It’s been 48 hours in Provence and I still haven’t seen a lavender field. A bush or two, yes, but no vivid purple expanse. I have, however, spotted Roman Abramovich’s yacht, risked my neck on an impertinent pony and made my own fragrance. I loved the BBC’s Year in Provence, and I’ve watched Ridley Scott’s A Good Year, both of which were filmed further west in the Luberon valley. Brad and Angelina favour the good life over that way too, but I’m with Adam Clayton and Elton John – I’d pick east Provence for a stay.
With Cannes and Antibes on your doorstep, the Esterel mountains, Lac de saint Cassien (probably the most beautiful lake in the world) and heaving markets, you simply don’t have time idly stare at lavender fields, or the will to make the best of a dilapidated chateaux. (Although, they are here if you want them).
Here’s how to make the most of your stay…
It’s in Grasse that Jean-Baptiste Grenouille features in Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume: The story of a murderer who embarks on a killing spree of beautiful women. He wants to preserve their scent, and use it as a secret ingredient to create the ultimate fragrance. It’s a dark and fiendish film, and far removed from the reality of this pretty town with chirpy residents. However, the town has fully embraced its perfume heritage. Parfums Galimard runs a perfume-making workshop, in which visitors can learn to combine base, heart and top notes that complement each other perfectly. www.galimard.com
Go pony trekking
If you want style and sophistication in Provence, this is not for you. If, however, you want rollicking fun with friends and family, book yourself on to a one- or two-hour pony trek around the beautiful Lac de Saint-Cassien. Ignore the tanned beauties elegantly gliding across the lake on rowing boats – that’s for show-offs. You will have much more fun acting masterly on top of a sturdy horse. It’s the true way to get to grips with the land of Provence – yes, you’ll feel every mound and dip. See Les Pouns en Herbe on Facebook.
Learn to cook
Give an Englishman a delicious Provence dinner and he’ll gobble it up minutes; teach him to cook it and he’ll be able to recreate those mouth-watering dishes for the rest of his life. Or, at least try to. The Institut Gastronomie Riviera in Seillans, about 70km from Nice, boasts chefs from French five-stars with patience of saints. Under the watchful eye of the talented chef de cuisine, we rustled up red tuna tartare with pickled ginger, mango salsa and a baby leaf salad, followed by roasted saddle of lamb stuffed with spinach and pine nuts. www.institut-gastronomie-riviera.com
Biot, just 10km from Antibes, is regarded as the centre of glass art. Think crazy colours and shapes – everything from classic replicas to modern art. You can make your own masterpiece in a two-hour session and turn a drop of liquid glass into something much more practical for your home (www.verrerieduvaldepome.com). Or wander round the museums and boutiques and pick up one made earlier.
Get to market
Fayence is a beautiful hilltop town with Medieval origins – in places you can still spot the old city walls. Check out the bustling markets and try the typically Provencal goats’ cheese. Stop at Le Bis restaurant (0044 4 94846027) for a beautiful burrata salad – the close proximity to Italy means pasta and mozzarellas can be found in abundance – followed by lavender crème brûlée.
Taste the best wines
“It was in Saint-Tropez that the trend for very pale roses began, and it’s swept across France,” says Betty-Ann Cundall, owner of Chateau des Chaberts. She’s not the first person we came across in the region who has a ‘Good Year’ struggle. She runs the vineyard, and admits she came across the prejudices you’d imagine being firstly female and secondly British. “A dark pink rose isn’t in fashion at all, and we’ve adapted the way we make our wines to fit the trend,” she explains. Her wines are exquisite and award-winning. And Betty is a font of information in the most refreshing way. www.chaberts.com
Need to know:
Nice Côte d’Azur Airport
TV and films shot here
A Year in Provence, A Good Year, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Ronin, The Transporter, Love Actually, Bergerac
Mediterranean classics such as stews like ratatouille and shellfish bouillabaisse stem from Provence. Try roasted lamb with garlic, lemon and thyme, or salads with goat’s cheese and figs. Snack on tapenade and round off your meal with lavender sorbet or lavender creme brûlée.
Le Manoir de L’Etang, a beautiful chateau with a pool and gastronomic restaurant, 20 minutes from Nice. Double rooms from £100 in low season.
Or hire a hand-picked villa, like the Rose de l’Adreches, with a Jacuzzi and view of the Esterel mountains. Weekly prices start at £1,620.
Read the full review here
Local buses will get you from the airport to major towns and cities, but to reach the true gems of Provence you’ll need to hire a car.