Andrew Morris strolls down memory lane in the south of France.
Way back in 1972 a callow teenager jumped on a train in Koblenz – where he had just spent three weeks living with a local family and learning German – and somehow found his way to the south of France. His family fanned out across the platform at Avignon, and after a successful reunion they enjoyed an idyllic holiday together on the fabled Côte d’Azur.
Fast forward 50 years and the opportunity to attend a wedding near Cannes brought those fading memories flooding back to me. And why not take the train again, from the UK this time, for reasons both nostalgic and environmental? And it might have taken a complete day, but relaxing on Eurostar between London St. Pancras and Paris, riding the metro from the Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon and whizzing at speeds of up to 300km per hour on the TGV all the way south to the Mediterranean, somehow just felt more fitting than flying or driving.
My oldest friend’s son Chris was marrying Eléa. They both live and work in Norwich, but decided on a French wedding in Mougins, a charming hilltop town just 15 minutes north of Cannes and where Eléa’s family have lived for many years.
We decided to extend our stay in this iconic region of Europe, and booked a few days at the Hotel de Mougins ahead of the wedding celebrations. At this comfortable 4* hotel we spent a day by, and in, the glorious swimming pool, recovering from train-lag and hiding from the fiercest of the sun’s searing rays. Later, we strolled to nearby Mougins and stumbled across a scene from the end of World War II, American military vehicles parked up while uniformed GIs and lipsticked demoiselles danced to Glenn Miller big band songs. The Mayor was hosting a genial celebration of the liberation of France in 1944.
Mougins is surrounded by forests and in the town there are pine, olive and cypress trees. The Mercantour National Park and higher peaks of the Alpes Maritimes beckon to the north-east, and the light shines with a magical glow. So it’s no surprise that Picasso spent the last years of his life here, setting up his easel in front of the ancient Notre-Dame-de-Vie chapel, where Winston Churchill might also be seen scribbling in his diary. The town’s cobbled streets burst with art galleries and with bars and bistros, for Mougins also has an important culinary history. Renowned chefs Alain Ducasse and Roger Vergé plied their gastronomic trade here and in the 1970s this small town boasted 7 Michelin stars, more than anywhere else outside Paris.
On another day we hired a car and drove west in the direction of memories. We didn’t stop in the hillside above Fréjus, where I had spent that idyllic family holiday so many years ago, but just seeing a road sign for the town sent a frisson of nostalgia down my ageing spine. We headed instead for Port Grimaud, close to 60s hotspot St. Tropez, where my wife Gill had her own mental scrapbook to assemble back into life.
Labelled ‘The Little Venice of Provence’, Grimaud has only been in existence for 50 years but has a timeless air seeping around its canals and harbours. Wander amongst the waterside properties, expensive boats bobbing around on private moorings at the end of gardens, before grabbing lunch at one of the restaurants where the tablecloths virtually flap in the water. And where you can’t really imagine eating anything other than the freshest fish, probably hauled in just a few yards from your table. After that, why not enjoy a quick siesta on the beach, where the water of the Golfe de St Tropez glistens like a sun-oiled starlet. Either go to the main Plage de Grimaud, where Gill spent a hedonistic week with her best friends in the early 1980s, or hunt down the much quieter Beach Sud for a cheeky cocktail after your sunbathing.
On another pre-wedding day we headed to nearby Cannes. Famed for its annual Film Festival, we wandered along La Croisette, the town’s famous 3km promenade linking expensive seafront hotels with their super-private beaches and bars, and where so many A-List celebrities have posed for paparazzi to promote their latest movie, in search of the Palme d’Or. But away from the celluloid glitz and glam, hunt out the old part of town, Le Suquet, where winding cobbled streets dating back to Roman times lead you past charming houses and enticing bars, ever upwards until you stumble across a castle, ancient churches and a stupendous view down to La Croisette and the cerulean Bay of Cannes.
Back in Mougins, the wedding party took over the entire Manoir de l’Etang. A unique boutique hotel, this 19th century manor house nestles in a hillside amongst its own 4 hectares of beautiful Provençale gardens, overlooking a lake covered in lotus flowers, and the local Parc naturel de la Valmasque. The 22 bedrooms are spread across a number of charming buildings, each spacious room sympathetically restored and furnished. Outside you can laze by the pool, play pétanque or just stroll around the estate. The wedding ceremony took place under the embracing limbs of a large tree in a shady glade, before celebratory poolside fizz and canapés, and an epic 5 course culinary wedding feast as the sun set on the happy couple’s perfect day.
Whatever the reason you might have to visit the Côte d’Azur, and whether you’re hunting down old memories or making new ones, Mougins – and the Manoir de l’Etang in particular – make the perfect base.
Rester c’est exister mais voyager c’est vivre (To stay is to exist, to travel is to live) – French songwriter Gustave Nadaud.