French glamour has roots in the country’s southern region, where centuries-old hilltop villages cling like barnacles to bluffs and scenic highways serpentine the shoreline.

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.

Further information
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.

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.

Above us, eagles return to their nest, lifted by thermals, just like the paragliders. Bats, kingfishers and swallows nest in the cliffs. A few creatures who don’t have the benefit of wings live here too – we are not far from the Alps, and there are chamois, sometimes even in summer, and possibly lynx as well, although nobody’s quite sure. ‘We are in Provence,’ cautions Laurent. ‘People here like telling stories.’

Further information
Guided canoe trips cost £21 per person. Individual canoes, kayaks and pedalos can be rented on the shore of the Lac Sainte-Croix, by the bridge at the western end of the gorges.

Where to eat
Ferme Ste Cécile
. All the dishes are seasonal at this farm restaurant with an outside terrace. Look out for the turn-off to the right where the D952 does a sharp double-turn about a mile south of Moustiers- Sainte-Marie, on the road to the gorges (three-course menu from £30).

Where to stay
Built in the style of a large Provençal manor house, the Bastide du Calalou has rooms furnished in classical French style and a good restaurant. It’s about 35 minutes by car from the western end of the gorges (from £110).

Luberon: Best for food
Saturday is market day in Apt, as it has been for 500 years. The town has the largest market in the Luberon region, and the locals make sure to get there early. The 300-plus stalls take over every street and square in the centre of town in a show of abundance.

Fat olives soak in tubs of brine, while fresh goat’s cheeses sit, redolent of Provence’s aromatic scrub. The orchards of the plains are the source of Apt’s famous candied fruit, and the hills of the Luberon provide a dozen varieties of honey. Sticks of saucisson are labelled ‘wild boar’, ‘stag’ and even ‘donkey’. And, most prized of all, truffles bide their time in airtight containers, in all their warty glory.

‘Without being biased, our truffles have the best aroma,’ says Robert Florent, the owner of one particular stall. At the moment, it’s the more affordable summer truffles which are on offer, but come November he will be selling black truffles at £600-£700 a kilo. ‘Our job is a little bit dangerous,’ Robert adds. ‘Your trufflehunting dogs can be stolen and sometimes you can even be attacked by robbers while you’re out searching.’

There is a guarded quality to much of the Luberon too, with two-dozen villages built on hilltops, each feeling like its own self-contained city state, staring out its rivals across a no man’s land of woods, fields and vineyards. While the landscape here is gentler and more fertile than many parts of Provence, around the village of Roussillon and in the hills to the northeast of Apt nicknamed ‘Le Colorado Provençal’, the earth is tinted in brilliant reds and ochres more reminiscent of the American Southwest than rural France.

The chefs of the region share a love of the best produce from this land, but perhaps none more so than Edouard Loubet, in charge at the Bastide de Capelongue, five miles southwest of Apt. ‘You must not mistake Provençal cooking for a general ‘cuisine of the south’,’ explains the chef. ‘It’s a cuisine which must be allowed to simmer, and which mixes all the traditions between the Alps and the Mediterranean.’ From the names of unfamiliar herbs on the menu, such as sariette (savory) and serpolet – a type of wild thyme – to the low rumble of the cheese trolley as the meal draws to a close, dinner is an instruction in the variety that the region can offer. Fittingly, there is even a small summer truffle, cocooned inside soft pastry, waiting to be revealed.

Where to eat
La Bastide de Capelongue
. This double-Michelinstarred restaurant outside Bonnieux offers a weekday lunch menu (£50) or multi-course tasting menus (from £100 per person). The restaurant also runs cookery courses (full-day courses from £100, including wine tasting).

Where to stay
La Bouquière
. This old farm has been converted into a delightful four-room guesthouse in a quiet part of the countryside surrounded by vines and oak trees, 10 minutes’ drive from Bonnieux. There is also a small pool in the garden (from £65).

Var: Best for the coast
In the history of seaside pursuits in the French département of Var, two women stand out. To the west, Queen Victoria came to Hyères in the 1890s for its warm climate. And to the east, with a very different attitude to dress, Brigitte Bardot brought fame to the fishing port of Saint- Tropez in her 1956 film And God Created Woman. The beaches of the region have never looked back.

Sand and seaside fashion are only part of the story. The most beautiful spots along this coast are also the greenest ones. Eleven miles to the southwest of Saint-Tropez, the Domaine du Rayol is a garden overlooking the sea, which brings together the best of Mediterranean and Mediterranean-style landscapes, from Provence to Australia. Its denizens include Aleppo pines, prickly pear and strawberry trees. Keeping this garden in shape is just one of the tasks that falls to Stanislas Alaguillaume, although more often the job is about not doing things, and letting nature set the pace. ‘Gardeners should always be open to surprises,’ he says, sitting in the garden’s outside café. ‘If a passion flower seeds itself here, I’ll move the table.’ The mats of Posidonia – a kind of seagrass – on the garden’s pocket-sized beach are a sign of a healthy coastal ecosystem.

The most pristine shores of all are a half-hour ferry ride away, on the island of Port-Cros, the smallest of France’s national parks. Under a sun that stills everything around, boats dock in a small bay that shelters two dozen houses. ‘This is a wonderful natural harbour,’ says Jean- Claude Ferri, tying up his fishing boat Champion II at the neighbouring jetty. Born on Port-Cros and 25 years in the business, he is one of the few fishermen allowed to work the protected waters here, and the last one who still lives on the island. ‘I only fish a little bit,’ he admits. ‘It interests me to go out each day. I do three or four hours of fishing, and by the afternoon, that’s enough.’

With the sun at its height, the lazy option would be to follow the fisherman’s example and take a siesta. Yet the glory of the island lies outside the modest settlement, where the land is abandoned entirely to a wilder version of the Mediterranean greenery seen at the Domaine du Rayol. A handful of walking trails lead around Port-Cros to its three beaches and its highest point. For all the glamorous spots along this, the original sunshine coast, it’s a deeper joy to stand under the twisting pines at the clifftops, looking out at the lone wake of a passing boat as it fades back into the miraculously blue sea.

Further information
Entry to the Domaine du Rayol costs £7.50. The beach is only open for ‘marine trail’ snorkelling tours, priced at £15. Return ferry journeys to Port-Cros from Le Lavandou cost £22.

Where to eat
Maurin des Maures
. A summery bistro overlooking the sea close to the gardens at the Domaine du Rayol, this was apparently a favourite of former French president Jacques Chirac (mains from £14).

Where to stay
Le Grand Hotel
. The stately hilltop location and sea views are the main draw at this hotel built in 1903 in the attractive town of Bormesles-Mimosas. The rooms, while not in the turn-of-the-century style of the exterior, are good value for this part of the Riviera (from £50).

The article 'The perfect trip: Provence and the Côte d’Azur' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.