I passed through France a week or two back, specifically Provence. Embarrassingly, Peter Mayle is responsible. I stumbled on one of his Provence books as I was deciding where to head after Spain and followed the “sign”. I had a perfect time there. A splendid blend of comfort and rusticness and, as always, a focus on food and hiking, in a slow, considered “This is What Life Is Meant To Be About” way. Je mange, je marche. Je pense.
What area did I go to cos Provence is rather large? Cote d’Azur…the mountains behind Nice and Cannes. The area is a wonderfully smelly place – nearby Grasse is where the book Perfume is set. Also, a psychic once told me I belonged in this mountainous area. I remembered this as I deliberated… so, Bam! That’s where I was to land.
Isn’t Cote d’Azur glitzy and bit “white chinos”? Yep, but head just an hour inland and it’s the most fabulously rustic, artistic region around (film stars, artists, poets have all converged on this area over the years).
Any tips? Hire a car so you can see different areas. And hike. Because boy are there some views! And rewarding foodie experiences on the other side.
Oh, and also… As life would have it, JUST as I set off from Spain, I was contacted by Mr and Mrs Smith*, a luxury-with-edge company that sets folk like me up with unique hotel experiences. Folk like me? Yeah, people after places that put care into their food, into providing an authentic experience with a “story”. They have a number of great properties in Provence from which to base an eating and hiking adventure.
But, now, once again, a list of highlights, should you like to follow in my hiking shoe-steps.
- I stayed at Les Rosees. Can I tell you…you should, too. And I will be again.
Not just for the authentically decorated rooms set in a 400-year-old stone homestead. Not just for the view out over the garden and lavender fields. Nor the silence. Nor the chemical-free pool.
And not just because when you eat afternoon tea in your room – the windows open to the scented breeze – listening to French classical music, you just want to cry, such is the gorgeous cliche you’re straddling.
Not just for the pretty breakfast on the terrace in the morning. Not just for the convenience – it’s a 30 minute drive from Cannes and a 15 minute walk into fantasy town Mougin.
Stay here to meet Segun, Kilperick and Francine who run the place. Segun cracks jokes, Kilperick is a mad hiker and talks you through routes in the mountains and Francine comes with a pot of lemon verbena tea late at night, freshly picked from outside the kitchen. And the gentlest smile.
I slept so damn well here because I felt looked after. By them. And life. I cried with happiness, I really did.
If I stayed again, I’d request the gypsy caravan room in the garden…it looks out into the flowers and is a little cheaper, too.
- Eat at sunset in Mougins. Picasso used to. Ditto Catherine Deneuve and Christian Dior, who resided in the old post office here. The town is a tiny little fortress. The restaurants are quirky-as. I ate Daube Provencal at Cafe Des Artes which is lined with quirky “trucs” – postcards, succulents in little vases, photos of actors who’ve eaten there. The place is popular, so make sure you book. Although waiting for a table out front is quite an enjoyable experience. I met some lovely people when I did.
- I also ate at Restaurant la Mediterranee in the main square. This omelette was joy on a plate. I asked for veggies instead of potatoes…look how it came out…with chevril and sweet cherry tomatoes and the most delicate olive oil. The French cook with care and delicacy.
- get your feet eaten by fish…tucked away in the fortress is a funny little place where you sit and hundreds of tiny fish eat the dead skin from your feet. Just for something TOTALLY weird.
Hiking in Haute Provence
- I took my little peanut hire car up into the mountains. And hiked like a goat. Lavender sprouted from rocks, water trickled down falls, everything crunched satisfyingly in the heat. In these parts, most walks set off from little towns that boast an unbelievable auberge where you can eat lunch after. Kilperick pointed me in the right direction and then I simply drove to the area, through the winding valleys, until I saw a sign to a walk that had a good feel. It worked every time. I ran up through acorn groves and over rocky outcrops. SO MUCH FUN.
- Another day I did two hikes around Gourdon and then Caussol, a three-building village in the mountains. One of these buildings is Auberge de Caussol which EVERYONE (including Kilperick) I met said is one of the best around – authentic Provencal food.
OK, are you ready? It’s a fixed menu on a Sunday. First an olive tapanade with zest-to-boot. In my notebook I wrote that it tasted like sweaty hair (I mean this as a good thing!). Then a chunky bay-leafy homemade terrine that comes with…ready?!…. a BUCKET of butter. You’re given a dessert spoon to ladle out the butter. I don’t eat bread. I ate the butter on its own. I described it as “angry”. As in robust and expressive. A good thing.
