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History of Cannes
Invasions, conquests and uprisings punctuate the history of Cannes, which before the 19th century was nothing more than a simple Mediterranean fishing village. The arrival of Lord Brougham in 1834, prompting an influx of British and Russian aristocrats wishing to take advantage of the town's warm winter climate, brought the town the fame and fortune it enjoys today. Ever thriving, Cannes has played host to the renowned International Film Festival since 1946, and is now the choice location for staging many a prestigious event.
The first apparent civilization to inhabit Cannes dates right back to the 2nd century BC, when today's movie-star playground was settled by the Oxybian tribe from Liguria – an arm of the Mediterranean conquered by Rome in 14 BC – bearing the name Aegitna. At this time, Aegitna was a poor and simple fishing village that served as a stopping point between the Lérins Islands (around 1km southeast of Cannes) and dry land. Life in Aegitna was idyllically uneventful until the bloody battle between the troops of Othos and Vitellius in the year 69 AD, each aspiring to the power of the Roman emperor. The era of conquest thus began and it was not until the 9th century that the wave of brutal foreign invasions ceased.
In the 10th century, the village fell under the sway of the Abbaye de Lérins (Lérins Abbey, founded in the 5th century). Once the invaders had been expelled, the Counts of Provence actually handed over the small edifice crowning the summit of Le Suquet hill (the old town district of present-day Cannes) to the abbot, exempting him from taxation and making him ruler. To better defend the village, the monks built a fortified castle on this site – the Château de la Castre (now home to the museum of the same name), and the village rallied around it. It was also during this period that the siege tower of Ile St Honorat and the great tower of Cannes were constructed. Then, in 1035, the name "Cannes" appeared for the first time in official documentation. Various theories about the origins of Cannes' name have been proposed, the most plausible of which is perhaps that the town was named after the abundant reeds (cannae) which surrounded the early settlement.
Come the 14th-century, the Plague was rife in the region, closely followed by a bout of pirating and bandit invasions. But thanks in part to the abbey's benevolent protection of town and townsfolk, Cannes survived. Plague struck again in the 16th century, this time even more deadly than the first, and from this point on, the history of Cannes gradually blended into the broader history of the Provençal region to which it belongs, and which was itself in the process of annexation by France. With this, the influence of Lérins began to wane.
By the 17th century, the village had grown to support some 600 houses, and the Notre-Dame parish church was built. The Spanish did manage to invade one of the Lérins islands, the Isle de Sainte-Marguerite, but were eventually driven out by French troops. The 18th century witnessed the comings and goings of various invaders, and in 1771, an exceptionally harsh winter ravaged the region, the corresponding high price of bread provoking the people into revolt. At around the same time, maritime trade began to occupy a more important place in the town's economy. One result of the French Revolution in 1789 was the division of the country into départements (local administrative units), and Grasse became the chef-lieu (governmental centre, equivalent to a county seat) of the Cannes region.
Apart from Napoleon's brief passage through Cannes on escaping from exile on the Isle of Elba in March 1815, the major event of the 19th century was Lord Brougham's legendary arrival in the town – a story worth telling. In December 1834, the English Peer and deputy Whig famous for championing rights to freedom (especially the abolition of slavery in the colonies), decided to winter in Nice, around 30 km away. Contrary to his plans, his trip ended a few kilometres short of his destination at Saint-Laurent-du-Var, where the river Var had been closed to prevent the spread of cholera. And so the Lord Chancellor of England, despite his valiant attempts to continue, had no choice but to turn back. Legend has it that his decision to stay on was clinched by a hearty bouillabaisse (a regional speciality of fish soup) and a comfortable bed at the only inn in the area, Auberge Pinchinat, no longer in existence. Lord Brougham was so taken by this lovely site, its friendly inhabitants and gentle climate that he decided to go no further. He had a castle built for him here, which he named after his recently deceased daughter – Château Eléonor, where he spent the rest of his days. Following his example and attracted by the exceptional natural beauty and mild climate, a wave of British expatriates soon began flooding into Cannes. From its beginnings as a provincial village, Cannes soon gained recognition as the Mecca of holiday resorts. Its growth was dazzling, with less than 4000 inhabitants in 1834 and some 20,000 in 1896. At the end of the 19th century, tourism was already the main economic activity.
The once peaceful little fishing village began to welcome prestigious guests such as writers Prosper Mérimée and Oscar Wilde, great aristocrats and personalities including the Countess of Oxford, Lord Russell, Baron Haussmann, the Rothschilds, and even the King of Prussia. Every winter, an international élite disembarked here to languish in this haven of peace. Their presence encouraged many developments such as the appearance of La Croisette along the waterfront where they would stroll, elegance on show, their faces hidden behind parasols to preserve their pale complexions. By the 1930s, the parasols vanished as a healthy tan became stylish, and Cannes' place as a fashionable destination was secured. Even though fears of sun damage to the skin has reversed this trend again, people still flock to Cannes, and you can still admire the furs and riches on parade along La Croisette, as the town retains a special place in the hearts of the rich and famous. Meanwhile, theInternational Film Festival, now more than fifty years old (the first one in 1946 was an unprecedented success in which unforgettable French actress Michèle Morgan took the award for best actress) , has lost none of its ability to attract stars, starlets, and groupies. It is undeniably a major international event in the world of the silver screen, such that Cannes since specializes in organising important exhibitions and events like MIDEM and MIPTV. It yields little to mass tourism so as to favour the more distinguished guests in the ranks of celebrities, artists and wealthy businessmen… Today, as in the 19th century, Cannes is the epitome of chic.