Cote d'Azur: Why I'm still mad about the Med
Self-catering in St Tropez
'You are throwing the bouchon too far. Do not throw it more than 10 metres from your circle."
It's Place Des Lices, Saint Tropez on a balmy Tuesday afternoon in May and the endlessly patient boules player has taken it upon herself to teach me how to play the traditional French game while there's a lull in the league in which she's participating.
It's not how I imagined I would spend my day in the glam capital of the South of France but hey, the boules were free to anyone who wished to try the game - it was just a question of asking for a set from behind the counter of the aptly named Bar Des Boules.
And the old St Tropezien hands were remarkably tolerant, as idiots like me and my friends swung the bouchon - a tiny ball - wildly and inaccurately at the boules, though they did allow themselves a few sniggers at our ineptitude.
I don't know why we exposed ourselves to ridicule - after all, the house we were staying in for the week had its own boules area. It was just one of many extras on its manicured grounds, including a private heated pool, and several usually sun-drenched patio areas.
The house which we got through the website Interhome.ie was in a development called Domaine de la Vigie in Saint Aygulf, a little townland on the Cote d'Azur between Frejus and Sainte Maxime, about an hour from Nice Airport.
Set high on a hill, it had magnificent views of the Riviera in front, and the mountains behind, and was designed in such a way as to maximise enjoyment of the landscape. The ground floor rooms - the large, cosy kitchen, the sitting room and two of the four bedrooms - had glass doors leading onto the gardens, tastefully planted with mimosa, lavender and oleander, while an upstairs bedroom opened onto a balcony, giving a different perspective on the sparkling blue Mediterranean beyond.
Mary on the Med
I was sharing the house with three friends but the house can accommodate four couples with ease, five if one couple would be willing to sleep on the sofa bed. It's also ideal for children and a full size fuzzball table is laid on in the unlikely event of bad weather.
The house is very prettily decorated, with French country-house style furnishings while the sunny yellow kitchen has all mod cons including an induction hob, dishwasher, washer dryer and a large supply of dishes, cutlery and saucepans. It is the kind of base that's ideal for a chill holiday - sunbathing, reading, admiring the views, dipping in and out of the pool all day, with maybe a trot down to the nearest beach, mere minutes away for a more bracing swim, or to the beachside café for a café allonge. And we did indulge in plenty of that kind of R and R, the main exertion being a trip to the Geant Casino to stock up on baquettes, wine, salamis cherries and cheeses. The Geant Casino is an attraction in itself - you can pile fridges, baby clothes and beds onto your trolley with your groceries. We also did a few cliff walks to admire the fuck-off houses of the wealthy not visible from the road.
Some days however, we were up early and after our coffee and crispy hot croissants and apricot jam we were heading off in the car. The driving was challenging. There really only seemed to be three types of road - motorways where everyone honks if you so much as take the foot off the gas for a nano second, traffic-clogged coastal routes and windy narrow corkscrews - and I admit it, I funked the driving. Fortunately, two of the girls (menopausal mavens more like, but we still like to think of ourselves as girls) were happy to drive.
With four women, the perfume centre at Grasse was top of the list - including classes in how to make scent. At the beginning of our class - €45 a head in Galimard - we were given a quick run down of the many different flowers, spices and herbs that go into a typical scent. Then we sat at a worktop surrounded by dozens of bottles and over two hours we put together our top, heart and base notes. Suffice to say Chanel, Armani and company can relax.
Afterwards, we explored Grasse's lovely meandering old town centre. Perfume shops predominate of course and the air is heavy with scent. There's also a superb perfume museum which is not to be missed. Recently renovated and updated, the museum, housed in a period residence, has all the latest in museum technology enabling the visitor to experience in different ways the key ingredients of perfume. There are also stunning collections of beautiful objects dating back to early Egyptian times through which the story of perfume is told. There are hundreds of interesting facts associated with scent but the one that remains with me was the one about hygiene; it seems, during the Renaissance, people were fearful of washing in case the water was contaminated so instead they masked their personal smells with perfume.
A home from home...
