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Carefree in France

Knocking Around

True to the concept of this tour, we had one full day on our own. I found the back way to Nice’s harbor, walking through town and past Garibaldi Square, where pastel buildings surround street musicians and dogs on strolls. I spent the morning photographing the harbor and had a smoked salmon salad for lunch at Café Le Lunel. Then I caught City Bus 15 up to the Chagall Museum on Cimiez Boulevard.

This park-like museum is in a residential neighborhood and features many paintings by the Russian-French artist that explore his scriptural and whimsical musings. Large canvasses reveal his fascination with Old Testament stories like Adam and Eve or Abraham and Isaac, and colorful creatures populate many of his paintings. Chagall was 97 years old when he died in 1985 and was buried nearby in the mountainside village of St. Paul de Vence.

I heard a telling comment at breakfast the following morning as I dined with an older couple. “Too much shopping time,” they said in a general reference to free time on the trip. They equated free time to “shopping time,” which is a traditional way of looking at time on your own. For me, it was not shopping time at all — it was time to find Nice.

A Gem Uncovered

The charming village of Antibes, a few miles west of Nice, was overlooked for many years until people like Rudolph Valentino and Charlie Chaplin discovered it as an escape from crowded Riviera hotspots. It takes its name from the term “antipolis” or “opposite the city.”

“It was a military town,” said Becky. “But in the 1920s when those guys started hanging out there, it changed everything.”

As we drove up the coast to Antibes, I noticed a water skier behind a runabout knifing through the sea beside us.  He wasn’t doing anything spectacular, just tracing the coast. I grew up water skiing, and we see very little of it anymore. In that moment, water skiing was cool again.

We strolled through Antibes’ old town, its port and its acclaimed outdoor market, “Le March Provencal.” Fresh-cut flowers, meats, olives and vegetables star at this city center market. It was in Antibes that we first looked back to the north and saw the Maritime Alps in snow. That changed the dynamic of this trip for me. The Cote d’Azur as a destination expanded immeasurably when I realized we were in the shadow of the Alps.

Panoramic Provence

We headed up to St. Paul de Vence in France’s Provence region. This beautiful walled village is a few miles west of Nice on a hillside overlooking the Mediterranean. Chagall is buried in its tiny cemetery and many artists and actors spend time here. I enjoyed an al fresco lunch at Le Tilleul, overlooking the village gate. Their Salade de Nicoise, made with rare tuna, tiny olives, anchovies and chopped vegetables, was superb.

On our final day together, we traveled west to Grasse, home to France’s centuries-old perfume industry.  We toured its internationally known Fragonard Parfumerie before spreading out to find lunch in the medieval center of the city. 

Then we headed north toward the Maritime Alps and began a winding ascent to the most beautiful little town of this trip — Gourdon. This walled village began as a castle in the ninth century and rests atop a rocky outcropping nearly 4,500 feet above the Mediterranean some 30 miles away. 

A succession of noblemen owned the castle for centuries. When we arrived, the town was teeming with sightseers, bicyclists and hikers. After a pass through its shop-lined streets, I ventured outside the walls, down past a herd of sheep in a wooded glen and on to an alpine trail that leads to the nearby River Loup.

At week’s end, I had really gotten to know Nice. To become such a fan of Antibes, Eze, St. Paul de Vence and Gourdon, as well, was a simple reminder that some things in life can only be found in travel.