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The Many Faces of the French Riviera: Part 2
Heading west along the coast road, one passes the red cupola of the Negresco Hotel that is somehow, for me, the definitive landmark for Nice -- the equivalent of what a lighthouse is to a sailor. As you look at the architecture of the apartment blocks that line the road, most will be bland, anonymous, eurocity style. But every now and then comes a little gem of delightful French fairytale eccentricity, a building that was built without worrying about the cost or what the neighbors would think. Spanish architect Gaudi would have smiled and nodded approval. When I see buildings like that, I know why it is that I love France and the French. There is a touch of character and individuality in this country that is hard to match in others.
Soon, the airport signs come into view and just past the airport exit is St. Laurent du Var, where you will find what may well be the best shopping center this side of Paris. Cap 3000 is the nearest thing I have found to an American regional shopping center in Europe. Galeries Lafayette has an enormous store here, but beware! We had bought some items in the downtown Nice store and made other purchases here. When I went to get my de taxe form for the refund, it turned out that neither store will honor the other's purchase, saying that they were different owners and organizations. What a pity the clerk who had sold me the first lot of merchandise did not know about that and said it would be O.K!
While I rate Galeries Lafayette leagues below the standard of U.S., Asian or Australian department stores, I cannot help singing the praises of French supermarkets like Leclerc. An English friend has close relatives who are top executives in a leading British supermarket chain, and I recall being told that its junior executives are regularly sent to France for training at the best French supermarkets. Walk around one of the Leclerc supermarkets in any small French country town, and you'll soon see why this should be so.
Back on the coast road, continue to head west and you will come to turnoff signs to the right reading "Vence" the road is rather convoluted, but every turn is marked clearly. Follow carefully and soon you'll be passing a McDonalds, then heading up into the mountains that rise just behind the coast. Follow the signs to Vence, park in one of the several car parks there, and spend a little time wandering around this marvelous, historic town.
Located only fifteen miles north west of Nice as the crow flies, Vence is one of these rare towns that, brimming with history, is a fascinating and attractive place around which to live today. The very fact that it is so close to Nice and Monaco means that residents can see the latest movies, attend concerts, and even listen to the banal trivia only too often discussed on the English-language radio station that operates from the latter. Many spots around Vence have breathtaking vistas covering the seven miles right down to the Mediterranean. The town's elevation also means that, during the heat of mid summer it is cooler than the seaside, a blessing further enhanced by the gentle breeze that comes up from the Med.
The history of Vence goes back a long way. It was already a well-established town in Roman times, proven by the fact that if you look closely at the wall of the Cathedral located in the very center of the old walled town, ... it's adjacent to the post office and police station in the main square ... you will find a number of Roman tombstones embedded there. Visit this lovely Cathedral and the Carzou Museum devoted to the painter, Carzou. What makes this particularly interesting is that the Museum is located in the 15th century building that was the former castle of the Barons of Villeneuve. The Chateau is located to the left just after you enter at the Peyra Gate. While in Vence, you will no doubt want to see the Matisse Chapel, so restrained in its decoration that many find it disappointing. But don't miss it. Its simplicity is actually its very attraction.
Getting back to the town's history, Vence certainly made its mark, and produced bigger-than-life characters that were nothing if not colorful. The town was the smallest in France to have its own Bishop, Veran, as far back as 449 A.D.. And in the early 1100's a nobleman named Romee de Villeneuve who, though only the Baron of Vence, managed to marry four daughters rather well. One married the King of England, the next the King of France, the third the King of Naples and the fourth the German Emperor! Vence, though it remained small, continued to be powerful, and prospered through its agriculture, tanning and perfume industries.
Alessandro Farnese, Vence's head man in the early 1500's also did rather well. But then its not everybody who has a sister both beautiful and willing to be set up as the mistress of Pope Alexander IV who, in her spare time bedded enough Cardinals to garner sufficient votes to have her brother elected Pope Paul III. Talk about mixing fun with profit!
