There is a sudden commotion on the beach. People wave their arms and shout as if they have seen something alarming in the water. Perhaps a swimmer is in danger, although the lifeguards don’t seem concerned in the least.
If you look closer, the gathering swell is all smiles. What’s more, a lot of jewelry, plunging necklines and expensive hairstyles are on display… and that’s just for the men.
It’s a Cannes-style wedding reception, and the bride and groom are about to arrive in a sleek, polished speedboat. They are at a party.
It’s business as usual on the Côte d’Azur, this legendary recession-proof honey country. We’re talking high-octane wealth, grandiose glamor and a salutary lesson, if one was needed, that the divide between the super-rich and those who, as Teresa May once said, “are only in it to survive,” has never been wider. . .
I’ve always wanted to visit the Hotel Martinez, the oldest five-star on La Croisette, where a sea-view room costs around £1,800 and the four-bedroom suite on the seventh floor, with its own terrace the width of the entire building. It costs £50,000 a night.
On a tour of Provence, Mark Palmer visits the commune of St Paul de Vence (pictured), which has been home to its fair share of famous artists.
There are Ferraris on the concourse, Damien Hirst artwork on the walls of the atrium (or suspended from the ceiling), and much of the luggage coming and going smells like Los Angeles’ Rodeo Drive.
The cantilever staircase is wonderful. How the hell it holds up is baffling, but this is where the gods and goddesses of cinema practice walking down the red carpeted stairs during the Cannes Film Festival.
I’ve persuaded management to allow our disparate group (ranging in age from two to 62) to lunch across the street at the hotel’s beach club. Full disclosure: I’m not paying full price. If it were, it would cost between £60 and £90 a day for a sun lounger (prices increase the closer you are to the sea) or £800 for a cabin on the pier, with a bottle of champagne included.
In Cannes, Mark dine at the Hotel Martinez’s “delightfully casual” beach club restaurant
And yet the beach club restaurant (“Best lunch of my life,” says one of our group) is delightfully informal: light on pretension, heavy on irony, with the names of movie stars on the back of the restaurant. director style. chairs. Mine belongs to Grace Kelly and I’m next to Paul Newman and Yul Brynner.
The next day, the juxtaposition couldn’t be more stark (though just as rewarding) as we took the 20-minute bus from the old port of Cannes to Saint Honorat, the smaller of the two Lerins islands.
There are no Ferraris here. In fact, there are no cars of any kind, although we do see a tractor and trailer among the vineyards producing half-decent wines and helping to support the 20 Cistercian monks who live a life of solitude and prayer, perhaps intervening on behalf of the hedonistic crowd on the continent.
There has been a monastery here since about 405, although the French Revolution interrupted things. This was until Saint Honorat was purchased in 1869 by the Bishop of Frejus, who oversaw its revival.
Interesting place: Marks stays at Villa Jasmina (pictured) near the hilltop village of Opio
Mark enjoys a ‘heavenly day’ on Ile Saint-Honorat (above)
It’s a heavenly day. There is no beach, but you simply choose a spot and climb over the rocks until you reach the water. Then enjoy a long, leisurely lunch at the Torraine restaurant, also owned by the monks.
Villa Jasmina, our rented house at CV Villas, about 40 minutes inland near the hilltop village of Opio, is the color of honey and surrounded by cypress, eucalyptus, pine, olive and fir trees, all of which differ from the large old oak tree on the terrace. Sitting below to dine at the stone table is a pleasure.
There are three bedrooms in the main house, plus an annex with two more. The pool is long and narrow and is alarmed in case the little ones fall into it.
It is the ideal base from which to explore this golden region of Provence, which has attracted art superstars over the years. They came (including Winston Churchill) and continue to come for the light: a bright, brilliant light, while in Tuscany it is softer, less sharp, more rosy.
The municipality of St Paul de Vence enjoys its artistic associations. Marc Chagall bought a house here in 1949. As a Jew born in Belarus, he was granted French citizenship in 1937, but was forced to flee German-occupied France during the war. He later was made an honorary citizen of Vence.
Matisse, Picasso and Léger, among others, took up temporary residence in this 16th-century town perched on a hill, with its only narrow main street, appropriately named Rue Grande, where Parisian-style galleries are happy for you to wander. , take a look at the prices and hurry up.
The artistic crowd used to gather at the Colombe d’Or at the entrance to the city. It was a humble inn in those days. It’s now a five-star hotel, with two burly, dressed-up security men outside to discourage people like me from coming in to spy.
Mark travels to Grasse, the “perfume capital of the world”, where he is greeted by hundreds of pink umbrellas (pictured)
Valbonne is fantastic too. Here, it is the art of French life that is on display in a village built next to the Chalaisienne Abbey in 1199 on a Roman rectangular grid system. At its heart is the Place des Arcades, a fabulous little square with restaurants on three sides.
A man in a bright yellow shirt appears to act as maitre d’ to rival establishments, only for us to later realize that three of them are owned and run by the same family. There are no cars here either, so children run around while their parents eat snails and steak tartare.
Then there is Grasse, the so-called “perfume capital of the world.” When we arrive it rains so hard that traffic comes to a standstill. The good news is that we are greeted by hundreds of pink umbrellas; The bad news is that they are all out of reach, hanging from cables tied to streetlights.
The sophistication of the south of France is hard to beat, but what I also like is the way old people with faces wrinkled like a London Underground map still spend hours sitting at cafe tables, smoking and, hallelujah, reading newspapers. In the evening, they could move to the nearest dusty pétanque court and then return to the café for a pichet of red wine and complain about President Macron.
But my goodness, the French can be surly. On one of our visits to the Carrefour supermarket I ask an employee as delicately as possible to show me where ‘les oeufs’ (eggs) are, and then, without looking up, she sticks an aggressive finger in and barks: ‘au fin’ . ‘ (‘in the end’). And their road manners are appalling. At the end of the week, we abandon I-Spy games with the younger kids in favor of Spot The Smile as we drive, offering grateful waves if, on the rarest of occasions, they give us the pass. We discover that they are rarely reciprocated.
The French can be belligerent, cheerful and distant. They are our closest neighbors and yet always distant. But having this fascinating, exasperating and captivating country at our doors is one of our great privileges.