Monday, September 14, 2009

Rendezvous on the Riviera - A Month in Mougins - Part 1

Our 'Paradise On Earth' is the French Riviera.  Eugene and I love all things French and the French Riviera allows us to indulge that love.  Also the beauty of the scenery and the quaintness of the little villages and the 'vielles villes' that charm with their mellow age and distinction.
Join Back Chat on a romp through the high- roads and by- roads of this magic place.  Do come along and have the time of your life.

"Our Paradise on earth is the French Riviera," Join Back Chat in the first of a 2 part series. "Only the French have the artistic quality, panache and quirkiness to preserve this dream place from becoming prosaic and commonplace."

Whenever possible, we spend the most magical time on the Riviera before our visits to the big bustling joys of Paris. The Riviera covers an area between Monte Carlo and St Tropez and adjacent countryside. Call it the Côte d’Azur, Provence, the Midi, what you will. It is all paradise. Our love affair with the Riviera was complete when we found Mougins, mystical magical Mougins, nestling in the hills above Cannes. Mougins became like home for us, when for one memorable month, we stayed in a self-service time-share apartment. At night, just over a hill, the lights of Grasse twinkled and winked at us.

Arriving at Nice Airport it is about a 30-minute drive to Mougins along the A8 Auto route, taking the direction of Cannes and then exit 42 to Mougins. From Cannes Main Station (SNCF) it is a 15-minute drive.

Mougins is a gateway to many gems of Provence. Inland to Vence, St Paul de Vence, Biot and all the other unique villages.

The countryside is a delight and the scenery dramatic and breathtaking. We learnt the art of driving at the mad speed of the French whilst taking in the splendour.

Famously, the charm of staying in any French village is the people. They are warmer, friendlier and much more approachable than their Parisian counterparts. Genial smiles prevail. All the same you will have to accept the usual Gallic mannerisms and shoulder shrugging. Just so French, take it or leave it.

They took a while to get over the fact that we were not French. At best our French accents are questionable, but after seeing us year after year, they appeared to accept our strange ways and us. After all we were foreigners! Slowly we came to feel as if we belonged. They let us feel that, but we always wondered what they really thought!

There are wonderful hotels in Mougins. On a few occasions we have stayed in the Hotel de Mougins, a very affordable 4 star gem, with staff that are friendly and accommodating. But back to our apartment and our new lifestyle as French villagers.

Getting up early to go to the bakery to buy a fresh warm baguette and mouth-watering croissants and pastries is such fun. We went to the local market for all our provisions. Everything was so luscious and beautifully arranged. Oh what produce! A moveable feast (with apologies to Ernest Hemingway). But we had not come to cook elaborate meals. We intended eating Provençal food at as many wonderful eating-places as possible and if we had had a huge lunch to stay in and prepare a light meal at night.

The Newsagent kept the English papers for us each day and spoke to me only if I spoke to him in French. It was a lovely game and he shook with laughter at my strenuous attempts at getting my teeth around village French. There are chemists, doctors, boutiques, hairdressers and of course dog parlours. (The French like dogs better than they do people.)

Each day we would strike out in our auto, en route to a carefully researched destination with the relevant maps close at hand. A Berlitz is so useful. Small, full of necessary information and some words to get one through the day. Food is recommended according to season.

Nice remains one of our favourite destinations. We sing along the A8 for about 30 minutes and then our promise to ourselves, lunch at Chez Michelle, Le Grand Pavois 11 Rue Meyerbeer.

The patron is a fabulous seafood cook and we gorge ourselves on fish soup served with croutons, aioli and a sprinkle of grated cheese. We also eat Bouillabaisse, Provençal mussels, indeed anything with tomato and garlic.

Pierre, the patron, is a great character, bent on changing the world. The world being France and the changes, the unwieldy tax and labour laws.

Most of the villages and cities along the Côte d’Azur have an old city. A Vielle Ville. These are the remains of early Greek and Roman occupation. In Nice the vielle ville is special. We found countless restaurants, quaint shops, cobbled pedestrian malls and an amazing art museum. We especially remember the Raoul Dufy Museum, devoted to that wonderful impressionist artist.

