Days 2/3 : Monaco, Eze and other medieval gems
Monaco and Lunch at Chateau Eza
The easiest way to Monaco from Villefranche is the train – no traffic snarl ups , which can be very bad in the Riviera – but after Monte Carlo, we wanted to head for 1,000 year old Eze village, where we had a posh lunch booked at 2pm at Chateau Eza; so, the car it was.
We got parked easily if not cheaply (nowehere is cheap here) in the car park under Monaco’s Old Town, one we’ve used before and by 10.30am we were walking up the steep steps to the beautiful Vieux Ville where the Royal Palace sits (looks a little bit like a toy castle made of Lego.) But there are fine views over the Marina with its mega yachts and cruisers, as well as the motley multi-storey properties whose apartments must command eye watering prices. It certainly looks very different to the generally low level and lovelier older style architecture along the coast; that new build , at the time, attracted huge criticism when Prince Rainier allowed it to go ahead. But of course, these are not your average tower blocks!
We usually manage to walk around 18,000 steps daily on holiday and certainly did that in the half day we spent in this most glitzy of locations. A stroll through the Old Town’s pretty streets, lined with immaculate pink and lemon buildings; a visit to the beautiful Cathedral and the tomb of Princess Grace; coffees in a tiny quiet square at the side of the church; then on past the fine Aquarium and the pleasantly cool gardens. And always, admiring the view of the deep blue sea all around and the handsome, mountainous coast.
Down to the Marina and up to the Place de Casino for a sparkling water and a beer (nibbles included as standard) on the outdoor terrace of the famous Café de Paris. I think we paid at least 20 euros for this privilege but it’s worth it to sit and watch Monaco go by; the cruising Rolls Royce Phantoms; the open topped , top of the range Bentleys, canary yellow Lamborghinis, chauffeurs dropping guests off at the Belle Epoque masterpiece that is the grand Hotel de Paris.There’s something ridiculous about all that wealth and I can honestly say I felt no envy at all (though, in House’s words, Everybody Lies.)But it is one of the great people watching places and great fun. Last visit, we plucked up the courage to have coffee (served with handmade chocolates) in the nearby and equally grand Hotel Hermitage. Eye watering prices but I just had to do it.I really did feel we were a pair of scruffs traipsing into that poshness, though the liveried doorman was very welcoming and smiley.The main restaurant looked exquisite – there were still people having breakfast at 11.30am which seemed the height of decadence to early risers like us.Chris reckoned half the clientele were probably crooks😊
Back to the car via the glamorous shops – Celine, Dolce and Gabana, Chanel – all with the most beautiful clothes on display, their doorways guarded by security heavies with their dark sunglasses and sharp suits. I have never summoned the courage to go in to these shops, ever. Anyway – lunch beckoned!
It’s a wonderful drive along the Moyenne Corniche up to tiny Eze, the Med a deep ultramarine and sparkling with sunlight. There is something about the light here; no wonder Van Gogh and Cezanne and others flocked here. Everywhere glitters ( or rather, it does to tourists like us enjoying it superficially for a few days.)
The medieval village, perched on a crag 1,400 feet above the sea, is very beautiful with its honey stone buildings and cobbled streets, winding up steeply to the Jardin Exotique at the top. Yes, it’s very touristy too, every other shop selling lavender (gorgeous smell though) or soap or dubious quality art; so, it doesn’t feel like a real place. But oh what the heck, Chateau Eza is absolutely gorgeous. Our table was right at the edge of the terrace with uninterrupted views over the lush, steep hillside and the red tiled roofs of the villages and resorts which pepper the coast.The 40 euro Set Lunch was an excellent deal given the fabulous location and great food (Michelin 1 Star.) Nice friendly service too. It’s definitely one of my favourite restaurants anywhere, somewhere to dream about returning to.
