent excavations in the 1970s showed that there was a fortified settlement at the end of the 6th century B.C., an acropolis that preceded a true urban settlement with public buildings.
Lero, Lerina… Lérins
These important findings confirm the writings of ancient authors, who wrote that our islands were a major stopover on maritime itineraries. The most explicit reference was by the Greek traveller and geographer Strabo, who lived at the beginning of the Common Era. Strabo mentioned the name of the larger island: Lero (hence, the Isles of Lérins). He alluded to a sanctuary dedicated to the worship of a demigod the Greeks called Heros, whose best known personification is Heracles (or Hercules).
A Latin author, Pliny the Elder, born a generation after Strabo, provided the names of both islands and that of the acropolis; he mentioned “Lero and Lerina, [the smaller of the two islands] across from Antipolis [Antibes], where the oppidum of ‘Vergoanum’ is remembered.”
Thus, archaeology, ancient writings and toponymy (the study of place names, which indicates that the roots Ler, Lero and Verg are of pre-Latin origin) converge to confirm the existence of a large Ligurian settlement.
The centre of maritime trade, with its major temple compound, must have been very lively indeed. Our Ligurian ancestors greeted pilgrims and engaged in commerce, and it is said that they were formidable pirates.
The Romans and the islands
Such strategic assets did not go unnoticed by the Romans, who occupied the islands in the Republican period. They fortified the acropolis and made it into a powerful naval base, the last stopover before the great city of Forum Julii (Fréjus). They are thought to have fortified the west of the island with a rampart flanked with towers, the remains of which can be seen along the historic trail.
Lerina, haven of St. Honorat
During the time of the Roman Empire, a new, more pacific force emerged: Christianity, which began evangelizing Europe. Bishoprics were created and structured, while monasticism took shape. The arrival of Saint Honoratus prompted a switch of the chroniclers’ focus of interest from the large island to its smaller neighbour, Lerina, also called Planaria, the flat island.
Lérins, light of the Christian west
Saint Honoratus and his friend Macarius (Macaire) tried to live isolated lives, but Honoratus’ popularity was such that followers from everywhere flocked to him, making the abbey a prestigious religious centre, a beacon for all of western Christendom, for nearly two centuries. Some of Honoratus’ disciples went out to spread the good word and administer this burgeoning church. In reference to the Isle of Saint-Honorat, the 5th-century Christian poet Sidonius Apollinaris spoke of “this flat island, from which so many summits have reached the sky.”
Thus, the Abbey of Saint-Honorat generated prelates and saints, including, according to some chroniclers, Saint Patrick, who preached the gospel across Ireland. It would also give rise to golden legends.
Best known of the legends of Lérins is arguably the legend of Sainte-Marguerite. Since a touch of poetry can only enhance history, here it is: “Honoratus had a sister, Margaret, who founded a convent on the larger of the two islands, which now bears her name. Margaret loved her saintly brother deeply and would have liked him to stay with her all the time. Her constant pleas disturbed our anchorite, who aspired to enjoy complete solitude on his own island. But Honoratus dearly loved his sister and did not wish to cause her sorrow. He finally gave in and sent her this answer: ‘I will visit you whenever the almond trees are in bloom’. So Margaret implored God with such fervour that the Almighty accomplished a miracle: the almond trees on the Isle of Sainte-Marguerite began blooming every month.” There is another version with cherry trees. It must be specified here that, although the Church recognizes the existence of several Saint Margarets, none is Honoratus’ sister.
Another legend is, curiously, the origin of the Film Festival’s Palme d’Or. “The island was infested with snakes, all terribly venomous. These creatures disrupted Honoratus in his life of prayer. As a result, our ascetic entreated God to rid the island of these diabolical reptiles. The Lord heard his plea and bade him to climb a palm tree, which the obedient Honoratus did immediately. Then God sent a tidal wave that submerged the island, delivering it forever from the wretched snakes.” To commemorate this miracle, the Abbot of Lérins included a palm frond in his coat of arms and that of the city; centuries later, it became the prize for the Cannes Film Festival.