I hijacked a passer-by and tried my French on the unfortunate being. We needed directions. He was silent while I spoke. I think he was just being stoic.

He answered in English and then proceeded to spend 15 minutes telling me how to pronounce Dufy. This involved how to shape one’s mouth and it all sounded the same to me, but apparently not to him as he persisted valiantly.

There is a fruit and flower market in the mornings and nothing gets the gastric juices flowing as the sight of the produce displayed with such artistry and loving care. We really should have more than one stomach.

Strolling along the palm-tree-lined Promenade des Anglais, the boulevardiers always intrigue us. The women are so chic, the men dapper and the dogs a wonder to behold. The Promenade stretches for about 5 kilometres.

Presiding over the ‘Walk of the English’ is the legendary hotel Negresco. This wonderful relic of another era, dominates with its pink dome and rococo façade. For nearly a century it has evoked a certain art of living in the style and manner of the Belle Époque.

A Rumanian restaurateur, Henri Negresco, created it in 1912. Crowned heads, princes and American financial grandees such as Rockefeller and Vanderbilt swore by the Negresco. Charlie Chaplin, Rudolf Valentino and David Niven were some of the stars of the Golden Age of Cinema that stayed there. Pablo Picasso loved it, as did Scott Fitzgerald and his cronies.

Jeanne Augier, her owner since 1957, wished to make it a showcase of French art. She succeeded so well. It has a remarkable private museum full of antiques and paintings and sculpture.

On a previous trip, we stayed there. Its rooms are inspired by the great chateaux of France and are furnished with genuine antiques. We felt so cosseted. They have bell boys dressed in opera clothes with high plumes in their headgear. The valet, who parked our car, had to remove his hat. I think that they only park convertible Masseratis and Ferraris, certainly not the likes of our little charabanc.

The beaches are a grand sight. Blue water, pebbly beaches and everybody in some state of undress. Topless bathing gear appears to be de rigueur for the ladies, bottoms too occasionally for both sexes.

We make many trips to Nice – always something else to see and places to eat in this Grande Dame of the Riviera. The Matisse museum, the Chagall museum, some of the best art in the world.

We were so spoilt for choice. Originally the Riviera had been a Mecca for some of the great impressionists. Renoir, Cézanne, Bonnard, Matisse, Leger and Picasso made this their playground.

There are museums and monuments to their greatness all along the Côte d’Azur. We could hardly believe that we were actually seeing these famous works. The wonder of it remains with us.

Our lovely Mougins has an old city too. We have spent many evenings dining at one or other of the many bistros that stand almost cheek by jowl and entice one in. One of our favourites is Le Bistrot de Mougins, Place de Village, Mougins.

The patron has been to South Africa and the food is hearty and the wine equally so. Here we ate a memorable dish, Daube de Boeuf. This is a traditional beef stew. It has wine flavoured mushroom sauce and is accompanied by freshly made noodles.

We love strolling around ‘our’ old city, greeting the many shop owners. Art, glass and the wonderful blue and yellow linen of the Riviera. It is safe to wander about and there is parking, although this is always at a premium. Watching a Frenchman park one of their tiny cars is great entertainment. The car in front and the one at the rear get mercilessly bumped until there is just enough space for their car. This is all done in a calm manner, no hysterics, as after all, there is always insurance. How differently we react if we find someone bashing our vehicles!

In Mougins there is the world-famous 3 star Michelin restaurant ‘Le Moulin de Mougins.’ This translates as the Mill of Mougins. Oh the joy when we ate at this illustrious establishment!
We booked for lunch, as dinner reservations were not available for months. All dressed up (the French are very conscious of dressing for an occasion) we made our way in our now much bumped little car to the Restaurant.

The tradition of a 3 star Michelin overtook us immediately. We were greeted with just a hint of hesitation, after all, had we made a reservation? That established, an elegantly dressed gentleman led us to our table and seated us with much flourish. The first impression of the table was of impeccable table settings with glasses standing sharply to attention. There appeared to be an army of waiters, their dress denoting their rank. Exotic arrangements of flowers were everywhere and their fragrance subtle, but distinctive. Everything perfect, everything wonderful.

