Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Côte d’Azur : hitchhiking to the opera (or faire de l’auto-stop)

It had been a long time since I had been to the Côte d’Azur; too long since I had forgotten just how blue the water is and how magnificent the view of mountains cascading to the sea. It did not matter that it was in July with crowds, lines or embouteillages (traffic jams). The world is wonderful when you are on holiday in the south of France!
This trip was totally spontaneous. Our dear friend, Petrika Ionesco and metteur en scene extraordinaire (extraordinary set designer), called and proposed a rendez-vous at his latest masterpiece, Macbeth by Giuseppe Verdi, with the philharmonic orchestra and opera of Nice. The production was part of the Musiques au coeur d’Antibes Juan-les-Pins and it was performed in an open air arena at the Villa Eilenroc in Cap d’Antibes.
My husband and I flew into Antibes the morning of the performance with friends from Paris and stayed at a luxury hotel where the cast members and our friend Petrika were staying. (I have never made anything but positive recommendations on hotels and restaurants, but I must comment that the Ambassador was a total disappointment; such that our stay could have been out of a TV sitcom and I have to discourage anyone from staying there.) The flight and trip to Antibes was without incident as was a very late lunch after arriving. We were relaxed and had leisure time to spend with our friends, enjoying the warm weather and blue skies which contrasted dramatically to the cloud covered and cool temperatures of Paris.
After a short siesta we all donned our evening opera attire of suits and ties for the men and long dresses and heals for the women. Having been good planners we had made arrangements (we thought) for everything including a cab ride to the opera. However, when we arrived at the front desk they had no intentions of following through with calling or arranging for a cab or car. (Did I mention that this is a 4 star hotel? I have been treated better in a hostel.) As time was getting tight, there seemed to be only one solution; hitchhiking in ball gowns. We were all quickly picked up by kind strangers and delivered “sans” problem at the Villa Eilenroc in Cap d’Antibes.
At 8:30 the night was still clear and bright so we could marvel at the Villa and the grounds. The set was simple, elegant and proved to support the production perfectly. In fact, putting my admiration and friendship aside for Petrika, the production was brilliant. It surpassed any previously seen production of Macbeth. After standing ovation after standing ovation, it was finally time to head back to the city of Antibes. It proved to be a bit more difficult walking in the wooded area with no lights in our fancy shoes but we managed. During the adventure of arriving, we had obtained the phone number for a cab company but, of course, they were not going to answer their phones. They must have known that if we made it there we could make it back without them. So, as the audience was getting into their cars and driving back, we knocked on windows, spoke with people heading out and quickly found enough vacant seats to transport us all back to the hotel. How can anyone ever say that the French are not nice!
Juan-les-Pins and Antibes are lovely beach villages; touristy yes but lovely to pass a couple of days especially with friends. After our first adventure of hitchhiking to and from the opera, we picked up a rental car (which was not available sooner) and headed to Saint-Paul-de-Vences. This is one of the oldest medieval towns in the French Riviera that has attracted the rich and famous for years. One of its prominent residents was Marc Chagall. Another was the American writer, James Baldwin, who had died here in 1987. The city is perched on a mountain and has unending charm; it is a must see. Very near to the city is the Foundation Maeght, which is a modern art museum founded by Marguerite and Aimé Maeght in l964. Their collection includes Georges Braque, Alexander Calder, Marc Chagall, Alberto Giacometti, Fernand Léger and Joan Miró. The building and the grounds are impressively designed. The outside is brought into the building becoming part of the museum and its collection. Surrounding the buildings are numerous sculptures perfectly positioned for optimum viewing both inside the museum and outside in the gardens. There are a few places that we have visited that stand out in my mind from the rest and this is one of them.
From Juan-les-Pins we went to Mougins to stay in a lovely chambres d’hôtes just outside of the village with manicured gardens, tons of flowers, fruit trees, pool and a room with a view. The town is surrounded by forests of pine, olive trees and Cyprus trees. Mougins has been home to many artists with Pablo Picasso having spent the last 12 years of his life here and it is the village where he passed away. Of note, Picasso’s studio was in the old village in a building that is now the tourist office. The studio of Fernand Léger was above a wine shop near the Mougins Museum of Classical Art. (Neither of these two spots was marked when I was there.) The town has a long history with great chefs and it has become a culinary haven of great dining. Today, the town hosts the annual “International Gastronomy Festival of Mougins”.
Mougins is a good location to explore the regions associated with Cannes and Grasse. Both of these cities are too big and touristy for my taste but the surrounding areas are magic.
La Napoule is not a spot that many people visit but it is wonderful. Here is located La Château de Napoule which sits directly on the sea. The area was first settled more than 2,000 years ago by the Romans. Fortresses were subsequently built, destroyed and rebuilt at least 8 times at the location of the Château. In 1918, a wealthy American artist and his wife, Henry Clews and Marie Elsie Goelet, bought the property and meticulously renovated and restored the ancient buildings. The Château is now filled with Henry’s paintings and sculptures. Surrounding the Château are exquisite gardens and interesting sculptures. Everywhere are amazing views and to extend the experience there is a tea room directly on the water. If you go, keep your tickets because you can return during the next week to visit the gardens and tea room for lunch.
