Grand Homes of the French Riviera

Early this morning the cicadas were singing in the outside garden. With no rain in the forecast, we were able to head out early for a full day of adventure.

Renoir (1841-1919) lived in a villa outside Antibes in Cagnes. The home is now a museum and with remarkable simplicity, displays some of his paintings, ceramics, and sculptures.

In the gardens surrounding the villa, placards with copies of some of his paintings show the exact spot where Renoir stood. Ancient trees grow on the property with gnarled branches as well as classic tall Cyprus trees.

In the museum we were introduced to some of Renoir’s friends who collaborated with him. In his studio where late in his life Renoir painted different models from his wheelchair, his wheelchair, easel, and paint set were all on display. On the wall was a painting of Renoir working from his wheelchair by his friend Andre and a photograph of the scene too. What was really impressive were the number of family photographs displayed dating back to the early 1900s which included pictures of his son Jean Renoir who was a renowned filmmaker. The movie Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe was filmed, in 1959, at the villa. Renoir is also celebrated for such movies as The Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game.

When I look at black and white photographs I always need to remember that the world did not appear black and white to the people in the photos. Their world was just as colorful as we see it today and even more so. We noticed that several paintings did not include any houses or buildings we could see from the villa. Instead they saw colorful flowers and hills covered with trees.

From Renoir’s villa we could see an ancient hilltop town Haut de Cagnes which appeared in many of his paintings. Approaching the town we were pleased to see a car park but when we pulled in, it all seemed very odd. It looked a sliding glass door would open and you would drive into the lobby of a building. Two men kept gesturing for us to do it and when we got inside, we experienced something new to us. You exit the car and it disappears into the unknown. To get it back, you can watch a moving plank on a monitor retrieve your car all automated. Here at the base of this ancient village, modern technology blends with the old world perfectly.

Haut de Cagnes was beautifully preserved with stone houses, wrought iron balconies, and flowers everywhere. At the top was Grimaldi’s Chateau which is a series of Museums. We ate outside at a cafe with panoramic views of the countryside giving a feeling of total freedom from a busy world.

Our final stop of the day was The Rothschild Villa and Gardens where Beatrice Rothschild lived. Inside we toured the villa where we saw carpets from Versailles, rose quartz figurines, and delicately embroidered clothing. Beatrice was eccentric and even held a wedding for her two beloved lapdogs which included a garden party with guests. Floral arrangements enhanced every room. On a table I spotted a magnificent bouquet of roses, some in full bloom and some wilted. Never one to resist the sweet aroma of roses I buried my nose in one of the flowers and sniffed. Nothing. The flowers were silk!

Outside we toured the gardens. The paths wove around the peninsula so you had 360 degree views of the sea. Huge yachts were anchored offshore and we could hear the happy cries of swimmers below.

On several of the paths were herb gardens with signs that said smell me. There was rosemary, mint, and lemon verbena, but most wonderful of all were fountains in the middle of the garden that playfully spouted water every 20 minutes to classical music. Watching it made me feel very joyful.

Driving back to Antibes was a challenge. The GPS was accurate, but gave directions every 30 seconds such as, “Turn half left, keep right, but turn left.” I don’t know how people maneuver these roads every day and then squeeze their cars into the tightest of parking spaces.

Tonight we had a picnic dinner back at the hotel. We will miss the French Riviera. Tomorrow we take a train to Italy.

A Day Exploring Antibes

It was supposed to rain today and we were fully prepared for it, but when we awoke, the sun was shining and the guests in the breakfast room were already planning their beach day. As it turned out, it was sunny all day.

We parked in a modern parking garage in Antibes which was underground and walked up the steps with a family from New Jersey. They were very nice, but there was one embarrassing moment when the woman crashed into a parking attendant’s office and demanded, “How do we get out of here!” The poor woman didn’t speak English so was left only guessing at what she said.

Our first stop was market day on the square in Antibes. Vendors sold fresh flowers, vegetables, lavender, fruit, honey, and spices. In one section people eagerly lined up for socca which is made from cornmeal and chickpeas. One person was rapidly cutting it while another cooked it in a brick oven where we could see the flames. Our piece was piping hot out of the oven and sprinkled with something out of a shaky jar. I’m not sure what it was but it was delicious,

Pablo Picasso actually lived in Antibes in 1946 for four months in Chateau Grimaldi of Monaco. The museum which is right on the water has beautifully lit galleries displaying his work. Amongthe masterpieces was La joie de Vivre which was in beautiful shades of blue. This was a happier time for Picasso now that the war was over. We also saw a room of his sketches and a wall of ceramics he created, each with a different design.

