Where life imitates art

A perfect blend of style and substance. From museums and picture postcard countryside to choicest food and wine, the French Riviera offers many of life’s little pleasures finds out
Gayatri Rajwade
Yachts lined up at St. Tropez.
Yachts lined up at St. Tropez.
The village of Eze shows off the spectacular coast below.
The village of Eze shows off the spectacular coast below.
The tiered village of Gordes.
The tiered village of Gordes.
Beach cafes at Juan-Les-pains.
Beach cafes at Juan-Les-pains. — Photos by the writer

Some of the greatest artists of the western world walked here, inspired by the stunning blue sky and Mediterranean Sea, pretty villages tumbling down hilltops and rolling fields of lavender. This is also where Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes and J Lo sunned themselves nutmeg, this year. While the enduring image of Cote d’Azur or the French Riviera may be petite dogs sitting content in Chanel handbags and glitzy yachts dotting the 250 km coastline. Nice, the nicest springboard, perched along the coast, is the perfect introduction to the French Riviera. It was discovered by the aristocratic English (Queen Victoria was apparently the first to spot its potential as a sunny antidote to the harsh English winter).

The palm-lined Promenade des Anglais along the Baie des Anges (bay) is a ‘must-walk’. Spectacular sunsets, street musicians, skaters and athletic joggers jostle with grand hotels dotting the other side. The city also lays down its arty antecedent through several museums dedicated to celebrated artists like Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall (it has the largest public collection of works by this Belarusian painter). The real charm lies in its old city, Vieux Nice. With its winding cobbled streets, shops of candied fruit and dinky cafes and wine bars, the place has retained a quaint appeal since the 1700s.

Starting off from Nice, the best way to explore the whole region is by hiring a car and driving off, into the sunset literally. During the summers, the sun does not set till almost 10 pm and the quest for more quintessential Mediterranean towns is a breeze for one can pack in so much in a day.

Directly across the bay is the playground of the affluent, Antibes, Cap d’Antibes and Juan-les-pains, the latter possessing a lovely two kilometre long sandy beach filled with Americans and Europeans. The rich and the famous party through the day and night here so chic and inexpensive eateries have set up tables right on the beach.

The place is lush and and crammed with tourists. Graham Greene lived here, a fascinated Picasso painted here and a museum of his works is also located here. Cap d’Antibes houses the exclusive Hotel Du Cap Eden Roc where all the money cannot get you in.

Further down along the coast, St Tropez dazzles with its line of yachts and boats topped with sunbathers on the decks. Designer shops, gourmet food stores and galleries of kitschy tourist attractions (including the ubiquitous sun-dresses to combat the heat) all welcome the hordes that tramp through everyday.

Art is the mainstay of St-Paul De Vance, another pretty village overlooking the coast. With 64 art galleries on a single street it is no surprise that one of the finest art museums of the region, Foundation Maeght is located here. It would be advisable to check on timings for entry to museums. Most places shut down for a repast at lunch which could go on for several hours.

Fact file

How to get there: Most major airlines like KLM (via Amsterdam), Alitalia (via Rome) and Air France fly to Nice Cote d’Azur International Airport.

Where to stay: www.venere.com is good site to browse through for all kinds of accommodations for every kind of budget. From chateaus, heritage buildings to small two-star hotels there is something for every pocket.

Hiring a car: Europecar, Avis, Hertz are some options. Check these on the internet well in time otherwise you will get stuck in long lines. Make a careful selection of the car. Also an international license should be carried from here which takes at least a week to process.

Consider hiring a GPS navigation tool (with the car rental). It makes for easier road trips.

Additional Information: Visit the tourist information bureau in each city and town for there are saver passes on museums entries which prove useful. Also collect all the brochures you can for these give updated timings.

Another useful site to visit is www.michelin.com for detailed route planners, maps, guides, tourist information, hotels and restaurants.

Meals are a virtual cornucopia of fresh vegetables, hand-picked herbs and meat. Onions, aubergines, courgettes (zucchini), artichokes stewed with peppers, garlic, herbs constitute the staple ratatouille while the bouillabaisse is a typical fish stew with four kinds of fish and onions, tomatoes, garlic and herbs. To really enjoy the local cuisine, pick things up fresh from one of the weekly markets early in the morning.

Named after a mighty spring (one of the most powerful in the world) this is where the river Sorgue ends its subterranean course and emerges to the surface. The waters flow through Fontaine de Vaucluse. Canoeing or kayaking through the eight kilometres of water between Fontaine de Vaucluse and L’Isle sur-la-Sorgue is an experience. Looking over the river Sorgue is the picture-perfect tiered village of Gordes. At an elevation of 372 metres it is one of the Provence’s most photographed spots. When the rising sun hits this rocky outcrop the colours are magical, ranging from gold to ochre to lilac. Bunches of sweet-smelling lavender can be found everywhere, in fields and crannies.

Round off the trip at Aix-En-Provence A city of contrasts—of music and art, of fountains, markets—and a very ‘happening’ coach-way ‘Cours Mirabeau’ considered to the very pulse of the city. Walk in the footsteps of celebrated artist Cezanne where a tour takes the visitor right up to Sainte-Victoire Mountain, his muse for 11 oils and 17 watercolours, in his lifetime.

In fact, the final stop should be at the vineyards of Chateauneuf Du Pape. Most producers in the region allow wine-tasting and in the cool confines of these caves (wine cellars) nothing tastes better in a place which the sun truly calls its own.