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A Road Trip Into The French Riviera Backcountry

May 30, 2015

The French Riviera Backcountry

Beyond the glitz of Cannes on the glamorous French Riviera, a short drive into the beautiful back country and you can lose yourself in the ancient villages, histories and landscapes that have inspired great artists such as Picasso and Chagall.

By Rooksana Hossenally

St Paul de Vence

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Away from the bright lights of Cannes and the luxury boutique-ridden Promenade de la Croisette that lines the azure waters of the Mediterranean Sea, are some of France’s most beautiful villages, brimming with history and quintessential French countryside charm, that should be on any astute traveller’s list.

Mougins

Vetige vue du ciel vers Mandelieu

An hour’s drive inland is the medieval village of Mougins, renowned for being the adopted home of Pablo Picasso, who spent the last 12 years of his life in a mas (typical local stone house) by the Notre-Dame-de-Vie Chapel. In homage to the artist, the village’s compact photography museum showcases photographer André Villers’ famous shots of Picasso, mostly of his time in the area. Further honouring the village’s artistic heritage, the narrow cobbled streets of Mougins are peppered with art galleries and the studios of artists who, inspired by the picturesque charms of the village, still live and work here.

Mougins

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Mougins

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Although there are a number of inns and small hotels in and around Mougins, my chosen hideaway lies at the very top of the old village, tucked away among scenic houses. The bucolic five-star Le Mas Candille hotel not only comes with a top-end Shiseido spa (one of two in the country), an enticing outdoor pool and a Michelin-star restaurant, but the views of the surrounding rolling hills of Provence, admired from any spot within the hotel’s well planted grounds, are mesmerising.

Le Mas Candille

Le Mas Candille hotel - Le Mas Building

Le Mas Candille

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Le Mas Candille

Mas Candille hotel.Nicolas Dubreuil SUITE Vue Grasse - View on Grasse

Le Mas Candille

Entrée Principale (Jour)-Main Gate (Daytime)

After indulging in Michelin starred chef David Chauvac’s cuisine and in a facial that lulled me to sleep, and after hours out on the supersized balcony that adjoined my spacious Villa Candille suite, simply gazing out to the sundrenched hills as the sun moved from east to west, I packed up the car and headed north to Grasse, France’s perfume country.

Grasse

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Upon arrival, despite the numerous museums of traditional perfumers like Fragonnard, Galimard and Molinard drawing the crowds, the unpolished town was a little underwhelming. There was no reason to stay, save one: the gorgeous Bastide Saint Antoine. As soon I pulled off the busy main road 10 minutes from the city centre into the gravelled driveway shaded by willow trees blowing in the warm breeze, I instantly knew that leaving was going to be difficult. Even if Grasse’s heyday lies well and truly in the past, the Bastide is worth the detour for a couple of nights spent sleeping in understated Provençal luxury surrounded by owner chef Jacques Chibois’ quiet olive groves – and to sample his Michelin starred cuisine, which bursts with local freshness and flavour bien sûr.

Bastide Saint Antoine

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Bastide Saint Antoine

Bastide Saint Antoine.terrasse 19

Almost inconsolable at having to tear myself away from this hideaway that felt lost to the rest of the world, I was told by a local that a visit to the cliff-top village of Gourdon a 30-minute drive away would cheer me up.

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Circling the mountains on a narrow road, the almost Gothic village suddenly appeared with its ninth-century castle perched high above on a large craggy rock overhanging the valley.

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While exploring the streets of the bewitching little village, I stumble across tiny pocket-sized soap making factories like the Vieille Fabrique de la Source Parfumée, tucked away among the stone houses. And I also find charming local boutiques like the Saint Catherine where the owners make everything from olive oil to foie gras.

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For lunch I settled at La Taverne Provençale, backed by a quaint stone church; I order the roasted rosé lamb seasoned with thyme, and completely loose myself in the arresting views that stretch beyond the Chemin du Paradis (walking trail ‘path to heaven’) to the glittering Mediterranean. As I regretfully start on my way again, I’m caught offguard by the whimsical sight of paragliders circling the cloudless blue skies above.

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Away from the bright skies of Gourdon, 40 minutes’ drive east through the luxuriant Provence countryside I head to Saint-Paul-de-Vence, another hilltop medieval village that is one of France’s most enchanting.

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An artists’ haven that became a sanctuary for the rich and famous in the 60s, it was the home of painter Marc Chagall as well as poet Jacques Prévert. Other regulars included Picasso, Braque, and Miro, who would often be seen at the Colombe d’Or restaurant at the village entrance. Belgian artist Jean-Michel Folon also cherished Saint Paul, and the chapel he painstakingly renovated in the heart of the village, in his signature style of heavenly pastels, is worth the visit.

Colombe D'Or

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Colombe D'Or

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Before my return trip to Paris, I managed to squeeze in a visit to the nearby Fondation Maeght (pronounced ‘mag’) – and glad I did, for it is the crowning glory of the village’s artistic heritage. Founded by Marguerite and Aimé Maeght in 1964, the foundation showcases the owners’ spellbinding collection of modern art, including impressive Alberto Giacometti sculptures as well as works by Georges Braque and Joan Miro, curated throughout a tumble of idyllic gardens and courtyards.

Giacometti at Maeght

2.Giacometti at Maeght

My head full of images of scenic villages and fragrant gardens, reminiscent of characters from a time passed, it was now sadly time to leave them all behind, feeling that I had once again fallen in love with the unique charms for which France is unversally known, charms that just never seem to tire.

7.Cafe de la Place
6.Art studios2
5.Village ramparts

Addresses:

Mougins:
Le Mas Candille
Boulevard Clément Rebuffel, 06250 Mougins
Tel: +33 (0)4 92 28 43 43
www.lemascandille.com

Musée de la Photographie
67 Rue de l’Église, 06250 Mougins
04 93 75 85 67
www.de-lart.org/lieux/mougins_musee_photographie.html

Grasse:
Bastide Saint Antoine
48 avenue Henri Dunant, 06130 Grasse
Tel: +33 (0)4 93 70 94 94
www.jacques-chibois.com

Fragonnard Perfume Factory
20 Boulevard Fragonard, 06130, Grasse
Tel: +33 (0)4 93 36 44 66
www.fragonard.com

Gourdon:
La Taverne Provençale Restaurant
Place de l’Eglise, 06620 Gourdon
Tel: +33 (0)4 93 09 68 22
www.lataverneprovencale.com

Epicerie Provençale Saint Catherine
Rue de l’Ecole, 06620 Gourdon
Tel: +33 (0)4 93 09 68 89
www.sainte-catherine.com

Saint-Paul-de-Vence:
Colombe d’Or
Place de Gaulle, 06570 Saint-Paul-de-Vence
Tel: +33 (0)4 93 32 80 02
www.la-colombe-dor.com

Fondation Maeght
623 Chemin des Gardettes, 06570 Saint-Paul-de-Vence
Tel: +33 (0)4 93 32 81 63
www.fondation-maeght.com

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