The Côte d’Azur. The very name of the place conjures images of wealth and luxury; of the higher echelons and their private boats bobbing up and down in a glittering Mediterranean. The French Riviera – the theme park of the rich, James Bond’s weekend away – is an area full of billboard names: Nice, Saint-Tropez, Monaco, Cannes, Marseille, Cassis. Cliffs, golden beaches, promenades rattling with sports cars, sheltered inlets called calanques, the finest restaurants, the finest prices, and a whole lot of benign weather. The Côte d’Azur: the strip of gold that forms France’s south coast. But what of inland areas? This is also Provence, not just a string of swanky resorts. Landing at Nice’s airport, hovering over the water and touching down primly and quick as if onto an aircraft carrier, I was picked up and ferried north up into the hills. I wouldn’t see the sea again.
Montauroux, perched haphazardly on the top of a verdant ridge, was to be my home for a few days. To the north, wooded hills humped away to wherever hills went to become flat again and to the south, a shallow valley, the cyan blue Saint Cassien Lake and the gentle Esterel range, which provided an aromatic and humid place for a morning jog. The village itself was a photogenic huddle of dull pastel-coloured streets (beiges and peaches, tawny and greys) enlivened by bright green and blue window frames and topped with long terracotta roof tiles. Its streets, and their ubiquitous cobbles, slinked away this way and that and you wondered how there could be so many.
Every so often a break in the line of twee three-floor apartments offered a view to the surrounding bowl of green, or to neighbouring Callian and its squat castle, or perhaps a tiny chapel sitting all by itself. More often than not Montauroux felt separate and self-contained, floating above everything and concealed by trees. An oasis of tiny squares and windows confettied with Tricolours. The village, ironically, was the antithesis to the huge French farmhouse I was staying in with its limpid infinity pool looking out across the valley.
Fayence: another little hill village scattered across another ridge to the west of Montauroux and neighbouring it the humorously named Tourettes (my host Tessa ended up in a puddle of sighs after my tenth mention of the place). It was market day and Fayence was warm and busy. The southern French sun was flowering over the region and the air was moist as a sauna. The town, in many ways – its streets, its windows, its stones – was the clone of Montauroux, just larger. Any accurate and detailed analysis of the town would be impossible however, as markets have a tendency to obliterate the attention span into a mush of food stalls, clothing stands and all manner of tat emporiums.
In the town square, curled around the base of St John the Baptist church, were myriad stalls and smells. The chocolate and pecan pastry I had bought to stave off my morning hunger – and by the by the French really do make the best pastries – was all but annulled by the onslaught of products to be bought, sampled and gawped at. A lady frying potatoes in a large pan of garlic and rosemary filled the air with scented smoke; a young and very charismatic man was selling his family’s homemade speculoos; a whole table was covered in fat purple and brown Provencal Violets (garlic); another table was loaded up with wooden bowls of olives; and yet another with local sausages and cured meats covered with spices or black pepper. My bags were heavier and my wallet was lighter and we slid out of Fayence and back to ol’ Monty.
The decision was made, without much pleading or controversy, to spend the next day – there were six in our group – lounging on deckchairs or floating in the pool with bottles of wine and Aperol nearby. I had brought cheese and hams from Spain and the concept of hunger, as gluttonous as we were being, was now nothing more than a fantastical word in some dictionary. A thunderstorm and a barbecue in the evening rounded the day off but there were still more villages out there. Despite the smoky steaks, lemon and basil chicken and endless bottles of Burgundy I still wanted more. I wanted the hattrick.
Grasse: the Queen of the hills and the capital of perfume. Grasse was an explosion of colours a welcome attack on the senses. The walls, coloured again, were more intense: canary yellows, salmon pinks and brilliant oranges. Little alleys filtered off all places, but the elevated stature of the town allowed churches to squeeze in as well. Washing hung in a Neapolitan fashion from some windows while down below food stalls and cafes filled the streets under clouds of cooling mist emitted by the bars. Despite its natural appeal there was another reason Grasse could hold its head high: Perfume.
The fecund fields and valleys of Provence are prime flower-growing territory. Indeed, many of the balconies and windows boxes of Grasse were spilling over with daisies and geraniums. Since the end of the 18th century this little hilltop settlement has been the centre of the French perfume industry. A lot of the famous ‘noses’ trained in Grasse and tucked away down many of the lanes one can find old shops peddling their wares. The warm lands around Grasse are brimming with lavender, myrtle, jasmine, rose, orange blossom and mimosa. The region is a cocktail of aromas. Paradise for women, trickier for men. I myself went away with a small bottle of Cedrat (citron) perfume for those moments when I want to smell a little more Provençal.
Three villages of the Côte d’Azur but without the Côte. The French Riviera without the Riviera. There was no need to hug the shores and no desire rose in me to see it. It would have been nice, of course, to linger lazily at a café in Nice or swan about in Cannes pretending I had as much money as the other people there, but I didn’t care. Less than an hour inland and a world of earthly pleasures had opened itself up to me. A world of aromas and local produce, of postcard-perfect villages and sweeping vistas. A land that, with the addition of food and friends, could very much be some kind of Eden.