“An assignment to Provence,” the editor said.
“Wonderful!” I replied. I could not think of anything better especially when autumn days are approaching. Whilst it is getting colder in the UK, down on the Med there is still warmth and balmy evenings to be had. And with children back at school in the UK I wouldn’t have to endure jam-packed airports and teeming beaches.
“A couple of weeks?” I enquired.
“Five days,” replied the editor. I had better get my skates on then!
Now, strictly speaking, there is no such place as Provence, it is more a term for a loosely defined area in the south of France. The Romans called the area The First Roman Province Beyond the Alps and named it Provincia Romana.
The area around Marseilles is called Aix-en-Provence while to the east lies the Côte d’Azur (better known to us Brits as the French Riviera) which includes iconic places like Nice, Cannes and St Tropez. But for me the entire French Mediterranean coast is Provence and on that basis I chose four destinations. Nice and St Tropez were the first two on my list plus I picked nearby Port Grimand because it’s such a novel place and, finally, Collioure which is south of Perpignan and close to the Spanish border because it is a cheaper version of St Tropez.
There’s something scenic and beautiful about Provence. There is the glittering coast line of the French Riviera, the colourful lavender fields, the rolling vineyards, the olive groves and the pine forests. There’s no getting away from the fact that this, in my opinion, is one of the most beautiful parts of France.
Add on the beautiful weather and you can see why people like me fall in love with the region. So let me tell you about these four fantastic places I have chosen.
Let’s start with Nice because it is nice and easy (excuse the pun!) to get there from the UK – a two hour flight for around £150 return (depending upon which airport you are flying from).
Now think of sun, sea and sand and ‘voila’ you have Nice. Most travellers visit between May and September when the sun is beating down and you get the full experience of that typical hot and dry Mediterranean climate. Beware though that some shops and restaurants close during the French summer holidays in August.
That said, mid-September to early November can be really nice (and cheaper!) but I prefer to visit in February for the Nice Carnival. The vibrant colours of the elaborate floats designed around an annual theme bring a great buzz to this great city of the French Riviera.
The Nice Jazz Festival in July remains a popular favourite. Founded in 1948, it still features top performers from all around the world.
If you go, don’t forget to take a stroll down the Vieux Nice, a maze of medieval streets where you can see the stunning baroque churches and the colourful Cours Saleya market.
If that’s not for you, take a walk down the Promenade des Anglais, (the boulevard fronting the bay) and indulge yourself in its grand hotels and cafes … including the Le Negresco – the origin of the renown Salade Niçoise.
Explore the wealth of amazing art museums in Nice. I especially love dedicated single-artist museums as you get such a great sense of the artist’s body of work. You can witness their evolution, and they make their style and struggles come alive. There are museums dedicated to the work of Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Picasso and Renoir.
And there is plenty for kids. There are, of course, the beaches, and the Human Palaeontology Terra Amata Museum which includes a discovery trail through to the Lazaret cave – a seaside cave full of prehistoric remains.
Nice is a must do. With so many varying attractions it’s easy to see why Nice is a great destination. In the summer you can even take a quick helicopter flight to Monaco. Just look when you are there; don’t try spending any money!
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When you think of the French Riviera your mind is automatically drawn to the famous name, St Tropez . Situated 100 kilometres west of Nice it is famous for its glitz and glamour which is emphasised by the numerous luxurious yachts moored in the marina.
St Tropez is renowned for being the playground of international socialites. Previously known as the Jet Set, they are today more likely to include Rap Stars. And just to add to St Tropez’s elite credentials as a place where the famous live their hedonistic lifestyles, you don’t need me to remind you that this was place where Bridgette Bardot used to hang out.
Most of the hotspots lie to the southwest of the town at the Baie de Pampelonne. But if you are looking for a more relaxed and family-friendly environment and public beaches you can still find them if you look. The sun, the waves and the beaches (and, of course, the weather) are as good here as anywhere on the French Riviera.
Ten miles along the coast from St Tropez (midway between St Tropez and Grimaud) lies Port Grimaud, described sometimes as the Venice of the French Riviera. It’s built on water! It’s a bit kitsch, but it’s really worth visiting.
François Spoerry had the idea for the place. In 1962 he bought the area just off the Bay of Saint-Tropez, and four years later got a building permit. Now, imagine buying a piece of property at the mouth of a river and building a city where the streets are water channels that are spanned by numerous bridges. Hence, it’s called the Venice of the French Riviera or sometimes the Provencal Venice.
As the main architect of the place, Spoerry created Port Grimaud in stages and it was completed in 2000, a year after he died. His body rests in the church in the main square of the Port.
Port Grimaud is basically a private town with a dreamy atmosphere, but you can’t resist the impression that the whole thing is a wee bit kitschy and, at the same time, not very natural. However, this does not prevent tourists from visiting this unusual attraction on the French Riviera.
The whole thing consists of terraced houses built on artificial peninsulas and islands, and thanks to this, every Port Grimaud resident has access to the water and a private mini marina. And probably everyone takes advantage of these facilities – with smaller and bigger yachts and motorboats moored in front of houses in a row.
Individual peninsulas are connected by small bridges built in different styles. In one of the squares on one of the islands is a church. A small observation tower (€1 access) has been built next to it from where there is a view of the entirety of Port Grimaud, plus nearby St Tropez, as well as the whole bay.
Port Grimaud is best visited by boating around the town in an electric boat. You can rent one just outside the main entrance and also in several other places. The cost is €30 for half an hour plus a €30 deposit. Boats fit up to 5 people and drive slowly, so even a child can manage it.
Port Grimaud is definitely worth a visit. You will probably spend about 2 hours there (including the electric boat time). There are two large car parks around the port, so there’s no problem with leaving the car (there is no vehicular traffic allowed on the estate).
If you want St Tropez without the flim-flam, froth and laughable prices then Collioure is the place to go. South of Perpignan and moments from Spain, it’s very similar in style to St Tropez. It’s also regularly amongst the sunniest and warmest summer spots in France.
It’s a small town with a population of just 3,000; it has a fine castle; an emblematic church quite as distinctive as St Tropez’s; a wriggle of little, old streets; arty connections by the palette-ful (Matisse and Derain devised fauvism here); good restaurants and lovely beaches.
Naturally, it gets crowded in summer – everywhere on the Med does – but it’s easy to escape to the hills (or should I say mountains because this is the beginnings of the Pyrenees!) affording as much nature as most people can handle. Market days are Wednesday and Sunday will where you can buy stunning fruit and veg.
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Time I was getting back to blighty! There are flights from Perpignan to many UK regional airports.
It’s always a wrench to say goodbye to Provence but I will see you next time after I’ve been on my travels again.