I’m embarrassed to admit, but I had forgotten how beautiful the South of France is. Many years ago, I had spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s at the Columbe D’Or in Saint Paul de Vence and recall how pleasant it was not having the summer crowds to contend with. Sadly, this time around the hotel was closed until Christmas for its yearly break; but I found a very nice, small house just below the village. Still, spending Thanksgiving there seemed like a good idea.
The flights were uneventful, but the auto rental agency caused us to waste several precious hours as they did not have the smaller car that we wanted, instead trying to up-sell us into a Mercedes. I feared the car was too big for the small hill towns we were going to be visiting. And I was right as it wouldn’t even fit into our house’s parking space! So it was back to the airport and more haggling to get a somewhat smaller car. By the time we returned to the airport the sun was starting to fade away.
But even at night the views are wide and open. We could see Antibes and its lighthouse, with Cannes glittering behind it. Day or night, it was very dramatic. And the weather was perfect.
Expecting jet lag, I had made reservations for dinner in Saint Paul. Le Tilleul is a large restaurant right above the ramparts. Most of the restaurant was empty (but there was one table of loud, barking Brits), and the food and wine were delicious. Along with classic French food, interesting Thai dishes were also available. And it is open seven days a week.
Le Tilleul, Place de Tilleul
The next morning was a sunny and beautiful Thanksgiving Day. It was also very green. Palm trees mix with olive trees, pines and all sorts of vines and shrubs. The deciduous trees were losing their leaves, but the others made up for it.
Antibes was the day’s destination. We parked at the Port Vauban, the largest marina in the Med. The size and scale of the boats is astounding. Small sailboats to super-yachts, they are all here.
First stop was the Picasso Museum in the Grimaldi Palace. A terrace runs along the sea, and sculptures by Germaine Richier stand atop the walls. Picasso was given a studio in the building in 1946, and he worked there for a few months. When he went back to Paris he left behind his paintings and sketches.
Cap D’Antibes is across the bay. When we came for Christmas in year’s past, we walked around it on the sentier du littoral. It’s a small path that goes along the sea edge, under some of the grand estates on the peninsula, to the Baie des Milliardaires (the Bay of Billionaires). A beautiful walk.
Many of the paintings in the museum were created here c. 1946. It is interesting to see work from a single short period. The city of Antibes maintains the museum, and other artist have donated works, too.
There are many drawings by Picasso, along with sculptures, and even a tapestry.
Musée Picasso, Place Mariejol, Antibes
It was so pleasant and warm that people were dining in cafes in the narrow streets. Restaurants line the walls of the old city. We had lunch in a good Vietnamese one.
After lunch, we took a short drive to Biot and the Musée National Fernand Léger. It sits on a beautiful piece of property, and is full of works of art in many mediums. There are topiaries in his style.
Léger the painter had a distinctive style that paid homage to mechanics. He worked doing experimental films, theatre pieces as well as creating paintings, drawings and mosaics.
Musée National Fernand Léger, 255 Chem. du Val de Pôme, Biot
There had been some small shops in Vieil Antibes, but we decided to check out the large Polygone Riviera in Cagnes-sur-Mer. Not surprisingly, it was a typical mall, full of middle of the road apparel and accessories. Nothing too exciting. Even Printemps was full of ordinary merch; not the mix that is in their Paris store.
But there was one find. A giant discount pharmacy filled with a huge range of French cosmetics at a price lower than what a normal pharmacy would charge — and much less than they would be in the US. I loaded up on my favorite brands that are not available in New York.
Polygone Riveria, 119 Avenue des Alpes, Cagnes-Sur-Mer
I had found a new category of restaurant. Take a small space, eight to 15 tables, and pair with a creative chef, and what you get is delicious cuisine at a very reasonable price. It is a winning combination and harder to find than you think. We were a bit late getting to dinner as both the mapping app on the phone and the car’s GPS were confounded by the narrow, winding streets of Vence. They had us driving in circles so we ended up asking locals who pointed us in the right direction. When we walked into Les Agapes, we were a bit surprised as we were the only diners there, which only made for a more memorable experience. I had a duck carpaccio (a first for me) and the pintade (guinea fowl) was a winner. A very French Thanksgiving.
Les Agapes, 4, Places de Clemenceau, Vence
The next morning we headed to Nice. I had learned my lesson, and the GPS was looking for the parking near our final destination. No more tiny, twisty streets. We were going to the Matisse Museum in the Cimiez quarter. It sits at the top of a hill full of upscale houses. Nice is a big city, and much of it is not attractive, although there is a lovely (and large) park of olive trees in Cimiez where many people play boules, the local sport.
I like Matisse’s work, but on my first visit to the museum there were not many pieces that were of interest. The museum rotates the pieces in the collection, so you never know what you will find. They also mount exhibitions of other artists. Maybe next time will be more to my liking.
The Musée Matisse, 164 Av. des Arènes de Cimiez, Nice
There is a small archaeology museum in the same park, and ruins of a Roman town. The large structure is part of the baths. Artifacts from around the Nice area are in the museum. It’s worth a visit.
Archeaology Museum of Nice-Cimiez, 160 Av. des Arènes de Cimiez, Nice
We headed down the hills into the center of Nice, near Vieux Nice. It was nice and sunny, and all the cafes in the Place Garibaldi were buzzing. We stopped into one for an Italian lunch. Nice was at one time Nizza, and many of the local specialties are Italian, ravioli being a specialty. The next stop was the MAMAC, or the Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain, a short distance from the square. It holds an impressive collection of French and American art. Works by Robert Indiana, Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, John Chamberlain and others make a major statement. There are many French artists, too.
