Monday, September 14, 2009

Rendezvous on the Riviera - A Month in Mougins - Part 2

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

On another day we made a trip to the walled city of Menton. The mountains between Nice and the city of Menton seem to drop right into the sea. We love these ancient fortress-like cities. It is always amazing to find that they have all the ingredients of an ordinary city or village, in spite of their precarious position high on a cliff. The markets are just as beautiful as in any other French village or city.

No self-respecting French housewife would store frozen produce. No, she goes to the market everyday and chooses the plumpest fruit and freshest vegetables, glistening fish that has virtually just swum from the sea.

Meat is painstakingly chosen and beautifully cut by the butcher. Everything involves much prodding and discussion with each vendor. Naturally the bread is beadily eyed and carefully chosen.

The highest route is the Grande Corniche and the view is spectacular. Eugene loves this one; I keep my eyes shut tight. I am terrified of heights. He is a very good driver, but there is always much discussion about which route to take. He wins, he’s driving and our little car is a marvel round those treacherous bends.

The middle road, the Moyenne is our compromise and as far as I am concerned the best road of the three. Rocky cliffs and the sea contrast magnificently and I feel one has the best of both worlds. The Corniche Interior runs alongside the sea and can be very crowded. Bumper to bumper stuff and the usual hooting and gesticulating.

Further on are the beautiful gardens at Eze, an old city perched high above the sea, and The Moyenne provides us with the best access. The medieval town is closed to traffic, so we park below and trudge up a very steep incline. Comfy shoes are absolutely necessary.

The gardens have huge cacti and exotic plants, less regimented than the gardens of the Rothschild palace, but equally beautiful. There is a stunning restaurant perched right at the top and we eat there when we have the energy for the climb.

Down from the dizzy heights of Eze is Monaco.

We always make this a separate trip, as again we dress a little more smartly. Monaco is a tiny principality, ruled for centuries by the Grimaldis and inhabited by the fabulously wealthy. It is smaller than Central Park in New York. Princess Grace contributed to its renaissance and there are many monuments to her memory.

The gambling in Monaco is legendary; the Edwardians loved its decadence. The shops are magnificent. I tried a little commercial activity of my own. The exercise proved impossibly expensive in spite of all the spectacular merchandise that was sent to try me.

One must be correctly dressed to enter the main casino. On a previous occasion, I had been refused entry because of my walking shorts. Patronised by a pushy Frenchman, never again, hence the smarter gear. We generally try our luck at the tables, but only for a short while.

Next door stands the famous Hotel de Paris. Alain du Casse has a fabulous restaurant here. There is another in Paris and New York. The great chef Escoffier once cooked here. Everything there is fabulous opulence. Lovely to just sit on a banquette and watch the beautiful people parading and preening themselves.

The flaneur, he or she that wanders and
looks and pauses and watches the passing
show,would be right at home here.

We wandered about the beautiful buildings, the gold leaf mouldings glistening in the sun. We marvelled at the amazing cars, rakishly parked, runabouts for this fabulous set, which maintain all the trappings of showy wealth, yet seemed a bit jaded to me.

Behind the casino there is a wondrous sight.

Looking down over a low wall, we saw the vast painted roof of an apartment building. Vasarely, the famous artist, designed a trick of the eye. What a wonderful creation to come upon. The painted roof seems to dip and rise as one changes vantage points. The hordes of photographers, us included, are a testament to a miracle of colour and design. Unfortunately photographs don’t show the magic that one sees in reality.

As we make our way back to Mougins it strikes us just how many different worlds we encounter in short distances from our lovely place in the sun.

A hop, skip and a jump from Mougins is Cannes, beautiful, sophisticated glamorous Cannes. It is a twenty-minute drive along minor roads to get to the coast and to find Cannes reigning over wonderful beaches and hosting giant yachts and launches in the Baie de Cannes.

Immediately there is the sight of many beautiful people strolling along the Croisette, the boulevard that runs along the beach. We always gravitate to the terrace of the Carlton Hotel to have a drink and to watch the passers-by. This majestic landmark is right on the Croisette. Twin grey domes at either end dominate its wedding cake façade.

The Carlton was built in 1912 and catered to prominent members of Europe’s high society. The rich and famous found it to be an ideal place to stay whilst in Cannes.

In summer, during the Cannes Film Festival, this ‘Grande Dame’ plays host to many great stars and starlets that flock there to promote their films. In years gone by, everyone in the film business stayed there from Elizabeth Taylor to Liv Ullman and the hotel provided the backdrop to the Hitchcock movie, To Catch a Thief, starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.

When we stayed there, we found it all rather amazing. There is a uniformed voiturier at the door who parks your car; at least he has somebody else park it. Just to the side of the main door is a quaint sight. A stone cup-like structure juts out of the lower part of the wall and is filled with water. It is called the ‘Dogs Bar’. Just so typical of the French who would not travel without their dogs and of the French hotels that cater for this!

