I have always been enamored of France. I love Edith Piaf, the art of the Impressionists, café society, crusty baguettes and lusty Brie, strong French coffee, accordion music, the lilting language, the hearty abandon with which the French enjoy food and family and social gatherings. Oh, yes, and then there’s French wine: red, of course, smooth and supple on the tongue.
On my to-do list, way up near the top, are two goals related to France. The first is to learn French. Very little remains of my year of French in high school except my teacher’s favorite phrase: “Ferme la bouche!” (i.e., “Close your mouth”). Recently I found free French lessons online, also available as podcasts. So if you see a crazy lady jogging down the road conjugating French verbs between breaths, that would be me.
The other goal on my to-do list is to live in France some day, preferably in the South along the Mediterranean coast. It’s a sublime environment: sunny, mostly warm, not-too-humid, with beaches to the south and mountains to the north. Nice, a centuries-old city along the coast, tops my pick of places in France to live. At the same time modern and quaint, it’s the quintessential French city with colorful open-air markets, bustling sidewalks, old-world architecture, outdoor cafes, and stylish residents.
UNDER AN OLIVE TREE
Moving to Nice isn’t exactly convenient right now, however, so I content myself with occasional visits. Always on the lookout for bargains, I scooped up three Air France tickets a few years ago to Paris from Dulles that included a free add-on city (guess which one I picked) for $400 apiece (!) and started planning a late February trip abroad for Peter, my husband, and me and our ten-year-old son, Ross. Since Peter’s mother and sister live in the Netherlands, we included a few days on our itinerary to drive from Paris to Amsterdam for a family visit, but the highlight (with apologies to Peter’s family) would be our week in the South of France. Who cared if the trip occurred in late February? We would still have a fabulous time.
In fact, as my planning got underway, I discovered we would be in Nice during Carnival, which is the French version of Mardi Gras. While our dates didn’t coincide with Fat Tuesday, we would still get to see a parade or two and enjoy the festive atmosphere. The nearby town of Menton, France, would be holding its annual Lemon Festival during our visit, as well. Turns out that late winter isn’t a bad time to visit Nice after all! C’est bon!
My brother, Dick, who lives in Sweden with his wife, Nilla, said they’d love to join us for a week, so we decided to rent a house. One of my favorite sites for finding cool places to rent is Vacation Rentals by Owners (www.vrbo.com). If you shop around, you can find good deals, and off-season rates are usually the lowest. I found a two-bedroom villa in Vence, a short drive from Nice, for about $500 per week, an excellent price especially since my brother was sharing the cost.
The owner, a Dane named Per, had posted lots of photos for prospective renters on the site, which gave a great sense of what the house and surroundings would be like. In one photo a child played on a swing under an olive tree in the yard. Another showed an outdoor terrace where, weather permitting, we could dine or enjoy an evening cocktail. A photo of the inside showed an open-hearth fireplace with a cozy fire burning. I also liked the location of the villa: nestled up on a hillside in a small suburb with (get this) gorgeous views of the Mediterranean and the mountains.
Now all I had to do was wait for February to arrive.
YELLOW MIMOSA BLOOMS
A few months later on a sunny Saturday afternoon in February, Peter, Ross, and I rented a car at the Nice airport and, following detailed directions, arrived at our villa and fell immediately in love. “I want to live here!” I said to Peter. A neighbor met us with the keys and once inside we became even more enchanted. The villa was everything we hoped it would be: quaint yet cozy, rustic yet very comfortable. A bottle of wine and a vase overflowing with bright yellow mimosa blooms sat on the coffee table, a welcome gift from Per.
After having traveled overnight from Dulles to Paris, then connecting to our Nice flight, then stopping for groceries and a few amazingly inexpensive bottles of good French wine, I needed some down time. We unpacked a few things and headed outside to the terrace, where we sat in the warm sun and relaxed with a glass of Pernod, the anise-flavored French appertif that tastes like summer. We rested our bones and took in the view, happy to be in the south of France once again.
