A Festive tour of the South of France
1998 Lexus magazine
As the land of vacations the South of France still reigns supreme, combining culture and hedonism like nowhere else in the world. It really does have azure seas fringed with golden beaches and palm trees, and exquisite little villages with terracotta roofs, whitewashed walls and purple bougainvillea everywhere. That of course is the problem, since about 8 million other tourists will head for the coast this summer. To get an insider view and avoid the crowds I recommend a leisurely itinerary which will still hit the high spots, but either out of season or with a particular event in mind.
All summer long the South of France is en fête; you will find that every small village has its traditional festival, banners strung rakishly across narrow streets, celebrating harvests of lavender, jasmine, garlic, even fish, and the bigger towns host world class music and arts festivals. I can think of no better way to enjoy it that a leisurely tour of some of the best festivals, taking in the traditional sights along the way and retreating from time to time to the discreet luxury of hotels which have been indulging the lotus eaters for a hundred years or so.
Go to St Tropez in early summer, before the little fishing village becomes a heaving mass of fringed white cowboy boots and B.B. lookalikes. May 15th and June 16th are the days of the traditional bravades when the men of the town march in 18th century uniform of white breeches and blue tunics, in a procession of deafening drums and bugles and enthusiastic musket firing. When the smoke has cleared you can take an aperitif on the quayside terrace of the cafe Sennequier with its view of all the mega-yachts, and don’t miss lunch at Club 55 on Pampelonne Beach, where Bardot made “And God Created Woman.”
June 24 is the Fete de St Jean, an ancient pagan affair, with processions and bonfires lit in celebration of the sun on hilltops and in village squares. (My protests the first time I watched with horror as local children leapt over the fire were considered in poor taste; “C’est la tradition, madame.” They have no intention of stopping for a few safety-minded tourists.)
Go to Cannes after the film festival. It is an Industry affair, and unless you are a close personal friend of Stephen or Jack, forget it, tickets are like gold dust, and hotel rooms impossible to find. (They won’t bump Sharon Stone even for a Lexus driver.) You can still sip mogul drinks on the Carlton Terrace, (its twin cupolas, note, modelled on a courtesan’s breasts) and stroll along the Croisette, with its manicured palm trees and sand raked smooth every night. Indulge yourself now before the French start les vacances; the private beach clubs, the shady umbrellas by the sea, the lobster and champagne beside the pool.
As the temperature rises, July means jazz. For the first two weeks head for Nice’s Grand Parade du Jazz, in the superb setting of Cimiez. There are three stages playing simultaneously, in the Roman amphitheatre and under the silvery olive trees in the surrounding gardens. I recall a sublime moment hearing B B King play, sitting on the ancient stone steps of the arena, the night air still warm, the sky glittering with stars.
Music ranges from New Orleans jazz to Be-bop; last year’s line up included Chuck Berry, Tony Bennett and John McLaughlin. The great saxophonist James Moody has played Nice many times, often with Dizzy Gillespie, “It’s a great chance to see other jazz musicians and mingle with the crowd,” he says, “It is so festive. I love the way everybody gets thrown together.” Follow his example with lunch at the Negresco, one of the Cote d’Azur’s most legendary hotels, its pink domes dominating the Promenade des Anglais. Let the flunkies in their bizarre Empire uniforms and stockings throw open the doors for you and show you into the salon with its two-ton Baccarrat chandelier (its pair is hanging in the Kremlin.)
The last two weeks of July is the Juans-les-Pins jazz festival. It is a brilliant location; since 1960 a great rostrum of stars -Charlie Mingus, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, George Benson, Sonny Rollins, Ella Fitzgerald, have played beneath the pine trees right on the shores of the Med. Even if you don’t stay there the Hotel du Cap Eden Roc is the place to go; for drinks on the Thirties terrace or a swim in the pool carved out of the cliff face. James Moody likes it a lot, “We always try to get together there with Bill and Camille Cosby for brunch.”
After July 14th and the Bastille day fireworks the holidays have really begun. Before you retreat to a private villa on Cap d’Antibes or a discreet Provencal mas in the Luberon, you can see another traditional festival on the coast; at Roquebrune on the 5th August, the villagers act out scenes from the Passion of Christ, in a tradition which goes back 500 years when they were miraculously spared the plague. Tableaux are acted out by families who have passed down the roles from father to son over the centuries.
The tinkling fountains and shady boulevards of Aix-en-Provence provide a perfect haven from the heat and throughout July and August Aix hosts a superb festival of music and dance; opera buffs will love it. Last year’s 50th anniversary featured Peter Brook’s Don Giovanni, and dance from Trisha Brown, performed in magical settings; the cathedral and Romanesque cloisters of St Sauveur, and the courtyard of the Archbishop’s Palace. Afterwards head for the animated conversation of cafes like Deux Garcons in the Cours Mirabeau, the boulevard at the heart of the city. Opera lovers won’t want to miss the Choregies in Orange either, where the ancient Roman theatre provides perfect accoustics and an atmosphere of stunning authenticity.
The great theatre festival of Avignon provides the cultural climax, ; churches, chapels, convents and palaces are all requisitioned for traditional and experimental theatre ranging from Becket to Molière, Homer to Shakespeare, and dance from Lucinda Childs or Pina Bausch. Best of all are the outside performances with the magnificent crenellated walls of the Palais des Papes itself as a backdrop. Performance spills out onto the winding streets of the old town, and I sometimes feel I have been transported back to the 14th century papal court of the Popes, to a surreal carnival world of medieval minstrels, pied pipers and clowns on stilts. The London theatre producer Thelma Holt adores Avignon, and goes as often as she can, “It is such a beautiful place to be, the atmosphere, the warmth, it’s like magic. It is like stepping into Camelot.”
August 15th, the feast of the Assumption, is the big summer fete day for the French. Everywhere there is dancing and music; St-Remy-de-Provence fore example stages a splendid procession with horses, tambourines and traditional Provencal dancing.
Then as les vacances wind down, why not motor on down to Monte Carlo, the epitomy of glamour on the coast, the hushed opulence of its Belle Epoque hotels and legendary casino. Actually the whole place feels a bit like one grand hotel, ready to satisfy your every whim. Even motorbike riders stop and smile and wave you across the road instead of gunning you down.
Monte Carlo assiduously maintains its glamour, and the casino is a far cry from Las Vegas. But even here times change so don’t be surprised if at the roulette table, next to the grande dame with the sable coat and the face lift, is a young woman with shaved head and her diamonds pierced through her nose. But the gilded ceilings and frescoes of rococo cherubs still overlook the green baize tables where grey suited croupiers preside as gamblers place their chips. Dinner jackets and jewels are welcome, if no longer de rigueur, and fur coats cause no ethical problems here. You can simply observe at a respectful distance but don’t expect a party. According to the barman in the Salle Privé, the inner sanctum of the casino, no one drinks heavily, gambling requires too much concentration.
Stay if you can in the Hotel Hermitage or Hotel de Paris (dedicated gamblers stroke the foreleg of the equestrian statue in the lobby.) Dine at le Grill of the Hotel de Paris or even better the Louis XV, fiefdom of superchef Alain Ducasse. And what better place to wind up a guilt free tour of the South of France than the grand terrace of the Casino, with its lush gardens and illuminated palm trees and the virtuoso pyrotechnics of a firework display exploding in the night sky.