Friday 9 December 2016

Travel - France: In the foothills of Saint Tropez

Judy Murray

Published 01/02/2016 | 02:30

Enchanting: With the azure Mediterranean on one side and charming cliffs above, St Tropez always exercises its sophisticated charm on the traveller.
Enchanting: With the azure Mediterranean on one side and charming cliffs above, St Tropez always exercises its sophisticated charm on the traveller.
Millionaires' playground: Large and expensive yachts lie in the harbour

On previous occasions when I have flown into Nice Cote d'Azur International Airport, I have travelled east by train along the sparkling coast to Northern Italy to spend time with friends in San Remo. This time, for a change, I headed west, and drove towards the more sophisticated delights of the Golfe de St. Tropez.

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We were staying in a house in Domaine de la Vigie up in the foothills near Les Issambres, and decided to take the scenic route from Nice, along the coast road through Antibes and Juan le Pins, catching glimpses of the bougainvillea-swathed houses perched high up on the cliffs on my right and the glistening Mediterranean far far below on my left.

I had anticipated the drive along la Croissette in Cannes, the wind blowing through my hair, and the admiring glances of other holiday makers. Unfortunately the reality was a bumper to bumper crawl in the late evening heat, enviously eyeing linen-clad ladies (with the de rigueur small dog) sipping something cool under shady umbrellas.

Thankfully, we soon arrived at the beautiful Domaine de la Vigie just as dusk fell. Navigating a final steep winding road we were soon exploring our comfortable French farmhouse-style home which we got through Interhome. One "wing "of the house had a charming living room, two bedrooms (one ensuite) , a large kitchen and bathroom. Another area had a self- contained bedroom, bathroom and kitchen, and the basement housed a laundry room, large bathroom and a generous games room. There were several pull-out double beds as well.

At the heart, a perfectly appointed kitchen with every gadget and utensil required by the foodie, whose idea of a good holiday is to cook up a storm using local produce from the various nearby towns and markets.

The next morning we discovered "our" pool, a generous 10 x 4m gem, where, while swimming, we could look down to the sparkling azure Mediterranean stretching to the horizon far below. After a leisurely swim and breakfast we decided to head up into the hills of the Massif des Maures and spent some pleasant hours trekking along aromatic paths filled with the scent of juniper, mint, gentian and sage before the heat of the midday sun become uncomfortable.

We headed back to base and a lunch of the freshest of local bread, meats and cheeses bought en route in the weekly market in Les Issambres. Our only really big decision was which terrace at the house to dine on, the one overlooking the pool and endless blue of the Med, or the pergola shaded one looking up to the mountains we had just come from. Afterwards we discovered yet another terrace on which to play a surprisingly competitive round of boules!

It can be very hard to leave your very "own" pool, but we were here to explore, so the next day we dragged ourselves away from its delights and drove the 10km distance to St. Maxine to check out the covered market in the town centre at Rue Fernand Bessy. This market is held every morning, and there is nothing better than watching very exacting French housewives (and husbands) checking the ripeness of the peaches, the freshness of the fish.

At the tables in the centre of the market groups order bottles of chilled wine from the bar, platters of oysters from the fishmonger, and delicious local cheese from the fromagerie, a perfect lunch, at reasonable prices, all within the buzz and noise of a busy, local market.

Time for a little culture, so we headed to Le Thoronet Abbey, one of the best known Cistercian abbeys in Provence. We drove (about 50 km) through the forested hills between Draguignan and Brignoles and arriving at a bend of the Argens river, came upon the beautifully simple 12th century Abbey, the small exterior footprint belying the size of the building inside. Currently owned by the State, the French certainly know how to restore their ruins and run their historic sites.

The purity and simplicity of the design was dictated by the demands of community life, and as we explored, it was not hard to imagine the monks going about their daily business. In the dormitory, despite the passage of time, it is possible to see where the monks slept, each place for a mattress marked out by paving stones on the floor.

In complete contrast, the following day, as we drove the roads along the Golfe de St. Tropez, we got caught up in quite a traffic jam, which resulted in one of the best finds of the holiday.

It was early afternoon, restaurants in the area were filled with noisy tourist revellers, so we thought we would cut our losses and head back home for some peace and quiet (and "our" pool). However, a small sign enticed us to turn off the main road, down a dusty track lined with Cypress trees to a lovely farmhouse.

Soon, our most welcome host had us seated in a shady olive grove, crisp linen on our table.

By happy accident we had arrived in Auberge La Cousteline (www.lacousteline.fr) which specialises in local, seasonal, Provencal cuisine. There was not much choice, as it was technically past lunchtime but we did not need it. We had freshly dressed Caesar Salad, sea bass stuffed with fennel, a tender pink veal chop, velvet mashed potato (liberal use of butter AND olive oil) and the prettiest kilner jar of peas, mange tout, spinach and shallots.

Desert was a towering homemade lemon meringue pie, and our wine a lovely chilled bottle of Le Perl, a local white wine. Throughout we people-watched, fascinated that some of our fellow guests brought their dogs to table in handbags.

On our last morning we drove to Nice airport, along the A8. There was no wind in my hair, but this time the 60km took about an hour, which left us plenty of time before departure to have some final swims, and to decide where we would visit along this lovely coastline on our next visit.

Getting there

For more information on Interhome, visit www.interhome.ie. Or call 01 4311086.Interhome properties are also bookable through reputable travel agencies. For details on what to visit in the area, see www.frenchriviera-tourism.com. Aer Lingus and Ryanair will fly daily to Nice from the end of March, www.aerlingus.com, www.ryanair.com

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