France enchants, and the south of France enchanted us beyond words. The history, geography, scenery, and architecture offered surprises around every corner. Away from highways, mega-sized stores and strip malls - American exports the world could do without (the big stores and strip malls) - we discovered Roman ruins, medieval towns, the Renaissance rebirth of architecture, art and lifestyle, landscapes and colors Impressionist and other painters immortalized and which remain little unchanged today, and over-the-top chateaus built by wealthy nobility, financiers, businessmen, and celebrities.
After four days steeped in Parisian culture, food and wine, we boarded a fast train for the south of France. Three hours later we disembarked in Aix-en-Provence and, immediately assaulted by the bright sun and heat, peeled off jackets and sweaters.
We spent the next four days exploring towns occupied by the Gauls, Greeks, and Romans. We walked narrow, winding, hilly cobblestone streets lined with stone buildings constructed centuries ago. Ground level and below the buildings often housed retail establishments - stores, small businesses, cafés and restaurants, with residences above. These towns are tourist meccas, with gift shops around every corner!
We saw the Roman coliseum in Arles, built for gladiator events, and today an arena for bullfights held twice a year. The old Roman theater, currently in ruins, is being excavated.
We peeked into the building in Arles where the painter Vincent Van Gogh spent time, a hospital during the 1800s, as well as visiting St. Paul in nearby San Remy, the cloister and asylum where Van Gogh was confined for over a year. Mentally unstable (apparently bipolar), he committed suicide at age 37, although other theories abound concerning his death.
Perfume, in addition to wine, is a French passion. We spent a couple of hours at the Galimar perfumery. We were informed Provence is the center of France's perfume industry, with hundreds of factories, large and small, producing scents shipped around the world. We mixed our own perfume formula and left the factory with a bottle of our unique product, our scent name emblazoned on the bottle. The company now has the formula for my perfume, MerCyn, on file. I can order more anytime.
And what does it smell like, you might ask? Very good question. I have no idea. The professional perfumer said it had an Oriental scent. There are 15 different scents in my perfume, all carefully smelled and chosen by me, although after smelling dozens of bottles of a wide variety of scents my nose rebelled. After a while they all smelled one of three ways: strong and unpleasant, weak and OK, or no scent at all.
Anyway my one bottle should last a lifetime. I rarely wear perfume.
Back on the road, the terrain turned rugged as we approached the coast, with narrow two lane roads and lots of S-shaped curves providing a stomach-churning ride but fabulous scenery and picture taking opportunities.
The Côte d'Azur, the blue coast of the French Riviera, was labeled by a journalist, Stephen Liegeard, over 150 years ago because of the clear, intense blue sky and blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. The area became a playground for the rich during the 19th century and continues to draw the elite from around the world. The place awed us with chateaus, medieval fortresses, castles, and modern villas.
Frank, our handsome (an ex-dancer, tall and very cute) French guide, regaled us with tales of celebrity sitings, festivals (think Cannes Film Festival, for one), stories about owners and visitors of the residences past (Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII) and present (Elton John), and movies made in the area (such as To Catch a Thief and Two for the Road). Painters and writers descended on the area over the decades, including Matisse, Chagall, Renoir and Picasso, and James Joyce, Somerset Maugham, F. Scott Fitzerald – the list goes on and on.
Not worth raving about are the beaches. Growing up on Long Island, I never appreciated the wide sand beaches of Jones Beach. The beaches we saw can be characterized as rocky and narrow, a disappointment to anyone previously experiencing sand beaches in Florida, areas of California and Hawaii, Australian sands, and our long expanse of beach along the south shore of New Jersey.
Money, wealth and decadent affluence oozes everywhere along the Côte d'Azur. Yachts line the harbors - not just big boats, but bona fide yachts (defined as a minimum of 33 feet long), each one larger, whiter, cleaner, more sparkling in the bright sunlight than the one next to it. It is hard for this middle class child of suburbia to imagine the opulent lifestyle of the rich congregating on the French Riviera from all over the world.
One example from the world of pre-World War I excess. Beatrice Rothschild Ephrussi built a villa and gardens on a cliff in Nice (1904). She hired the architect who had recently completed a chateau for the king of Sweden. She decorated with original 17th and 18th century furniture and artwork, including many pieces previously owned by Marie Antoinette and the kings of France.
One year she hosted a wedding, complete with formal invitations, formal attire, a ceremony, and a fancy dinner - for the nuptials of her dogs...
We drove to Monaco and Monte Carlo along a spectacular road meandering up and down mountains with views of the Mediterranean, the coastline, lush greenery, and obvious affluence. We visited the church where Princess Grace (Grace Kelly) is buried and learned she crashed her car (on September 13, 1982) because she had a stroke, information not released to the public until 25 years after her death.
There is a lot more, but this ends today's verbal snapshots of our French wanderings.
The trip home, not completed as this is being written, is a somewhat frustrating tale to be told when the trip is over.