Brief Overview of the Area
The French Riviera hinterland is Provence at its very best. The area has been immortalised by writers and painters over the years and is always a favourite of the jet set during the summer season. This part of the region has been favoured with a glorious Mediterranean climate and an ideal location in the hills overlooking the coast, while the lure of locally produced wine and olive oil amongst fields of flowers is a strong one indeed. Sun-dappled and lavender-scented, a visit to the picture-perfect villages and towns behind Cannes will make you fall in love with the French countryside. This area is so beautiful, and the towns are so charming, you might just forget about the beaches back down on the seafront altogether!
Grasse is not only the best-known town in the hinterland, but it’s also where the legend of the French Riviera started, way back when. The town was discovered by the British and Russian royal families in the 19th Century and became a prime winter getaway for everyone who was anyone. Grasse has, of course, been famous for producing perfume since the 18th century, and the fields around the town have been used to grow beautiful scented flowers for hundreds of years. Bizarrely the town’s perfume industry only came about because Grasse originally specialised in tanning leather, a profitable but fairly smelly activity. An enterprising tanner came up with the idea of producing perfumed leather gloves, presented a pair to Catherine de Medici, and the rest, as they say, is history. These days the tanners are long gone, but the flower industry is still going strong, and you can tour many of Grasse’s perfumeries and its perfume museum to learn how the world’s most luxurious scents are created. Aside from perfume, Grasse also has a very pretty old town to explore with lots of winding streets and stairways. Don’t miss visiting the Notre Dame du Puy Cathedral and the Museum of Provençal Art & History for a little local flavour. There are lots of restaurants and cafés to choose from in the town, and there are also some very good artisanal ice-cream shops. Make sure you stop off for a scoop or two, you definitely deserve it, you’re on holiday after all.
Just down the road from Grasse is the little village of Opio. Dating back to the middle ages, the village sits in the middle of a protected wilderness site and is surrounded by trees, fields and flowers. The main attraction is the town museum with its Roman remains, but Opio is also a fantastic place to visit if you’re keen on a healthy lifestyle. The town boasts its own 18-hole golf course with scenery so magnificent it might just throw you off your game. Plus you can go hiking or horse trekking through the surrounding pine forests or simply take a stroll around the village’s fitness trail to work up an appetite for dinner.
Nearby Valbonne is pretty much a perfect example of a Provençal village. Even the name Valbonne means good valley in the original Provençal, and the town has been charming visitors for years with its pretty townhouses and cobbled streets. The town dates back to Medieval times and has been beautifully preserved with a central square lined with cafés and shops. This is the place to go for a lazy coffee or a cheeky aperitif, as the Place des Arcades has been the heart of the village for centuries. Unlike most of the nearby hillside villages, you won’t find any twisty streets in Valbonne. Instead, the town centre is laid out on a rectangular grid, showing its roots as a Roman settlement. Pop over on a Friday to visit the traditional market and pick up some local goodies, or visit on the first Sunday of the month to check out the antiques fair. Valbonne celebrates anything and everything with a parade, so you’re sure to get caught up in a procession with live music if you visit during the summer months.
Between Valbonne and Grasse is Mouans-Sartoux, another medieval village which is well worth a visit. Originally 2 villages, Mouans and Sartoux, Napoleon III joined them together in the 19th century to create one super-village instead. The original Chateau de Mouans is still standing, thanks to some serious rebuilding work over the years, and houses a fascinating art museum with its own residential artists. Mouans-Sartoux plays host to a popular literary festival every October when the whole town is taken over by books and writers ranging from local historians to the authors of the latest summer blockbusters. And it’s not just books that are celebrated during the year, the town also has a santon exhibit in the winter months with hundreds of Provençal creche figures on display. It’s definitely not one to miss if you’re a fan of all things Christmassy.
