The best is inland, by far. The Cote d’Azur had its heyday a few decades ago, and now it feels distinctly stuck-in-a-bling-rut. Over-bronzed Bardot lookalikes with taught lifted faces are still, somehow, the norm. Even the boutiques of Cannes’ rue d’Antibes seem to cater for a particular kind of fussy glitz that (luckily) doesn’t exist anywhere else. Yet nothing can change the spectacular topography, however many neo-Provençal villas dot the hillside and apartment blocks rim the towns, and if you’re lucky enough to find that perfect restaurant with a view, it’s close to heaven.
For anyone heading that way (I’m talking about the corniche that winds precipitously west of Cannes towards St Raphael), then try out La Tour de l’Esquillon , a fabulous time-warp of a 1950s hotel where curvy wrought-iron chairs are just for starters. On one side of the hotel, a restaurant juts out seawards, its huge glazed walls framing the twinkling lights of distant Cannes and, on a good day we are told, even Antibes. Totally romantic and totally perfect, the food matching the hushed, rather formal style though the grumpy owner has probably seen better days – I pity the charming waitress, victim of his biting scorn. Sadly there are no pics of this masterpiece of structure and landscape as that night it was bucketing down, dramatically sluicing the windowpanes and no doubt drowning the film fest celebs on La Croisette 20km or so away. This year umbrellas were an essential accessory, echoing the wonderfully aromatic umbrella-pines that line the coast. How about that for a word-pic link!
From Cannes we escape inland to find a taste of old Provence, that eternally sleepy cliché of lavender and olive-trees. As it’s May, the palette is lifted by brilliant vermilion splashes of poppies and, higher up, zingy yellow gorse bushes like sunbursts. Water trickles everywhere, down hillsides and in village fountains – there’s obviously no drought here. Food is of course never far and little restaurants spill onto quiet pavements shaded by plane-trees. One menu offers wild boar, a sign that it’s still wild in these here woods.
It’s all quite bucolic – but definitely lacking in authentic locals. Sipping coffee on the main square of Tourtour, we are suddenly engulfed by a dozen middle-aged Dutch cyclists, panting happily at having made it to this 800m altitude. Then along comes that other Provençal classic, an English couple clutching their day-old Telegraph, obviously comfortably retired. At least our efficient waiter is French, as is bottle-blonde Madame at the till grumbling gently about losing her reading-glasses and peering uselessly at the bills.
Later, dark threatening skies paint a subtle Rothko canvas behind our hotel balcony, highlighting the extraordinary views south to the Massif des Maures, sweeping east to west across a virtually uninhabited valley. Suddenly it feels mysterious and ancient, and you almost except to hear the wind whisper tales of dolmens, Greek and Roman invaders, of Saracen pirates and of the Counts of Provence. However much you can criticise the lack of character of these tourist-dependent villages, this part of France has somehow managed to preserve a stirring, unspoilt landscape which ironically feels more intense when not bathed in that ubiquitous sunlight. Long may it stay that way.
And just occasionally something wakes it all up.