Destination guide: Provence & the Côte d'Azur
Provence and the Côte d'Azur cannot fail to enchant, with its rich natural beauty, rolling hills of lavender, forests of deep scented pine, hilltops dotted with ancient towns and dazzling beaches.
In the south east corner of France, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur stretches from the Alps down through Provence to the Côte d'Azur and Monaco on the Mediterranean and is one of the most beautiful and evocative regions in the country. The diversity of scenery, the wonderful flavours of the local food, the artisan markets and the agreeable Mediterranean climate, all within a couple of hours of the UK, make this a popular destination. We have a number of luxury hotels, ranging from boutique properties surrounded by olive groves, to architect designed hotels overlooking the Côte d'Azur, where we can put together an itinerary for you to sample the best that the region has to offer.
Flop by the pool and listen to the cicadas or explore this beautiful part of France? It’s a dilemma! You would need several months to see everything the region has to offer, and whatever your preference is for a holiday, you’re sure to find it here. From the cosmopolitan towns on the coast to the medieval hilltop villages inland, and the striking national parks, each part offers something interesting and unique.
The area has a wealth of history, and you’ll find plenty of evidence of the Romans, from the arena at Nimes, where you can still see bull fighting and re-enactments of gladiatorial games during May, to the amphitheatre and Triumphal Arch in Orange. The coastal resort of Fréjus has some famous Roman ruins and has the added benefit of being just a couple of kilometres from some lovely beaches. Avignon, with the famous remains of a medieval bridge is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is equally famous for its Palace des Papes – built in the 14th Century when the Papacy temporarily moved its base here from Rome. Another well-known Provencal image is the 11th-century Cistercian Abbaye de Sénanque. Surrounded by rows and rows of lavender fields, its Romanesque architecture stands out prominently, and is a truly peaceful place to visit. With an abundance of lavender and other indigenous fragrant plants in the region, it is natural that the perfume business should have a heavy presence. The town of Grasse is the perfume capital of the world, with Fragonard, Galimard and Molinard all having bases there. The factory tours are interesting and worthwhile, even if you do end up in the shop at the end!
The region has its fair share of “Les plus beaux villages de France”, with their mix of Romanesque and Medieval architecture. The views stretch down to the coast over the pine forests and they are a step back in time, with tiny cobbled streets, quite often with no access to traffic. Each one has its own character, and the best times to visit are when the local market is being held (easily found out at a tourist office). Not only will you find food stalls groaning under the weight of fresh local produce, including olives, truffles, lemons and tomatoes, but artisanal stalls selling paintings, crafts and usually lots of lavender! Some of our favourites are Seillans, which is surrounded by vineyards where the wines produced belong to the AOC Côte de Provence appellation; Tourtour “the village in the sky” which has a traditional festival at the beginning of August, with dancing and petanques competitions, and Tourrettes sur Loup - a picturesque village with artisanal shops run by the artists themselves. Artists have been drawn to the area for centuries, and nowhere is this more evident than at the Colombe d’Or in St Paul de Vence. Paintings by Picasso, Matisse and Dufy line the walls of this hotel and restaurant, in lieu of payment during their leaner years. Book well in advance if you’d like to have lunch here. Close by is the idyllic village of Vence with its Matisse Chapel (the artist’s self-proclaimed greatest work). The stained-glass windows flood the interior with coloured light. The village itself is worth spending time in, with its relaxed vibe and streets and squares full of shops, art galleries and terrace cafés. Look out for local events, as most towns and villages celebrate saints days or host an arts festival.
