John and I have been making our way slowly along the French Riviera for the past six weeks. We’ve travelled by train for the most part but with a car around St Tropez/St Maxime where that stretch of railway heads inland. We’ve never been very far from boats and the sea despite our travels being on land.
Travelling by rail has been a real joy (John would say especially after the Dutch cycling trip!). It’s been great to be able to sit back and enjoy the view without having to keep one eye on the road and the other on Google maps. We’re a little puzzled as to how the French rail system is funded as our tickets were never checked on any of our journeys; no ticket barriers at the stations and no one checking tickets on the trains either. There has to be a fair proportion of unpaid journeys. It was all very efficient nevertheless.
Since we left Casamara in Grenada to sit out the hurricane season in a boatyard we’ve been musing on how to describe what it is we’re doing. When we’re chatting to people the usual pattern goes ‘where are you from?’ then ‘how long are you on holiday for?’ That’s a difficult one. Five years is the answer, but then that isn’t what people expect and then we have some explaining to do. Sometimes we explain we’re taking a break from sailing round the world and sometimes we avoid the conversation altogether by saying we’re in *X town* for a week; either of those answers is true!
It’s remarkable how just chatting to people reveals interesting connections. One of the people we told about our sailing circumnavigation turned out to be the son of a French inventor, Claude Tisserand, who had pioneered sailing boats with hydrofoils. From those evolved other foiling water craft, such as the wing foil boards John is trying to master today. Not only that but the guy we were speaking to remembered going to Weymouth as a child, where his father had sailed his hydrofoils in a speed record attempt and John remembered his own father being fascinated by the event at the time.
In another conversation it transpired that the lady serving us dinner had originated from the same town as my parents in Yorkshire and that her father had run the pub where my parents had their wedding reception. I don’t know who it was who said ‘the more I travel, the smaller the world seems’ but these chance encounters do remind us that we are all more closely connected than we might realise. We are all one global community.
It’s generally accepted that the French Riviera is the coastline stretching between Toulon, near Marseilles, and Menton, close to the Italian border. We had in mind that it would be a bit like Torquay, with Victorian villas peppering the hillsides and palm trees in the gardens. There are certainly some places like that but the scenery actually varies from sparsely populated wide open plains, vineyards, olive groves and white sand beaches in the west
Cap Lardier looking east towards St Tropez
to densely populated steep rocky cliffs dropping straight into the sea, citrus orchards and pebble or grit beaches in the east.
The towns and cities are varied too. We thought St Tropez would be glitzy, shiny, high rise opulence, but it was shabby chic and as low rise an old French town as you could get. There was plenty of money there: the Dior hotel opposite the Dior shop, the Bentleys, Porsches and Ferraris squeezing through narrow streets, renovation and construction going on everywhere, but not at all what we expected.
Monte Carlo in Monaco was entirely what St Tropez was not. Here were all the giant super yachts and the limited edition Ferraris. We even saw a Bentley Smart Car! Although the second smallest country in the world at 0.85 square miles, Monaco has the highest density of billionaires per capita. (The Vatican City is the smallest country if you were wondering.) All the high rise buildings and subterranean tunnels reminded us of Hong Kong but without the smell and humidity. Monaco wasn’t pretty in comparison to the medieval towns we’d seen but it felt vibrant and exciting. We could see why the Monaco Grand Prix remains on the world Formula 1 calendar despite this being the smallest and trickiest circuit.
Casino Monte Carlo
Given the proximity to Rome I suppose it should not have come as a surprise that there are many Roman historical sites along the French Riviera. Nimes was a particular highlight. Dubbed the most Roman city outside Rome, it’s Colosseum was very impressive and the mosaics displayed in the museum were breathtaking. The local people seem to have been adept at repurposing buildings over time. In Nimes the colosseum survived after the fall of the Roman Empire because the townspeople moved their dwellings inside it and therefore it was in their interests to maintain the walls. I was amused by a reference in the museum to the church that had been constructed inside the colosseum. It had occupied the space of four rows of tiered seating at one end of the arena. It must have been quite a challenge to construct!
When visiting the art galleries of Holland to see the Van Gogh collections we heard much about the artists who migrated to the South of France because of the quality of the light, and we can see why. There is a particular brilliance and clarity to the light which is difficult to describe and I’ve found impossible to capture on camera. It’s as if you can see the freshness of the air. The sea water is equally crystal clear and the Côte d’Azur is aptly named. We’ve marvelled at the turquoise waters of the Caribbean but these are even more blue. The combination of the blues of the sky and sea, the bright green of the trees and the terracotta, yellows and dusky pinks of the buildings is just stunning. Made me want to buy a pad and drawing pencils and I’m not an artist!
One of many beautiful views, this one in Gassin
As you’d expect, we’ve enjoyed the culinary aspects of our travels in France. Its impossible to estimate just how many bars, cafes and restaurants we’ve seen in six weeks but it must run to thousands. In the tiny square below our rented apartment in Menton there are six restaurants alone. Having said that, no matter how many restaurants were placed together they had very similar menus and were of two types: either French or Italian/pizza. Naturally as we got closer towards Italy the balance shifted towards the latter. With such duplication it did mean that the restaurants could alternate days off. We found we could always eat French or Italian but not necessarily in the restaurant we’d expected to frequent!
We’re full of admiration for the French ability to eat the entirety of a beast, bird or fish. Browsing the fish and meat stalls in the markets is an education in itself!
We got used to our morning coffee stop. Thankfully for my waistline these didn’t always include waffles!
We knew that we would be in the south of France past the end of the summer season but didn’t think much of it. In the past we’ve had family holidays in Greece and Turkey in October half term and the only difference has been cooler evenings. Here everything came to an abrupt halt on 30th September! We watched the coastguards bringing in the yellow buoys marking the swim areas in St Raphael and the beach teams putting away deck chairs and the wooden walk ways. Enquiries about tourist tours were met with a firm ‘non’ and restaurant waiters started to be incredulous that there were still visitors wanting to eat out in October. ‘I don’t know where these people are coming from, it shouldn’t be this busy’, we were told one evening. Yet by day the sun shines, the temperature is a pleasant 24 degrees and in the evenings we are still able to dine outside, albeit wearing jeans and jumpers. Tourist cash is obviously not a priority here.
We’ve loved the opportunity to get to know this part of the world and to explore beyond the better known towns. Ironically, the highlights for us were at opposite ends of the Riviera; the Giens peninsula (Hyeres) in the west and Menton in the east. However there were so many interesting and beautiful places in between it’s actually very difficult to make a choice. We hope to come back through the Mediterranean on Casamara in 2025 so we now have some great ideas for beautiful anchorages when we arrive, but that’s a long way off yet.
Billionaires Bay, Antibes
We’re back in the UK for a few weeks now before heading back to Grenada to relaunch Casamara for her next adventure.