Our stay coincided with that of a Middle Eastern prince. His gold painted Rolls Royce was always waiting at the front door. His entourage surrounded him at all times and it was impossible to go into the room where the hotel kept their safety deposit boxes, when he was inside. Today, alas, the hotel caters to group tours and conventions, but it is still exciting and glamorous when the stars come to stay during the Film Festival.

The seafood restaurants in Cannes are legion. Gaston Gastonette at 7, Quai Saint-Pierre, an extension of the Croisette, is one of our favourite. I believe I can still taste the garlic in the fish soup or in the moules (mussels) prepared with garlic and herbs in the half-shell. Of course there are mussels prepared in many other ways, marinier or with wine or just about any way you could wish.

The fish is always fresh and deliciously prepared. Oysters are succulent and served with shallot vinegar. The French make eating oysters a life-changing experience. One chooses carefully from a whole host of varieties and from what is seasonal. The patron always advises in minute detail those he considers best. The slurping and swallowing is a very serious business and the combination of oyster and shallot vinegar is unique. I feel as if I am part of a minor orgy when I get stuck into my first dozen.

We dress our best for a night out in Cannes. We make reservations in my hopeless French, although English is quite acceptable. In the evening it is essential to book at restaurants along the Riviera. We eat at about 10pm and then go to the Casino at midnight. There are now three casinos in Cannes, one at the Carlton Hotel, one at the Hilton and our choice, the Palm Court. We choose our sport very carefully. Eugene enjoys roulette, while I settle for the more secure vingt-et-un (twenty-one).

Of course, nothing is secure in gambling, so it is never a
long stay. It is fascinating to watch the serious gamblers.
The men puff away on giant Cuban cigars and the women
wear amazing jewels, usually nestling in cleavages ravaged
by too many years in the sun.

The beaches in Cannes are famous. Most of them are private and belong to the hotels. The public beaches are not so grand. When we stayed at the Carlton, we went to their beach directly opposite the hotel. We paid a small fortune for an umbrella and two reclining chairs. It is very important where one sits, as it is more expensive at the water’s edge than further back.

There is a restaurant on the beach with a buffet and tables set with crisp napery and gleaming silver. Drinks are exotic and waiters seem to move around the beach completely oblivious to all the nakedness around them. It is considered ‘de trop’ to remain fully covered by a bathing costume. I bowed to custom and removed the top of my bikini. Eugene was horrified, but eventually got used to it. It is amazingly liberating to swim in the Mediterranean half naked.

Further to the west of Cannes is St Tropez. It is more than an hour’s drive from Mougins along the A8, depending on traffic and takes even longer along the coastal road.

St Tropez seems to embody the ethos of hedonism on the Riviera. We love the restaurants along the wharf and sitting and watching people eating on their sea going mansions. The beaches are littered with celebs. T otal nudity is perfectly acceptable. There is a famous restaurant on the beach, Cinquante Cinq or 55 where we enjoyed tender sweet mussels in cream and white wine. I was relieved to find that women usually cover up with a skilfully draped sarong or some such piece of silk, when they eat there. There are still some die-hards who do not.

After our excursions it was always so comforting to return to Mougins and our apartment. There was a feeling of permanence that allowed us to forget that too soon we would return to the real world. Seeing our friends in Mougins village always enhanced the illusion. Some mornings we stayed in the village, perhaps at the hairdresser or bustling about doing ‘chores’. Around midday we would think of somewhere close where we could explore a different village and enjoy a leisurely lunch.

Nearby, between Mougins and Antibes are two so-called ‘artisan’ towns, Vallauris and Biot. On checking our maps and consulting our Berlitz, it is a short drive to satisfy our curiosity and our stomachs.

At Vallauris the spirit of Picasso is so alive.

He worked there after the war and helped save the ceramics and pottery industry. We saw some wonderful examples of his pottery at the National Picasso museum, which is a converted Romanesque chapel. He presented the town with a bronze statue, Man with a Sheep, which stands on the Place Paul-Isnard.

We found a gem of a restaurant near the museum at 11, Route de Grasse. It seemed to be called just ‘Restaurant’and we ate mouth-wateringly delicate ‘omelettes aux fines herbes’, omelettes with fresh finely chopped herbs.

French omelettes are such a joy as even this rather mundane
sounding dish is given such care and attention. The finest
ingredients, the best pans and French dedication go into
making this a gourmet treat.

There was homemade bread and we drank a carafe of house-wine. The house-wines in the restaurants are always so good. The patrons are always very knowledgeable and aware that their countrymen are just as knowledgeable. They are also very proud of their own offerings.

