The perfect trip: Provence and the Côte d’Azur
The Château d’Aiguines above Lac de Sainte-Croix in southeast France. (Lottie Davies)
The South of France is a vision as much as it is a place – of a coast that inspired generations of artists, and stone villages sleeping under the sun. From an artist’s palette of a city in Nice to the earthy scent of truffles in a Luberon market, enjoy the best of Mediterranean France.
Nice: Best for summer colour
Nice didn’t always love the sun. In the Old Town, the narrow, shade-dampened streets turn away from its embrace. Yet then generations of visitors from the north came and – quite literally – saw the light.
‘Artists such as Picasso and Matisse were drawn here by the luminosity,’ says Marie-Pierre Nicola, outside the Matisse Museum where she works – a wine-red villa on a hilltop north of the centre. ‘This is the sunniest place in France.’ She quotes the painter Henri Matisse, who came south to Nice for his health in 1917: ‘“When I realised that each morning I would see this light again, I could not believe my luck.”’ He decided to stay, and fill his paintings with the generous Riviera sun.
Matisse would surely have appreciated the palette displayed under the glass counter of the Fenocchio ice-cream shop in the old town. The 90-plus flavours here include many curiosities – cactus, gingerbread and even beer. Fenocchio faces the Place Rossetti, whose shuttered townhouses seem to mimic the colours of the ice cream in their faded paintwork. On one side of the square is the baroque Cathédrale de Sainte-Réparate, where a war memorial is set into the outside wall. Names such as Vivaldi and Ferrari make up more than half the list – a reminder that Nice is just 14 miles from Italy, and only joined France for good in 1860.
The nearby Palais Lascaris was already two centuries old then. Its gilt finishings and Baroque statues are early outbursts of frivolity, anticipating the arrival of seaside villas, exotic palms and year-round suntans. ‘Since the 19th century, the French Riviera has attracted royalty, which those of us who live here laugh at,’ says Robert Adelson, who looks after the museum’s collection of historic musical instruments. ‘The Niçois are not at all like that.’
Nice is exuberant, and, viewed from Paris, often flashy too. At its heart, though, Nice is a city, not a beach resort. In its cooking, for example, Nice shows few pretensions. Salade niçoise is its bestknown food cliché – a mix of uncomplicated local ingredients that captures summer in a salad bowl.
The love of display returns once more on the Promenade des Anglais, which follows the gentle curve of the bay. Here, under the date palms, where the sun shines more than 300 days a year and the scent of coconut oil drifts from the beach, joggers, cyclists, dog walkers and rollerbladers pass by in a constant parade that ends only after nightfall.
Municipal museums are free. The Matisse Museum and Palais Lascaris are both closed Tuesdays.
Where to eat
Fenocchio. Sit with a scoop of thyme or tiramisu ice cream (ice cream from £1.70).
Where to stay
Hotel Windsor. An inventive streak runs through this hotel. Rooms are either decorated in frescoes or given over to individual artists to design in bright, contemporary styles. The jungle-like patio garden is a lovely setting for breakfast (from £105).
Les Trois Corniches: Best for scenic drives
The coast east of Nice falls so steeply to the sea, that in a more peaceful or less sun-obsessed part of the world it would have been largely shunned by man. Yet in medieval times, people built hilltop villages here to find safety from pirates and marauding armies. From the 19th century onwards, the Riviera’s allure transformed the coast, and engineers built not one but three scenic highways, running in parallel – the Corniche Inférieure or Basse Corniche (D6098) down by the sea, the Moyenne Corniche (D6007) halfway up the slope, and the Grande Corniche (D2564) at the top.
Leaving Nice on the Moyenne Corniche, and looking below the road, rooftops of villas rise discreetly out of the gardens that cascade down the hillsides. Above it, though, there is often little more than pale rock and scrub. The only constants in this unfolding landscape are the route ahead and the horizon on a sea of eternal blue.