The islands and the depression
Legends sometimes reflect true events. The legend of Honoratus and the snakes may relate indirectly to a cataclysm in the 4th century A.D., when the tectonic plate bearing the islands dropped four or five metres into the sea and was swept by the tidal wave that followed. This subsidence caused a rise in sea level, flooding what is believed to have been a stone quarry, creating a lagoon known today as Étang du Batéguier.
This cataclysm made life on the islands more difficult by submerging the islands’ fresh water springs under the sea. It also led to the disappearance of a corporation of porters, the utricularii, who took merchandise unloaded from ships and placed it on rafts borne by inflated bladders or animal skins (utriculi in Latin, hence the name utricularii). These rafts they pushed from the island to the coast, walking for most of the way, wherever the water was shallow enough.
The long, barbaric night
The cataclysm that sunk the islands also badly shook Roman buildings and monuments, something Rome could have done without. The Empire, invaded by foreign peoples, was on the verge of collapse. This marked the start of the disintegration of ancient Provence. Our land entered the Dark Ages with a series of invasions, first by the so-called ‘barbarians’ from the north (Visigoths, Burgundians, and Lombards), then by Saracens, who occupied a stronghold at Le Fraxinet (Lagarde-Freinet, Var). From this stronghold, the Saracens continuously undertook devastating incursions and massacres, the most infamous being the massacre of the Abbot of Lérins, Saint Porcarius, and his 500 monks, in the year 732.
The Saracens transformed this area into a land devastated by raids, destruction and slavery, emptied of its population. A response occurred ca 950 A.D., when Count Guillaume of Provence (‘the Liberator’) grouped his main vassals and ousted the barbarian pirates from Le Fraxinet.
After the ousting of the barbarians, the region returned to prosperity, and life gradually returned to normal. The original settlement on the cliffs was reoccupied; connections were recreated and written accounts reappeared. We owe thanks to the local and regional scholars, whose love for our city and land led them to seek out these precious documents, to reconstruct our past and our heritage. The analysis of these texts, most in Latin, enables us to retrace the steps in this renaissance quite accurately.
The (re)birth of a community
The settlement, the houses, agriculture -- everything had to be rebuilt, to be started over again. Above all, the settlement had to be fortified, as the threat of barbarian pirates still persisted. It would remain endemic until the capture of Algiers in 1830, and is the reason why the Count of Provence built (or re-built) a castle on the ridge of Le Suquet. This he entrusted to a lord named Marcelin, the first inhabitant of Cannes in history whose name is known. The castle was known as Castellum Marcellini, Marcelin’s castle.
To reward the feudal lords who had helped him expel the Saracens, the Count of Provence gave Rodoard, the head of a powerful local family at the origin of the House of Grasse, the rights to Antibes and the region, including Cannes.
Key dates in the history of Le Suquet
A fortified Roman post that went by the name of Castrum (currently called La Castre) was constructed at the highest point of the town. In the year 1000 A.D., it became the property of the monks on the Lérins islands. The monks added reinforcements, including the tower and the ramparts, as protection against the Saracens. From 900 A.D. until the end of the 15th century, the history of Le Suquet was closely linked to that of the monastery. In 1447, the town was transformed into a municipality, but although the monks slackened their hold to some extent in exchange for religious worship, their presence nevertheless remained strong.
One of the oldest streets in Cannes is the Rue Saint Antoine, which at one time accommodated no less than 40 traders. In 1500 A.D., the Old Town had no steps. The streets were all sloped, with a gutter in the middle into which wastewater and rubbish were thrown. Major sewage work was carried out and tumbled-down houses were demolished during the 19th century. Today, Rue Saint Antoine is the focal point of local gastronomy.
The Church of Our Lady of Hope (Notre Dame d'Espérance) was constructed in the 16th century. The interior is decorated in the gothic style, whereas the porch is Renaissance style. The organ, dating from 1857, has been recently renovated. The ramparts in front of the church were constructed in the 16th century on the old cemetery. They offer an outstanding panorama all the way to the Estérel. During World War II, the church was transformed into a makeshift hospital.
Nowadays, every year during the month of July, the esplanade in front of the church provides the setting for "Les Nuits Musicales du Suquet" - a not-to-be-missed event for music lovers.