For a more urban experience, then Nice is hard to beat. France’s fifth largest city, it boasts one of Europe’s most spectacular sea fronts, looking over the Bay of Angels. It has long been a magnet for the English, and has a cosmopolitan yet relaxed atmosphere. If you’re in the centre or the old town, you can explore on foot or by hiring bikes if you’re looking to venture a bit further, for example the Matisse museum at the end of the Promenade des Anglais or the Le Corbusier designed Chagall museum. Alternatively, just splurge out on a lounger, and let waiters bring you cocktails and appetizers. The rich and famous have been visiting Antibes and Juans Les Pins for ever, and it’s where water skiing was invented. The narrow streets of Juan Les Pins are buzzing in the summer, especially in July when it hosts Europe’s biggest jazz festival. The Chateau Grimaldi on the ramparts above the port was once inhabited by Picasso, and it now houses one of the world’s finest collections of his art. One of the most spectacular places to visit further east along the coast towards Monaco, is the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild at Sain-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, a beautiful Italian Palazzo with a garden featuring nine differently themed sections. Perched on a hill, overlooking the Mediterranean, it houses part of the family’s incredible art collection, and the gardens are truly beautiful.
Provence has over 600 winemakers and represents 6% of the French AOC production for all types of wine. Production is dominated by rosé (88%), with some fine reds also made (9%). Many vineyards have tours and tastings, and wine lovers can visit those in the internationally recognized Bandol area, west of Toulon, or Châteauneuf-du-Pape, further east. If you’re here on the first weekend of August, there’s a medieval festival, where you can watch jousting and try local delicacies at all the stalls.
A major attraction in Provence is the Gorges du Verdon – a limestone canyon 25km long, up to 700 metres deep and with widths between six metres and 1500 metres at the summit, forming the border between the Alpes de Haute Provence and the Var. It is considered to be one of the most beautiful in Europe, with its turquoise glacial waters. It is extremely popular with climbers and kayakers – although an expert guide is recommended for the latter due to the strong currents in the narrower parts. In the quieter parts there are places where you can hire electric boats or pedalos. It is also possible to drive round the edge to appreciate its stunning beauty. A full loop is just over 100km and can take a whole day. Avid followers of the Tour de France will have heard of Mont Ventoux, northeast of Carpentras. The steep climb to the summit is often included in the route, but you can also take the easy option by driving up to admire the spectacular views.
Food lovers are never disappointed in Provence and the Côte d’Azur - food and wine here go way beyond just eating and drinking – they are a way of life. Provence is the oldest wine producing region in France and is the heartland of rosé, creating the palest pink, dry and smooth wines. The region is also the largest producer in the country of fruit, vegetables and herbs, and together with the abundance of seafood, it is little wonder that the cuisine here is so fresh and bursting with flavour. It has the largest olive harvest and creates delicious oil, and even the ubiquitous lavender is used in many dishes, especially in Haute Provence. Garlic and anchovies are used in many of the region's sauces, and truffles also feature heavily. In some restaurants, you’ll find most dishes using this distinctive ingredient. Local dishes that are worth trying include Sisteron lamb – especially delicious when roasted with herbs; pissaladière – a pizza style tart with onions, anchovies and olives (no tomatoes); petits farcis – stuffed aubergines, tomatoes, peppers or courgettes; bouillabaisse – a staple on most menus, and obviously, the famous Salade Niçoise. Great debate surrounds this dish – should it have anchovies or tuna? Anchovies and tuna? Green beans or lettuce?
Eating out in the region doesn’t have to be expensive. Most towns and villages have a bewildering choice of restaurants, bistros and cafés, where you can get a light snack for lunch and it’s always worth finding out where the locals prefer to eat. Due to its proximity to the border, you’ll find plenty of Italian restaurants too. Alternatively, if you want to go big, the list is endless. There is no shortage of Michelin star restaurants, although you’ll need to book long in advance. A lunch that won’t bust the bank can be found at Christian Plumail in Vieux Nice, very close to the market at Cours Saleya. Try the saddle of lamb in olive-flavoured pastry. Or for some truly haute cuisine and an amazing view of the Promenade des Anglais, La Terrasse, ten floors up on the top of Le Méridien hotel serves elegant but simple dishes. In St Tropez, the fabulously expensive Résidence de la Pinède has three Michelin stars and has a gorgeous terrace overlooking the beach – definitely worth booking for a special occasion. If you’re after glamour, you should head for the Z’Plage Beach Restaurant on La Croisette in Cannes – just the best place to people watch, or try the Palme d’Or directly opposite in the Martinez Hotel. The food is sensational, the art deco surroundings are amazing - little wonder it has two Michelin stars. You’ll also love the descriptions on the menu – worth going there for those alone! Food is by no means an exclusive pastime in the region, and many local chefs run cookery courses for those who’d like to spend a day learning some of the finer arts of French cuisine.
