Explore Provence & the Côte d’Azur: Part I

The name is music. There’s magic in the air. The smells, tastes and sounds are welcoming. The views are spectacular. What more can one ask for? It is golden and passionate. One can easily be seduced by its charm. Even the accent is different. Few can resist its treasures.  Tell anyone you’re going to France and they say “great.” Tell them you’re going to Provence and their eyes light up. It’s magical, filled with lavender and characterized by a special color only found on the azure coast.   Can you believe that the distance from Menton on the Italian border to Marseilles is only a little over 100 miles as the crow flies? It may be longer if you are not a crow, but there is so much packed into this southeastern corner of France that boggles the mind. In Provence, the senses are inundated with everything that leads to relaxation and enjoyment.   To the west of Marseilles is a section of France filled with gypsies, wild horses, marshes, fortress towns and great cities that provide rich history, great writers and artists, food, and recreation that satisfy even the hard to please traveler.   Follow the coastal road from the beaches of Menton to Villefranche, past Monaco and the hill city of Eze with its perfume centers. Walk the old seaports and watch the boats go by in Villefranche harbor. Visit the refurbished church museum decorated by Jean Cocteau in the old town. Look down at the sea from the upper corniche for a bird’s eye view.   Drive to the end of Cap Ferrat to the Greek-style Villa Kerylos at Beaulieu. Stop at the beautiful pink villa of Ehprussi de Rothschild with its waterfall and sculptured gardens.Climb up to the top of 14th century Eze, where you can look out on the Mediterranean with its special color. Stop at the Roman alpine trophy of La Turbie that celebrates Augustus’s victories over local tribes, dating back to 14-13 B.C.. Look up at the plush Villas at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, where Coco Chanel and Greta Garbo once frolicked.  The poet W.B Yeates and architect Le Corbusier died here.   Walk around Nice’s old town, Promenade des Anglais and Cours Saleya where the gourmands feast nightly. See the Russian orthodox St-Nicholas Church, Chagall, Matisse Museum, or famous Hotel Negresco with its pink-tiled dome. Enjoy an afternoon at the Museum d’Art Contemporaine with its marble towers and glass walkways. Or, visit the Musee des Beaux Arts with works by Dufy, Monet, Renoir and Sisley. Enjoy the wonderful Mardi Gras Festival with flowered floats and costumed natives in early March. Climb to Cimiez, a haven facing the sea. Here, you’ll see the great monastery and the nearby Roman ruins.   Go up into the hills to St-Paul de Vence, an old frontier post. Eat lunch at the Colombe d’Or beneath a Léger mural, Braque dove or Matisse or Picasso masterpiece. Sit on the terrace where Yves Montand and Simone Signoret were married.  Add your name to the list of celebrity visitors like Burt Lancaster, Catherine Deneuve, Sophia Loren, Picasso, Modigliani and Colette. Take time to visit the famous Maeght Foundation, just beyond the city walls, with its fine collection of Giacomettis, Miros, Kandinskys, Braques and Chagalls.   Walk along the Grande Rue or ramparts looking down on the valley of cypress trees all the way to the sea. Eat lunch at the café, and watch the locals play boules in the sun. It was here that Marc Chagall chose to live. There’s no wonder why.   Descend via Vence and stop at the Chapelle du Rosaire, decorated by Matisse, who lived almost directly across the road. He considered this his great masterpiece. It’s awesome both inside and out.   When you come back to the sea, stop at Cagnes-sur-Mer to visit the old quarter, steep streets and passageways. You are just over twenty-five miles from Menton, and we’ve only begun our journey through the azure coast.   Another great name came through here in early March of 1815, and it wasn’t for any festival. After his escape from Elba, Napoleon landed at Golfe-Juan and stopped at Cannes overnight. Near the highway to Cannes, you can see the marker showing the beginning of the Route Napoleon, where the Napoleon set out for Paris via Digne and Sisteron and Gap to the north. People fell in behind him.  When he returned to Grenoble, it was a triumphant return. Waterloo was only about three months away.   In the hills above Cannes is Vallauris, made famous by Picasso, who used the kilns for his pottery. The museum is worth seeing as is the statue of the man with the sheep in the square.   Follow the harbor to the old town of Antibes with its luxurious yachts and narrow pedestrian streets. Spend your morning at the markets and your afternoons at the old Grimaldi Palace, housing great Picasso works, or the Musée d’Archéologie, featuring objects salvaged from the sea. This was once a Greek trading post called Antipolis, dating back to the 4th century B.C.. Now, it is a mecca for fun seekers, boat owners and tourists looking for a true taste of France’s southern coast. Walk along the ramparts where the sea meets the land, and continue to the shoreline near Cap d’Antibes. Just beyond is the film festival capital of France: Cannes. Cannes awaits with its pleasure yachts, restaurants, classy hotels and crowded beaches. A walk along the famous boulevard de la Croisette, lined with palm trees and gardens, past the great Carlton Hotel and luxury boutiques is a memory worth treasuring. It is glitzy but fun. It’s even more fun during the spring film festival, but getting accommodations can be a problem.   Driving from Cannes to St-Raphaël can be the most visual part of the voyage. Here, the coast turns rugged and red. It follows the sea with mountains looming above. There are tiny communities and towns along the way. Getting around is slow, but you wouldn’t want it any other way. Every so often there are areas to park and take in the splendor of the water crashing on the rocks.   Before taking this stretch of the road, you may want to go north to the hill city of Grasse. It is mountainous, but you are always in sight of the sea as you drive through fields of mimosa and lavender that make Grasse such a famous center for perfume. It was once a center for tanning and…
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