We decided to eat at an outdoor cafe. Our guidebook’s suggestion was closed so we chose a cafe based on popularity and on a limited menu. Restaurants that offer an extensive array of different dishes are usually not that good.

On the way back to the car we passed a wonderful toy shop and a watch shop selling Tin Tin. My sister Jane loves Tin Tin and with technology today we were able to send a photo and get a quick response. The shop owner was so pleased when we returned and told us he had the shop for over 20 years. He signed the guarantee and placed it in an official Tin Tin bag. Success!

Our car ride back to the hotel seemed to take forever. It was total grid lock but we made it and decided on a picnic dinner on the outside terrace. We had a ham and cheese sandwich and spreadable cheese and crackers.

Tonight there’s a fireworks show. We love the holiday vibe in Antibes!

The Hilltop Villages of France

Rain was gently falling this morning, but the forecast indicated it would be over by noon. We decided to visit some indoor museums, but on the way in the car, the rain stopped. This is bank holiday weekend in France so we expected a huge crowd at our first stop, St. Paul de Vence a hilltop town, but we were lucky. I think everyone stayed away thinking it might rain all morning. We hopped out of the car at the car park and followed a group of people along a winding road up the hill for about a mile, but it all seemed rather odd. They must know where they’re going, I thought to myself, but why wasn’t there a sidewalk and most important, where was the town? Suddenly a car sped to a stop. “Would you like a ride?” they kindly asked. “You are going the wrong way!”

St Paul de Vence was a beautiful old town of stone houses and cobblestone lanes. It seems to be a community of artists. Art galleries fill every space with paintings and sculpture and even the cobblestone Lane was artistically designed with stone flowers in some places. Each studio had colorful wooden flower boxes bursting with flowers and some had tiny wooden table displays with flowers or ceramic mugs. Even the church which was lit with prayer candles had beautifully displayed artwork including statues and paintings.

As the sun came out the crowds arrived. It turns out this is the most visited village in all of France. We ate lunch in a small cafe and I regretted not ordering a mushroom crepe. It looked and smelled amazing.

Our next stop was a tiny hilltop town the hotel had told us about called Gourdon which is in Provence. Along the way we pulled over in various spots for views across the valley. As we drove up the final part of mountain though, we began to wonder if it would be worth it. No one else seemed to be on the road and our guidebook didn’t mention it, but when we reached the top, we found a full car park and lots of happy visitors. The views from the top were stunning, almost as if you were in an airplane and in the distance the Mediterranean glistened in the sunlight.

Gourdon is very small but one of the prettiest hilltop villages I have ever visited. The stone houses were all beautifully decorated with flowers, tiny statues in the windows, or ceramic jugs. The shutters were painted in light blue and tiny lizards basked in the sunlight. We stopped at a cafe just to enjoy the view.

Dinner was back in Antibes in a restaurant with tables outside. We both agreed this is truly a beautiful and peaceful place to visit and are thankful we will be here for four days.

Welcome to the Cote d’Azur

We generally don’t like early departures but this morning couldn’t have been easier. After a quick breakfast (Simon our host even kindly offered to scramble us an egg) we drove to Newquay Airport for a 10:00 flight to London Stansted. Our plane, a Flybe flight with propellers, had wheels that came down on the side of the plane rather than underneath it. That was quite a surprise to see that sight out our window.

