French aristocrats started going to the beach in the late 18th century. Most resorts were on the English Channel–Dieppe, Boulogne, Trouville and Deauville–were among the first. In the 19th century the beaches of the Atlantic, such as Biarritz gained popularity and slowly but steadily those of the Mediterranean gained in popularity. The English were the first to colonize what would become the Riviera. They were attracted by the winter weather and the fact that this area was then under the control of Savoy not France. Nice was the first place they colonized before they had to retreat because of the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon. But soon after 1815 they had returned. France would finally take over Nice and Mentone in 1860 and the map would become the one we recognize as France today.
The 20th century would see the Mediterranean coast finally become a summer resort area. Cannes would be at the center of it but many other resorts would crop up along the coast. The new celebrities from movies, sports, fashion, the arts and entertainment would prominently flock to the coast give it a glamorous identity. But central to this experience one had to first travel on the Train Bleu, an express train from Calais to Marseilles and, after other stops on the Riviera, to Mentone. Begun in 1886 it was first designed to whisk British upper class tourists to the resorts in the winter. It was at the height of its glamour in the 1920s and 30s when anyone who was anyone had to take the overnight train from Paris to the coast. Such was the fame of the train that the Ballet Russes created a ballet and Agatha Christie wrote a mystery set on the train. The Train Bleu lost out to the TGV high-speed trains and was cancelled in 2003.
But as paid holidays for the middle-class and the working class became common the way south increasingly meant getting in the car. There are two waves heading south, the Juillietistes and the Aoutiens– in July and August. No matter the good beaches elsewhere these two waves sweep south and then a month later sweep north. Paris and other towns in the north empty out onto the A6 and then after Lyon take the A7. August is by far the favorite month but no matter in both months there are massive traffic jams and none greater than the Saturday at the end of July and the beginning of August. Millions are trapped in cars in sweltering weather as the Juilletistes and Aoutiens cross paths as there is one surge home and the other to the beach. No matter how predictable the traffic, the authorities are simply overwhelmed and traffic jams come to be a memorable part of the experience. Highway 495 on Long Island has traffic jams as people flock to the Hamptons in August, but nothing compared to the A7. As long as August has the most predictable good weather the way south from Paris will shimmer in the dreams and memories of the French.