As much as I hated to leave Paris I was excited to begin the next leg of our journey to the South of France. My head was spinning with images of Nice, San Tropez and Bain de Soleil, Cannes and the Film Festival, Brigitte Bardot, Gina Lollobrigida, Fellini, and of course Monte-Carlo.
La Dolce Vita!! Paparazzi !!! Here I come!! Clearly I had seen too many movies, read too many books and studied every photo Slim Aarons had ever taken in the South of France. Would my fantasy of the French Riviera live up to my expectations?
Parker and I met up with a group of friends that were joining us on this part of our adventure at the Gare Montparnasse train station. The itinerary was to travel by train to Cognac, then drive to Villefranche sur-Mer. We arrived at Cognac, picked up our car and carefully loaded the luggage. We were presented with a bit of a challenge - We had to figure out how to get the luggage of 5 adults traveling for two weeks (including a black tie event in Monte Carlo) to fit in an European sized car. Once we solved that challenge I took pictures so we were able to replicate it as we went along our journey.
One member of our group, Scott, was the marketing director for Grand Marnier. Grand Marnier's processing facility and Château are in Cognac so, he arranged for us to have a private tour of the manufacturing facilities as well as the rare treat to be overnight guests at the Grand Mariner Château.
It was an incredible experience to be staying at a working Chateau, and I was able to explore the house and grounds at my own pace. I loved the stone staircase, the working shutters on all the windows, the scale of the main rooms and the long corridors on the bedroom floor. I fell in love with the Gatehouse and the long winding driveway - it was easy to imagine horse drawn carriages, low slung Mercedes and Bugattis tearing up and down the gravel.
The most memorable moment of a day filled with special moments came late at night, we were alone in the Chateau and sitting in the library off the main salon. The French doors were open (as it was still very hot in France) and we were discussing the next day's travel plan while drinking Sancerre. It was one of those perfect moments when all of the sudden we noticed that there were bats circling around overhead. You have never seen 5 grown adults run so fast in your life! The next day we set our course south. Two things stood out in my mind, one was the constant stopping for road tolls, and the second was the wonderful food on the highway! While we have Everytown Food Courts on I-95 and the Merritt in Connecticut, the French have Paul.
The coffee, croissants and baguettes were beautifully displayed and were as delicious if not better than those we had had in Paris! We spent the second night at Carcassonne which is a fortified city dating from the Middle Ages. Of all the things we had seen in France this inspired me the least. It felt too recreated and somehow too clean and Disney World for my taste. I did, however, find the vegetable gardens to be very interesting. Each bed was defined by woven sticks with a trellis of twigs in the center - definitely something to copy for my gardens back home.
We left early the next morning with the goal of reaching our friend's villa at Villefranche-sur-Mer by early afternoon.
We were about an hour away from our destination when we realized we needed to have lunch. We got off the A8 and made a small detour to Antibes. It took me a minute to realize that I was on the French Riviera and that I was looking at the Mediterranean Sea. We had a quick lunch and decided that we needed a hostess gift. The obvious gift was a bottle of rosé. We found a small rosé wine shop on a side road. The window of the shop was beautifully done with all different bottle shapes and sizes all filled with pink water. We purchased the largest bottle we could find and somehow got it inside the car. Next stop Villefranche-sur-Mer.
We pulled up to our friend's villa, got out of the car and looked straight up. The house was built into the side of a hill and was on many levels. It then dawned on us that somehow we needed to get all of that luggage up to the house. What I quickly learned was that everything in the South of French involved a climb - No wonder the French are so thin!
At the house were more guests so we were now quite a party. The view from the pool and dining area was unbelievable - it was like looking at a post card only it was real.