Then pigs trotters with a gherkin, egg and mustard sauce, then trout with a side of artichokes, then fromages, then dessert, then a house apertif, all with local wine and then coffee. The prix? 32 Euros. It’s the best meal I think I’ve ever eaten. Everything is grown locally. And leftovers are fed to the local pigs (whose trotters are later, in turn, eaten by people like me).
I ate for three hours on my own. Happily, slowly, aware of every mouthful. As dirty and sweating as can be. In my green shorts.
I chatted with these very cute oldies below who come every Sunday. They’ve been married 67 years and ate more than I did. She called me her “little chicken”. They never had children. Just lots of chickens. She also said my life will be enchanted. Tears…
St Paul de Vence
This place is unbelievable. It’s the oldest medieval town on the French Riviera, and very few cars are allowed in. In the 1940s, when the south was declared a Free Zone, artists converged here as Cannes became a film hub. Just about every artist and actor hung out here at some point. Marc Chagall lived and died here. Ditto James Baldwin. Some of The Rolling Stones have houses here, too. Just outside the fortress wall is a boules court where everyone hangs out in the evening, drinking pastis at the nearby cafe. It’s like the joint was built on a Hollywood production lot!
- I stayed at Le Saint Paul. It’s a converted chateau right in the heart of the town and occupies the most majestic position in the fortress. Want a castle experience? Invest in a stay here. It’s truly magnificent. To be truthful, I don’t normally go for this kind of accommodation. I’m not a fancy type. But when in Europe…well, I think it’s great to branch out and try something a little different and also “of the place”. I’ve also enjoyed on this trip getting grungy in the day, hiking, and coming home to somewhere nice. Having a shower and switching gears.
Also, when visiting the town, once inside the walls, you can happily not leave. Le Saint Paul is one of the only accommodations inside the walls, so it really is the ultimate way to visit.
The restaurant is also sublime. I sat alone at dusk and ate this risotto below. Hazelnuts and lemon. In my notebook I wrote that it tasted like a sprinkler being turned on in a hot garden. I also ate red mullet with grapefruit granita and ratatouille. And a glass of local rose. The staff chatted to me about the cheese, the wine, the village.
This is my favourite thing ever, I think. To eat a beautiful meal on my own, after a long hike. Slowly. And to chat to the staff.
- Do a tour of the village for 5 Euros. So much history and art and famous dead people in the gorgeous cemetery to check out. They run from the information centre.
- This rustic hotel used to house all the artists in the ’40s, ’50s and, well, right through to today. The owner, who still shuffles about today, would invite Picasso, Miro, Braque, Chagall, Leger and many more to stay. They were friends. They’d stay longer, and paint, and leave a painting behind as a gift. Today the place drips in art. I met two wonderful Brits out strolling one night (turns out they run The Future Laboratory, a trend site I subscribe to) and they invited me to join them for dinner in the dreamlike restaurant full of movie directors, talent agents and writers en vacance. Like many of the guests they come every year, just to hang out.
Hiking around Cote D’Azur
- There are so many different walks you can do in the area around Nice. You can pick up a map easily. I did one around Cap Ferat…I ran it in a little under two hours and jumped in the water at intervals…little beaches dotted the whole way around.
- Finishing off at Plage Passables to eat swordfish and be a total tourist. Perfect!
* I like to be transparent, so I’ll be upfront and share that Mr and Mrs Smith invited me stay at two of their properties – Les Rosees in Mougins and Le Saint Paul in St Paul de Vence. As always, I write true and honest reviews in exchange, highlighting features and experiences in keeping with my interests and philosophies.
That said, I will add that Mr and Mrs Smith is a very convenient service for anyone visiting Europe. Their hotels are handpicked for their “experiential” qualities and are often located in destinations where people in the know go. You can be pretty much guaranteed the surrounding village will be a cracker. Their reviews are also done anonymously, often by writers and artists who provide overviews that are actually helpful. If you’re planning a trip to France soon, comment below and I think I’ll be able to get you one of their books…
Phew. Feel free to ask me any questions, if you’re thinking of going. I can’t recommend the area enough. I’ll be going back !