It was in Provence that I actually liked France for the very first time. It was October 2003, and I had finally escaped the misery of Paris for a long weekend with my girlfriends.
I still remember catching that first glimpse of the Mediterranean Sea from the road — its sparkling waters blending into cloudless blue sky, ragged coastline covered with vineyards and pine forests, terracotta roofs of sunlit little villages. Over the next four days we hit up most main towns on the Riviera: Nice, Monte-Carlo, Saint-Tropez and Marseilles, plus dipped into the mountains to visit Grasse, the “world capital of perfume,” where many famous scents are developed and produced.
It was a trip of many ‘firsts’ and surprises. My first marzipan – something whimsically shaped – from the Nice Old Town market. My first nudist beach, serving up a revelation that most people who let it all hang out should really cover up, for the sake of the rest of us. My first sighting of mega-yachts, in the Monaco harbor. My first, terrifying, serpentine road, through Provence’s steep hills and valleys. My first watercolor waterfront, in Saint-Tropez.
We were shocked to discover that one of the most famous beaches on the planet, stretching for more than three miles along Nice’s Promenade des Anglais, was all boulders the size of an egg. Yet we were still happy to run into the warm waves crashing into it. We shamelessly ogled a volleyball match between two teams of buff firefighters, like schoolgirls, and sipped wine in sea-side cafes, like grown-ups.
There was an art fair taking place in Saint-Tropez that weekend, and to this day a week does not pass that I do not think think back to one particular stand of faux-fauvist paintings of local landscapes, all mosaics of exaggerated blues, pinks and oranges and blinding whites. That is the imprint that the French Riviera left in my mind.
Cote d’Azur can be overwhelming even in the off-season. The traffic, the heat and the prices are the main reasons I find the region much more enjoyable in the spring and fall. In recent years I have ventured out as far west as the limestone cliffs of Calanques de Cassis and as far west as the mountain-top village of Eze, with stops in Cannes and Antibes in-between. Once I even voted in a Russian consulate in Marseilles!
Panoramic views of the coast is my favorite thing about this corner of France, by far. I prefer the lush greenery of the inland to the prickly Mediterranean landscape. I am indifferent to seafood — including the local specialty, bouillabaisse fish stew. I am annoyed by over-the-top glitz and allergic to permanent crowds.
The crowds do, admittedly, subside once you venture off the coast and into the Provençal countryside (although not by much in peak months). Here you will find photogenic villages perchés, or perched villages, like Gordes and Bonnieux, and natural wonders of unnatural colors, like milky turquoise waters of Gorge du Verdon and red ochre ridges of Roussillon (not to be confused with a homonomous province in French Catalonia).
It is here that you will find sunlit olive groves, cypress trees jutting up into the sky, cherry blossoms in early spring, and sunflowers and lavender blooming into late summer. Those blankets of yellow and purple are something I am yet to see for myself.
I have devoured Peter Mayle’s One Year in Provence, Provence from A to Z and 25 Years in Provence in a matter of hours. I was fully taken with their evocative prose; nevertheless, it failed to beckon me to the Provence. Kind of surprising, considering that a veritable tourist invasion spurred by Mayle’s books actually forced him to abandon his little piece of heaven, non? I like Provence well enough, but even after 17 years I have not yet found that je ne sais quoi that constantly calls me to other parts of France.