Cote d’Azur: Marriages, Menus and Magic
Short breaks in France
There is something magical about the South of France, particularly the Cote d'Azur, says Constance Harris.
It has nothing to do with the glamour, celebrity and wealth that arrive in their droves come May. Rather, it is the inner peace evoked by the unique light and the varied shades, even luminescence, of the Mediterranean Sea. It is the mountains that go down to the sea. It is the abundance of dark green foliage.
And, of course, it is the amazing food and rich culture that is integral to the area.
When people talk of the South of France, they tend to think of Cannes. And St Tropez. Now they are all very well and good but they tend to be busy. To me, maybe I am a philistine, they are both day trips. Instead, I was thrilled to find a gem of a place called Mimozas Resort Cannes, in Mandelieu-la Napoule, from which I planned to launch my further explorations of the Cote d'Azur. As is the way with travel it turned out to be a stunning destination in itself. More of that later.
First from Les Mimozas, I struck out for Antibes, my favourite place in the Cote d'Azur, just 16 kilometres away.
Antibes has been settled for at least 2,000 years. In some places, the high walls, round towers and battlements, which face the sea and protect it, determine the town's boundaries.
Within those impressive walls is the town, bustling with restaurants, cafes, shops, fresh food and crafts markets and the Hotel de Ville, where couples come to get officially married.
There are lots of atmospheric old buildings, now housing art galleries and restaurants.
One building has a Picasso museum with a permanent exhibition of ceramics, paintings and sketches done by him one summer, in the 1940s, when he lived there with friends.
I have to admit I dragged my heels at the thought of looking at more morose, surrealist art (told you, I am a philistine), but I had to revise my opinion of the man; these works were rich and showed a playful and happy side to Picasso that I had never known existed.
There is also an exhibition of black and white photographs taken of Picasso while he was at work during his stay, in which he poses with willingness beside his works-in-progress. I came out of the museum feeling good with the world. Things only got better when I happened upon a wedding.
In France, people have to get married in the Hotel de Ville (a kind of register office) before they can have a church wedding (should they so wish).
If you are a fan of the films Muriel's Wedding or My Big Fat Greek Wedding, then Saturday afternoons at the Hotel de Ville in Place Messena, Antibes, is your place to be.
Wedding parties come spilling out onto the street, from the register office, in perfect placement for all around to properly assess, a) the bride and groom's suitability, b) the dress, c) the new mother-in-law's true feelings about the union, and d) the enthusiasm and quality of all their friends.
In Antibes, on the Saturday I was there, brides were favouring simple, white, 1960s-like summer dresses. Grooms sported equally 1960s skinny-fit suits. Unlike in Ireland, mothers-of-the-bride/groom dress to look good (as in still sexy and attractive), as opposed to reflect their role at the wedding. They wore stylish ensembles. They wore a stylish, not OTT, hat. It was at times, very Mrs. Robinson-like - who do we admire, the bride, or her mother?
If you want to really enjoy the weddings, I recommend you find a cafe with optimum view. Or buy some peaches in the market and set up camp on the steps opposite where you can just gawk, as I did. I also blatantly took pictures, and not only did the bridal party not object, they posed for me.
Mornings in Antibes are the time to go food shopping, as markets, boulangeries and butchers are open then. The Cote d'Azur comes awake in the evenings and as the fashion clothes shops, bookshops and trendy cafes open, the food stores close down.
Cuisine wise, Antibes has many good restaurants. Popular in the region is what is called cuisine Provençale - food that is made from local produce that is simple and flavourful. One of the most typical meals (and good) is called Aioli, which to us is garlic mayonnaise, but in this part of France it is always a dish of fresh fish on a generous plate of cooked vegetables accompanied by the restaurant's own home-made garlic aioli. If the aioli itself isn't utterly pungent and fresh, you should leave the restaurant.
For my long-standing favourite restaurant, see the 'Take three' list. But discovery is the essence of all holidays. One day, when it seemed most restaurants in Antibes were closed and the heat was getting too much for us, we came across the large, tree-dappled courtyard of Restaurant le Safranier (1, Place du Safranier). Stopping there had nothing to do with the fact that one of the waiters was a cross between a young Nicolas Cage and a young Harry Connick junior. The menu was good. And they let us sit and relax the afternoon away in the lovely dappled shade.
While Nicolas/Harry brooded handsomely and showed benign tolerance of our endless procrastinations over the menu, his colleague filled us in on the history of the area.
This is old Antibes, the part where the Romans would have settled. On one of our wanders we came across a large stone bath; we believed it was used for washing clothes as it had deep, round groves on its sides and water constantly flowed through it.
Though I absolutely love Antibes, I loved spending time too in the Mimozas Resort Cannes, which is in Mandalieu - La Napoule. We decided to rent a car for the trip so that we could explore with ease, and were glad we did, as taxis were expensive.
The Mimozas resort is a complex of about eight, three-storey buildings, set around a large, man-made lake, which was full of entertaining wildlife. At sunset, it was positively Venetian.
It is a purpose-built, self-catering resort with one-, two-, three-bedroom and studio accommodation, but with the benefit of hotel-like facilities such as a restaurant and bar in the resort's main building.