If you are observant, you'll note that there is an English church in Vence, with Sunday services in that language. And the Maisons de Presse ...the places where one buys the newspapers... sell the London Times, the International Herald Tribune and the Wall Street Journal as well as the leading newspapers from Frankfurt, Rome, Switzerland and Belgium. That should be a clue as to how many retired British, Germans and other Europeans live in this area!
And they live there for good reason! Vence is one of the most livable towns in Europe. It has wonderful views, one of the Continent's best climates, friendly people, great restaurants and, for its size, the best imaginable ...though far from cheapest... produce shops in Europe. By this time you've guessed that we always shop at Leclerc when we need a supermarket. Check out the one in Vence, and if you don't think its great, I'm prepared to chew my Stetson in the Town Square! But the shops you should not miss are the little boutique food shops that you find to the right just as you enter through the 14th century Peyra gate that, with the picturesque fountain standing behind it, welcomes you through these ancient town walls.
If you want to stay at a hotel that is not only truly splendid, but is also steeped in the area's history, take the road that leads just out of town and up into the olive groves of the Avenue des Templiers. Here is another of the Cote d'Azur's most splendid hotels, the Chateau Saint-Martin. The late President Truman of U.S.A. and the late President Konrad Adenauer of Germany so loved this place that the former suggested the heart-shaped pool that has only just been replaced by a larger, more splendid one, and Adenauer called it the "Ante-Chamber to Paradise."
Under the direction of Ms. Brunet, one of the best hoteliers in the business, Saint Martin has been constantly updated, refurbished and is right now undergoing yet another "polishing." Built on the site of the headquarters of the Knights' Templar when they came back to France after the crusades, St. Martin offers a truly breathtaking view over Vence and still boasts of having one of the original Templar Gates and towers near its entrance.
And just one other hint. If you want the best pizza in the south of France, made to perfection on a wood-fired stove, and like to drool over a pizza menu that gives you a choice of over 450 combinations, ... no, I'm not kidding ... then turn right into the street just behind the Cathedral. One hundred yards along this you will find Le Pecheur de Soleil at 1, Place Godeau. And if they have their home-made fruit tart as dessert, don't pass it by. For the money, this may be the best-value place for a meal in this lovely little town.
When leaving Vence, allow yourself a day trip that might well be the most picturesque drive in the coastal area of Provence. Start at Vence, taking the road in the direction of Grasse, though you don't finish up there. The minute you leave the built-up area you will be totally enchanted by the beauty of the countryside. Flower-laden meadows, tree-covered hillsides, and woods that look fresh out of children's picture books, line the winding road.
And suddenly you come to Tourettes Sur Loup, another fortified medieval Village Perche. Stop here and don't forget to take your camera. For this is truly picture-postcard-pretty. In the middle ages it was an important weaving town, and though there are still a couple of shops that offer beautiful hand-woven garments, it is now a village of craftsmen and artisans.
Back into the car and continue along the D2210 until you get to Pont du-Loup where the railway viaduct pillars loom up into nowhere, a monument to World War II when the retreating Germans dynamited the railway bridge to stop the line from being used by the Allies. This is a great spot to stop for coffee and walk to the bridge to look down on the raging torrent that is the Loup below you. Then drive back to the turnoff that follows the river on the east side of the gorge, following the D6 up the valley. Here you are in some of the loveliest, though most rugged parts of Provence. The valley walls loom straight up above you, and from time to time you may be fortunate to see young French rock climbers abseiling down the cliffs. Continue along this road past the Cascade de Courmes and go onto Bramafan where a bridge crosses the Loup. Once over this, turn sharp left along the D3 that will take you to Gourdon, yet another Village Perche. Stop there and walk up into the village.
