the Côte d’Azur – sun, sea, and lavender

Danny Tucker decided that it was time to ignore all the doom and gloom of the news headlines and have a break in the south of France. From fields of lavender to incredible food delights, Danny shares his experience, and photographs, of Nice, Provence, and Menton. 

Summertime 2021 found a few friends and myself in the south of France in search of sun-drenched landscapes, the sparkling blue Mediterranean Sea, fields of lavender and, of course Provençal delicacies and botanics. We based ourselves in Menton, a short bus or train ride from Nice, a beautiful medieval town that is the last stop on the French Riviera before you get to Italy.

Photography by Erwin Escher

During our time there, we dined at a beach restaurant in Menton, just two steps away from putting your toes in the sand. Only a few more steps took us to the Italian border, where we savoured a four-ingredient freshly-prepared pasta with clarified butter, fleur de sel, and black truffle that delighted all. We had an opulent and bourgeoisie evening at Monaco’s Hôtel de Paris, where the attentive detail of an experienced head waiter and master sommelier were at our disposal while our terrace table view overlooked the sleek and smart vessels at the yacht club. On arrival into the Côte d’Azur, we determined to leave the headlines of the world behind and indulge in all this renowned region of France had to offer! 

Omnipresent and adorning the lunch tables for locals and tourists alike for the duration of our visit were bottles of locally-produced rosé wine. We all agreed this table wine was average at best, yet the sweet tartness was chilled and refreshing. A healthy competition ensued to do our part in keeping this tradition alive and well!

On a day tour departing Nice, we traversed the French Alps and the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region of south-eastern France, one of the least populated of all the French regions. We passed through Alp and Provencal villages, where life is much more laid back and the people friendly. Driving through, we encountered a multitude of wildflowers, the Gorges Verdon – France’s version of the Grand Canyon in miniature – and the lake of Sainte-Croix with its incredible turquoise-hued waters. Descending on to Plateau De Valensole, we encountered the famed lavender fields of Provence. They were every bit as beautiful as I imagined them to be. 

There followed a stop in Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, ranked among the most beautiful villages in France with its ramparts, fountains and aqueduct. It is famous for the Mwoustiers’ ceramics in blue camaïeu. Clouds of meringue artfully displayed in shop windows tempt passers-by in this typical Provençal village with its harmonious pastel-coloured buildings squeezed between two rocky peaks, being at the foot of the Gorges du Verdon, between the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and the Var River.

A short hike along a wildflower-laden pathway led us to the Gorges du Verdon itself, formed by the Verdon River, named for its turquoise-green colour, one of the location’s distinguishing characteristics. The river cut a ravine through the limestone mass making the deepest gorge in France. At the end of the canyon, the Verdon flows into the artificial lake of Sainte-Croix. The Verdon Gorge is narrow and deep, with depths of 250 to 700 metres, and widths of 6 to 100 metres at the level of the Verdon River. It is 200 to 1,500 metres wide from one side of the Gorge to the other at the summits.

Continuing on, we begin to descend on to the Plateaux de Valensole. We stop for a close up view as the fields of lavender dance gently under the breeze, diffusing their redolent scent. The bushes are perfectly aligned, creating a beautiful geometry, and when the fields are slightly rolling, it’s like looking at a beautiful ripple of purple waves. Roadside tables dot the more travelled routes, selling items made of lavender, such as honey, soap, and potpourri. 

We spent a day exploring several medieval villages of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, which I highly recommend. Often perched on cliffs, settled in a valley, in remote mountains or beside the sea, these villages offered superb scenery, history, unique shopping, and, of course, dining.

Gourdon is a medieval village perched on a rocky outcrop looking out over the Dordogne. When you arrive in the village through its fortified gates, you’ll see steep narrow streets and beautiful half-

timbered houses that reflect the wealth of the weavers and cloth sellers who used to live there.

At the top of the village, where a castle and its fortifications once stood, there is a huge embankment with 360° views over the Perigord and Bouriane countryside, stretching as far as the eye can see. If you’d like a little shade, go down to the Butte Gardens, les jardins de la Butte, a series of gardens that display how gardens have changed over the ages.

Èze is perched at the top of an impressively high cliff, offering stunning views, cobbled streets, blond stone houses, and a superb exotic botanical garden. This medieval village is filled with beautifully restored buildings and historic fountains as well as plenty of artisan shops and a botanical garden featuring cacti and grasses overlooking the old castle. Upon our entrance, we were enveloped by the sweet scent of jasmine in bloom and the intense colours of bougainvillea cascading from the tower-like edifices gently preserved for the ages. 

Château Eza, constructed during the Baroque movement some 400 years ago, beckoned a visit for lunch. On a summer boat trip through the Mediterranean with his father, King Gustaf of Sweden, Prince William of Sweden and Norway was mesmerised by the spectacular greatness mounted right outside of Nice. Having been inspired by the grand beauty, the Prince did not hesitate to purchase the cluster of stately homes standing gracefully among the Middle Ages village that comprise Château Eza today. This magnificent stone structure, found at the end of a winding cobblestone street, was known as The Prince of Sweden’s Castle until 1976.

In the restaurant, we dined on sumptuous delights while presented with a simply stunning view of the countryside and sparkling sea. We forewent the rosé table wine for rosé bubbles, served elegantly in Lalique flutes, as we absorbed the sunshine and 180° panoramic view from the terrace. 

Some highlights of the meal, all cooked to perfection by chef Matthieu Gasnier, included a courgette flower stuffed with basil and pine nuts, taggiasche olive chutney, fresh goat cheese cannelloni and rocket pistou; Krystal caviar blinis; and grape tomatoes marinated in lemon balsamic and paired with a seared calamari with smoked aubergine mousse.

 A visit to the Fragonard Parfumeur in Grasse brought the trip full circle from the fields of lavender to the finished product and enhanced our appreciation of French love and production of botanics. Shortly before the First World War, Eugène Fuchs, an entrepreneur at heart who had already been seduced by the magic of perfume, decided to set up his own perfumery based on the novel concept of selling perfumery products directly to the tourists who were beginning to discover the French Rivera’s charms. Parfumerie Fragonard was opened in 1926, with Eugène choosing to name it after the famous Grasse-born painter, Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), as a tribute to both the town of
Grasse and to the refinement of 18th century arts.

All too soon, it was time to leave. However, I know this is only au revoir as this summer fantasy furthered our delight in France and the many untold treasures she holds for all visitors. 

  • Flights direct from Luton to Nice with easyjet from £25pp each way
  • The south of France has a brilliant train system through the SNCF, with tickets from as little as £2
  • Stay in Menton from £96 per night at the Hôtel Napoleon or the Ibis Menton from £55 per night. Check for the best rates
  • Château Eza lunch menu €60 for three courses
  • Fragonard Parfumeur in Grasse free entry

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