The Undiscovered French Riviera
Think French Riviera and what comes to mind? Glamour and glitz. Bronzed, bare-breasted babes on the beach at St. Tropez. Formula One and high rollers in flashy Ferraris racing down the vertiginous cornice to Monte Carlo’s baccarat tables. Stars born and scorned by the movie moguls at the Cannes Film Festival.
That’s all true. But there’s a sweeter, gentler side of the Côte d’Azur too, especially in the off-season. The climate is still blissfully mild, the scenery ravishing and the Mediterranean cuisine delicious. You can play golf in the morning and head to the Alps for an afternoon on the ski slopes. Best of all, you won’t have to contend with traffic jams and hordes of summer tourists so horrendous that movie producer Samuel Goldwyn once scoffed, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”
The ubiquitous lemon tree
Photo: Susanna Fieramosca Naranjo
Balanced between the sea, the mountains and the Italian border at the far eastern end of the Côte d’Azur, Menton remains a relatively undiscovered gem with a climate so balmy that lemons blossom all year long. The citrus capital of France, Menton also has a large population of retirees. But any comparisons with Florida end there. There are no early-bird dinner specials and the closest Menton comes to Disney World is its Lemon Festival every February/March, when whimsical floats festooned with millions of citrus fruits are paraded through the streets.
In the late 1800s Menton became a favourite winter retreat for the British after Henry Bennett, physician to Queen Victoria, came to stay as a treatment for his tuberculosis. Soon the Queen herself and aristocrats from France, Russia and Germany started making pilgrimages to Menton, described by Dr. Bennett as “where the Alps fall into the sea.” As it turned out, the climate was too humid to cure tuberculosis but villas and tropical gardens flourished under the Mediterranean sun. France’s most temperate garden, Villa Maria Serena, sits high above the town with exotic palm trees framing views of the Garavan Marina.
Menton is the kind of place where I could happily reside. Like practically everyone else on the Riviera, I’d own a poodle or two and I’d grow oranges in my backyard – not exactly the life of a jet-setter but Monte Carlo is just next door.
Just two kilometres away from Menton – and Monte Carlo – you’ll find the medieval seaside village of Roquebrune Cap Martin, perched 300 metres above the water’s edge. Wind your way through the maze of arched walkways and architecturally stunning luxury villas, built right into the mountainside, to reach the 11th-century castle that offers breathtaking views of the Mediterranean. It’s no surprise that Roquebrune was the inspiration and resting place for statesmen, royalty and famous artists alike.
Next Stop Nice
Lavender fields in Provence
Photo: Ann Taylor-Hughes
The nicest part of Nice is the Cours Saleya in the old town. Join the locals at the thriving daily (except Mondays) food and flower market. At the far end you’ll spot a yellow house where artist Henri Matisse lived and captured the unique luminosity of the Côte d’Azur in his paintings. You might want to take a picnic up to the Colline du Château, a quiet park with panoramic views of the coastline. Another good stroll is along the Promenade des Anglais that runs the length of Nice’s waterfront. When it’s time for a break, drop into the Hotel Negresco, a neoclassic Riviera landmark, for a flute of Champagne.
Follow Your Nose To Grasse
Photo: Andreas Prott
About 17 kilometres from Nice, nestled in the Provence hills, lies the charming and somewhat sleepy (by comparison) town of Grasse, perfume capital of the world.
Thanks to its mild micro climate and ideal growing conditions, you can literally follow your nose to Grasse. In winter golden mimosa brightens the hillsides. Summer brings the heady scent of lavender, roses and orange blossoms, followed by jasmine in the fall.
Grasse didn’t always smell this sweet. Back in the 16th century it was a town of tanners, who discovered that aromatic herbs helped overcome the stench and improved the quality of the leather. Back in those days, the most important status symbol an aristocratic Italian could flaunt was a pair of perfumed gloves, and Grasse, at the encouragement of famed Florentine Catherine de Medici, became the main supplier. As the demand for gloves decreased, the tanners turned to perfume-making. By the 18th century, Grasse was the world leader in scent production and remains so today.
In perfumeries all around town, famous ‘noses’ have perfected the art of putting seductive scents into bottles for such prestigious houses as Chanel, Guerlain and Dior. And while those secret formulas and laboratories are off-limits to tourists, three perfume factories (Fragonard, Molinard and Galimard) encourage visitors by offering free multi-language tours.
At Molinard, you can book a two-hour workshop and concoct your very own cologne. My creation made me sneeze but it certainly gave me an appreciation of the process.
If you find a game of golf more seductive than a vial of perfume, there are several fine courses in the vicinity. Minutes from Grasse, the Saint Donat Golf Country Club meanders around an old estate that once supplied jasmine to the Grasse perfume houses. Also nearby is the Royal Mougins Golf Club with its signature number two hole complete with waterfalls and a pond.
If skiing is your passion, Isola 2000 in the Southern Alps is less than two hours from Nice. Lacking the pretension of Courcheval or Mêgeve, Isola, with 50 runs at all levels of difficulty, is ideal for families or those lacking mink parkas.
In the south of France you are never far from a memorable meal. The famous Le Moulin de Mougins restaurant, in the posh town of Mougins, offers afternoon cooking classes. For a dinner splurge, sample chef Alain Llorca’s 12-course tapas menu.
Set on a hill with magnificent views of the Grasse countryside, La Bastide Saint-Antoine takes the flavours and aromas of Provence to new heights. Just one spoonful of chef Jacques Chibois’ mousseux de foie gras aux lames de truffes, a rich, velvety soup of goose liver spiked with thin slices of truffles, reminds me of a quote by the French poet Charles Baudelaire. “Decadence must be considered the high point of civilization.” Touché.