The south of France is often portrayed as a petri dish of the sybaritic lifestyle where the fabulous flock to the clubs in St. Tropez, the famous retreat to their multi-million dollar villas for some R&R, away from the glare of the paparazzi, and the self-indulgent hungrily lap up all of life’s pleasures, set against the backdrop of the Mediterranean Sea forever glittering in the sunshine.
While the above depiction is not technically wrong, it represents but one dimension of Côte d’Azur.
On a recent work trip to Nice, my husband and I stayed behind a few days, determined to uncover what else the French Riviera, so renowned the world over, has to offer than its joie de vivre and treasure chest of life’s little delights like wine and cheese.
We made a day trip to the casinos at Monte Carlo, we strolled along the Promenade des Anglais, and we bar-hopped in Old Antibes. What turned out to be the more inspirational part of our trip, however, was not along the coast, but rather inland and upwards, at the handful of picturesque commune old towns scattered through the hills. Here are four of our favourites.
Stopping off at a roadside viewpoint along the winding road that leads up to Gourdon, we could just make out the outline of a hilltop village perched on the rocky outcrop 760 meters above the Meditteranean sea. It’s the same rugged surroundings that featured in the 2012 film adaptation of Les Misérables, when ex-convict Jean Valjean, played by the Hugh Jackman, treks to freedom.
Grounded in rock and built with stone, the village is peppered with shops selling items ranging from souvenir street signs to lavender-infused soap. Other than the handful of shops, guests are free to wander the narrow alleyways and admire the quaint architecture. There is also a picturesque viewpoint where you can see down to Gorges du Loup and the sea beyond. One of the main attractions at the medieval town used to be the Château de Gourdon, a castle with a small museum and featuring an exotic André Le Nôtre-designed garden. Unfortunately, the private owners decided to close the historical monument last year, but despite this, the rest of the town is still very much worth a visit.
We serendipitously chanced upon Valbonne while driving to Cannes from Opio. After a rather sharp turn downhill, the old village appears on both sides of a narrow road. After a few u-turns to find a spot to park, we started exploring the area on foot, made simple by a symmetrical 10 by 10 street grid. Walking passed several narrow alleyways and under nostalgic stone arches, we arrived at Valbonne’s heart, the Place des Arcades, and plopped down for an al fresco bite on the shaded terrace of Café Ratin. The central square dates back to the 17th century when additional arcades were added to the original plaza, the latter built a century earlier.
Dispersed through the streets are a variety of shops, and perhaps because it is a residential area, the ratio of nice souvenirs to tourist tac is high. At the bottom of the village is Eglise Saint Blaise, a monastery founded by Benedictine monks in the 13th century and open to visitors for limited times daily (other than Mondays). The monastic buildings house the Le Vieux Valbonne museum, which provides a fascinating glimpse into the traditional village life of yesteryear. A traditional Provençal market sets up every Friday morning until 1 or 2 p.m., and there’s an antiques and other miscellaneous curios market on the first Sunday of the month.
Cagnes-sur-Mer is divided into a few sections, with Haut-de-Cagnes claiming the hilltop position. Unmissable near the entrance to the medieval town, the magnificent Château Grimaldi holds fort at Haut-de-Cagnes, built around an inter triangular courtyard. Built at the turn of the 14th century, first as a fortress (hence the battlements), then later a palace, it has since been transformed into an art museum. As the most tranquil and least tourist-oriented village in this list, Cagnes-sur-Mer features quiet winding streets lined with interesting houses such as one proudly displaying its birth year of “1315”, and a unique narrow home built into the rock with an arched tunnel as an entranceway. In lieu of souvenir shops selling tacky bric-a-brac, a handful of cozy restaurants offer the chance of a quiet intimate dining affair, with owners themselves explaining the specials of the day and proudly bringing out the orders.
After WWI, several high profile American political activists and literary figures made Cagnes-sur-Mer their home, including Caresse Crosby and George Antheil, but perhaps the most famous former resident of them all was Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who spent the last years of his life there. The French painter’s former garden residence and studio is open to the public, where you can take in the same surrounding views he was inspired by. Renoir’s estate will be re-opened to the public in mid-2013 following renovations.
The sheer concentration of galleries, artist workshops, and modern art museums at Saint-Paul-de-Vence hints at the fortified medieval town’s artistic heritage. Amongst former residents are Russian artist Marc Chagall (whose tomb can be visited at the on-site cemetery), and what’s currently Café de la Place was formerly an inn where French poet Jacques Prévert set his roots. Adorning the walls of family-owned inn-cum-museum Colombe d’Or (where visitors can go for a meal and admire the artwork), are the creations of its late owner Paul Roux, displayed alongside those by frequent visitors Matisse, Fernand Léger, Picasso, Georges Braque.
It’s easy to spend hours on end just exploring the shops in Saint Paul, which sell everything from jewellery to fashion. Or you can pop into any of the galleries to admire and even purchase the colourful contemporary art on display. Five days a week (excluding Mondays and Fridays), a local produce market sets up in the Place du Jeu de Boules, where you an also watch old-timers enjoying a game of pétanque on the opposite side of the street. The Saint-Paul museum features works from the renowned artists linked with the town, and The Maeght Foundation, a museum which bills itself as having one of the largest collections of 20th century art in Europe.
If you time if right, you might be able to snap a photo with the popular photo backdrop of the trickling Grande Fontaine, which dates back to the mid 1800s and was once the centre of village life. Although we’re not usually ones to sign up for guided tours, with the sheer amount of historical and artistic significance to be witnessed within the stone walls of Saint-Paul, next time we’ll definitely sign up for one (or more) of the 10 of these tours offered by the tourist information office.