The owner and master chef is the legendary Roger Vergé. Mougins has just said farewell to the legend however, but his legacy will live on. Alain Llorca has taken over this world famous restaurant. Roger Vergé has not chosen his successor lightly. He wanted the best, and he found it in Alain Llorca, formerly chef at the fabulous Le Negresco in Nice. Llorca continues the famous name. When we were there, Roger Vergé was still the patron.

The Moulin also has a limited number of luxury rooms and suites for guests from afar. We had a choice of an à la Carte Menu, or as they put it the ‘Menu Grande Tradition’. We chose the latter as it included all the dishes we love.

A waiter presented us with an amuse guelle to whet our palette for the meal to come. This is just a sample of something delicious and done with much flair or as the French say, ‘élan.’

I started with lobster prepared in orange and my husband Eugene, Fois Gras that just melted on their toasts. A wine of the area as suggested by the sommelier accompanied each dish. This was accomplished with all the seriousness and ceremony as befitting a good wine.

Carré ďAgneau was our main course prepared just under medium. Perhaps we should have been more adventurous and each had a separate main course, but we both adore the way the French make this lamb dish. Tender and with the taste of the Gods.

Again a wine chosen for us by the sommelier and frankly I was amazed that we were still standing or rather sitting upright.

I had a poached peach dessert and Eugene had a dish of sorbets with seasonal berries. We ended with filter coffee and a tisane. These were accompanied by exquisite petit fours. The gestures of those serving us were gracious, yet I wonder what the waiters in great restaurants really think of the guests. I hope they don’t think of us as foreign philistines without any real knowledge of food.

Another special outing in Mougins is a wonderful restaurant called La Terasse a Mougins. It is just at the beginning of the vielle ville. Valet parking, views of the hills of Grasse and food that makes ones palates almost sing with joy.

Eating is not our only focus. The art in the villages in Provence is memorable and very precious. Much we have seen before, but revisit as one would old friends.

Our travels took us to all points of the compass. We found Nice to be an excellent starting point for short tours along the sea. We tried to avoid the ubiquitous highways and stuck to the winding road along the sea, sometimes in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

About six kilometres east of Nice is the quaint Mediterranean harbour village of Villefranche. Here we leave the road and motor slowly down to a parking area near the quayside. Wandering along the quay, one is assailed by the smell of seafood. This is no wonder as it is crammed with informal seafood restaurants, with tables spilling outside just metres from the water.

But first there is the 14th century Chapelle Saint-Pierre, also known as Cocteau Chapel, so called since the writer-artist decorated it in 1956. Drawings of fishermen and episodes from the life of St Peter completely fill the small vaulted chapel. The big surprise is the Trompe d’oeil painting on the door, a trick of the eye that is masterfully executed.

Sitting at any one of the cafés, there is a wonderful view of Cap Ferrat, which seems to point out to sea like a green finger.

Cap Ferrat is home to the very rich and very famous. Somerset Maugham lived there in Villa Mauresque. We drove around this peninsula of privilege, but all we saw were towering hedgerows and giant gates. The rich preserve their privacy.

We came upon the Ephrussi de Rothschild Museum.It is a treasure-trove of art and artefacts and set in the most amazing gardens.

It is more or less at the start of the finger, a pinkish Italian style villa. Madame Beatrice Ephrussi, née Rothschild, built it in 1905. It is a treasure-trove of art and artefacts and set in the most amazing gardens. The furniture is Louis 18th and the paintings a mixture of French Impressionists and other French 18th century pieces. We just lost ourselves in the history and drama of this palatial home.

The gardens are extraordinary. There is a French garden, a Japanese garden, an Oriental garden, an exquisite Rose garden and much more inspired by worldwide styles. They are beautifully kept and we visit often. It is so romantic strolling arm in arm along the pathways. Imagine Madame Ephrussi all dressed up as Marie Antoinette entertaining in the French Garden. She adored dressing up and having artistic gatherings.

Click here to continue to part two.

© Leslie Back

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