This is yet another fortified hill town started by the Saracens, and if they built it for the view as well as for the strategic position, they were far from silly. A great place to enjoy the breathtaking view below while you enjoy another coffee is the restaurant known as the Eagle's Nest. From here you can look thirty miles across to the coast or look almost vertically down the 1,640 foot cliff to Pont-du-Loup which looks like something from a tiny toy set. Before leaving, visit the historical museum which is set in the beautiful grounds of Gourdon Castle. Its gardens were, according to the staff here, laid out by the same landscape architect that designed the gardens of Versailles. Continue along the B3 but when you get to the D2085, turn back towards Nice rather than going on to Grasse.
Some people love Grasse, supposedly home to half of France's perfume industry, but I avoid the place whenever I can. It's full of little perfumery shops claiming their product to be identical to that of Chanel, Arpege, Dior and the other famous brands. But your nose knows that the statement doesn't make much scents! Cheap junk is cheap junk, and if you buy this ersatz perfume, the chances are that the recipient will, within an hour of wearing this, either not know that she has used any perfume at all, or alternately smell like a cat in heat! My advice -- there are far more fascinating places than Grasse. But if you have been there, are crazy about the place and think I'm totally wrong, please don't write to me. I accept that tastes are different, and besides that, you may have found a perfumery store that wasn't as totally awful as the one that I shopped at.
The DO85 that leads back towards Nice is one of the prettiest drives imaginable. Turn left at La Collet and take the D7, passing La Colle Sur Loup and continuing left to another medieval hill village, this time St. Paul de Vence, the third biggest tourist attraction in France after Paris and Mont St. Michel. Before entering the town, follow the signs to the Maeght Foundation. Here, set in the most beautiful sculpture garden I have ever seen (how did they ever get such superb lawns to grow right underneath pine trees?) and in the beautifully-laid-out museum, are the heavyweights of post WW II French modernists. Chagall, Miro, Alexander Calder, Pierre Bonnard, Fernard Leger, Joan Miro, Jesus Raphael Soto and Georges Braque are just some of the famous names you will see represented here. If you have any interest in art at all, this is a place you must not miss.
Then park your car closer to the fortified ramparts of St. Paul and head on in.
St. Paul, word has it, is different in that it was a Village Perche built by locals to defend themselves against the Saracens rather than the other way round. The latter, it seems, were so busy raping, looting and having fun that they put St. Paul in the "too hard basket." The village then got new ramparts in 1537, when it was included in the chain of fortifications to guard Francois I against Austria and Savoy. Like the other Villages Perche, St. Paul was left in genteel decay for some hundreds of years, only to be re-discovered in the 1920's, when it became a favorite haunt for painters like Miro, Picasso and Braque. Gene-Paul Sartre, F.Scott-Fitzgerald, Simone de Beauvoir, Sophia Loren and even the publicity shy Greta Garbo looked at St. Paul as one of their favorite haunts. Yves Montand and Simone Signoret had their wedding reception at the Colombe d'Or, a restaurant that had the good sense to take works by about-to-be-famous painters instead of money when the latter didn't have any.
St. Paul de Vence is obviously very commercial these days, but the art galleries, Provencale fabric shops, sculpture galleries and other shops here are tastefully done and carry some of the best names in France. Consequently St. Paul is relatively free of tourist kitsch, and we never fail to find it fascinating. And here, too, is another gem -- and a reasonably priced one -- at which to stay and/or dine. The Hotel St. Paul in the main street is one of the prettiest and most user-friendly of its kind in France, due to a large extent to the good taste and good management of Olivier Borloo, a man who is not only an outstanding hotelier, but charms guests into believing that each is the only one who counts. His personal good taste can be seen everywhere throughout the hotel.