Dick and Nilla’s flight arrived in early evening, so after picking them up and returning to our villa, we gathered at the kitchen table for a simple dinner of salad, bread, cheese and sausage, made all the more tastier by the flowing wine. Throughout the meal we caught up with each other and then discussed all the fun things we wanted to. All of a sudden, as if on cue, our eyelids felt heavy, and we all crawled into our comfy beds and fell into sound sleep.
EXOTIC CORNER OF THE WORLD
I have a bad habit of trying to do too much on vacation. My family calls me the activity director because I have a quixotic need to fill up our itinerary with productive/inspiring/useful/enjoyable outings. It’s my own version of carpe diem, I suppose, my belief that we’d better take advantage of all there is to do in each place we visit since we never know when we’ll be back. This trip to France was no exception.
On our itinerary were myriad activities including strolling along the Promenade des Anglais, the boardwalk by the sea in Nice; shopping at the Cours Selaya market; cruising the coastal road by car; making perfume at a workshop in Grasse; watching a carnival parade in Nice; going skiing in the Alpes Maritime; visiting museums and the Matisse chapel; picnicking on the grounds of Renoir’s estate in Cagnes Sur Mer; hiking in the mountains; indulging in lots of good wine and trying new varieties of French cheese; exploring the Lemon Festival in Menton; touring the old hill town of St. Paul de Vence; and daydreaming about living in this exotic corner of the world. All this in six days!
Somehow we managed to accomplish just about everything on our exhaustive list. But midway through the week (and the itinerary), my brother said, “Wouldn’t it be nice to just hang around the villa for the afternoon and not do anything?”
“Sorry, Dick, not today,” I answered, closing the wooden shutters of the villa. “Too much to do.” And then the five of us headed out for the day’s adventure.
THE ART OF CAFE SITTING
The first historical reference to Nice’s Carnival dates back to the 13th century when the Count of Provence mentioned having spent “some joyous days of carnival.” However, the advent of the city’s modern carnival didn’t begin until 1873 when the city fathers invited local artisans to create spectacular floats, both fabulous and grotesque, to parade through the streets of Nice. Except during the World Wars, visitors have flocked to Nice every year since to enjoy this citywide celebration.
On an overcast, windy Sunday the five of us headed into town to watch an afternoon carnival parade, one of fourteen parades scattered throughout a two-week period. Rather than buy a ticket and sit in the stands, we found a perfect spot for watching the parade under palm trees beside a park. Overhead the palm fronds swished and lively carnival music with a staccato beat spilled from speakers as local townspeople gathered beside us to wait in anticipation for the parade to begin.
Each year Nice’s carnival celebrates a unique theme, and cartoonists from around the world design floats to reflect the theme. Carnival 2006 aimed its caustic humor at local politicians and world leaders alike, spoofing the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful with colorful characters and floats—all revolving around the theme of dupery. For an hour we watched, enthralled, as imaginative montages of the familiar and unfamiliar floated by. From a group of horn-blowing, black-suited Blues Brothers look-alikes to fanciful fairytale creatures, from Peter Pan to three-story tall caricatures of two-faced politicos, this parade kept us entertained from beginning to end. Ross loved all the silly string and confetti that pelted both the onlookers and parade participants. We agreed later this colorful carnival parade, with its international flavor and crazy costumes, was among the best we’d ever seen.
The next day, we opted to explore the hill town of St. Paul de Vence. Jutting up among green valleys, this ancient town, founded in the 9th century, is known for its cozy walking streets lined with art galleries, boutiques, and restaurants. While a bit touristy, the village offers an authentic ambience and incredible views of the surrounding countryside. After strolling through the town, we relaxed at an outdoor cafe on the square, enjoying drinks while watching a group of local men play a game of boules. Even in late February, the weather was mild and the sun warm, perfect for sitting back and watching life unfold.
Americans, for the most part, haven’t learned the art of café sitting, an integral element of European culture. On the Continent, even if the weather is decidedly cool, you’ll find Europeans sitting in the fresh air, enjoying a coffee or a beer. We Americans are too busy, it seems, to relish the sensual pleasure of this simple pastime. Dick, Nilla, Peter, Ross, and I whiled away an hour on the square at St. Paul de Vence, bathed in golden sunlight, watching the men play, talking about our dreams, and listening to the birds twitter in the treetops. It was a magical hour, one that stands out in my memory as a quintessential French experience—simple and serene.
