|WINTER SUN (in
the Cote D'Azure)
by Marcel d'Agneau
Write that novel in winter sunshine
Assuming anything in the UK is a tad risky these days. Assuming your
train will arrive, assuming that you are actually going to get to the
airport before your plane takes off, or worse that the plane will take
off with your non-refundable cheap ticket or just as bad be delayed
for twelve hours. You cant even assume it will go to the destination
you paid for. You might even assume your Easyjet rentacar will be in
perfect condition and that you dont have to spend an hour listing
every scratch and dent in a dark underground garage to avoid them socking
it to you when you return it. (Just remember they will get you anyway).
When travelling assume the worst. But you will travel anyway, just so
you can escape...
Photo: The Olive Picker - France
When you arrive in Nice, you can also assume that they will have caught
the climate angleterre that week and the rain will be bucketing
down, but have no fear, unlike your actual England, they have drains
that believe it or not, drain! The Cote DAzure does have floods
and gales and even snow, but it is only a little pageant that they arrange
to entertain the locals. You can be assured that the very next day the
roads will be dry, the sky blue, the trees upright and the coffee hot.
Of course, being in Nice during a Eurosummit (have no fear all the others
will now take place in Brussels) produces its own cloudburst.
The French police have been trained by Serbias finest thugs and
they even go to the extreme of welding shut the sewers during the summit,
closing the stations, the border, imposing a red zone to
keep people out and woe betide anyone who wants a cafe creme in a sidewalk
cafe. They just wade in and belt the life out of you anyway. Cops really
know how to make your day in Nice.
So, you go to Port Grimaud, around two hours away on the scenic route.
This is your place of choice to rid yourself of SAD (seasonal affective
disorder) and here, in the winter sunshine you can place a layer of
vitamin D enriched carcinogens upon your face. Port Grimaud is one of
those sixties dream concepts - around 3000 homes in a water setting
that resembles a Mediterranean Venetian village. Unlike a real village
however, in winter is is empty, with bored security guards staring out
of their windows at the scudding clouds.
No matter, you are here, the sun is out and you are hungry. Finding
a restaurant that is actually open from Port Grimaud to St Tropez requires
cunning however; and cash. No one takes credit cards (Carte Blanche)
in winter and if you see someone else approaching the same restaurant
as you, run like hell, there will only be one table left and it is YOURS!.
Naturally you will be shocked by the prices of the food, but it will
be excellent and if you want to eat in the old port of St Tropez, just
be grateful that they are open at all. Pagnol, situated on one of the
narrow terraced streets of the Vieux Port is one such place. The place
is warm, the service friendly, the music contemporary low key jazz.
(Its a pleasant curiosity that Cote dAzure restaurants place
pretty good CDs at night and you can pretty much choose your food with
what kind of music you want to hear).
Staying in Port Grimaud does beg one question however. Why does one
live in England at all? Even a winter in the community of ghosts is
better than the daily interface with the hell that is English weather.
I write this on a sunny balcony, warm, not hot, a Siamese cat gingerly
making its way off a million pound yacht for its morning ablutions.
I can contemplate a stroll ( actually a rather long stroll) to the nearest
cafe to have a cafe creme and read the Financial Times (which is published
in Marseilles). It probably isnt true, but I can feel the aging
process slowing down as my body gets into synch with the unaccustomed
sun. (And it does need slowing down)
Someone once asked me if I ever got bored of sun. One might as well
ask if you get bored of sex or food. Mostly not Id say. It is
no coincidence that thousands of Finns go stark staring mad each year
for a lack of sun. (And a rather excessive amount of booze).
When Price Albert was alive, Queen Victoria made this area her winter
retreat . Nice still has the Promenade des Anglais and a tradition of
the rich English wintering there. The British gentry made Nice their
winter home from 1861 onwards when the Blue Train began its regular
run from Victoria via Paris to Nice. (It still runs from Paris). Artists
like Henri Matisse, Picasso, Marc Chagall, were all inspired by the
winter sun here and writers such as Graham Greene, Marcel Pagnol of
Jean de Florette fame. A recent celebration of the area
and its past came with the wonderful movies of Yves Robert who
directed The Glorie de mon pere and the Le Chateau
de ma mere (1991) set in in the colines overlooking the sea. Travelling
up to the hilltop mediaeval villages of Gassin or Grimaud one can see
little has changed since the turn of the last century up there and if
you want to sample that life, buy those movies and treasure them.
