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WINTER SUN (in the Cote D'Azure)
by Marcel d'Agneau
Write that novel in winter sunshine

Olive Picker France WINTER SUN

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 can’t 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 don’t 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 D’Azure 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 it’s own cloudburst. The French police have been trained by Serbia’s 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. (It’s a pleasant curiosity that Cote d’Azure 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 it’s 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 isn’t 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 I’d 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 it’s 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 doesn’t 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 don’t 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 don’t 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. (It’s a family thing, get your mind right). Put it this way, Scunthorpe it isn’t.

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 ‘00’s. (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 you’re 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 you’ll pass some of the most beautiful hillside villas you’ll 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 you’ll 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 can’t quite tear themselves away from the shopping in Fifth Avenue or Bond Street. The kind that wouldn’t be seen dead on an EasyJet flight. But you don’t mind, pride is for those who can afford it, right?

It’s your call, city life or solitude. For my money, Cannes is best, you have everything you need and sunshine and that can’t be bad.

Think then of this. The novel you intended to write, that picture you wanted to paint, that life you wanted to live, it’s 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 (it's cheaper to book on the web)
Flights from Luton to Nice
Flights from Nice to Amsterdam

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