At the opposite extreme were our outings to the “hypermarket” in the suburbs of Nice, a huge big-box store, called Carrefour, which carried everything from lawn chairs and shoelaces to dozens of varieties of bread to hundreds (I’m not kidding!) of types of cheese. Somehow we always ended up doing our shopping at the busiest time of the day, late afternoon, as crowds of shoppers bustled around us, anxious to get home and cook supper.
By contrast, I tend to be a slow shopper, especially in foreign countries, where I have to decipher foreign words, figure out unfamiliar cuts of meat, and make decisions about meals. Nilla and I took turns cooking each evening, aided by our dear husbands, so we spent quite some time scurrying through the aisles of Carrefour searching for ingredients. Our evening meals ranged from fish to pork to sausage to soup and salad. For breakfast we ate our fill of cheese, pate, fresh fruit, and heavenly bread that Peter fetched each morning from the village nearby. Sometimes we ate out for lunch, and other times we picnicked.
One afternoon, we went to the estate of Renoir in the village of Cagnes sur Mer. Peter and I had visited this lovely spot in 1998 while on an extended camping trip with our kids, and I had taken a picture of him and Ross under an ancient olive tree. I wanted to go back and visit the olive grove, which made such an impression on me. In fact, Renoir purchased this piece of property to save the olive trees, some of which are over a thousand years old.
Our plan was to picnic in a picturesque meadow beside the olive trees, but soon after we arrived, a light rain began to fall. We found shelter in open-air shed, where we nibbled on bread and cheese and sipped red wine from paper cups while the rain drummed lightly on the roof. Before us the silver-green olive leaves changed colors beneath the darkening sky, and we watched the scene as if it were a painting in progress, as if the artist were experimenting with pigments, seeking the right combination of colors to create a masterpiece.
One of the reasons Nice, France, is such an enchanting spot is its close proximity to both the Mediterranean Sea and the French Maritime Alps. Just ninety minutes north of the coast, amazing snow-covered peaks welcome winter sport aficionados. Peter, Ross, and I spent a day on the slopes during our week in the South of France while Dick and Nilla stayed behind to explore museums in Nice.
After researching ski areas, we chose one called Valberg. I printed out a map, and on a fine February morning, we navigated curvy mountain roads past large chunks of granite, arriving at the picturesque town of Valberg in late morning. A fresh snowstorm had blanketed the region a day or two earlier, and the snow fairly glistened. Peter, Ross, and I hurriedly rented equipment, purchased lift tickets, and soon were riding in a ski lift up the side of a very steep mountain.
A perpetual beginner, I’m always nervous when skiing in a new place, and Valberg was no exception. At the top of the slope, I carefully studied the trail map, making sure we could take a green trail all the way down. Before we skied off, however, Peter, Ross, and I paused and took in the view. Set against an azure blue sky dotted with scudding clouds, white, frosty mountains undulated in every direction. Although we wore only light jackets, it felt pleasant under the warm winter sun.
We hated to leave our perch on the mountaintop and the fairy-tale view, but the snow called out to us, and with a push of our poles, we glided downward, inhaling big gulps of fresh mountain air as we raced to the bottom. The afternoon slid by in a blur. Peter, Ross, and I rode lifts up and skied down over and over again, but too soon, the sun drifted down in the sky, the lifts began to close, and we found ourselves taking the last trip down the mountain.
Unfortunately, I hadn’t studied my trail map carefully enough, and the lovely green trail we started down abruptly ended in a red trail. Who planned this? I wondered, as I gingerly made “s” turns down the way-out-too-steep slope toward my husband and son waiting below, falling once, twice, three times in the process. I finally gave up and took off my skis and trudged down on foot, a subdued ending to an otherwise exhilarating day of skiing.
FLOWER OF THE FOREST
I’m not much of a perfume person. In fact, I cringe when I’m near someone who doesn’t know how to use perfume moderately. I do like nice smells, however, so I decided to take a chance and create my own perfume at a two-hour workshop in Grasse, France. Peter, Dick, and Ross dropped Nilla and I off one morning, and we entered the cool interior of Les Studios des Fragrances of Parfumerie Galimard.