Yet it was still a pleasure to return to our simple little hotel by the sea in Villefranche and then a late afternoon stroll along the Napoloeonic harbour.It was built in the 16th century and is now a National Monument, really delightful. The evening was spent reading on our balcony as the sun went down on another fine Cote D’Azur day. Crisps (one of many bad habits) olives and cornichons were about all we felt like, a glass of wine and then endless cups of tea for me (Chris however, enjoys a bottle of vino at least.) I am, as my husband often says, a cheap night out.
Day 3: Medieval Villages
There are some beautiful medieval villages set inland from the buzz of the coast. We headed firstly to Roquebrune Cap Martin, beyond Monaco. Parking was quite easy below the village, just a short walk up to the main square and the 10th century chateau/ fort , with the ramparts giving great views of the orange pan-tiled roofs below. It’s a quiet place (we were there out of the main season of course) and had café au laits in the little café on the main square.
Peillon was only 22 miles away but it’s a sign of how tortuous the roads are that it took us an hour to reach this peaceful, ancient village of grey stone houses and narrow passageways. It looks impossible to reach on the approach, teetering on a steep, tiny crag but the road winds up easily to a small car park on its outskirts.
We were in high country now and not a soul stirred as we walked up Peillon’s silent little wynds. All end at the simple yellow church at the top of the hamlet, with its blue tower against a mountainous, wooded backdrop. The church bells tolled the hour (so evocative to me of mainland Europe) as we opened our packed lunch of sandwiches and sparkling water on the terrace. It felt quite magical to be in such an ancient, unchanged place of utter peace.
Years ago, we bought a map showing the location of France’s ‘Plus Villages’ – the country’s prettiest villages – and it has been a boon in finding the most exquisite little places. On other trips, we have been stunned by the gorgeous villages of the Luberon – Lacoste, Bonnieux and Menerbes; Bargemon and probably my favourites in Provence and the Var, Moustiers St Marie, Entrevaux, Gassin and Grimaud.I have written up a list of my favourite Scottish villages but need to do the same on mainland Europe’s impossibly beautiful gems.
It can be a nightmare driving back towards Nice and Villefranche late afternoon and so it proved! I tried to be too clever with the road map, telling Chris to take an alternative route but it led us slap bang in the middle of one log jam after another; gruesome and nerves were soon frazzled (well, mine were – patience has never been one of my virtues whereas Chris can wait, wait, wait quietly and calmy which I find infuriating at times.) Eventually, we reached the quieter streets of Villefranche and stopped to pick up some croissants and baguettes for tomorrow’s breakfast and lunch on the move.
We were hitting the town tonight, so after a shower it was a quick change of clothes and a stroll along the coastal path to the waterfront. The harbour restaurants were all lit up as the sun went down, the place going like a fair as usual, bars busy in the balmy evening. We headed for La Grignotiere in one of the town’s narrow, cobbled backstreets.. It’s a simple, traditional place run by two local ladies and we sat on the tiny outside terrace. Their Spaghetti Vongole was really first class, good fresh clams in an excellent wine and cream sauce; I had spaghetti with a tomato sauce and lots of parmesan, simple but one of my favourite pasta dishes. There’s a big Italian influence in this area, given it is so close to the Italian border.
Then a stroll along the front, past the pretty pastel pink church – the Chapelle St Pierre – with its striking interior painted by Jean Cocteau.
A gander at some of the small boutiques; I’m not much of a clothes shopper but the only place I ever feel like buying tends to be in the Mediterranean resorts. The prices are not bad and the clothes tend to be unusual and stylish, quite glam and very feminine.But I passed this time.
Then back for a drink on the balcony, the night air cooling from the day’s heat but still pleasant. Oh, the joy of balmy evenings by the sea, sitting out on a balcony till late without having to dress up (as at home) like Nanouk of the North! To us with our Northern blood, used to chilly air and raw winds even in summer, it’s one of the great draws of the Med.
Part 3 : West to Provence and Arles (Van Gogh), Avignon, the Roman Aqueduct of Pont du Gard and Carcassonne