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St Paul de Vence

An insider's guide to the south of France


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16th June 2012

Since moving to Côte d'Azure, novelist Hannah Fielding has uncovered the secret places the French would rather keep to themselves

1. l'Isle sur la Sorgue

A Provençal town between Cavaillon and Carpentras, this is the place to visit for antiquing. There are heaps of antique stores (around 300), including a big cluster of them near the railway station.

When I was renovating my home, my architect took me to a row of warehouses next to the main car park that were humming with French people – and virtually no tourists. Glassware, porcelain, furniture, paintings, ivory – thousands of unique pieces clamour for your attention. Best of all, bargaining is par for the course. I talked the vendor of a beautiful11th century Provençal cupboard down to two-thirds of the price.

My advice is to go early if you’re a serious collector – and if you don’t speak French well enough yourself, take along someone who is fluent so you can effectively haggle. As an extra bonus l’Isle sur la Sorgue has one of the best Provençal markets in the region.

2. St Paul de Vence

A beautiful hilltop village in Provence, and one of the oldest – founded in the ninth century. It is known as Le Bijou de la Côte d’Azur (The Jewel of the Côte d’Azur). The French painter Marc Chagall made the village his home for 20 years, and here he painted wonderfully warm pictures that pay homage to love, some of which can be viewed at La Fondation Maeght , 623 Chemin des Gardettes.

After a wander around the ramparts and a leisurely coffee in a pavement café shaded by plane trees, head to La Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs. Slip inside and take a pew in the cool calm interior to drink in the beautiful detail and vivid colours of the 20th century Belgian artist Folon’s masterful paintings, sculptures, mosaics and stained glass artworks.

3. La Garde Freinet

If you can sit for hours gazing out at a spectacular view, make your way to La Garde Freinet. It’s a small, quaint, quiet village that sits atop a mountain in the Massif des Maures near St Tropez. The views are, for me, some of the best in the region – over plains and valleys all the way to the Alps, and in the distance, the glint of the sea, all beneath a sky that feels close enough to touch.

My husband and I pack a picnic and sit beneath the trees, eating baguette, Beaufort (a strong hard cheese) and terrine de lapin – a speciality of our local butcher – and dream the afternoon away.

4. La Bouillabaisse

With delicious French cuisine, fresh ingredients and a beautiful location, La Bouillabaisse is a restaurant worth visiting. Set on the beach on the main route into St Tropez, the terrace affords a lovely view of the Bay. The secret of this place is (you may have guessed by its name) the bouillabaisse – the best in France.

This soup, made of seven different types of fish and shellfish, is nothing more than a pot-au-feu gone maritime. Originally a speciality of Marseilles it is now offered all over France, and each town, each restaurant has its own version of the recipe.

When I was a young girl, growing up in Africa, my family would host a party for 70 guests twice a year, and my father would always cook his signature dish for the occasion: bouillabaisse. It was simply all it could be – all it should be! I have spent the rest of my life ordering bouillabaisse in restaurants so I can compare it to my father’s. The closest I have ever come to tasting a dish as good as his is at La Bouillabaisse. I come to the restaurant at least once a year now, and am never disappointed.

5. Gassin

Gassin is another of those old, beautiful hilltop villages of the Côte d'Azur. There’s not a great deal to do here, so it’s one of the favourite places I go to for its sunsets. Bring a bottle of vin rosé after a long day visiting local towns or lazing on the beach, and take a half hour out to gaze down at the countryside while the day seeps away.

After climbing the flowery lanes bordered by pastel walls to the very top of the village, poised on the roof of the world, you have a panoramic view of the deep blue bay of St Tropez, and the brilliant green of vineyards and chateaux laid below like a Lilliputian town.

Stay long enough and you can watch gold turn to ochre turn to scarlet turn to maroon, and then, finally, the myriad lights of the town and the heavens: the very essence of romance.

Burning EmbersHannah Fielding's latest, Burning Embers can be ordered now on Amazon. For more information about Hannah and her books, visit her website.

 

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