Lunch on the terrace, dine in the delightfully whimsical dining room, or stay in one of the comfortable yet totally captivating rooms, and you too will want to come back to the Hotel St. Paul as often as you are in the area. Before leaving, make sure you've been right through the town as far as the lovely, peaceful little cemetery at the other end. The view from there is marvelous! No wonder people are dying to be buried there! By the way, I had heard that Marc Chagall was laid to rest here too, but have not been able to find his grave as yet. I keep going back and back to this lovely village on every trip to the area, and would strongly recommend that you allow at least a day to see as much as possible.
And now its time to explore the coast. Take the road from St. Paul down to Cagnes Sur Mer, perhaps turning off for a few hours in Haute Cagnes and dining at Le Cagnard's award-winning restaurant in Rue sous Barri. Don't attempt to drive the narrow roadway to the hotel unless you have a narrow car and nerves of steel. I've seen big men ...mainly German tourists with large Mercedes... cry here, with half of their twenty coats of Mercedes paint left as a souvenir on the stone walls. Another interesting restaurant, and one of the best grill houses ... a rarity in France ... on the coast is Josy Jo's, located at 8 Place du Planastel, just above the automatic car park. And that brings me to two marvels of technology for the technically minded. At Josy Jo's, go to the toilet even if you don't feel the call of nature. The purpose of the expedition will be to flush the toilet -- and see another of those French idiosyncrasies I so like about France. For here is a toilet seat that is really high-tech. As soon as you press the flusher, the toilet seat withdraws into a chamber at the back, and another slides into place. In the meantime, the original seat gets scrubbed, flushed, air dried and ready for the next customer.
Just when you think that can't be topped, someone might tell you about the car park just below. It is an experimental installation by a German company and parks your car for you, hoisting it into its own pigeon hole carved deep into the hillside on a very complicated hydraulic system. The only way you can see exactly what's happening is on the T.V. monitor of the car park's supervisor who, I'm sure, has had to be trained by NASA for this job. His electronic switchboard has more flashing lights and buttons on it than the Challenger Spacecraft. Duly impressed, head back towards the coast. But if you are interested in cooking and cuisine, there is one more place to visit.
Should that be the case, follow the signs to the village of Villeneuve-Loubet, home of the chef that most Frenchmen put on the same level of importance as the Pope. For as the latter is head of the Church, Escoffier was the original head of French gastronomy who cooked for Kings and Emperors, and even brought culinary enlightenment to England ...no mean feat at the time... when, for some years, he was Executive Chef at the Savoy in London. The little Musee de l'Art Culinaire is located in the former house of this giant among chefs and is lovingly dedicated to him. You can't miss it because in this village all signs lead to this museum and a bust of Escoffier, placed in front of this house, makes sure that you know that this is the place you've come to see. On the ground floor are kitchens and the equipment used for French cooking in Escoffier's day, some incredible examples of sugar sculptures and other food as art, and lots, lots more. Upstairs is reserved for Escoffier memorabilia, with photographs of banquets for which the master had been responsible. Pictures show lords, counts, dukes, princes and kings attired in tails sitting at banquet tables with huge serviettes tucked into their collars. And above the photo is, in each case, the menu of the day which also quite often gives the names of the attending guests. Utterly fascinating!
No more excuses to linger now, so proceed down to lower Cagnes Sur Mer and take the coast road west. A huge, pyramid sized apartment complex will loom up ahead of you. This is the Baie des Anges complex, the biggest of its kind in Western Europe. If these apartments don't appeal to your sense of aesthetics, remember that you are looking at the back. The front looks down into the complex's marina and out to sea.
Keep going until you come to Antibes. The road takes you right past the marina, and this is a good place to stop and park. If its sunny, take your hat, and your camera ...you should never leave this, or other personal possessions in your car along the coast anyway... and walk out to the yachts. If you think you've seen some big-buck boats and yachts in Florida, this little lot might just pip even those! Along the far breakwater, the really big-money boats are moored. And what boats these are. Currently being refitted and refurbished here for its new Mid-Eastern potentate owner is my favorite luxury cruiser, a boat that was originally built for Adnar Kashoggi and named after his daughter, Nabila. Subsequently it was purchased by Donald Trump and has, I understand, changed hands and names again a couple of times since.
