The perfect trip: Provence and the Côte d’Azur
Seven miles out of Nice, the village of Èze stands on a dome of rock leaning out from the slope, under a ruined castle now turned into a cactus garden. On one of its medieval lanes, Barbara Blanche paints in an old communal bakery turned gallery. ‘I paint in the morning before people come, and when the light is best,’ she says, moving some of her works to show the old bread oven. Barbara is one of only two-dozen people living in the old part of the village. ‘There were more artists working here in the 1960s. That time is finished, but maybe it will come again. Until then, we are here!’ she says before tapping her desk.
Several squiggles of tarmac above Èze is the Grande Corniche, and the village of La Turbie. Two thousand years ago, the Roman Emperor Augustus built a monument here to celebrate his victory over 45 Alpine tribes. From its terrace, the view looks over the Principality of Monaco, where on this particular day a cruise liner dwarfs the palace of Prince Albert II.
The three corniches meet again at Roquebrune, the most colourful of the hilltop villages, where the houses stand back from the slope like crowds on a train platform. The classic corniche drive ends here, yet the temptation to continue is irresistible. Heading inland, the road winds through a sparse landscape and a handful of hilltop villages: Gorbio, Sainte-Agnès – almost on a knife-edge – and Peillon. Their stone streets appear to be inhabited mainly by cats.
Peillon is reached by a series of hairpin bends. Photographs from the 1920s on the outside walls of the houses show what has changed: nothing, essentially. The yachts and boutiques of Monaco are only four miles away as the crow flies, on the other side of the mountain, but here, the sense of isolation is complete.
Where to eat
Le Café de la Fontaine. This restaurant in La Turbie serves bistro-type dishes such as rabbit niçoise (mains from £12).
Where to stay
Domaine Pins Paul. This elegant b&b above Èze has stupendous views from its terrace and one of its two pools. Book well ahead – up to a year if you want to come in the high summer season (from £145).
Gorges du Verdon: Best for adventure
The vultures have the best views of the Gorges du Verdon. Humans get the next best thing – two panoramic roads that run along the north and south rims of Europe’s largest canyon. The gorges slice through wooded slopes that were once the bed of a shallow tropical sea. The two cliffs were split apart by the shifting of continents, and a river, then as strong as the Nile, finished the job. The drop from the highest cliffs to the river below is about 700m. Good news for vultures, which appreciate such heights to take off.
Far below, at water level, Gaëtan Hemery and Laurent Meunier are also in their element. The pair lead canoe trips through the canyon, drawing on their reserves of natural knowledge and wry humour. During the French summer holidays in July and August, they prefer to head to the lower gorges beneath the turquoise expanse of the Lac de Sainte-Croix, to escape the crowds. Yet outside these months the higher gorges are quieter – quiet enough today to see a heron swoop across the water with a harsh cry, in pursuit of unseen prey.
The vultures, which were reintroduced to the area in 1999, are slowly building up their numbers. ‘They mostly feed on rabbits,’ says Gaëtan, pausing mid-paddle, ‘or dead sheep left out on purpose by shepherds. Sometimes a few paragliding enthusiasts.’ Looking up from the canoe at the clifftops feels like standing in a cathedral open to the sky. It is late in the day and we find ourselves the last boat left on the water. With the others gone, we can hear every dip of the paddle answered from the rock walls, where great hollows point to the work of ancient whirlpools.