Patricia Gautrand, the perfume master or “Nose” who would work with Nilla and me, explained that the room temperature was kept low so that our sense of smell worked better. She sat us down at two side-by-side stations where a hundred or so bottles of scents faced us, resembling organ pipes. Although the number of bottles seemed overwhelming, a system exists to ensure that novice “Noses” like Nilla and me don’t combine uncomplimentary fragrances.
Without delay, Patricia placed five or six bottles in front of us and asked us to choose the three we like best. These scents would help build our base notes, the first building block of perfume. I found it hard to choose, but finally settled on three scents. In the meantime, Nilla chose her three. Then, based on these choices, Patricia placed the next selection of scents in front of us. Again we smelled. I ended up with four more scents and then poured all seven carefully into a tall, narrow beaker.
Next we began working on the middle notes. After Patricia smelled our concoctions, she suggested scents for this next level. Again we smelled, only now we held the smelling strip above the beaker so that we could judge how the scents would work together. More smelling, choosing, and selecting scents followed until we finished the middle notes.
Finally we choose our top notes, which are the scents you first smell in a perfume. My choices included green tea, bergamot, and freesia as well as herbal and fruit scents. Since the labels were written in French, it wasn’t easy to decipher the names of the smells, which meant Nilla and I were blindly smelling scents without being influenced by names. Being a verbal person, I found myself guessing at the labels and trying to think my way through the process, which may or may not have helped produce the best result.
Once we mixed in the top notes, our finished product revealed its unique scent to our by-now overworked noses. I liked mine, although Patricia said the fragrances would continue to combine until the final perfume evolved in about ten days. I called my perfume “the Flower of the Forest” or “La Fleur de la Fôret.” Patricia said it smelled like Chanel 19, but I bet she tells everyone that. Before leaving, Nilla and I dutifully recorded our formulas on paper so that we could reorder our signature perfumes again one day.
Until real estate became too pricey, perfume factories dotted the landscape in the South of France. The mild climate and long growing season made it perfect for growing a variety of perfume ingredients, including flowers, herbs, and fruit. While less land is available for farming now in the region, festivals celebrating the harvest of various crops still occur—even in winter. We’d just missed the Mimosa Festival in Mandelieu-La Napoule near Cannes, which celebrates the brilliant yellow blooms of the mimosa, also called the flower of the winter sun. Happily, our visit did coincide with the Lemon Festival in Menton, a resort town beside the Italian border.
In our rental car on our last day in the South of France, the five of us journeyed east along the coastal road that winds through the rugged mountains hugging the Mediterranean shore. The Lemon Festival, like the Carnival in Nice, is known for its brilliant parades, which feature floats made of lemons and oranges. Since we were flying out the next day, we couldn’t stay for the evening’s parade. However, we did visit a sculpture garden with incredible displays of fruit fantasy. From gondolas gliding in canals in Venice to a New Orleans jazz band in front of an antebellum mansion, the sculptures—created from thousands of lemons and oranges—delighted our senses. Menton is known for a special kind of lemon, so Nilla and I couldn’t leave without buying a bag to take home.
…Only Peter, Ross, and I weren’t going home yet. Vowing to meet again in the South of France as soon as possible, we said goodbye to Dick and Nilla the next morning at the Nice airport and boarded a plane to Paris, where the second week of our winter journey in Europe would continue.
LIVING IN THE MOMENT
When I’m planning a trip anywhere, my computer works overtime. I should have become a travel agent because I love seeking out the best deals, and I find them, too. For our two-night stay in Paris, I spent hours searching through hotels in the city and on the outskirts and finally settled on a Marriott Vacation Club Resort called Village d’ile-de-France near Disneyland Paris.
A time-share resort, the property rents villas to the public as well, and the price in winter is amazingly affordable, considering the quality accommodations. We paid 119 euro per night for a beautifully decorated two-bedroom villa with a full-sized kitchen, living and dining room, 2 ½ baths, and a laundry room. Amenities included a large indoor pool, steam bath, and saunas. In summer an outdoor pool, golf, and planned activities round out the options. While the property is twenty miles east of Paris, the highway system is good, and with the help of the GPS system in our rental car, we had no problem getting around.
