It’s the middle of October and the throngs have gone home. Where that is it’s hard to know, but there is a clear breeze wafting through, as if the roads themselves can breathe now that they are relieved of the traffic and congestion that gums up the corniches all during the high season.
The Riviera is still awash in money. Russian billionaires, software titans, and oil potentates are rebuilding the stone mansions that dot the coast and perch in the hidden hills into fortresses. I am told there is a home in Cap Ferrat on the market for 400 million euros. Another person tells me the real price is 500 million euros. Whatever the ticket, this place holds among the most expensive real estate in the world. During the summer, it’s unlikely that too many artists can afford to repair to the Riviera as many of the greats used to do – Cocteau, Matisse, Picasso – they all made homes here and left their mark in chapels and museums and homes they inhabited (or stayed indefinitely as guests).
But this time of year the glamour is understated, muted like the sun on the beaches there – burning, not blistering. At the African Queen, which sits on the port at Beaulieu-sur-Mer, I am met at lunchtime with a cocktail of Aperol and Champagne. There is no question in these parts of refusing the fizzy, pink concoction. The restaurant is packed but the atmosphere is pleasing rather than chaotic. The owner chats as cheerily with the regulars as with one-timers like me, but I get a cookbook and, skimming through the pages, I see a photograph of the gazpacho I am eating just now.
I wonder, who are the people in this bustling place? It’s a Thursday, most of the crowd speaks French, everyone’s table is punctuated by a bottle of white wine on ice. It’s inevitable. Each and every time I go to France I’m reminded how sometimes I forget to live. When we lived in France, my husband and I sometimes felt like we spent too much time eating and not enough time working. But today, I have the sense of letting too many days tick by at home in Connecticut, in the quiet of our rural idyll. It seems a shame not to be sharing this meal with my husband, my kids, a warm cluster of close friends. At home I’d be eating a tub of Greek yogurt in my kitchen, standing up.
Six courses and a short car ride later, I am hoofing it to my room at the magnificent La Chevre d’Or in Eze which looks clear down to the sea. This time, it’s in the distance but almost a straight shot down, as if I could leap beyond the rail into the pale blue water. I am relieved that the tourist crowds from summertime are nowhere to be found in the winding medieval city. I drag a little from the pace of the last four days, and am light headed from the latest feast. I climb up to the gardens and the sun gets hotter on my head. I take a wrong turn but eventually the sign of the Chevre d’Or swings back into view. Soon, I’ll be napping on the terrace of my room, gaining back my strength and appetite for dinner with the General Manager. In a word, the meal was perfect.
The next day is devoted to Le Corbusier (his hideaway, Le Cabanon), Coco Chanel (her house, La Pausa) and finally to Jean Cocteau (his den of creativity, Villa Santo Sospira). Every corner of the latter is painted with Cocteau’s line drawings of satyrs, sirens and fougasses – the soft flatbread of the region. At last, I say goodbye to the sea and drive inland to Mougins, down the olive-tree lined drive of Le Mas Candille. The hotel is a white stone bastide (a provencal word for a country house) that has been renovated to a state of entirely appropriate luxury. The grounds are peaceful, and my guess is that in the high season it would feel exactly the same way.
In my room, there is a plate of gateaux encrusted with small bits of chocolate. There is a carafe of port. There is a Nespresso maker. There is a terrace that has a view of the neighboring hill town of Grasse. I inhale the scent of Cyprus, pine and lemon groves that give the hotel the aspect of being tucked into a fragrant, protective blanket. I’m still alone but if I weren’t, I would stay here forever.