On a recent trip to the South of France, my sister, Alexandra and her husband, Stephen, who live in San Francisco, invited my other sister, a family friend, my beau, David, and I to their rented villa in western Provence. The property felt like a family home with happy memories, evidenced by attractive black-and-white photos of the family, a well-stocked library, DVD selection, kitchen, plus several peaceful hangout spots. It was also an ideal base from which to explore the rustic Var region, which lies about an hour-and-a-half northwest from the Nice airport.
The Var is a lovely part of the world brimming with panoramic views and untouched old-world villages that are connected by well-signposted roads. Picture Romanesque churches, pretty town squares with stone fountains spouting cool spring water, weekly bustling markets under the shade afforded by leafy plane trees, evening outdoor bingo for the older set and live music for the younger: It’s the kind of place where one ponders trading lives, pulling a Peter Mayle, smelling the jasmine, sipping some chilled Rose and tasting the good life. The region also provides a delightful contrast to the nearby much more touristy and zippy Côte d’Azur. For an ideal itinerary, I suggest touring both, mixing up the simple and outdoorsy experience of the Var with a coastal cultural road trip along the twinkling Mediterranean.
The timing this year couldn’t be better with this summer’s L’Art Contemporaine et la Côte d’Azur, a wide-ranging art exhibition from Menton to Cannes showcasing more than 200 artists who have been inspired by the Riviera from 1951 through 2011. Picasso, Matisse, Leger, Yves Klein, Chagall and a slew of others are part of this show, making for an artful summer activity. Check with your concierge or the event Web site (in French only) for details: www.artcontemporainetcotedazur.com.
Those who want to kick off a long weekend with a return to nature in the Var have a trove of activities at their fingertips: hiking, river rafting or cruising in a convertible along the drop-dead gorgeous Gorges du Verdon, the mini-Grand Canyon of France. David and I drove north from the pretty town of Aups to Aiguines, where the windy cliff-side tour begins, snaking along hairpin turns and dramatic mountains with a curly sliver of a river below. Prepare to park frequently to take in yet another gorgeous view.
Other highlights from our weekend included a pre-dinner concert in the 12th-century Abbaye du Thoronet, a 40-minute drive from our villa. Seven Franciscan monks silenced the packed abbey with their soulful Gregorian chanting. We had an altogether different musical evening another night in the village of Chateaudouble (oddly we didn’t spot any chateaux) at Le Tour restaurant (Place Beausoleil ; 33-4-94-70-93-08). The views from the village square of the valley below are tremendous. On this particular Friday night, the outdoor band was rocking, playing everything from Amy Winehouse and Shakira to Stevie Wonder and Abba. Everyone from age seven and up was dancing, some at their tables, others up front by the band.
We spent the last night in an inexpensive, family-run bed-and-breakfast just on the outskirts of Bargemon called Mas la Jaina (33-4-94-76-61-90, www.maslajaina.com) The spot is a real labor of love for its adorable Dutch owners, Ingrid and Johan Hombergen, who have been toiling away for six years with their son, Tycho, upgrading the rural property. This autumn will see the completion of its eco-friendly baigneuse naturelle, which combines the best of swimming in a lake with that of a swimming pool. Mas Le Jaina is an affordable, sweet spot for a night. Breakfast was delicious with eggs from the Hombergen’s hens, homemade jams, a wide variety of fresh fruit and excellent coffee. Animal lovers will be in heaven amidst the family’s array of pets, including two Labradors, some llamas and donkeys. Tips are sent to charities in struggling countries like Haiti or Indonesia.
We bid farewell to the Var and drove southeast past the busy, picturesque towns of Seillans and Fayence towards the sparkling sea. Our first cultural stop was the Picasso Museum (Place de la Libération, Vallauris; 33-4-93-64-71-83) in Vallauris known for its ceramics. Don’t miss Picasso’s colorful mural La Guerre et la Paix and the adjoining square with a Rococo church and trompe l’oie facades. From here we drove to Biot for a delicious, casual al fresco lunch on the grounds of the imposing Fernand Leger Museum (Chemin du Val de Pome, Biot; 33-4-92-91-50-20). I liked his early, more muted works the best. It’s worth investing in the English-language audio guide. And my friend Isy, who knows the Côte d’Azur inside and out, sighs with longing when she recommends Les Arcades (16 Place des Arcades, Biot; 33-4-93-65-01-04) for a meal in the old square of Biot.
Back in the car we went for our next artistic stop at the Maeght Foundation (623 Chemin des Gardettes, Saint-Paul-de-Vence; 33-4-93-32-81-63) in Saint Paul with its summer retrospective of the talented Spanish artist Eduardo Chillida. This foundation is an old favorite of mine, having first seen it in 1975 with my art-loving parents. I never tire of it. The Maeght is proof that great art and architecture live on. From there we drove to the less impressive, over-developed town of Vence and touristy, crowded village of Saint Paul.
Top of my art list for a return summer trip to Nice is the summer show at Nice’s Contemporary Art Museum (Promenade des Arts, Nice; 33-4-97-13-42-01), entitled La Couleur en Avant. The exhibit shows how the colorful palette and natural landscape of the Riviera has influenced its artists. Works by Matisse, Picasso, Chagall, Leger, Ernst, Calder, Ellsworth Kelly, Yves Klein and several other big names are on display. I would also visit Nice’s Chagall Museum (Avenue du Docteur Ménard, Nice; 33-4-93-53-87-20) and the Matisse Museum (164 Ave. des Arénes de Cimiez, Nice; 33-4-93-81-08-08) that are also part of the Côte d’Azur show.