La Napoule is a small seaside village directly next to the Château. We had dinner at La Palméa Restaurant (198, av. Henry Clews, 06210 Mandelieu La Napoule) and it was one of our most memorable meals. The food was perfectly prepared, excellent local wine was served and we had a window view of the harbor.
My husband’s favorite artist is Fernand Léger, so the medieval, hilltop village of Biot was next on our agenda. Léger was born in Basse-Normandie and first trained as an architect. He would not seriously paint until the age of 25 and was accomplished as a painter, sculptor and filmmaker. In 1955, several months before his death, Léger purchased land outside of the village of Biot. His widow, Nadia Léger, supervised the construction of the museum on this land that now houses his personal collection. To ensure its perpetuity she donated the museum and collection to the State. This is another museum with not just an extraordinary collection but the building has been constructed to optimally display the art bringing in natural light and using the surrounding beauty of the grounds.
The city of Biot is charming. It is known for its blown glass and numerous shops offer quality merchandise. Most of the shops are congregated on the main street from which numerous branching narrow passages offer a glimpse of medieval life. Wandering these back alleys is a perfect way to pass an afternoon and you will find many lovely cafés throughout the village.
After several days of concentrating our explorations in this small area near Mougins we headed to the eastern side of Nice choosing a chambres d’hôtes high in the mountains overlooking Monaco near Èze. We stayed at La Bastide aux Camélias where we were pampered with luxury products, fluffy towels and robes, sauna, hot tub and pool. They also served some of the best croissants that I have had along with homemade confiture.
This chambres d’hôtes was very near to La Turbie, another lovely hilltop village with great views and winding alleyways. This village is distinctive from other hilltop villages because of the large Roman ruin situated near the center and towering over the town. Augustus built a large monument in La Turbie to celebrate his victory over the Ligurian tribes of the area (between 25 and 14 BCE). The remaining Trophy of Augustus continues to stand as a beacon for all to see.
The first inhabitants of the ancient city of Èze were the Romans followed briefly by the Moors. However, the list of occupants is daunting to include William of Provence (973), House of Savoy (1388), France, Turkish troops (1543) and Louis XIV in the war of the Spanish succession (1706). Èze is also called the Eagle’s Nest because it is perched on a cliff 427 meters above sea level. At the top is an exotic garden and when visiting be prepared to walk up many, many stairs!
After visiting these villages in the clouds it made sense to head down the mountain to Villefranche-sur-mer. This is a city that has been inhabited since prehistoric times, no doubt because of the natural harbor. After the conquest of Gaul by Caesar, the Romans built an extension of Aurelian Way (major roadway) through this region. Like the neighboring cities and villages, Villefranche-sur-mer also has a history that is rich with conquests. Today, one finds a beautiful harbor with rows of pretty pastel painted buildings. Just a passageway from this initial row of buildings are the narrow winding streets of the old village. Directly behind this front section and before the parallel main street, is a section that is more a tunnel than a street and has a temperature drop of at least 10 degrees from the harbor area. Be sure to look for this section by entering midway along the harbor. Facing the harbor are a row of inviting restaurants where we had one of many memorable dining experience. This time it was at a Guide Michelin restaurant called Restaurant Gastronomique at 11,quoi de l’Amiral Courbet, 06230 Villefranche-sur-mer.
There is one final area that stole our hearts; the village of Roquebrune-cap-Martin and la villa Ephrussi de Rothschild. Roquebrune-cap-Martin is actually an area comprised of several vilages and towns. Of primary interest however was the old village of Roquebrune-cap-Martin only 9 kilometers from the center of Monaco. This village is much smaller than the previous villages that we visited. Roquebrune lacks any touristy shops and retains a lovely quaintness that was particularly endearing. There are an abundance of old doors from medieval times, narrow walkways and panoramic views. It is a real charmer. From here it is an easy drive along the sea to the glamorous Menton. If you are having shopping withdrawals you can get a good shopping fix at the plethora of designer shops in Menton. There is even a glamorous Casino and plenty of high end restaurants and hotels along the water.
In this general region is the lovely villa Ephrussi de Rothschild. There is one word to sum up the villa and that is sumptuous. Baroness Béatrice Ephrussi Rothschild was an insatiable traveller and collector of art. She conceived and oversaw the construction of the villa to hold her vast collections. The Baronessess favorite color was pink and the villa, its rooms and the flowers in the garden reflect her passion for this color. Within the villa is a small restaurant that overlooks one of the gardens and the mediterranean. We could not pass up the opportunity to stay for lunch and soak in the view with a lovely glass of Rosé from the Côte de Provence.
Alas the time passed too quickly and we had to leave those beautiful blue skies and warm breezes for cloudy, cool Paris. For once we took a trip from which we could have stayed a bit longer before returning to our beloved City of Lights.

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