Merci Beaucoup, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur
By Janice Llanes Fabry
As soon as we heard about our son’s intentions to study abroad in Barcelona, my husband and I got on board, too. Why not go see Jason mid-semester, around the time we’d really be missing him, and take a vacation at the same time? Since we had already visited that beautiful Spanish city on the Mediterranean coastline, we figured we’d only spend a couple of days there before heading on to the south of France. I already know Spanish, so I picked up Rosetta Stone for French. It didn’t take long before the interactive language software got way over my head, but at least I got my bonjour, bonsoir, boulangerie, and fromagerie straight.
One of our daughters was able to take some time off from work and join us for several days with her brother, too. After visiting Jason’s residencia, and meeting his new friends, we whisked him off on a flight to Nice, then a short drive to Monaco at the base of the Alpes Maritimes, only 12 miles away. Entering the fabled city-state on the French Riviera is like crossing the threshold into a storybook world, where everything is pristine, shiny, and bewitching.
After the Vatican, Monaco is the world’s smallest sovereign state. The old part of town is set on the Rock, a tall monolith on the Mediterranean coast that is the home of its neo-Romanesque cathedral and museums. At the palace square, the Changing of the Guards takes place ceremoniously every day at 11:55 a.m. Having reigned since the 13th century, the Grimaldis are the world’s oldest ruling monarchy. It’s charming to see photos of Prince Albert and Princess Charlene everywhere, as well as that of his beloved mother, Princess Grace (Kelly). Tourists still leave flowers at the foot of the former actress’ tombstone in the cathedral.
Tiny as it is, Monaco’s residents and tourists live large. All one has to do to observe the opulence is drop by the Opera House with its marble atrium and onyx columns, or the Monte Carlo Casino, opened by Prince Charles III to save himself from bankruptcy in 1856. Even the vehicles parked outside have their own paparazzi, as tourists snap photos of the Bentleys, Rolls-Royces, and Lamborghinis. It is quite magnificent with its Belle Époque décor and private blackjack salons. Jason tried his hand at roulette and won $300, which made the 20-year-old’s night.
From our “home” base in Monaco, we took several excursions via train or tram, most notably to Eze. The perched village, dating back to the ninth century, rises like a jagged summit on a hilltop 1,400 feet above sea level. Not realizing what a steep, rocky climb it would be, I had the bright idea to hike up to the top. A sign at the Eze de Mar train stop warned it would take about an hour and a half to reach the top, which I cavalierly dismissed. “We’re fast-paced New Yorkers. It will take us no time at all,” I told the kids and my supportive husband. “Besides, it’s all in the journey.”
We may not have had any water or the proper footwear, but with determination we set out on Nietzsche’s Path, named for the philosopher, who was inspired by Eze. Jason conked out after sprinting to the top and Jena’s new shoes took a beating, but the medieval village was well worth it. Intertwining the ruins of a 12th-century castle, its colorful narrow streets and high stonewalls are sprinkled with charming shops and quaint eateries. We were fortified anew by delicious ravioli with truffle oil before walking through the tippy-top’s Jardin Exotique. This crowning glory offered breathtaking panoramic sea views as far as Corsica. Heaven on earth.
Bonding with our adult kids is particularly exhilarating and fun when we’re on vacation, but, alas, it was time to bid them adieu as they returned to school and work. We, on the other hand, rented a car and drove east to explore Provence. The French countryside is surrounded by mountains, hillside villages, terracotta rooftops, expansive plains, and unexpected little gems. On a drive between Barjols and Riez, we were suddenly surrounded by hundreds of goats being herded from one farm to another. In Valensole, we were greeted by sweeping fields of lavender. Although they weren’t a deep purple as they are when harvested, the flower of Provence beckoned us to return in the summer when it is.
Being the largest producer of wine in the world, France’s vineyards are bountiful and Provence is its warmest wine region, ideal for the production of rosé and red wines. We drove up to several chateaus and were heartily welcomed by the passionate winemakers. Those who didn’t speak English gave me the opportunity to stumble over my Rosetta Stone-remedial French. All offered complimentary wine tastings.
Producing wines since 600 B.C., Bandol is one of its most internationally known wine regions. Our French friend Freddy from Mamaroneck had suggested, “Go to Bandol and drink rosé all day,” so we did. Tucked away in a bay, this enchanting seaside village turned out to be the jewel of our trip. We fell in love with its flower-decked marina, rocky coves, sandy beaches, and tree-lined promenades. Our morning baguette, freshly baked and warm, was pretty jaw-dropping, too.
Another charming resort town we visited was Cassis, which is enveloped by limestone hills. Along its coast, Les Calanques, inlets surrounded by vertical white cliffs in deep blue waters, were a sight to behold. Of course, we went on to visit the more commercial, but still beautiful St. Tropez and Cannes. On our drive along the coastline, we found ourselves on the Corniche de l’Esterel, the road along the base of the Massif de l’Esterel. This mountain range of red ochre rock, contrasted by the deep blue of the Mediterranean, was spectacular.
We ended our trip at a bed and breakfast at Haut-de-Cagnes, an ancient hilltop village outside of Nice with narrow streets, stone steps, and vaulted passages. Our 14th century villa was run by Fiona, a warm, plucky woman from Ireland who arrived in the south of France years ago and never returned home. She gave us pause.