Easy Escapes: Côte d’Azur, France

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  • Andrea Thompson enjoys a twin-centre break to the south of France

    Andrea Thompson enjoys a twin-centre break to the south of France

    Why go? With attractions ranging from picturesque hilltop villages that inspired great artists to stunning beaches lined with designer boutiques and gleaming yachts, you could spend an entire month exploring the delights of the Côte d’Azur. As distances between the main sights are small and car hire is cheap compared with taxis, a two centre mini-break flying into Nice makes perfect sense.

    While many flock to this part of the world for the Cannes Film Festival (14-25 May) and Monaco Grand Prix (25 May), the south of France draws visitors all your round. Peak season is July and August when the weather is hot and sunny but the beaches and villages with their narrow winding streets are crowded. Try going now, in early summer, or autumn, all of which are equally enjoyable.

    In a whirl: an aerial view of Mougins
    © Atout France/Emmanuel Valentin

    You really must…
    A short drive northwest of Nice, the historic town of Saint-Paul de Vence (saint-pauldevence.com) is practically an outdoor museum/gallery. Dotted with sights dating back to the 4th century, this picture-perfect village seems to have artists on every corner, paintbrush and easel at the ready, with old men leisurely playing pétanque in the square. Its warren of narrow alleyways is lined with stalls, galleries and quaint restaurants selling traditional Provençal souvenirs and fare.

    Be sure to visit Matisse’s 1951 Rosaire Chapel in nearby Vence (vence.fr) with its characteristic blue and white tiles and interior designed entirely by the artist, and Fondation Émile Hugues (museedevence.com), a contemporary art museum housed in the ancient Château de Villeneuve. Stay till sunset so you can take in the breathtaking pink hues that appear over the historic churches in the valley and you’ll see why so many artists have been inspired here. Further west, the tiny village of Mougins (mougins.fr) is where Picasso spent the last 12 years of his life, and inevitably brims with tiny galleries, craft shops and al fresco eateries. It’s a place to have a mooch then stop for a bite to eat and some peoplewatching over a chilled glass of rosé.

    Palm oil: a mural in Vieux Nice
    © Atout France/Emmanuel Valentin

    If you want to venture further, drop down to Cannes for a wander along the palm-lined Croisette on the seafront with its chi chi beach clubs and designer shops. Take in the huge array of yachts in the harbour opposite then meander into the stunning old quarter (Le Suquet) for coffee and pastries at one of the street cafés. You could also spend a couple of hours enjoying the coastal town of Antibes and nearby beach of Juan-les-Pins (antibes-juanlespins.co.uk). Head for Fort Carré, a stronghold used in the James Bond film Never Say Never Again, which has amazing views of the yacht-speckled Mediterranean, before a visit to the town’s famous covered Marché Provençal and a swim (or paddle depending on the time of year) by the main beach.

    Stay at: In Vence, the 46-room, five-star Château Saint-Martin (opens 18 April, from £289, chateau-st-martin.com) crowns a 35-acre parkland estate set amidst the ruins of a 12th century Knights Templar fortress. It’s a dreamy place where you feel like a princess as you explore its landscaped gardens, natural waterfall and private chapel. The hotel offers exceptional dining with three venues including the one-Michelin star Le Saint-Martin restaurant, which serves a beautifully presented and exquisite menu (from £74); or opt for the laidback Le 180° brasserie with its terrific views. A host of other features make a stay here memorable, including an infinity pool, underground wine cellar and award-winning spa (try the sublime Caviar Body Treatment or Pressure Relief Facial, both 80 minutes, £144), all backed up with truly charming service.

    Gallic calm: the pool at Le Mas Candille

    In Mougins, the serene, 45-room Le Mas Candille (from £262, lemascandille.com) was originally a 18th century farmhouse. With stunning views of the foothills of the Alps, this five-star hotel is the celebrity sanctuary of choice during the Cannes Film Festival. Its Michelin-starred restaurant Le Candille serves delicious local and seasonal fare – in summer take a table outside under the stars and try the exquisite six-dish Candille Discovery menu (£78). You can also join executive chef Serge Gouloumès on a morning trip to Cannes market to select the finest local ingredients followed by a cooking and tasting lesson at the chef’s table accompanied by specially selected Provençal wines (£164). Make time to try out the al fresco gym before indulging in a body massage at the Spa Shiseido (60 minutes, from £82), which features an outdoor heated hydrotherapy pool, yoga terrace and a relaxation area with views over the mountains.

    Dine at:
    La Colombe d’Or (la-colombe-dor.com) in Saint-Paul de Vence. It’s a cliché but where else might you see Sophia Loren, Woody Allen and Roger Moore in one day? The walls of this legendary restaurant are covered by paintings by artists such as Miró, Braque and Chagall, which were exchanged early in their careers in return for lodgings and food (you may remember a Stella Artois ad based on this place). Food is simple and service rather rushed, but it’s worth it for the vibe. In Mougins, Les Rosées (lesrosees.com) is a tiny boutique hotel and restaurant up a tricky-to-find residential winding road that serves rustic local French fare at its best. Rustled up by the lady of the house, you’ll find a different seasonal menu each evening matched with laidback chatty service – in summer you can dine by candlelight in the garden under the stars.

    Bring home: lavender, which Provence is famous for; a fine bottle of local rosé; original art.

    Book now: For the many flight options to Nice see skyscanner.net. Mougin and Vence are both within a half-hour drive. For car hire see carrentals.co.uk.

    Info: Lonely Planet Provence and the Côte d’Azur (£13.99; shop.lonelyplanet.com) covers the region, and see frenchriviera-tourism.com.


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