The coast during the summer months is notoriously busy and on some beaches you’ll struggle to find space. However, there are stretches of quieter areas, and if you’re after a bit of sea and sand, it’s useful to know where to head. Away from the bustle of Nice is the Plage de Passable in a little cove in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. With a restaurant, sun loungers and water sports, it has lovely views towards the Bay of Villafranche. On the other side of the Cap Ferrat peninsula is the little shingle beach of Paloma. This is a protected cove, popular with families and with great facilities. Half the beach is private, and often frequented by celebrities, while the other section is open to the public. For a taste of what the Riviera used to be like, it’s worth taking the ferry from Hyères to Porquerolles in the Ile d’Hyères, where you can rent bikes and explore this little island and its unspoilt beaches. For more glitz and a feel for the buzz of the South of France, nothing beats the beach along La Croisette in Cannes. You’ll need to make a reservation at one of the restaurants, but can stay there for the afternoon topping up your glass with chilled rosé. Just west across the bay is Théoule-sur-Mer, which has a quieter beach, covered in lovely golden coloured sand. The famous Pampelonne Beach at St Tropez is the best one to go to for people watching, and as such, gets incredibly busy. It does have very good facilities including some great restaurants. Nice has 15 private beaches with public ones in between, stretching for over four miles from the airport to the Vieux Port. They are pebbly and can be quite steep in parts, making them not particularly ideal for younger children. However, there are stretches that are less steep, and it’s here that you’ll see most families.
This part of France is one of the oldest inhabited places in Europe, with evidence of people living here over a million years ago. Cave paintings have been found from between 27,000 and 19,000 BC. The Greeks arrived during the 7th Century BC establishing trading posts along the coast, followed by the Romans, who colonised the area. Their monuments still stand throughout the region and many amphitheatres are still used today. Christianity began to take hold during the 3rd Century AD which was followed by a series of invasions by Visigoths, Saracens and the Normans to name just a few. The Kingdom of Provence was established in 879 and was ruled by various dynasties before the powerful Grimaldi family from Genoa took power in the 13th Century. Remains of their castles can still be seen and the current Prince Albert II of Monaco is a descendant. The region became detached from the rest of France until Napolean III reinstated it in 1860. In the late 18th Century, the coast became a popular health resort for British aristocracy, turning it from a remote and impoverished region into a fashionable destination. Once the railway was completed in the 1860s, the region became more accessible and foreign enclaves, most of which were British, began to appear. Gambling was illegal in France, and a casino was built in Monaco under the guise of being a Spa to avoid upsetting the Church! The Riviera became a popular destination for European royalty with Queen Victoria being a regular visitor. At the end of the 19th Century artists began flocking to the Côte d'Azur, with Renoir, Matisse and Picasso settling there. After World War I, Americans discovered its delights and many moguls and writers, including Scott Fitzgerald and Edith Wharton frequented it. Much of 'The Great Gatsby' was written at Saint-Raphaël. In 1923, a certain Coco Chanel returned to Paris after spending the summer there, and made suntans fashionable. And a few years later, the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson lived here after his abdication. After World War II, it became a magnet for Hollywood. The Cannes Film Festival was established in 1946 and the Bridget Bardot emerged a decade later, immortalising the area. St Tropez became a “jet set” destination, with the marriage of Grace Kelly to Prince Rainier of Monaco firmly establishing it on the map. Today, it still retains its allure and continues to captivate all who visit.