France – the Cote d’Azur

We couldn’t resist the pull of the Cote d’Azur, so we left Cassis and the gorgeous Calanques behind, stopping to explore delightful Provence villages such as La Cadiere-d’Azur and Sanary-sur-Mer along the way.  We headed to a campsite halfway between Antibes and Cagnes-sur-Mer, and a flat 20km cycle ride from central Nice.  As we had holidayed in Nice a few years ago we knew the area quite well (having hired a scooter that holiday and driven it to death along the beautiful coastal roads all the way to Menton and into the mountains around St-Paul-de-Vence), so we concentrated on the bits we hadn’t seen before, soaking up Picasso’s haunts including enchanting Antibes, Cagnes-sur-Mer and Mougins.

Picasso had a studio in the 14th century Grimaldi Castle in Antibes for a couple of years and, in his own words, “if you want to see the Picassos from Antibes, you have to see them in Antibes”: the Castle now houses a wonderful collection of paintings from his time there as well as a host of his earlier ceramics.  We also visited Mougins, where he lived in his last years, which is a delightful hill-top medieval village (reached these days by a nine-story lift from the parking lot!) which is now home to loads of galleries and has a wonderful photographic museum filled with photos of Picasso at work.  Nearby is Grasse, still home to many perfumeries, as well as Biot, once famous for producing enormous and beautiful clay olive oil jars.  From there we took a beautiful drive through the Var mountains over to Eze, on the other side of Nice, which sits overlooking the sea on a high mountain peak with beautiful views of the Cote d’Azur, coming back along the famous coastal road, the Corniche Inferieure.  Sadly Eze village has become a bit too touristy, its medieval cobbled streets taken over with tourist tat.

Absolutely delightful is the hilltop medieval old town of Cagnes-sur-Mer, an incredibly steep walk up from the coastal town of the same name, and home to gloriously narrow winding cobbled streets and another Grimaldi Castle, this one housing a delightful collection of over 50 paintings of the ‘30s singer and cabaret artist Suzy Solidor, by an eclectic range of artists including Dufy and Jean Cocteau (thanks to Valerie who we met in Collioure for telling us about the Suzy collection!).

We spent time strolling the old town of Nice as well as enjoying cycling along the palm-lined Promenade des Anglais and admiring the wares on offer at the weekly Monday flea market.  We also visited Matisse’s Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence, designed by Matisse in his later years and considered by him to be his masterpiece.  It is truly magnificent, small and quite simple with the most beautiful green, blue and yellow stain-glass windows, filling the otherwise white chapel (the only other decoration being simple black line drawings on white tiles) with light and colour.  Matisse designed everything: the exterior, the interior, the  altar and candlesticks and even the priests’ vestments, in different colours for different festivals.  Unfortunately no photos were allowed.

We also spent lots of time enjoying the “good life” of Provence and the Riviera – delicious fruit and vegetables, crisp white and rose wines, wonderful olive oils, buttery croissants, divine macaroons and wonderful foodie markets, particularly the daily one in Antibes.  Thank goodness Nice was a 20km cycle ride away: we needed it to ensure we could indulge in it all!