“WHEN I realised that each morning I would see this light again, I could not believe my luck.”
So said French painter Henri Matisse, who moved to the southern French city of Nice in 1917 in an attempt to bolster his ailing health. He lived in the area till his death in 1954 at the age of 84.
The region, better known by its French name, the Côte d’Azur or “coast of azure”, enjoys about 310 to 330 days of strong sunlight a year, which explains the famed sparkling waters of the coast.
Its cities and towns are equally dazzling in other ways, as I found out on my nine-day Splendours of Southern France tour by Insight Vacations. It started from Paris, and moved on to cover several French Riviera cities, from historic Avignon to arty Aix-en-Provence and sun-kissed Nice.
Here are some highlights for every travel personality:
For the beach bum
■ Flock to the south in summer to enjoy the sun. Zero in on the sandy beaches lining the 7 km-long Promenade des Anglais in Nice, then retreat from the sunny rays into the Lido Beach Restaurant for a glass of wine or some grilled Provençal fish.
■ Because some of the best beaches are privately owned, be prepared to pay an entry fee for access to the famous Ruhl Plage beach. Guests of the Boscolo Exedra Nice hotel have exclusive access to a special area, where they are welcomed personally by the staff and given amenities such as a complimentary drink, personal mattress and parasol.
■ Head to Saint-Tropez to claim a coveted spot on Pampelonne beach, the crown jewel of the French Riviera. Take your pick of the 23 restaurants along its 5km stretch for a shady respite, or simply kick back and relax on your towel on the sand — with a drink in hand, of course.
For the artist
■ Check out Matisse’s famous works, many of which were created in the Côte d’Azur. The Musée Matisse in Nice houses hundreds of his works, including paintings, drawings and sculptures.
■ Visit the Riviera cities, a muse to many 19th and 20th-century artists, and home to some of them, such as Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso. Arles was where van Gogh created some of his most recognised works between 1888 and 1889, including Café Terrace At Night and Starry Night Over The Rhône. Several of the places depicted in his works are free to visit, including the former Arles hospital, as featured in Garden Of The Hospital in Arles.
■ Don’t miss Aix-en-Provence, widely regarded as the birthplace of modern art, due to its role in shaping the oeuvre of the seminal post Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne. His studio still stands today and is open to members of the public. Several of his artworks, including the famous The Bathers, are on display in Aix’s Musée Granet.
For the foodie
■ Savour French delicacies that originate from the region, such as Aix-en-Provence’s calisson, a traditional confection of candied fruit and ground almonds. The Provence region is also responsible for 88 per cent of the world’s Perigord truffles, one of the most expensive edible mushrooms in the world. The Les Pastras farm in Cadenet offers an authentic truffle-hunting — and dining — experience.
■ Try bouillabaisse, or Provençal seafood stew. I ate at Chez Fonfon, a seaside restaurant in Marseille, the birthplace of this dish. I learnt to enjoy it the traditional way, by first eating slices of French bread coated with aioli and rouille, a thick sauce of olive oil, breadcrumbs, garlic and cayenne pepper, that are immersed in the broth of fish and herbs.
The medley of Provençal fish and potatoes is presented only after the bread is consumed, never before. Sometimes, even now, if I concentrate hard enough, I can almost taste that flavourful broth.
For the historian
■ Head to Avignon to admire the Palais des Papes, the largest Gothic palace in Europe. It was the seat of the pope from 1309 to 1377. Though it is under restoration, several of its halls — including the cavernous Grand Chapel and elaborate Saint-Martial chapel — are still open to visitors. With Insight Vacations, I had a personal after-hours tour of the palace grounds.
■ Be awed by the Pont du Gard aqueduct, a Unesco World Heritage Site. Built in the first century AD, the Pont du Gard is part of the 50km-long Nîme aqueduct that stretches across the breadth of the Gardon River.
■ Set foot in Arles, which is essentially a giant World Heritage Site, for its extensively preserved Roman architecture.
The Arles Amphitheatre can seat 20,000 spectators and it often does when bullfights are held as part of the Feria d’Arles summer festival. The labyrinthine cryptoportico beneath the city square is also a marvel of Roman engineering that should not be missed.
For the adventurer
■ Take a half-hour bus trip to the hilltop village of Eze in Nice for panoramic views from the Jardin Exotique garden. I enjoyed the 7km walk along the highway to Mont Boron, taking in the breathtaking views of the seaside villages of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and Beaulieu-sur-Mer. Don’t miss the sunset from the top of the Parc du Mont Boron – but don’t be so enthralled that you miss your bus, like I almost did.
■ Hike up a via ferrata, which is Italian for “iron path”. Each cliffside path is harnessed with steel cables and rungs. The Riviera is home to several of them, including the notoriously challenging Via Ferrata des Comtes Lascaris. While not for the faint-of-heart, the views they offer are worth it.
The writer’s trip was sponsored by Insight Vacations (www.insightvacations.com) and Air France.
I flew from Singapore to Paris on Air France, then took the TGV train to Avignon.
From there, I took a coach to various cities and villages in the French Riviera, including Arles, Aix-en-Provence, Cadenet, Saint-Paul de Vence, Marseille and Nice.
■ Pick up some basic French phrases. It will go a long way to endearing yourself to the locals.
■ Save a French dictionary on your phone, so you can easily look up a crucial phrase in French when needed.
■ Try the wine, which is often about the same price as water (both still and sparkling) in most places on the Riviera.
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