Getting to London was the easy part. London Stansted Airport was total chaos with waves of people pulling suitcases toward each other. Our flight to Nice was on Jet2.com, another new airline to us. Our plane was a brand new 737 300/800 with soft lighting, but there is a definite party vibe on this airline. All announcements are prerecorded and end with “Have a lovely holiday.” Our flight even began with a recorded but upbeat speech about how everyone should be nice, no verbal abuse allowed, no drinks will be served if you appear inebriated, no opening any alcohol you might have in your possession, and have a lovely holiday. It was pretty amusing. They even said, “Time to tidy up. Turn in your trash to the cabin crew.” It was like being on a school field trip. I actually nodded off and was awakened with a jolt when the plane landed,

At Nice Airport we were thrilled to be upgraded to a BMW and followed the GPS aided by my phone’s Google maps to our hotel in Antibes. It is bright and airy with a swimming pool and outside sitting area. The hotel itself is cream colored with light blue shutters. The contrast in weather is striking. Rather than rainy and cool, it is sunny and in the high 80s. No more sweater weather for us. We were even given chilled water at the Sixt Car Rental,

Tonight we took a 10 minute walk to a restaurant located in a garden. It’s been a long day and today’s blog is short, but we are excited to head out tomorrow for new adventures.

A Nostalgic Return to St. Mawes

There’s something about me many of you may not know. When I was a child, my father worked for Royal Typewriter in Hartford and spent a considerable amount of time on business trips with the Imperial Typewriter Company in England. While working in England, a business associate told him about a beautiful seaside village in Cornwall known as St. Mawes. We first traveled there when I was 13 and during the next 10 years, I spent many summers in St. Mawes. This is why I love things from England so much. When I met David, I told him about this perfect seaside village that I was certain would remain unchanged and promised that someday we would visit it together. Today we were able to make that journey on what was truly a memorable day.

St Mawes is located on a remote peninsula in Cornwall. This morning we learned that due to high swells, the ferries from Falmouth would not be running. Instead we drove through the countryside on narrow winding roads with high hedgerows to the edge of the River Fal and took the King Harry Ferry on a five minute car ferry ride across pulled by chains. I remember it well from my childhood so was excited when I saw the website that said, “Experience the chains.”

We arrived at the southern part of St Mawes and parked in the car lot at the castle overlooking the sea. Today the castle has a visitor’s center and has been restored with cannons, wooden beam ceilings, and glass windows. Years ago I remember it only as an old abandoned castle on a windswept point of land.

Walking down the winding lane to the village, I recognized it all, The whitewashed houses looked the same and even a large house covered with ivy with a thatched roof was still there and beautifully maintained. We stopped in at the Hotel Tresanton, a hotel where we first started staying when I was in my late teens. The rooms of course did not look anything like my old brochure showing comfortable furniture covered with floral fabric. Instead, it has been beautifully updated and is quite elegant. I showed the woman at the reception my brochure and she was very welcoming, She told us that most of the same guests return year after year just as we had long ago. I had a little book I had written as a teenager about St. Mawes and the hotel and it was fun to read the story of how I had seen this place long ago. The small stuffed rabbit featured in the book still travels with me today.

Down by the pier in town, little had changed. Sailboats bobbed in the harbor, people strolled down by the sea wall eating ice cream, dogs raced on the pebble beach, and children were crabbing. We saw a young girl release her tiny crabs back into the water. As they scuttled down the slipway, she chased a seagull away and called out goodbye to the crabs.

As a child, my favorite hotel was the Idle Rocks. It’s right on the water and used to have a beach vibe to it. I knew that it is now considered elite and although the people were very nice, encouraging us to explore, it was very upmarket and people were dressed up just sitting around in the lounge. “St. Mawes is the Hamptons of England,” our hosts at our accommodation had told us. We learned that Prince Charles and Camilla go there. We walked out on the terrace and I found the exact same spot where I had my picture taken with a boy from Wales when I was 13. He was a guest and we used to play Monopoly together in the lounge of the hotel but back at school that fall I showed everyone the photo and said he was my Welsh boyfriend.

Walking back to the car at the castle, memories of being in St Mawes came flooding back to me. Some people wonder if it’s possible to go back to place you once loved years later. I believe that you can if you are open to places reinventing themselves to keep up with the modern world. Yes, St. Mawes is now part of the modern world; too, but for me, it will always be special.

Exploring the Cornish coastline

Breakfast at the Highcliffe Contemporary Bed and Breakfast http://www.highcliffefalmouth.com/ is a real treat. In addition to fresh fruits, cereals, and a traditional English breakfast, there is always something special on offer. This morning it was the fluffiest French toast ever topped with maple syrup, blueberries and strawberries, all dusted with powdered sugar. It was delicious.

