The French Riviera has more to offer than the glitzy parties of Cannes
THE Great Gatsby, this year’s opening night film at the Cannes Film Festival, famously celebrates the louche, luxe, champagne-fuelled parties hosted at the eponymous Jay Gatsby’s palatial pad.
For the festival opener, it couldn’t have been more apt. Like the Roaring Twenties of F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, Cannes is populated by the powerful, beautiful and wealthy – and those who want to be. The red carpet, five-star hotels and promise of wanton excess are a siren call for Hollywood moguls, film stars and around 4,000 journalists. Daisy Buchanan would love it.
But even out of season, the beachfront Boulevard de la Croisette, with its haute couture shops and perma-tanned people, exudes a certain glamour. The Cote D’Azure is another world; never short of either sunshine or money. The sun comes free; the money you need to bring with you. Lots of it.
For sheer luxury, it would be hard to beat the five-star Hotel Majestic, where Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart stayed last year. It’s high-heeled wobbling distance from the Palais Des Festivals, with spectacular sea views at the front. Rooms start at around €200, but if only the crème de la crème will do, you can stay at the €39,000 a night suite, which comes complete with a butler dedicated to waiting on your every whim. In fact, he tells me proudly, that courtesy extends to residents’ pampered pooches too. One recent guest was thrilled to receive a photo album of their dogs’ pleasurable stay at the hotel.
Competing in the stakes for star pulling power is the Grand Hyatt Hotel Martinez, the infamous Art Deco palace that has been attracting A-listers since it was built in 1927. Gatsby’s flappers would fit right in amidst the hotel’s pearl and oyster period-style decoration, and its seafront pool is perfect for people-watching.
It’s here the festival’s judging panel congregates for its first dinner together, at the fabulous two-Michelin-starred Palme d’Or. Oh, how I envy Steven Spielberg, Ang Lee and Nicole Kidman, all jurors for 2013 – not because of the films they will be seeing, but because of that first supper they will share. Chef Christian Sinicropi not only makes gorgeous food, he is also a ceramic artist who sculpts the plates to match his dishes. A delicious “cream caramel” of spider crab came in a beautifully-crafted ceramic “shell” and the soup in a ‘sea egg”. The groaning cheeseboard is also worth mortgaging a house to sample (though, somehow, I can’t imagine Nicole Kidman tucking in).
At the Radisson Blu 1835 Hotel & Thalasso – also on the seafront – there’s a large, water-themed spa. Its salt-water pool directly overlooks the Mediterranean and has mud scrubs, heavenly massages and sing-song showers to soothe even the most uptight diva. Speaking of exhibitionism: leave your stage fright at the door. French spas order you to strip to a tiny patch of material and are blasè about whether you are seen by a masseur or a masseuse.
Yet another five-star Croisette establishment, the Grand Hotel, also hosts a Michelin-starred restaurant, Park 45. Its new 9th floor suite has recently been refitted in 1950s style, giving it something of a groovy Austin Powers feel.
By the time I took a Grand tour, I’d only been living the cosseted Cannes lifestyle for two days, but already the suite’s daily price tag of €2,400 seemed (comparatively) cheap. It was time to step back to reality, and find out if the Grasse really is greener...
And, as it turns out, it is. Just a short drive inland and the super-chic hotels and shops give way to glorious countryside and the very olde-worlde sights of Grasse, the perfume capital of the world.
The town’s most famous monument is the 11th century cathedral, which has three works by Rubens hanging inside. But it is the perfume-making factories – and museum of fragrance – that lead tourists by the nose to the town.
The area’s microclimate, perfect for farming perfume ingredients such as jasmine, orange blossom, roses and violets, has made it the home of perfume making since the end of the 18th century.
You can literally smell the history as you walk around the International Perfume Museum. Press a button and you get a whiff of opium, tobacco or even cocaine. I followed my guide’s advice and breathed deeply from the small, shrivelled brown things she held out.
“These are the sexual sacks of the beaver,” she explained. Now she tells me! Thankfully these rather disgusting things are no longer used in perfume production.
No visit to Grasse would be complete without a tour of one of the great parfumeries – Fragonard, Molinard or Galimard – and at Fragonard you have the chance to make your very own cologne.
Famous “noses” can differentiate between 2,000 scents. With a bad cold, I could hardly tell one from another. But even working “blind”, the art of perfume making was an amazing education. Sniffing my way through scents with alluring names like neroli and bergamot, I learned about top, middle and base notes. The top note is what you smell when you first spray the perfume, the base note is the scent that lingers long after.
I gave my finished product the fanciful title of “Orangerie” after guesstimating measures of citrussy scents. Now that I can smell again, I quite like it, though I think the job of Fragonard’s “nose” is safe.
Following the back-to-nature theme of the area, I visited the organic olive oil farm Domaine de la Royrie, run by former Paris high-flyers Lionel and Monique Brault.
Their story sounds like something from Peter Mayle. They left high-powered jobs in advertising to run what was previously their second home. They now tend their 300 olive trees, many of which are more than 500 years old, and while Lionel takes tours to demonstrate the many tastes of oil, Monique creates chutneys, jams and healthy dinners from the farm’s massive garden. It’s idyllic – and well worth a visit.
There are more sweet treats in store locally from the Florian factory in the nearby village of Pont du Loup. Family business Confiserie Florian has been making sweets by hand here since it opened in 1949. It is a local landmark, famous for its jellies, crystallised fruits and flowers and boiled sweets, all made with original old copper cauldrons. And for a first-hand demonstration of how to use Florian’s rose petal jam (or in my case, guinea fowl with jasmine), just nip next door to Atelier Cuisine des Fleurs for a cooking with flowers workshop with chef Yves Terillion.
With all those heady scents and hedonistic experiences on offer, the best advice sounds like a yoga mantra....breathe deeply, and relax.
The area offers stunning scenery, like the medieval cliff-top village of Gourdon, officially rated one of the “plus beaux villages de France”. Perched 500m above the River Loup below, its panoramic views are a must-see.
For a more low-key hotel than you would find in glitzy Cannes, try the Hotel du Clos in Le Rouret. The hotel’s old stone buildings are surrounded by olive trees, a pool and petanque playing area.
But the real treat comes from – what else? – a Michelin-starred restaurant, the Clos St Pierre, just a short stroll down the drive.
Again though, eating here couldn’t be more different from the stylised offerings on the Riviera’s flashier coast. The food is local, unpretentious and, at €35 for a set lunch menu, something of a bargain. It’s the very best of home cooking – the type of place that makes you wonder why salted radishes never taste that good when you prepare them yourself. The sight of small children tucking into the plate of veg at a family table looked like something you might see in an arty French movie.
Given its close proximity to the movie world’s movers and shakers, it can only be a matter of time.
Need to know
For more information visit:
■ Thermes Marins de Cannes lesthermesmarins-cannes.com
■ Hotel Majestic cannesbarriere.com
■ Hotel Martinez cannesmartinez.grand.hyatt.com
■ Grand Hotel grand-hotel-cannes.com
■ Domaine de la Royrie oleologie.com
■ International Perfume Museum museesdegrasse.com
■ Fragonard fragonard.com One hour workshops cost €59
■ Hotel du Clos (rooms from around €140) and dinner and Clos St Pierre hotel-du-clos.com
■ Florian confiserieflorian.com
■ Cuisine des Fleurs crea-t-yvesculinaire.com; 90 minute workshop, including lunch, costs €45
■ easyJet runs daily flights to Nice: www.easyjet.com
Tel: 09068 244 123