St Tropez is dwarfed by the stratocruiser boats that crowd the harbour,
empty boats that await their rich owners who might use them for, at
the most, a few weekends in the year. Curiously, in the adjacent car
park there are around sixty parked motorhomes, a kind of ironic parody
of the luxury yachts. Northern Europeans escaping the worst of the winter
living at the southern extremity of France for a few months. Modern
mock-gypsies in shapeless homes, a curious phenonema with none of the
community spirit and culture that goes with gypsy life.
St Tropez doesnt really exist in winter - shops go through the
motions, most hotels are closed but Saturdays are rather special. St
Tropez comes alive on this day in winter. The Saturday market in Les
Lices is much more than your average English affair . The clothes have
style and dont look as though have been nicked from a Kosovan
refugee camp. Prices vary here from cashmere sweater seconds at £15,
to pigskin full length coats lined with cashmere just short of £400.
There are stalls laid out with all the herbs you could imagine at 10
or 20 francs a scoop, jams, flowers, the usual craft stuff and all of
this surrounded by cafes that dont blanche at charging 30 francs
for a cafe creme in a small cup. The best part is a winter wonderland
that sprang up overnight in the market place. A forest of pine trees
sprayed with fake snow surrounding an ice-rink where, for the first
day only, young ladies in skimpy costumes will do things with hula-hops
on the ice. (Its a family thing, get your mind right). Put it
this way, Scunthorpe it isnt.
I love the way the French pile everything into one space, right here
is a bijou little cinema currently showing Small Time Crooks
the Woody Allen movie (Which is very funny, even dubbed into French)
and Coyote Ugly which is good eye candy fodder for those
who need that kind of thing, a kind of Flashdance for the
00s. (Come to think of it, it has the same producer).
St Tropez is dormant in winter on other days, so if you can, go to Cannes,
it provides a rare contrast. Cannes is lively, the shops offer the best
of everything, the morning fish market is astonishingly huge with the
loot of the Med on display in copious quantities and choice; it is also
a fantastic space when empty.
|The whole town has a busy atmosphere to it and it is friendly (well
it is if youre buying things). Cannes is a lot cheaper than St
Tropez too, the benefits of competition at work here. Agnes B may even
offer discounts if you are lucky. Because Cannes is an all year round
place with conferences, film festivals and summer crowds, it feels relaxed,
yet has a positive charge about it. Importantly it also has a strong
sense of civic pride , the best and most dangerous Mediterranean drive
along the coast to get to it and the most dedicated parking attendants
in the world. (Be warned).
Cannes Fish Market
St Tropez to Cannes is a good hours drive in winter, at least two and
a half in summer and youll pass some of the most beautiful hillside
villas youll see anywhere as you go.
St Raphael is another contrast. This is silver city. Thousands of refugees
from the northern winter have retired here and it has a slightly down
market feel to the place as does Frejus next door. Property is cheap
and although more attractive than Bournemouth, it has that kind of feel
to it. That might be a little unfair. The weather is a LOT better than
Bournemouth and the greys wear clothes with a tad more style. St Maxime,
on the other hand, is smaller, yet has a kind of sparkle. With lots
of restaurants (of differing quality) it is a natural stop on the way
to Cannes or back to St Tropez. If I was going to chose to live all
year around though, Cannes is the best choice. It is more sophisticated,
has cinemas that show version original and some excellent
coffee bars that are crowded with people trying to out style each other.
Winter in Port Grimaud if you wish, but like the villages in the hills
that surround it, these places only come alive in the summer months
(April to September) and youll be living with the dead in winter.
The silence might be hard to bear.
Curiously, although southern France is lifeless in winter, just across
the border in northern Spain, it is incredibly alive. Crossing the unmanned
borders to go to Barcelona on the Med or San Sebastian on the Atlantic
side is like going from Sleepy Hollow to New York City, it is that bigger
a contrast. Something one should consider if you are thinking about
buying a home out here to escape the cold weather. In the end, either
you will like the slow pace of southern France or the spicier Northern
Spain. Oddly enough, the price of property is similar, although it is
far cheaper to buy in Spain and simpler too. In France, lawyers have
to be paid which will account for twenty percent on top of the price,
massive deposits found and you cannot back out of a deal under any circumstances
once you have committed! So either have the ready cash or better yet,
find a friend who has a place in France and just cant quite tear
themselves away from the shopping in Fifth Avenue or Bond Street. The
kind that wouldnt be seen dead on an EasyJet flight. But you dont
mind, pride is for those who can afford it, right?
Its your call, city life or solitude. For my money, Cannes is
best, you have everything you need and sunshine and that cant
Think then of this. The novel you intended to write, that picture you
wanted to paint, that life you wanted to live, its here now, just
waiting for you in the winter sun.
© Marcel D'Agneau 2000 (Written just before the Euro emerged to ruin everything)
© Photos Sam North
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