After reading Peter Mayle’s “A Year in Provence,” I’ve held a long-cherished dream to spend time in this magical region of France. Decades after his novel, my wish came true; we spent two weeks relaxing, absorbing its beauty and devouring its joys. In this article I hope to take you along my treasured journey of the countryside, towns, foods, wines, perfumes, and other decadent pleasures of Provence.
Home base for our first week was a quaint apartment in Saint-Raphael on the famous coastline of the French Riviera they call Côte d’Azur. This small seaside resort town is one of the oldest resorts on the coast; there is evidence that wealthy Romans used to spend their summers here 2000 years ago! Before we unpacked our bags, we walked to a nearby open air market where dozens of colorful stalls and stores offered enticing displays of fresh fish, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, olives, meats and more. For our happy hour, we eagerly chose strawberries (juiciest and most flavorful ever,) goat cheese with herbs de Provence, foie gras and a crusty baguette. Popping in a nearby grocery store we bought staples and were surprised to find shelves lined with hundreds of rosés at modest prices. Then, lounging on our balcony overlooking the Mediterranean, we noshed on our gourmet treats. We decided that this needed to become a daily routine. Another established tradition was our morning jaunt to a lovely patisserie for baguettes and artistically-designed pastries for which France is universally renowned. Irresistible apricot tarts, fluffy chocolate croissants and beautifully glazed brioche buns.
Strolling along the wide seaside promenade offered vistas of azure blue and turquoise water, lined with soft, sandy beaches. Turn your head and you’ll take in the myriad of restaurants, cafes, fresh fruit gelato shops and various stores. Walking east along the seafront, you’ll arrive at Port Santa Lucia, which is ideal for wandering and discovering quays featuring shops and restaurants. A memorable restaurant in the Santa Lucia marina was La Canne A Sucre. Fresh and exquisitely prepared seafood, a glass of refreshing rosé and sitting within feet of amazing yachts lured us there several times during our stay. Another pleasurable meal was at Chez Gaston, a small healthy French restaurant. In an unpretentious atmosphere with a chalkboard menu and a wall of wine bottles, we tried the large prawns and duck accompanied by a colorful selection of vegetables and profiteroles (delectable cream puffs.)
In the old city section, the small Musee Archeologique de Saint-Raphael (museum of archeology and underwater archeology) has artifacts from the Mediterranean Stone Age to the Roman period and ends with many objects from a sunken Roman ship discovered by Jacques Cousteau. Cousteau’s aqualung is there, too. Next to the museum is a church with the best views of Saint-Raphael. The catch is that climbing the wooden stairs and spiral staircase is challenging.
With over 316 days of sunshine per year, it was almost guaranteed that we had perfect days at the beach. Yet, I have to admit the Mediterranean is too cold to enjoy even during the middle of June. I was much more brave on a snorkeling trip with TakSea. On a small speed boat, we began with a leisurely ride along the coastline, viewing villas and the red mountains of Massif de l’Esterel, a volcanic mountain range. The captain related interesting stories about the tiny islands, smugglers and caves. They dropped anchor at a secluded inlet for an hour of snorkeling, followed by an exciting high speed return.
Right next door to Saint-Raphael is the medieval city of Fréjus. Although it has 2,000 years of history, it is still young and dynamic. On the beach we loved the moment when the sun plunges into the glimmering Mediterranean with its unique pallet of blues and emerald. Climbing up the mountain to the historic heart of Fréjus is the Ampithéâtre. Built in the first century, it holds 12,000 spectators and is used for concerts and bullfights. By incredible luck, we were in Fréjus on June 21st for Fête de la Musique, France’s largest street music party. Music performances pop up all over the country in celebration of the spirit of music on the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. Along the board walk, we enjoyed classical, pop and rock music plus others to suit every taste.
A trip to the countryside navigating roundabouts brought us to Chateau D’Esclans. Located in the heart of Provence, this prestigious estate and winery produces the industry’s leading rosé. It is a picture-book property, with a stunning buttercup yellow Chateau decorated with blue hydrangeas. We saw the 12th century cellars and learned about their high-tech wine making process and finished by savoring Whispering Angel and Rock Angel wines. The Chateau’s rosé under the label of Garrus is widely considered to be the best in the world.