We had a three-bedroom apartment that was well designed and generously sized which meant no one felt cramped and got so tense that they wanted to kill anyone. The balcony, which in our case was huge and overlooked the lake, was fabulous for dining al fresco. Some mornings we made our own breakfasts and on others, we enjoyed the hotel's great breakfast buffet.
What made us fall in love with the Mimozas Resort Cannes were the grounds. They were spacious and beautifully landscaped with little streams and small waterfalls around the place. A lovely swimming pool was tucked away in privacy, as was the playground. I discovered there was also a children's club in the complex, and a divine Yonka Spa, so definitely it is one for mothers looking for a break.
A board-walk ran right round the lake's edges, which had a little island in the centre of it. Daily we stopped to watch the birds on the little island, the fish swimming around and turtles trying to climb rocks. One night, when walking back from dinner in the Mimozas' restaurant, we nearly stepped on a frog. It was like Gunfight at the OK Corral as the frog and I stared into each other's eyes to see who was scared the most.
Mandelieu-La Napoule is the name given to two townlands that have come together. Walking from Mimozas to the beach took about ten minutes. We passed golf courses which had amazing big, old trees on them. The area is full of waterways and even has a ferry to carry golfers across from one side of the river to the other so that they could continue to play. Everywhere there was water, there was a marina exploding with pleasure crafts, from budget sized to billionaire.
One of the absolute highlights of our entire trip was that walk to La Napoule from our accommodation, in which we discovered the fascinating and quirky, Chateau de la Napoule (see chateau-lanapoule.com).
Along the way, we came across restaurant Oasis Raimbault, a Michelin two-star restaurant run by the three brothers Raimbault. Unfortunately, it was closed the weekend we were there, but their patisserie, a bijou little joint, was not. Expect to see exquisite (and expensive) hand made chocolates and sweet delights.
Along this route, on Rue Henry Clews, we found several excellent restaurants with incredibly friendly staff. It was here we found the best Aoili dishes in the region. The more humble-looking the restaurant appeared on the outside, the more the Aoili dish was guaranteed to be stunning. Also, in La Napoule, the proximity of Italy was very evident in the cuisine; there were lots of Italian/French dishes on offer. We loved La Calanque, with its leafy and shady dining area and pan Italian/French/Moroccan menu.
It was about 100 meters later, as we walked up a hill, that we first saw Chateau de la Napoule, an extraordinary passion project of two Americans who came to the area in the 1920s.
Henry and Maria Clews were both children of extremely wealthy American bankers. Maria, a stunningly beautiful woman, caused a huge scandal in the States when she left her husband for Henry, an aspiring artist, who left his wife.
They escaped the judgement of society there and made for the Cote d'Azur and bought a crumbling wreck of an old château on a promontory by the sea. Together, they made it a place of fantasy and ego, spiritual expression and deepest love.
For over 20 years, Henry and Maria poured money into the resurrection of the old chateau. Henry, who was much inspired by Columbian art, proceeded to sculpt and carve Star Wars-like creatures and personal words of wisdom, on every piece of stone, every door, every lock and bolt of the castle. The grounds are full of his amazing sculptures. Maria supported her husband's vision. Soon their home became the epicentre of style and new culture on the Cote d'Azur.
Henry and Maria left the most extraordinary legacy for us to enjoy and discover. I highly recommend visiting it. The grounds are full of playful sculptures, the interiors of the house full of Henry's satirical artistic observations. And do eat in the chateau cafe; though the menu is unassuming, the food was delicate and fresh. The Earl Grey, served on the exterior terrace overlooking the bay, was excellent and the ambiance unlike anything you will experience elsewhere.
Constance stayed at Mimozas Resort Cannes. Prices vary according to dates. Prices start from €169 in low season for a one-bedroom apartment with lake view and €269 for a three-bedroom apartment. Prices start from €274 per night in July for a one-bedroom apartment and €403 for a three-bedroom.
For more information and special offers, see mimozascannes.com. Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) and Ryanair (ryanair.com) fly daily to Nice in summer.
Take Three: Top attractions
La Taille de Guepe
Tucked away in the old town in Antibes, La Taille de Guepe, 24 Rue de Fersen, is one of those secret, stunning finds. It is run by a husband and wife team; he does the cooking, she is front of house, the menu is based upon the region’s traditional cuisine using all local ingredients. The lunch menu is fabulous value. Everything is excellent. But their flower-salad, the prettiest dish I have ever seen, is a must.
Every Saturday, in Place Nationale, Antibes, which is a large square surrounded by trees and street cafes, there is a vintage market from 10am through to 3pm. It’s all about style and taste. Discover unique 1930s crystal chandeliers. Expect to see mad toys from the 1960s and 1970s, not to mention the kitschiest jewellery on the planet. Especially noteworthy for fantastic designer vintage clothing by Chanel, Dior et al.
Set in mountains and only a 30-minute drive from Les Mimozas, Grasse has been considered the perfume capital of the world since the 16th century. Take a tour of a perfumery. Or visit the marvellous interactive perfume museum. Then spend a few hours pottering around the town’s medieval streets and squares and discover paintings by Rubens and Fragonard in the Cathedral Notre-Dame-du-Puy de Grasse.