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2014 Nov

South of France: Winter Paradise

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. 

C’EST BON!

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 to Paris from Dulles that included a free add-on city (guess which one I picked) for an incredible bargain and started planning a late February trip abroad for Peter, my husband, and me and our son, Ross. 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 sister) 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 around $100 a night, 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.

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.

DAILY ADVENTURES

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.

SIMPLE & SERENE

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. The current carnival 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.

Next month: The adventure continues.

For more information:

www.vrbo.com 

www.nicetourisme.com

www.nicecarnaval.com 

Peggy Sijswerda

Peggy Sijswerda is the editor and co-publisher of Tidewater Family and Tidewater Women magazines. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Old Dominion University and is the author of Still Life with Sierra, a travel memoir. Peggy also freelances for a variety of regional, national, and international magazines.

Website: www.peggysijswerda.com

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