The French Riviera
Natasha Goodfellow finds stunning scenery and interiors inspiration aplenty on a visit to the Vaucluse
Unable to cross the river Var en route to Italy in 1834, Lord Brougham and his daughter were obliged to stop in the little fishing village of Cannes. Finding the climate, the peace and the scenery to his liking, Brougham built himself a fine Italianate villa, and returned every year. Before long, his aristocratic friends were doing likewise, and Cannes’ reputation as a playground for the rich and famous had begun.
Nearly 200 years on, it has lost none of its glamour, as the annual film festival attests. But the hinterland is home to lesser-known attractions too. Ten minutes’ drive away is Mougins – a picturesque medieval village now almost entirely given over to art and gastronomy. Slightly further north, the tiny, winding streets of Grasse are crowded with crumbling ochre-coloured buildings, and in May, when the rose fields around the town are in full flower, Grasse’s annual Expo Rose (21st-24th May) fills the air with the blooms’ scent.
Home of the image-conscious, Cannes’ most famous thoroughfare, La Croisette, oozes bling, lined as it is with private beaches and luxury shops: Lacroix, Chanel, Bulgari, Boucheron… Mostly fashion and jewellery, the home gets a look in at classic-meets-contemporary mecca Le Faubourg, 45-47 La Croisette.
Across town, past oyster bars, plane trees, petanque courts and giggling girls smoking on Vespas, the Forville market provides another, more affordable, shopping opportunity. Monday sees the antiques market, where around 60 dealers offer all manner of furniture, glassware and linen, some from Cannes’ old hotels. Every other morning, food is the main attraction. Everywhere you turn are gourmet delights, beautifully displayed: tiny artichokes, bushy bunches of fennel, slender spears of wild asparagus, posies of vibrant radishes and conger eels and fresh fish straight out of the bay.
Climbing up to the castle (Place de la Castre, Le Suquet; now a museum with good collections of ethnography, musical instruments and Provencal paintings) through the old town, a different side of Cannes is on show. The quiet lanes have a gentle, sleepy air, interrupted only by ambling tourists and street cleaners (with industrial hoovers strapped to their mopeds). The views from the top are impressive too. Look townwards and see how many of Cannes’ famous giant murals you can spot among the sugar-almond walls – the bus station has the largest, featuring Charlie Chaplin, Yves Montand, and, fittingly for Cannes, Marilyn Monroe in Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend. In the other direction, over the glistening sea of white masts in the port, you’ll see the islands of Sainte-Marguerite (a popular day trip) and Saint-Honorat, a quieter place of vineyards, hidden chapels and a remarkable, 11th-century fortified monastery.
To say the medieval village of Mougins, high on a hill above the bay of Cannes, oozes picture-perfect charm is, for once, not an overstatement. Picasso, Leger, Man Ray and Winston Churchill all visited (Picasso painted the walls of his hotel room but was forced to paint over them by the hotelier – one M. Bastard – before he left) and today almost every shop, including the former washhouse – complete with original stone bath – is a gallery. Gastronomy is the other big draw, with an international festival every September, but a long lunch on the terrace of the buzzy Feu Follet restaurant in Place de la Mairie (0033 4 93 90 15 78), is pretty close to perfect.
If Cannes’ chief appeal is visual, Grasse is an olfactory treat. Thanks to the exquisite rose de mai or centifolia rose – the most highly scented rose in the world – and the area’s other, later-blooming star, jasmine, Grasse has long been a centre of the fragrance industry. The perfume houses of Molinard (60 Bd Victor Hugo), Galimard (73 Route de Cannes) and Fragonard (20 Bd Fragonard), founded in 1926 and named after Grasse’s most famous artist, are well established in the hilltop town. Indeed, Fragonard seems to own much of it, with several factories – where you can spend a fun morning blending your own eau de cologne – museums and various chic shops. Don’t miss Fragonard Maison (2 Rue de l’Amiral de Grasse), which sells a beautiful range of objects inspired by the collections of its Museum of Provencal Costume (2 Rue Jean Ossola), from re-editions of ancient necklaces, embroidered linens, baskets, glassware and Provencal quilts.
The Villa Musée Jean-Honoré Fragonard (23 Bd Fragonard), where the artist stayed from 1790-91, is similarly delightful, with wall after wall of copies of his ultra-feminine paintings. More down to earth is the new International Museum of Perfume (2 Bd du Jeu de Ballon), which straddles Grasse’s 14th-century walls and incorporates an imposing 18th-century house. Used as a courthouse after 1789, this boasts murals proclaiming the revolution’s idealist ends. The plaque commemorating those beheaded in the pretty garden reveals its more brutal means.
In May and September, atLe Domaine de Manon (36 Chemin du Servan, Plascassier), 15 minutes’ drive away, Carole Biancalana and her father Hubert take visitors into the bloom-packed flower fields to explain how the roses and jasmine are picked. It’s back-breaking work. ‘The best pickers have no spine,’ she jokes.
An atmospheric 18th-century building in the heart of Grasse’s old town. Rooms from €69.