Driving on narrow twisting roads revealed the Verdon Gorge, known as the Grand Canyon of France. Carved by the Verdon River, it has white-water rapids and cliffs. Although the countryside was extraordinarily beautiful, I wished that the lavender fields had been in bloom. The lavender flowering season is mid-June to mid-August, depending on the climate factors.
A boat trip on Le Brigantin ll conveyed us to the famed Saint-Tropez. Brigitte Bardot frolicked on the beaches here in the 50’s and is now the playground of rap stars and international socialites. The harbor overflows with luxury yachts. The largest is Azzam, a 590-foot-long superyacht which is the largest in the world. In the district of millionaires are a multitude of chic designer fashion shops and boutiques, exuding understated elegance. While window shopping along the tiny cobblestone streets, we marveled at a colorful tree of macaroons in a tiny patisserie. Of course we had to buy these small, expensive cookies with an almond-shell and rich filling. L’Opera restaurant was a great experience that we couldn’t recommend more highly. Drawn to its white, avant-garde décor and stunning harbor views, we sipped sangria, indulged in truffle gnocchi and a passion fruit dessert. Every half hour or so, talented entertainers sang amidst the appreciative diners.
Our next stop was Nice, the classy resort town that is the French Riviera’s capital. The beach offered something for everyone: volleyball, table tennis, paddleboats, windsurfing and more. Topless sunbathing is popular on the bustling beaches; Europeans are so relaxed about it. Sauntering down the iconic Promenade des Anglais is great for people-watching and eating some of the best crepes in Nice. We hiked up Castle Hill, a rocky promontory that moors one end of the beach. The grand finale to any day is to go at sunset with a picnic and bottle of rosé to soak up the 360-degree views of the grand promenade and spectacular Alps to Mediterranean scenery. Besides tourists, Nice’s sublime light and weather has attracted artists. In the early 20th century, Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall were among the masters who came here, and the city has a museum devoted to each. While not a large city, Nice is actually second only to Paris in the number of museums and galleries which are mostly free. Much of the traffic-free Old Town dates back to the 16th century and has been well restored. The Russian Cathedral is the most visited attraction in Nice which is the most splendid Orthodox church outside of Russia.
For shoppers, Plaza-Cours Saleya is a commotion of colors, sights, smells and people. It has been the main market since the middle ages. Locally produced soaps, sachets and spices are attractively packaged to make good souvenirs. Search for local items, like glass earrings, copper necklaces and brightly colored leather bags and purses that are hand-stitched in Nice. When shopping anywhere, the one word you need to know is “vente” which means sale! If you want luxury living, stay at the lavish Hotel Le Negresco, the most recognized landmark along the seafront which is topped by a flamboyant pink dome. Another choice where we stayed is Boscolo Exedra, an elegant boutique hotel and spa. White is the color of choice everywhere, from the beautiful hotel façade to the impressive marble-floored lobby to the room furniture decorated with the signature white rosebud. Restaurant choices range in price, but great food is everywhere. Dining at the two Michelin-star Le Chantecler is an unashamedly extravagant gastronomic affair complete with 18th century dark wood paneling and impressive oil paintings. La Belle Saison is a healthy vegetarian restaurant with just a few tables so book in advance. Flavors burst out of the food. Another small local restaurant is La Route Du Miam. The duck and lamb shank were a treat for our taste buds.
Éze is a tiny mountaintop village perched on craggy cliffs high above the sea. In this medieval town there are well preserved stone buildings, winding narrow alleyways and 14th century chapels. It is home to Fragonard Perfumery where an hour-long tour yields a great deal of information about the making of perfume. Le Nose is a perfume master who makes the scents; there are 150 true Noses in the world. They work three hours a day and command a very high salary, but their personal life is limited by rules that forbid spices and alcohol. They smell coffee grounds to neutralize scents after every three aromas, and do this in the shop where you buy perfume. We learned that it takes three tons of rose petals to make four cups of rose perfume; that you should never rub in the perfume where you spray it; and to wait 15 seconds after spraying perfume for the alcohol to evaporate and then the fragrance will come on your skin. I left with several exquisite bottles; I am transported back to Provence when I smell them.
Glamorous Monaco is the second smallest country in the world at three-quarters of a mile, and second in the most expensive real estate prices. It is one of the richest countries because residents don’t pay income tax, attracting the super wealthy. It is also the safest country in the world with one policeman for every 50 persons and 1,000 cameras. Their lavish casino typifies the extravagance of Monaco.
It is difficult to sum up our visit to Provence. Magnifique will have to suffice.