Back to the car, and follow the road around the marina until you see an archway on the right that leads the road into the old walled town. Drive through, stay on the edge of the sea, and you will suddenly find yourself following a road that has been built right on top of the town's medieval ramparts. I know of no other place that has an equivalent. Well along this road but still near the water's edge is the Antibes Archeological Museum. Located at the Bastion-St. Andre, it houses some marvelous Greek and Etruscan treasures that were found in this area, a reminder that Antibes was a busy Greek trading post in pre-Roman times. The other great claim to fame of this town is the Picasso Museum ... located at the Chateau Grimaldi ... which was that artist's studio for some time.
Just past Antibes is the Cap de Antibes and as you follow the coastal road you will see a small sign to the Plage de la Garoupe. This is a real insider's tip, for this utterly charming little bay is considered their own private property by the Rich and Famous who live on the Cap. You'll see few other tourists here, or if you do, they're likely to be people who come here year after year. What you find at La Garoupe is crystal clear water, a tiny, secluded horseshoe beach with good parking and a handful of restaurants, each of which serve delicious, surprisingly inexpensive fare. Each restaurant also has its own wooden tanning platform with deck chairs and sun umbrellas, under which some of the best-shaped bodies in France are to be found. Our favorite here is Plage le Rocher, which turns out the best galettes I've eaten -- wafer thin crepes with egg and spinach that are perfection in their class.
Drive on, past Juan-Les-Pins and past Golfe-Juan to Cannes, only a few miles away. In Cannes you'll find lovely shops, an interesting street-market, and the Casino, but unless you are there for the film festival, my advice is to head inland, taking the road to the pretty village of Mougins. We like to overnight here, booking in at the relatively inexpensive but quite delightful Le Manoir de L'Etang. Ask the locals how to get there because it doesn't seem to have a street name. But this little gem of a hotel is worth staying at and also has a very good dining room.
From the Mougins car park, walk into this picture-post-card town, dominated in a delightfully benign way by Roger Verge, one of France's greatest chefs. Many people come here to spend one or more days at Roger Verge's famous cooking school. Others come to shop at his charming little boutique. But most come to dine at one of Verge's several restaurants. Whichever you choose, it is unlikely that you will be disappointed. In fact, all the restaurants in Mougins are just great. They have to be to compete with Verge, a marvelous, warm human being as well as being one of the three French super-chefs whose cuisine you may have enjoyed at the French Pavilion at Epcot in Florida where he is also one of the partners.
If you have time and are interested in high-tech, take the short side trip from Mougins to Sophia Antipolis, the French scientific equivalent of Silicon Valley. When the French Government wanted to stop France's brain drain, they quite rightly came to the conclusion that it would be wise to build their science/research/high-tech center in an area that the cream of France's scientists would enjoy living and working in. Sophia Antipolis is the result and will, if you slowly drive around some of the huge complexes there, be an eye opener for you.
Once again its time to return to the coast. But on the way there's yet another reason to linger a little longer. Should you be a car buff, the Automobile Museum just off the autoroute will fascinate you with its collection of Bugattis, Mercedes and other Grand Marques. Ladies! Don't be too hard on your partner by rushing him away. This is a place that brings out the boy in every man!
Our trip to the Riviera is now nearly at an end, but not quite. For who can say they've been to the Riviera without seeing Saint Tropez? So keep heading south west from Cannes along the coast road passing la Napoule not far from where, with a certain amount of secrecy, the French built their Exocet and other missiles. Onward ever onward along the coastal road, past St. Raphael, Frejus and to the amazing marina development at Port Grimaud which certainly warrants another stop and inspection. When, in 1962, French architect Francois Spoerry bought up what most people only saw as a useless, marshy swamp, the establishment thought that he had gone completely mad. Four years later earth moving equipment arrived and started constructing the biggest and arguably finest development of its kind in Europe that covered 222 acres and created a Venetian type complex of 2,500 attractive homes, each of which faces a canal and has its own moorings. It has been a huge success, with yes, shops, restaurants and even a church, and now attracts a staggering one million visitors a year. You too should have a look at it. It may inspire you in moments when people disparage your ideas saying "it can't be done!"