We started our day with a visit to Trebah Gardens, an exotic tropical garden of more than 20 acres.There were tiny gravel paths winding through gardens bursting with hydrangeas in deep blue and purple, and hidden koi ponds where fat lazy fish basked in the sunlight. As we walked, we were surprised by a sudden sun shower, but no one seemed to mind and took shelter under big tropical leaves and bamboo stalks.

We followed the trail down to the water where the beach was almost deserted except for one seagull and a few people at picnic tables enjoying a Cornish ice cream-cone. We learned that this very spot had been covered with concrete during WWII and was used as a point of disembarkation on D-Day for over 700 American soldiers. After the war the concrete was removed but you can still see one of the walls.

We wanted to visit Lizard Point for spectacular views and to enjoy the best crab sandwich and Cornish pasty according to Simon at the B&B, but the roads to get there were winding, super narrow, and surrounded by hedge rows. On this type of road, if another car comes along, someone must back up and give way. A scary moment was when a bus appeared out of nowhere, Fortunately the skilled driver backed up and let us through,

We decided to visit some more accessible towns. Our first one was Mousehole. It’s an adorable town tucked into a cove but so popular there was not one place to park. We headed next to Porthcurno to Minack Theater an outdoor performance center with an amazing history. In 1923, a woman named Rowena Cade moved to Porthcurno and had a house built for her family on a cliff overlooking the sea. She was interested in sewing costumes and in 1929 when a local group wanted to stage A Midsummer’s Night Dream, she offered her garden.

Suddenly she had a vision for an outdoor theater cut into the cliff and with her gardener, built the first one in six months. Over the decades improvements were made by Rowena who could single handedly carry six bags of sand up a cliff to make cement and even lugged 12 wooden beams from a wrecked Spanish vessel up the cliff to the theater. With a screwdriver she carved Celtic designs into the seats and posts before the concrete was fully hardened. We saw the names of countless productions carved into the stones dating back to the 1930s.

Today there are nightly theater productions outside people can attend and Rowena’s vision lives on.

Our last stop was Land’s End, the most southwest point of England with the next stop being America. I visited it as a child and remember it as a touristy place with windswept barren land. Today this is still true, but they’ve added odd amusements to it such as King Arthur’s 3D theater and zip lines. The scenery was dramatic though with waves crashing into the cliffs. I wondered if there had ever been a shipwreck there and sure enough there have been 37.

Tonight we had fish and chips down by the harbor. On our way we noticed hundreds of people wearing bright pink wigs and pink t shirts. Turns out it’s a fund raiser for breast cancer research. We walked around town after dinner and even at 11:99 people were still out and about. Tomorrow we’ ll explore more of the amazing coastline.

A Trip to the Cornish Seaside

Today we flew on a new short haul airline to us, Flybe, from London Gatwick Airport to Newquay here in Cornwall. Getting to the airport couldn’t have been easier. From Victoria Station it was a quick 30 minute train ride on the Gatwick Express to the airport.

The Newquay Airport is very small. In fact we were the only airplane there. As we walked out into the departure area, a friendly man from Cornwall Car Hire was there to greet us. Our rental car is a brand new Kia. It’s bright red, but looks economical.

Our drive here to Falmouth took almost an hour. Traffic was quite heavy. We love our accommodation the Highcliffe Contemporary Bed and Breakfast. Simon, the owner, greeted us warmly and gave us a thorough overview of the area. Our room overlooks the harbor where we can see fishing and sailing boats.

The decor of the room is really unique. The wallpaper is a collage of photos.

Dinner tonight was at Hunky Dory. We had hake filets with Cornish potatoes and it was amazing. Not only was it was delicious, it was artistically designed on the plate. The interior design was lovely too with sage green walls and local artwork including paintings and pictures created with colorful cut glass in shades of blue. We learned that the owner we met had been a makeup artist for Phantom of the Opera and had worked with Andrew Lloyd Webber.

We walked around Falmouth after dinner and even though it was rather cool outside, people were sitting outside at cafes and restaurants. All the shops were closed but we noticed the majority looked privately owned. We picked out a few art galleries we want to visit and some shops selling locally made arts and crafts. Tomorrow morning we’ll follow the itinerary Simon has mapped out for us and even if it rains, it will be a great day.