Once we were situated with our rooms, we put on our bathing suits and we spent the rest of the day swimming and drinking in the pool. Dinner was a typical French meal of assorted cheeses, meats, tomatoes, vegetables and breads - all served outside, chilled, on platters with gallons of wonderful wine. It was another memorable day. The next day my friend Scott and I were assigned the task of making dinner for everyone. Our hostess told us that we should order roast chickens from the red truck parked in town. We found the truck, stood in a long line and ordered two roast chickens for that afternoon. This was before you were able to find food trucks everywhere in the US so I was fascinated by this business model.
The next stop was the open air market in Nice where we purchased all the produce we could carry and I searched in vain for a pair of Espadrilles that would fit an American size 13. Failing that I bought the largest size I could find and jammed my big feet inside them and "Voila!" I was almost a native. Our last stop was to the market. I was absolutely fascinated with the French supermarket. While Scott shopped and did all the work, I wandered the aisles looking at all the different European products, making note of the differences in brands and packaging, when I came upon a young European man in his twenties. He was with his girlfriend and they were shopping for dinner. He looked like he just woke up, with tousled hair, thin as only the French can be, wearing a ratty white t-shirt and ripped jeans. He looked homeless save for the perfectly worn Hermes belt and Gucci loafers. He was by far the chicest man I had seen in France - and I am convinced he was a French aristocrat or the heir to a Greek shipping fortune. Suddenly I felt conspicuously American in my J Crew shorts and Ralph Lauren polo shirt! We made dinner in the tiny kitchen where one wall opened up to the spectacular view. Standing there in my wet bathing suit chopping away I had to stop and take in the moment - this truly was a moment to always remember. The next day we drove south to the medieval town of Eze. The narrow two-lane road hugs the coastline, and all I could think of was that famous scene where Grace Kelly is speeding along these same roads with Cary Grant in to "Catch a Thief." The views are spectacular, but one wrong move and you could end up in the Mediterranean Sea! I could not believe how beautiful the water looked filled with boats and yachts. Eze has to be one of the most beautiful places on earth. Our destination was lunch at the hotel which was on the very top of the cliff. After a rigorous climb we were rewarded with a breathtaking view and an exceptionally delicious lunch. I am not the type to take pictures of my food when it arrives at the table, but I was under the Eze spell that day and captured the most incredible arugula salad of my life!
That evening our hostess had arranged a very special dinner for us in Monte-Carlo at the Joel Robuchon restaurant at the Hotel Metropole followed by a private tour of the famous Casino de Monte-Carlo. Every man wants to be James Bond, and what better place to pretend than in Monte-Carlo. The evening called for black tie and even though it was still blistering hot the gentleman all wore white dinner jackets. As soon as we arrived we went to the hotel pool for cocktails. The pool area had just been designed by Karl Lagerfeld and was the perfect setting to kick off our night. While I should have been focused on my martini, I was fixated by all of the design touches that made this space so beautiful. My favorite element was the pin lights at the bottom of the pool, it gave the illusion of swimming in the sky with the stars. It was magical.
Dinner in the restaurant was at the chef's table looking into the kitchen. We were served the Discovery Menu which was at least 8 courses paired with the appropriate wines. Each dish was painstakingly prepared and elegantly severed by incredibly beautiful people.
The casino was curiously empty that evening, but still fascinating. It was easy to imagine the Jet Set of the 50's and 60's strolling through those vast rooms, and European playboys gambling huge sums of money. While we only spent a few incredible hours on Monte-Carlo it was easy to see why it is the playground of the super rich. The rest of the week was spent sightseeing and swimming in the pool. I was beginning to feel very much at home, I was even getting used to climbing up the hill to the house. Then all of the sudden we were in the car heading to the airport in Nice. After two weeks of traveling I was tired, I missed the dogs and I needed to spend some time absorbing everything I saw, heard and learned. I hated to leave but it was time to go home. The south of France is a wonderful, glamorous, sexy, slightly dangerous place that intrigues me to no end. The lessons I learned in terms of style and taste will stay with me forever. As I headed up the outdoor stairs to the airplane, I stopped, took a deep breath and made a promise to myself that I would come back.