And now you're practically at Saint Tropez. And here there is a legendary hotel that is the last on my list of fabulous places to stay, if the checkbook allows. This is Le Byblos, an ultra-luxurious and very private complex on Avenue Paul Signac, within walking distance of the waterfront. Le Byblos was created by a Middle Eastern millionaire and is without doubt the most stunning hotel in the surrounding area. Suites are naturally spacious and beautiful, with a hint of Spain in the decor. From each suite's balcony you can look down on the pool but cannot look into or onto the balconies of other suites. I'm told this is because most of the guests like to try for an all-over tan and privacy is therefore essential. A really charming idea is that, while there is a big pool in the court-yard, the floor of the balcony has two body outline shaped shallow pools side by side. Both the verandah and the indented pools are tiled with hand painted tiles and the pools could be filled with water like shallow baths. And if you are a man whose travelers checks are so plentiful that they are burning a hole in your pocket, visit the boutique in the hotel with your lady. The exquisite selection she'll find there will quickly rectify the situation.
But the budget traveler to Saint Tropez does not need to get depressed. My personal recommendation is then Le Pre de la Mer on the route des Salins. Run by a charming American lady now living here, this is a "home away from home" for her guests. She also knows all the restaurants that are good but reasonably priced in the area, and is a treasure trove of local information.
Drive into this little town, park, and go straight past the expensive boutiques to the waterfront. Don't faint at the price of the Haagen Daaz ice-cream here. If its three times the price you pay at home, so what? Remember that the side show along the waterfront is free! This is where the Beautiful People come to be seen. Brigitte Bardot, arguably the sexiest face and body in Europe in her time, started it all by publicizing this sleepy little village, and soon the world was coming to Saint Tropez to see who else would turn up. And if you were a big name in movies, theater, the arts or anything else that made headlines, the chances are that you'd want to go there -- if for no other reason than not wanting to be known as the one who stayed away.
While the heat has perhaps gone out of the rush to Saint Tropez a little, you can be sure that, by and large, it's still on the "Must be Seen Here" list for the Beautiful People. And with Saint Tropez enjoying that sort of reputation, it's never short of characters either. My most vivid memory of Saint Tropez is of an occasion that took place last year. As we walked down to the marina, we saw three red Ferraris lined up on the sidewalk, one with an Italian number plate, one with a Monaco plate and one with French registration. Moored behind each of these was a multimillion dollar cabin cruiser with national flags that matched the Ferrari number plates. And posing on the decks, topless and wearing swimsuit bottoms that would give the manufacturer change out of six square inches of fabric, were a bevy of starlets, at least I think that's what they were, in full view of the wharf but pretending that they were invisible to the gasping crowds. The sight of them rubbing oil into their glistening bodies was adding fuel to the fire in the men's eyes, while wives tut-tutted but were ignored.
All this would have been enough, but the man who, to my mind, stole the show was an old drunk in a tired, ankle-length army overcoat. Dirty, unshaven and holding a bottle of cheap hootch in each hand, this fellow watched the crowds with an unfailing eye. As soon as any man began to lift a camera to his eye to try and photograph the gorgeous galaxy on the boats the drunk would rush up, get right between the photographer and the boat, lift his two bottles to the sky with both hands and insist that his picture be taken with the starlets. I know only too well -- I was one of the photographers.
So there you have it. All my favorites of the Riviera that I can fit into this story. But there's much, much more. And the only way you can find out just how much there is -- and how fascinating this area can be -- is to go there yourself. Bon voyage!