Among the reefs and wrecks of the French Riviera is a selection of submerged works of art which can turn a dive into a cultural experience. They make an interesting basis for a tour of the Riviera, covering the coast from St Raphael in the east to Menton in the west.
Just five minutes boat ride from Port Frejus or St Raphael lies the rocky outcrop known as the Lion de Mer (Lion of the Sea). It is a popular dive site, almost always diveable as it offers protection from most of the prevailing winds.
If you enter the water on the northern side of the rock, swimming down toward the southern side, at 12m you will come across a splendid 19th century bronze statue which once adorned a column on the sea-front at St Raphael (above left).
It spent many years in the municipal workshops until someone had the brilliant idea of mounting it firmly on the foot of the Lion of the Sea for the admiration of passing divers.
A little further along, at 18m, is a substantial stone statue of a figure frozen in the act of hurling a spear, or more likely a trident. Little is known about this statue or how it came to rest in this unlikely spot. The Lion de Mer is a pleasant dive, rocky on all sides and leading to a sandy bottom at about 18m, a principal feature being an arch between the rocks at its south-western end.
During the 60s an artist named Nejad Silver had the idea of building a miniature underwater village as the backdrop for an animated film, along the lines of Disneys Little Mermaid.
The project met with little success when presented to film producers so he decided to go ahead with the help of a dedicated band of enthusiasts and a miniscule budget. They built a village with its houses, churches and shops in their workshops, using a reinforced-cement system, painted by hand, and then took the miniature buildings out to sea to a site just beyond the last little island south-east of Agay Point, near Cap Dramont.
The village is now much devastated and only about a quarter of the buildings remain, the result of some divers strange need to wreck and pillage anything unnatural on the seabed.
You can see the remains by diving on the east side of the rock and following the cliff down to 22-24m, where an arch or tunnel entrance comes into view. Under the vaulted roof of the arch the most dominant building is the church, which still has some stained glass windows and a steepled bell-tower. Other buildings can then be identified around the church. Although less than 40 years old, the site has a strange archaeological feel as one tries to separate the man-made artefacts from their surroundings. The steady pillaging by weekend divers led Silver to plan a second site for his dream village in the bay of Golfe Juan.
This time the site was to be further offshore at the foot of a rocky outcrop known as La Fourmigue. This rock is marked by a small light tower and stands in the middle of the bay of Golfe Juan, easily accessible from Juan les Pins or the harbour of Golfe Juan. The new village was placed in a natural valley site just 50m north of the Fourmigue light at a depth of 15m.
This sunken village was a serious undertaking, involving 7000 dives over a period of six years. The village grew into a town with different neighbourhoods, a shopping street, churches, bridges, a fort, a Roman amphitheatre, statues and obelisks.
When construction was over, the town soon became populated ... by fish. Rock-dwelling fish were delighted to adopt the bakers shop or the church as their new home and it soon acquired a lived-in look. A this activity did not escape the eyes and ears of the media, and much film was expended on the subject, including The Sunken Town, which won a prize at a Parisian underwater film festival in 1968.
Unfortunately it proved impossible to protect the site from vandals, even though it was declared a no-fishing, no-diving zone. During the making of the film, items which were filmed during the day disappeared overnight, making it difficult to assure continuity.
Since then the town has been damaged by anchors and sacked by marauding divers, and remains a ruin. However it is still a fascinating dive as, with a little imagination, one can see how it once was and how natural this valley-floor setting was, overlooked by towering cliffs.
The Fourmigue light also marks a group of rocks known as LEnfer de Dents (loosely translated as Hells Teeth), stark fingers of rock which almost touch the surface and fall swiftly to depths exceeding 30m. Each side of the rock offers a different aspect: fields of gorgonia, soft corals and shoals of fish. It is a dive site worth visiting in its own right.
On the south side of the Fourmigue light lies a small grotto known as the Grotte de Miro, as it once held a sculpture of the Goddess of the Sea by the artist Miro. In 1985, during the Festival dAntibes, this was replaced by a bust of Commandant le Prieur, inventor of what was, according to French historians, the first self-contained underwater air breathing apparatus. The moulded cement bust of the much-revered commandant was created by the artist Amaryllis and is frequently visited by divers, who maintain it.
The cave is to be found at the foot of the rock in 18m. It has three entrances and is carpeted in colourful sponges and soft corals.
As you drive through Nice along the Promenade des Anglais and continue around the Cap de Nice you will pass an imposing war memorial. About 100m south-east of this point, known as Rauba Capeou, is a reef rising to within 15m of the surface.
Crowning this reef at a depth of 15m is a magnificent 2.8m statue of Our Lady of the Seabed. This representation of the Virgin Mary was placed there by the towns fire brigade divers in 1968 at the instigation of Nices mayor, Jacques Medecin. The statue is the work of the sculptor Gualtienotti and has been the favoured site for a number of local underwater weddings. Recently two instructors from the CIP Nice diving centre had their marriage blessed here by the vicar of the church on the nearby harbour of Nice. They trained him to dive specially for the event.
The site is exposed to most types of weather, and also to some fairly intense surface traffic, due to its position close to Nice harbour.
Another site favoured for underwater weddings is a cross which lies at a depth of 15m just 70m south east of Cap Martin on the Bay of Roquebrune. It is made from two steel beams and was placed at this site in 1977 specifically for a wedding planned during that year. An easy dive on an attractive site, it is usually full of fish life.
To dive these sites you are advised to seek help from local dive centres:
- CIP Port Frejus (BSAC Recognised School), Aire de Carenage, Port Frejus, 83606 Frejus (tel. (33) 94 52 34 99; fax (33) 94 53 44 38).
- Ecole de Plongee dAntibes Juan les Pins (EPAJ), Pont Dulys, Bd. C. Guillaumont, 0610 Juan les Pins (tel. (33) 93 67 52 59).
- CIP Golfe Juan, BP 13, 06220 Golfe Juan (tel. (33) 93 63 65 19; (33) 93 63 00 04).
- CIP Nice (BSAC Recognised Dive Centre), BP 22, 06301 Nice Cedex 4 (tel. (33) 93 55 59 50; fax (33) 93 26 53 38).
- Club de Plongee de Menton, La Marna, 3 Promenade de la Mer, 06500 Menton (tel. (33) 93 35 95 83).