Are we in Provence? Is this it? asked my two bemused American friends. We were on our way to Vence to visit the Matisse chapel and driving along the hilly back roads. To be honest I couldn’t blame them for asking. After visiting Cannes the day before, this area was totally different to that glitzy, exotic-looking town.
My answer tripped out easily. No, we’d have to drive to Aix-en-Provence to be in Provence. This is the French Riviera, I replied. Rather adamantly I might add.
However, this vexing question came home to roost last week when I visited my local butcher in Châteauneuf-de-Grasse. For over ten years this pretty perched village was my home before I returned to the UK in 2010 for five years. Moreover, when I created AMB-Côte d’Azur in 2004, it was naturally one of the first villages I wrote about. And, to be honest, since it was just 18 km from the coastline, wouldn’t you believe it was part of the Riviera?
And so it was that, after ordering my Christmas ‘Poulet de Bresse’, my butcher remarked on the rather horrid weather we had that day in Provence. ‘Quel sale temps’ he said with a disgusted look on his face. ‘Vous savez, le temps change ici en Provence. Il fait trop chaud en étè and dégueulasse en hiver!’
I was stunned. Châteauneuf-de-Grasse in Provence? How weird I thought as I strolled back to my car. But on the way home his words rolled around my head and got me wondering.
You’d think after reading Maureen Emerson‘s excellent book Escape to Provence I’d have realised (if not admitted to) my mistake. Published in 2008 Maureen tells the exciting story of two remarkable women, Winifred Fortescue and Elisabeth Starr. After leaving the UK in the 1930s Winifred and her husband bought an ancient house in Opio, a tiny hillside village next to Châteauneuf-de-Grasse.
When her husband died she shared her home with Elisabeth and together they carved out new lives for themselves. When war was declared in 1939, followed by the Mobilisation Générale, the women organised shelters all over the Alpes-Maritimes where the soldiers could rest and recover.
Indeed, Winifred Fortescue (author of Perfume from Provence and its sequel, Sunset House) centred her stories firmly around the area where she lived and which she called Provence.
As did Julia Child who built a charming house in Plascassier (a stone’s throw from Opio) on the property of Simone Beck in 1963. The house was named “La Pitchoune” meaning “the little one” in Provençal.
If Maureen, Winifred and Julia called this corner of France Provence – shouldn’t I?
A More Authentic Landscape – and Reality?
With the promise of glorious sunshine this morning I took the doglets for a walk around Lac de Saint-Cassien. It’s one of my favourite places in the Var and only a 45 minute drive from my home in Magagnosc. Much of it is scrubland made up of holm oaks, pine trees interspersed with shaggy eucalyptus trees, wild thyme, rosemary and Juniper bushes. The lake (with a barrage built in 1966 to provide hydroelectric energy) covers some 1200 acres and holds 60 000 000m³ of water. They say monster Carp lurk in its depths.
As the dogs whizzed happily around the sandy paths, I realised that my stumbling block about Provence vs. the Riviera was the vegetation. There are no palm trees in Aix-en-Provence, Avignon or Nimes (unless specifically planted in gardens). Instead majestic platan trees line the boulevards and the landscape is awash with vines, lavender, olive, beech, and fir trees.
The Riviera on the other hand, from St Tropez, inland to the Tannaron, up to Grasse, over to Opio, Bar-sur-Loup, St Paul de Vence, Nice, across to Menton and beyond has palm trees, mimosa, eucalyptus, agaves, olive, orange and lemon trees, bougainvillea, strelitzia and plumbago (to name but a few exotic plants).
It suddenly struck me that if you stripped away every last scrap of exotic tropical flora introduced by the Brits on the Riviera in the mid 1800s you’d have pretty much the same landscape as in Provence. With the exception of orange and lemon trees, carnations and violets that have always grown there. Oh, and the different micro-climates the Riviera is blessed with due to the protective barrier of the Alps … which is why all this exotic stuff grows exceedingly well.
Are we in Provence? Is this it?
With no distinct ‘border’ or ‘Welcome to Provence – please drive carefully’ road sign to tell you if you’re in Provence or not you could dip in and out without knowing. But there is one for the Côte d’Azur. As you approach Cannes on the A8 motorway you pass a large, sturdy panel that tells you you’re entering the Côte d’Azur. And coast does mean côte in French …
So perhaps I was wrong all these years and Châteauneuf-de-Grasse is in Provence after all. I am older and, dare I say, wiser and able to eat humble pie. I can do that. Absolutely. I think.