It was late spring on my first journey to the French Riviera, and adventure beckoned.
Fortunately, adventure also brought along a mini-van.
Climbing aboard and taking a private, small-group spin around the romantic mountain towns and glittering coastline of France’s Côte d’Azur with Kensington Tours proved to be just the experience I’d hoped for:
Simply magnifique. After a long, lovely drive from a stunning villa in Provence to the elegant coastal city of Nice, at day’s end my joie de vivre was nearly squelched by Vieux Nice’s narrow, one-way streets and streaming traffic, as well as luggage-juggling up two flights of 19th-century apartment stairs. But a face-planting nap, a tall glass of wine, the warm humor of my traveling companions (my pal Christine and her dear friends Jeremy and Mary), and a fine dinner of magret de canard at the friendly Le Démodé restaurant soon restored my flagging spirits.
The next day brought fresh croissants and coffee from a corner boulangerie, coupled with a flurry of anticipation. Of our little group, only Christine had ever been to Nice before, but she hadn’t wandered far; our day-long exploration of the French Riviera would essentially be a first for all of us.
Best of all? I would get a break from driving.
In the heart of Vieux Nice, we met up with our tour guide, Pierre, bundled into his shiny new mini-van, and began our winding climb into the southern Alps. Pierre, a rakish and smiling Riviera native, was thrilled to show off some of the finest mountain towns of the Alpes-Maritimes: St-Paul-de-Vence, Tourettes sur Loup, Grasse, and Gourdon.
The most famous of the Côte d’Azur’s mountain towns, St-Paul-de-Vence had the biggest crowds we’d see all day; by about 11am, the dirt-packed main square was already brimming with Germans playing petánque, a French bowling game played with metal balls called boules. Also on display: Japanese tourists with enormous sun visors, boisterous Italian school groups, and the occasional dazzled, blinking American. (Like, say, us.)
Fortunately, it’s possible to get photos without anyone in them, and to find quiet corners in which to sit, and chat and gaze. The whole town looks like an advertisement for France, with flower pots of herbs and inlaid stones on the walking paths winding up to the Eglise Collégiale de la Conversion de Saint-Paul, the cathedral of Vence.
St-Paul-de-Vence was a hangout for some of Europe’s greatest artists from the 1920s through the early ’50s, largely because Paul Roux, aspiring painter and innkeeper of the now-famous (and expensive) La Colombe d’Or, had a soft spot for then-starving artists living in the area. Roux had good taste in friends, and the gardens and walls of the hotel are full of artworks by Picasso, Braque, Miró, Matisse, Leger, Calder and more, all donated in exchange for meals and overnight stays.
Just inside the hotel’s side courtyard, this statue of a giant thumb thrilled our foursome to no end.
One of Vence’s most remarkable sights is its cliff’s edge cemetery, which harbors whole/deceased generations of local families, as well as the grave of artist Marc Chagall. When facing the mountains, the grave is about 40 feet in to the right, covered with stones of tribute.
Also when facing the mountains, the view is ah-mazing.
Tourettes sur Loup
A tiny, quiet village renowned for making things out of violets, like soap, candy, ice cream, perfume, etc., Tourettes was almost devoid of human beings on the day we visited — and that suited us just fine.
Full of secret courtyards, lounging cats, and cafés so adorable you could pinch their cheeks, there is no pressing reason to come here other than to wander up and down cobbled stairways, do a bit of shopping, buy yourselves a treat, and repeat. In other words, it’s an ideal spot to get a sense of what a mountain village is really like in these parts.
As we pulled away from town along a hairpin turns or three, I readied my camera to catch Tourettes in its full tumble of stone houses and clay tiles – and this was the best I got.
Perfume-Making at Fragonard, in Grasse
For months prior to our trip, my friend Christine and I had been excited about taking the Fragonard Perfumer’s Apprentice Workshop; by the time we arrived at the Fragonard laboratory in the perfume-making town of Grasse, we were lucky we didn’t squeal like small children right in front of everyone.
( Wait…I lied just now. We squealed like small children in front of everyone.)
Fragonard has been making perfume in France since the 1780s, but when French crystal-makers like Lalique began to design unique bottles for its perfumes in the 1920s, it arguably hit its most fashionable stride. The brand is still popular in Europe, but aside from the Fragonard online shop, its perfumes can be hard to find in North America and beyond.
After a brief tour of the professional-grade perfume-making process, our little group was invited into the gleaming white workshop room (which we had to ourselves) and given aprons, pencils, beakers and oils. Unleashed upon a rogue wave of delightful smells, romantic couple Mary and Jeremy quickly distinguished themselves as accomplished perfumiers; Jeremy proved a master at blending scents, while Mary could identify any scent with a single whiff.
Christine and I just had fun and grinned a lot. At the end of our hour-long session, we all four poured our particular custom blends into glass Fragonard bottles to take home, replete with packaging that ensured our creations would safely travel with us.
My own custom perfume is a lemony-orange concoction I dubbed “Neroli Med,” which I spritz behind my ears when I want to be transported back to the Cote d’Azur. (So, yeah…I wear it a lot.)
The journey to Gourdon would be harrowing for anyone afraid of narrow-road mountain driving (like my dear and brave Christine), but for those unfettered by depth-perception issues, the trip is its own reward. Carved into the craggy Gorges du Loup, which is full of troglodyte caves and sluicing waterfalls, Gourdon has been a well-guarded fortress since nigh on the 9th century.
It also has one of the loveliest herb gardens I’ve ever seen, visible from the town’s main parking lot.
While you’re exploring Gourdon, poking your head into chapels and churches and shops built back in the 11th and 12th centuries, be sure to pause out at the town’s edges to sigh over the surrounding gorge. The breeze ruffles the leaves on the ancient fig and lime trees, and it may just blow your mind that, just as much as a vine-covered villa in Provence, a half-timbered farmhouse in Normandy, or a château in the Loire Valley, this right here is France.
On the way back, Pierre was gracious enough to take us home the very long way, for a spin through glamorous Antibes, then a stop along the coast at the exact spot where you can see almost the entire French Riviera in one glance.
This tour of the mountain towns (and some of the coastline) of the Cote d’Azur, available as a custom offering through Kensington Tours, lasted about 4 1/2 hours.Contact Kensington directly through the site to ask about a day tour of the French Riviera/Cote d’Azur, and you’re off to the races.
On behalf of Christine, a travel writer who lives in France, our group’s tour was provided free of charge; that said, I feel it would be extremely worthwhile to book this excursion if you’ve come to the area without a car. We were given several options of what to see and plenty of time to explore, never feeling rushed, harried or lost.
It was an idyllic day in the South of France.