We decided to give Disneyland Paris a miss and headed into the “City of Light” on a peaceful Sunday morning. We had exactly one full day to enjoy a taste of Paris, and a cold day it was, bitter cold, in fact. Just days before we’d breakfasted on the terrace of our villa in Vence, and now we were bundling up in hats and scarves and mittens.
With no real itinerary in mind, we found ourselves passing an outdoor market in a suburb south of the Seine, where shoppers bustled past stalls buying fresh vegetables, meat, and bread—though it was near freezing outside. Since I can’t pass by a market without exploring its hidden treasures, we parked and joined the throng of shoppers. Soon I spotted a maroon French beret for about five euro that I just had to have. Peter and Ross picked out some baked goods and clementines, and as we strolled along with our packages, me sporting my French beret, we fancied ourselves natives, belonging here among these elegant Parisians.
Havana Café across the street offered a warm haven, so we left the cold behind and entered this quaint café, pushing aside red velvet curtains, which hung in front of the doors to keep out the cold. The proprietress welcomed us as mellow jazz played in the background. We sat at a simple wooden table with a fine view of the street, ordered a bottle of soda for Ross and a bottle of Cote dû Langeduoc for Peter and me, and spent the next ninety minutes or so lunching and living in the moment.
Ross ordered une frankfurter and pommes frites (hot dog and fries). I had a hearty Havana omelet with potatoes, cheese, and ham, and Peter ordered duck filet with pepper sauce. I remember looking at the people around us in the café—locals, I’m certain because we were way out of the tourist zone—and wondering about them: the mother and son who drank coffee and chatted earnestly, the young couple who read the newspaper without talking, a well-dressed man eating alone. Taking the time to people watch is a rare luxury for me lately, so our café lunch was rewarding in many ways.
Afterwards we visited a couple of tourist attractions: the Arc de Triomphe and Notrê Dame Cathedral, but the cold became too intense, and we decided to return to our elegant villa at the Village d’Ile-de-France for some down time after a busy day.
BIKING IN THE SNOW
The last part of our European journey began with a five-hour drive to the Holland, where we planned to spend time with Peter’s mom and sister. Since neither of them had room to accommodate us, I arranged a stay in De Eemhof, a CenterParcs bungalow park near Amsterdam. These vacation villages are comprised of small, clean cottages equipped with all your basic needs. They also feature amazing amenities for families, such as huge indoor swimming pools with slides, wave pools, palm trees, snack bars, and lots of families having fun together. Other amenities often include bowling alleys, playgrounds, discos, petting zoos, boat rentals, and planned activities. These parks are busy year round, and in the winter can be very affordable.
One unique aspect of bungalow parks is they tend to be car free. On check-in and check-out days, you can bring your car to your bungalow, but the rest of the time you park in the lot and walk in. Most people bring bikes since the distances can be a little intimidating. For instance, our bungalow was a fifteen-minute walk from the parking lot. We rented bikes, which made things a little easier, except one day when we forgot about the car-free rule and loaded up at the grocery store with goodies for a special birthday dinner for Peter. Our friends, William and Maria would join us, and since William likes beer, we had to buy a few bottles—plus wine, steaks, bread, vegetables, and assorted other groceries.
When Peter, Ross, and I returned to the park, we realized we needed to transport all of the groceries via bike to our bungalow, a 10-minute ride away. To make matters worse, snow had been falling in earnest for about an hour, and it was getting dark. As my French beret turned white from fat flakes of snow, we loaded up, balancing bags on the handlebars, filling our knapsacks and the baskets on our bikes, and rode gingerly through the snow, praying we wouldn’t fall and break bottles of beer or worse an arm or a leg. We survived the ride, groceries, beer, and dignity intact. I only wish we’d had a camera to commemorate our snowy bike ride.
February in Europe may seem incongruous, but in fact, we loved our winter journey to the Continent. While balmy temps and blue skies are the ideal backdrop for everyone’s dream vacation, winter can have its own special charm. If you keep your mind and your eyes open, surprising adventures await any season of the year in any place you go.
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