Given that kind of detail we left a little gap before eating, and so after Grasse we headed off to have lunch in a lovely square in nearby Vence, and then visited the delightful Matisse Chapel attached to the Dominican Convent just outside Vence. The chapel was entirely designed by the great painter in his late 70s; he had been looked after during an illness by a woman who went on to become a nun and to show his gratitude he designed the chapel. It's small and stark yet stunning in its simplicity. Made up almost entirely of plain white walls, the only colour is provided by stained glass panels, also created by Matisse. The only other decoration is a wall covered in white tiles and these feature the stations of the cross with Jesus and the other protagonists painted in bold black strokes by the artist himself.
Grasse and Vence are pretty but there are many other even smaller and prettier hilltop towns and villages in the mountains behind the Riviera - enchanting spots made up of narrow, winding, steep streets and lovely biscuit-coloured buildings with their charming facades and wrought iron balconies. Towns which are full of character. We loved the medieval hilltop village of Grimaud but unfortunately Harley Davidson bikers do too - we happened to hit it on the bikers' annual weekend.
Cotignac is so pretty it actually has been officially awarded the title village de caractere. The tiny village, much of which dates from the 16th century is built at the foot of a massive cliff topped by two 14th century towers; the cliff itself is punctuated by caves, once used by the villagers as homes. Most are now derelict but there is a cave in use as a guest house and we came across some tourists thrilled to have booked in.
Cotignac has much to recommend it including the fact that Our Lady is supposed to have appeared there, a nearby waterfall that we swam in - yes it was freezing - and a delightful restaurant called La Table des Coquelicots. (Most meals out cost slightly less than similar meals in Dublin. Talking prices, car parking is only a third of Irish rates). Cotignac also has lovely gifts, food and art shops.
Saint Tropez also has great shopping though it's very high end. This tiny town at the waters' edge with its pastel coloured houses and castle on the hill was made famous by Brigitte Bardot in the fifties. It still has cachet and the port is full of enormous shiny , crass, - I'm not jealous at all - yachts. Yet while the wealthy still seem to frequent its restaurants, bars, and art galleries, the town itself never seems to change - it certainly hadn't in the 15 years since I'd been there. Fame hasn't spoilt it. St Trop is still small and pretty and fun. We had a lovely reasonably-priced lunch al fresco and the locals are friendly - like my boules instructor. And there's still a weekly market in Saint Tropez, held in Place des Lices on a Tuesday morning.
Forget shops, markets are the way to go in the Cote d'Azur. It seems as if every town and village has a weekly market and the ultra chic French women are there prodding and poking melons and aubergines. These markets are srangely addictive - we went to the markets in Les Issambres, Sainte Maxime and Saint Tropez. In the main, the stalls specialise, each selling one particular thing - be it fish, or cheese, or olives, or breads, or hats, or soaps, or bowls - but endless varieties within that specialisation. And then there are the clothes stalls.
I'm going to let you into a secret about the clothes. They're nice - colours that work in bright sun, light fabrics, floaty easy-to-wear shapes, good prices. They're the way to go if you are going to start spending your holidays on the Cote d'Azur. I stocked up because I want to come back and this time I want to look the part.
For more information on Interhome, or to book, visit www.interhome.ie or call (01) 4311086. Interhome properties are also bookable through all reputable travel agencies.
The link for the tourist board is www.frenchriviera-tourism.com
There are daily flights Dublin to Nice with Aer Lingus. See www.aerlingus.com
The covered market in Sainte Maxime is full of atmosphere, with great fish and fruit stalls, locals sipping rosé at the bar as they solve the world's problems, and tourists and locals alike enjoying the formule degustation at Daniel Coquillages. Six fresh oysters, three whelks and three prawns plus a glass of muscadet for €17. Excellent value
We sometimes tend to think of the South of France in terms of sun, sea and sand but it's also rich in flora with over 2,000 varieties growing wild. The botanists in our gang spotted cork trees and plane trees with lots of wild geraniums, poppies, yellow carydalis, purple anemones, campanula and a huge variety of herbs.
Le Bateau Vert
Even in early summer it can take hours to get to Saint Tropez due to the heavy traffic. The perfect solution is Le Bateau Vert which departs from Sainte Maxime every 20 minutes and takes you across in twenty minutes. Not only does it save hours in the car but you get a delightful boat trip into the bargain for just €13.40. www.lesbateauxverts.com