Close to Mouans-Sartoux, you’ll find the pretty village of Mougins which is mostly famous for its art galleries, gourmet restaurants and numerous estate agents. As you’d expect from the place where Picasso chose to make his home, the village is outstandingly beautiful with cobbled streets, stone fountains and breathtaking views over the Mediterranean coastline. These same views have been inspiring artists for years, and there are galleries and workshops dotted all over the village, just waiting for you to pop in and browse their works. And along with food for the soul, there is also delicious food for dinner, as Mougins is known as the home of gastronomy on the French Riviera. Using fresh herbs from the hills behind the village, local chefs serve up delicious Provençal treats in the village’s 30 restaurants and cooking schools. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the great and the good have been coming to Mougins thanks to its reputation as the land of gourmandise, and now it’s your turn to do the same. The village once boasted the most Michelin stars of anywhere in France, so you are sure to find your new favourite restaurant hidden away in the streets of the old town.
Further up the coast towards Nice is the popular town of Biot. This medieval village was built on the site of an ancient volcano, and although it hasn’t erupted for a long, long time, residents have been extracting stone and clay from it for centuries to use for pottery and building. Biot is best known for its glass works which produce glassware with distinctive bubbles under the surface. The glass-blowing factories are fun to visit, watch the traditional glass-blowing process then check out the shops for some gorgeous and unique pieces to take away with you. Once home to some of the Mediterranean’s most notorious pirates and thieves, these days Biot is a peaceful little place with some lovely café terraces where you can watch the world go by over a coffee. Sit surrounded by flowers in the Place des Arcades and enjoy a slice of traditional village life in one of the most charming villages on the French Riviera.
St Paul de Vence
From Biot, wind your way back up the hillside towards St Paul de Vence, a small village which has played host to every big name of the last couple of centuries and then some more besides. Originally a fortified medieval village, St Paul de Vence was discovered by the art world in the 19th Century thanks to its golden light and Baroque architecture. Today it is packed with art galleries, and there are sculptures all over the village which have been donated by former (famous) residents. Reserve a table at the most glamorous restaurant in town, the Colombe d’Or, to get up close and personal with original works by artists like Miro, Braque, Picasso and Chagall while you wait for your order to arrive. Legend has it, hungry and cash-strapped artists donated paintings to the restaurant in exchange for some home cooking back in the 1920s and 30s, but these days they’re of course worth far more than the price of a plate of steak and chips! And if you just can’t get enough art, check out the Fondation Maeght at the entrance to the village for some fabulous contemporary pieces. Viewing over, take a stroll through the narrow streets of the old town to imagine life in the South of France during medieval times. Many of the original parapets are still intact, and today they house some of the town’s most beautiful terraces. Stop for a drink and enjoy a sunny afternoon spent sitting on a medieval rampart high over the hills and coastline below, this is living, Provence-style.
Up the road from St Paul de Vence is Vence, a little market town known as the City of Art. Just like smaller neighbour St Paul, Vence has been inspiring artists for years, and all the big names have passed through its medieval gateways in search of beauty and light, and a little of that Provençal flair. Just outside the town, visit the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence, known locally as the Matisse Chapel with its glorious stained glass windows. Matisse loved Vence and considered the chapel to be his masterpiece, don’t miss his original sketches which show just how much planning went into creating the tiny chapel. Vence has been a market town for centuries and the daily food market in the Rue du Marché is the perfect place to spend a few hours wandering about. Browse the busy stalls where you can buy local honey, olives and the ubiquitous herbes de provence. Pick up some warm bread from the bakery stand to nibble on as you wander.
Every Wednesday the town also puts on an antiques market, and there is still the odd bargain to be had if you look closely enough amongst the piles of linen and glassware. If you get warm walking around, stop off at the fountain in Place Peyra for a glass of water direct from the source, although be warned, you might have to queue! The local water is actually mineral water and so delicious that locals fill up bottles and jugs to take home every day. Check out the stone plaque above the fountain to see a list of all the minerals found in it. If you’re thirsty for som