Niki de Saint Phalle gave MAMAC some very interesting Nanas and other pieces of art. There are also works by her partner Jean Tinguely, who created one-of-a-kind pieces.
Another area is full of works by Yves Klein, who in known for his extensive use of a proprietary blue that starts with an over-saturated ultramarine blue. He did much of his work in the South of France. The museum is a must-visit destination.
MAMAC, Place Yves Klein, Nice
Vieux Nice starts across the street from MAMAC. The buildings and streets are narrow and twisty, and go back centuries. There are butcher shops and other food suppliers, restaurants, some clothing boutiques, antique shops, and tons of other shops. It is a wonderful place to wander.
Along with wandering, we looked for the Palais Lascaris. This 17th century aristocratic palace was built by the Vintimille-Lascaris family. The palace is grand, but as it is in Vieux Nice it’s located on a very narrow street. You can see the building across the way as the street in the quartier is about eight feet wide. The baroque decor is imposing.
The palace is home to the musical instrument museum. Antonio Gautier donated his collection, including several decorated harpsichords in the 19th century. Other acquisitions have been added. This is the second largest musical instrument collection in France, the largest being in Paris.
There are many types of harps, many wildly decorated. Other string instruments from over the centuries are visible in the next room. The Palais Lascaris definitely gives you a sense of what living here in the vieux days was like.
Palais Lascaris, 15 Rue Droite, Nice
As we wandered, and lost our way in the maze of streets, we did stumble into some fun stores. G&C, L’Epicerie was one of them. The boutique was full of scores of salts and peppers, as well as mills, from around the world. They also sell flavored rums and melanges of ground spices for grilling and cooking. A one-of-a-kind spot. We were meant to come back into Nice for dinner, but the trip back to St. Paul (normally a 25-minute drive) took well more than an hour. This was all local traffic; it is, after all, November. The thought of spending that much time driving sent us to the local market to buy some (very) fresh fish and vegetables for dining chez nous.
G&C, L’Epicicerie, 2, rue Pairoliere, Nice
I wanted to do a little shopping, surprise, surprise. I know that in the summer, Cannes has many boutiques and interesting things. Our first stop was Hermès. The selection was much smaller than in New York or Paris, and they did not have the item I was looking for. However, the salesperson reached out to Paris and I was able to order it for delivery in France only. I might have it in 6 months. It’s good to be Hermès. Most of the boutiques on the Croisette were luxury brands.
Hermès Cannes, 52 boulevard de la Croisette, Cannes
As we were walking up and down the Croisette, the grand boulevard along the Med, we noticed that almost all the beach restaurants were open. It was very sunny and the temps were in the high 60s, and so the world was enjoying Saturday lunch al fresco. We stopped at C Beach. We had our table in the sun and the D.J. was spinning. Seafood is their specialty. The food was light and delicious, and so was the rosé. “Summer in November” has its perks.
C Beach-Plage Restaurant, 45 Bd de la Croisette, Cannes
We then went looking for one-of-a-kind boutiques. I found a wonderful book store, but many of the boutiques are summer only and some of the best shops have closed. Most of the clothing stores were the same MOR brands that were in the mall. There was a Galeries Lafayette, but it was very dull. Still it was fun to look around at the traiteurs (fancy food shops) and stores with local specialties.
We had a rather long drive to dinner that night, but it was well worth the trip. La Table By Richard Mebkhout is another small restaurant located in Valbonne. The outside terrasse was not open, and there were eight or nine tables inside. The chef’s wife was the server and the food came up from the kitchen below in the dumbwaiter on the wall. I lucked out. The starter of foie gras and a nage of lobster could not have been better. Dinner with wine and desert was inexpensive by New York standards, and with a delicious Sancerre only set us back 42 euros (or about $43.25). What could be better?
La Table By Richard Mebkrout, 6, rue de la Fontaine, Valbonne
The next morning we went back into town, the hilltop village of Saint-Paul de Vence. The villages perched over the Med were built hundreds of years ago as walled cities with defensive capabilities. Because of institutions like the Foundation Maeght and the art at the Columbe d’Or, St. Paul is now an artsy destination.
The Place de Gaulle, at the foot of the ramparts, was transformed into a children’s festival on this particular Sunday. There were climbing walls and a tiny zip-line. The Columbe D’Or is just across the square.
We took a walk around the village, looking for an épicerie, a deli of sorts. They are normally open on Sunday mornings in France. The Maeght was closed for a small renovation, but what seemed like hundreds of galleries lined the streets.
There was one small concept store that had housewares in extremely good taste. And then we found an épicerie where we got a pissaladier, a niçoise staple, and some just-made quiche to take home for Sunday lunch on our terrace.
The Family Store, Place du Tilleuil, Saint Paul de Vence
It was our last day, so we spent some extra time on the ramparts. Looking to the north, you can just see the Alps starting in the distance. Not a bad view for the end of November.
As we walked out of the ramparts, there were more and more families socializing and getting treats from the vendors offering family-friendly eats.
After lunch we decided to drive to Villefranche, on the far side of Nice. The car park is on the east side of the bay. This woman headed out to sea and was soon joined by other adults and children. And there were more people sunning all around the azure bay. It was warm, but not warm enough to lure me into the water.
We headed towards the end of the harbor and the Chapelle Saint Pierre, which had been decorated by Jean Cocteau. He had also covered the Villa Santo Sospir with tattoo-like paintings. That was closed for renovations so I had hoped to see the chapel. Unfortunately, the chapel was also closed for winter break. Instead, we stopped at one of the cafes before heading home to pack. And we were back in New York by Monday, missing the sunshine and the stunning colors of the hills in the South of France.
Barbara Hodes is the owner of NYC Private Shopping Tour, offering customized tours in New York and Brooklyn.