France: Finding Peace on the Cote d’Azure
By Kent E. St. John
Senior Travel Editor
Mixed with the soothing scent of lavender was a tinge of sea air, that is until the food arrived. Soon the fragrant smell of lamb roasted with garlic dominated the olive grove, definitely not anything like the Olive Garden restaurants one finds near malls in the US.
This olive grove is owned by a company that has undergone a massive change in recent years that I salute — yes, I mean Club Med!
Far from the old image of the Club Med village as an isolated enclave for hedonistic party people, Opio in the Cote d’ Azure is truly a great place to explore the mountain villages that surround this slice of heaven, and really engage with the local culture.
As a member of the backpack generation of travelers, I never felt inclined to trade beads for drinks and party with other tourists, but the Club Med village at Opio en Provence provided a peaceful, stylish base for exploration, not easy in one of France’s most touristed areas.
Age has taught me that real value comes down to what you get. From my base at Opio I explored parts of France that the Entourage crew from HBO surely wouldn’t find; they can have Cannes. And I didn’t need a bundle of beads!
The ancient village of Gourdon
Above It All
As I struggled through a massive breakfast from my rooftop perch at Opio I noticed a huge mountain in the distance. A fellow early eater noted my interest and told me that he happened to be at the top of that mountain the day before. His description of a rock fortress and a small ancient village convinced me that Gourdon might make the perfect first village to explore. It was.
The stone village of Gourdon was stunning, and the view from La Place Victoria simply amazing. Far out on the horizon the blue of the Mediterranean was interspersed with cities and towns such as Cannes and the Antibes.
Hang gliders seemed to float like colorful butterflies and the air was lit in shades that only a painter could describe.
Behind me the massive peak of Castellarras stood like an ancient sentry. There was a fantastic option open to those with a sense of adventure, a hike down the mule path, once the only way in and out of Gourdon.
The view from a room at Opio
Hiking down the Gorge du Loup wasn’t difficult, but caution is needed as it is rocky and can be steep. It was sheer peaceful delight. Plants and natural herbs blended into a symphony of fragrance only bested by visual stimuli of a blessed panorama.
A few hours later I sat near the pool at Opio with a glass of local wine in hand and no wallet. A thirsty man with no budget restrictions… the Opio style was rapidly growing on me.
If the Vatican is the center of Catholicism, Grasse is the Mecca for perfume. Granted, in these modern times perfume is produced everywhere, but historically it is Grasse that is forever intertwined with seductive smell armor.
I can only imagine what scents were needed in the past, when bathing was considered unhealthy. It was the profusion of lavender, violets, roses and jasmine that were used by the early masters to develop the fragrances.
Testing perfumes at Grasse
From what I learned in Grasse it wasn’t an easy job! To be a “nose” meant no smoking, drinking or undue pleasures. I certainly wouldn’t have been a candidate for such sacred work.
Today the old town or (“vielle ville”) is filled with 17th and 18th century buildings that are reminiscent of the village’s past days.
Hidden gems such as three paintings by Rubens in the Notre Dame du Puy cathedral make Grasse a must see, not just another picturesque village near Opio.
The Perfumeries Fragonard were a great place to learn about the history and process of perfume making, and the admission is free. Even today local growers bring in jasmine flowers for perfume production; jasmine was introduced to Grasse from Nepal in 1560. Its fragrance is another Cote d’Azure bonus and found everywhere.
Mougins and Art, but First a Quick Bite
My first impressions exploring the town Mougins and its hilly streets were the breath taking views of the sun-kissed surrounding Esterel Mountains. Apparently it has been done by far better trained eyes than mine; Picasso lived and painted here.
Dinner in Mougins
Others like Man Ray and Catherine Deneuve have also lived in Mougins; it is a scant four and a half miles from Cannes.
It is, however, food that makes Mougins go round. It is said that Mougins has more great food per square foot than anywhere else in France, a heady claim. While my meals at Opio were grand I longed for one out of this world. I found it in Mougins.
A culinary icon named Roger Verge has done much to further Mougins’s international food reputation, and his world class Le Moulins de Mougins is located near town. What you might not know is that he operates another smaller place right in town called L’ Amandier.
L’Amandier is far cheaper but lacks nothing in décor and delicious food. The ivy covered terrace while the sun sets is a dining experience not soon forgotten. A walk after dinner through the town’s narrow streets is visually stimulating. Electric lights further enhance the Cote d’ Azure’s natural sky colors.
Dogs bark and people eat. Bottles of wine fill sidewalk tables and all is well.
Playing boules in St. Paul
St. Paul de Vence
You cannot expect not to run into some crowds when visiting the Cote d’ Azure in June, but St. Paul is too pretty to be missed, despite the multitudes; sometimes a traveler must share.
Before breaching the ramparts of St. Paul, stop in the tree-covered Café de la Place and watch the boules games going on. Right across the way is the La Colombe d’Or, a place where many struggling artists such as Matisse, Picasso and Miro paid for heavenly meals with art work. Struggle yourself and sneak in — it is well worth it.
For me a visit to Marc Chagall’s grave was a sort of pilgrimage as he spent some time just down the street from where I live in High Falls, New York. It was moving to see rocks piled on Chagall’s tomb in the Jewish style of remembrance, even with hoards of tourists.
A pleasant and surprisingly quiet retreat is the nearby Foundation Maeght, an art museum of treasures that was built in 1960 to house a collection put together by a couple who bought paintings from Jews fleeing the South of France during WWII.
The gardens at Opio
Today the museum is also a place that houses artists amidst a garden with sculptures by Miro. All in all, St. Paul de Vence deserved its coach busses; centuries have built it into a destination.
Club Med, a Sanctuary, Trust Me
My travel life started with a backpack and few bucks, and surprisingly the goal of Club Med after World War II was to allow war-ravaged Frenchmen on a budget to travel.
In one of the busiest spots for summer tourism, the Opio Village was a peaceful and tranquil place to headquarter with great accommodations and grounds. If you want peace and space, this is the place.
Walking through olive groves and lavender gardens was sheer bliss. The staff was unobtrusive and the local dishes were plentiful.
I looked forward to my return every night and my own game of boules with the scent of the Cote d’Azure as a backdrop.
Johnny Jet on the flying trapeze
Perhaps my only complaint was getting fellow travel writer Johnny Jet off of the trapeze; it was the only circus attraction available, unless it was me piling on pounds at the great buffet!
For more information visit the Opio en Provence website.
Every place in France has its own tourism board from major cities to small villages. The places visited on my trip just happen to have very good and informative ones. The sites have information on historic background and shops and restaurants that will help you plan your days.
I flew Air France out of Boston instead of the closer to home JFK. I found that the flights were far less booked even though I had to travel farther to catch them. The flight was seamless and satisfying.
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Kent St John
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