After our noble repast, a visit to Biot is just a few kilometres away. Biot is situated on a hill and has a centuries old square with fountains and quaint arcades. We wander about, still very mellow from lunch and delighted in all the village doings. We follow signs to the glassworks where the special Biot glass is blown, tinted glass with minute bubbles. The highlight of our time in Biot is a visit to the Museé National Fernand Léger.

It has a gold façade and is visible from miles away. As we approach, the huge murals on the outside walls are overwhelming. They are in bold yellows, blues and greens with birds and vague shapes and occasional human features. Inside is a collection of his paintings and tapestries of similar design to the murals outside. The building itself is beautiful, modern and light and airy. We have photographs of each other in front of a mural that remain such a wonderful memory and record of that happy, happy time.

What a day! A feast of Picasso and Léger.
how lucky those villagers are to have such great art
in their midst.

Time seemed to rush by and we began to see the end of our idyll approaching. Now, it was time to head inland. We have visited the walled city of St Paul de Vence on just about every trip to the South of France and we set out on the well-loved drive again. We take the A8 and turn off to the D36 at Cagnes sur Mer/Vence. It is about an hour’s drive depending on traffic and we buzz along happy just to be doing it again.

Passing Vence and then St Paul, we see the walls of Saint Paul de Vence looming. First a most anticipated treat. Just up a small hill is the wonderful Fondation Maeght, one of the world’s great museums of modern art. Art dealer Aime Maeght and his wife founded it in 1964. It is a magnificent structure of brick, steel and glass and is ideal for showing off the amazing and
precious works. We first reacquaint ourselves with the permanent collection.

There are many of the great artists of the 20th century and an extensive sculpture collection of Miros, Arp and Giacomettis. The garden has water features that highlight and capture the essence of some of these great pieces.

We wander around under the trees just visiting all our special memories and there is a wonder that some things never change. They do allow cameras inside, so again we take pictures of each other in front of some of the sculptures and paintings. More memories. Sometimes we stumble on a specially mounted exhibition of some great artist.

A lucky experience was, when on a previous trip, the great Chagall, near the end of his life, had a showing of his most current work. It was hauntingly beautiful. A wraith-like figure in many of the paintings seemed with hindsight, to be a portent of his impending death. On that day we had lunch at a restaurant in the hotel Colombe d’or on the outside of the walled city. We found out that Chagall had eaten there the day before!

As ever, we left reluctantly and headed down the hill to the feudal city of St Paul de Vence. We passed the wonderful spectacle of the locals playing boules under the trees opposite the wall of the city. It is an outdoor bowling game, so beloved of the French, played with skill and determination. Watching this game is such fun. The onlookers in their berets and smoking their pungent cigarettes become very involved, shouting out instructions and taking bets on the outcome.

We entered the city through an arch. As we have done so often before, we roamed the cobbled and narrow walkways, stopping to peer into the little shops crammed with art and artefacts. We visited the small cemetery that we had discovered on a previous trip. It is old and the tombstones weathered. We wandered around reading the inscriptions and found the grave of the great Escoffier. Somehow it is not a morbid experience, just a feeling of history and perhaps disappointment that we were not actually meeting the great man.

Another thing that we find amazing is that people live in this ancient enclave. We saw apartments with small windows with flower boxes overflowing with beautiful flowers. How they get their parcels and possessions up those steep inclines is a mystery. It was also a surprise to find a beautiful boutique hotel on split- levels within the city.

Le Saint-Paul at 86, rue Grande has four stars and seems to cater to very distinguished tourists. It is so funny seeing the liveried staff, puffing up and down the hills with the guests’ luggage. We had previously eaten in their restaurant. On fine days they serve lunch on an outside terrace, but if the weather is inclement, one sits inside near a warm fire and protected from the elements by the thick, centuries old walls. The food is remarkable and more delicate than the robust fare found in the surrounding bistros and restaurants.

On this visit we decided to eat at one of the many restaurants overlooking the valley. We found one called ‘Marmite,’ which means cooking pot. We had a table at a window with a view for miles around. Eugene ate grilled sardines and we shared a pot of fish soup with the most piquant aioli and crisp croutons and grated cheddar cheese. We drank a wine of the house and really felt we in heaven. It was memorable.

It is always sad when we leave the charm of the walled city and return to the vibrations of the modern world.

Back to Mougins. Thoughts surfaced about leaving our French village and our new friends. A quick visit to Grasse, just over the hill and a visit to a perfume factory. Sinuses in revolt, we sniffed away and bought some of the famous essences.

Our month had ended. The packing was done. The apartment seemed bare and sad. We made a last sortie to Mougins village to say goodbye to everyone. Amid much gesticulation and kisses planted on both cheeks, they extracted promises from us to return. I think they really meant they were sorry that we were leaving even if we were foreigners.

We knew that some day we would return to them.
Au revoir la belle Mougins, a bientôt.

Click here to return to part one.

© Leslie Back

1 comment:

Apartment in cannes said...

It was very interesting.
Thanks for sharing.