Destinations

You’ve been doing it all wrong – why this is the best way to discover Provence

The seaside town of Menton
The seaside town of Menton Credit: Boris Stroujko - Fotolia

I’ve been to the Côte-d’Azur a million times. I exaggerate. Half a million. I’ve been to big posh hotels and small posh hotels, to medium hotels, crummy hotels and one hotel where, in my bathroom, I found the dirty underwear of a previous occupant.

I’ve rented flats and villas, and used Airbnb for an apartment in Nice run by a New Yorker, a ringer for Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy. But no camping; I don’t count canvas as coverage.

But I don’t recall enjoying myself more than recently, when I took a trip around the region via chambres-d’hôtes. That’s what the French call b&bs, though the translation – with its suggestion of slumming – doesn’t really work, certainly not in this Côte-d’Azur case.

Looking out from Nice's feted seafront

These are not establishments where you pay extra for the cruet, or have to sleep with your feet out of the window because the bedroom’s a box. They belong to a small network, Côte-d’Azur Autrement (CAA, “Alternative Côte-d’Azur”), which ushers you along the coast, extracting you from the hurly-burly towards smart houses and rural villas.

They have space, gardens and maybe pools. There is comfort and interest – and homely elegance, an element of the Riviera overwhelmed by airhead excess unless you’re careful. It is like having cultivated friends in the right places. OK, they’re friends who are charging maybe a hundred quid a night for two. But they have to live. And, anyway, real friends have cost me plenty more on holiday in the past.

In one hotel found the dirty underwear of a previous occupant

We started just above Nice. Back from the Promenade des Anglais, Nice goes vertical pretty quick. Up in the Bellet district, the slopes and ravines once bore vines, olives and flowers for market. There’s some wine left but the landscape is now sprinkled mainly with villas along lanes created with mules in mind.

Thus to Villa Kilauea. This spot unravels down its hillside, from a lovely house on top, via a cluster of guest bedrooms, terraced gardens and an infinity pool, to more gardens, forest and goodness-knows-what else down there. Ligurians, possibly. Views to the Mercantour and the southern Alps, within yodelling distance, are outstanding. They may be had from the infinity pool, which is more luxury than I deserve, so thank heavens it was winter.

Mercantour National Park Credit: NoraDoa - Fotolia

The four bedrooms (five is a max, for chambres-d’hôtes; after that, you’re a hotel) are sumptuous, all with a mountain-wards terrace. Breakfast, mostly home-made, is enough to set anyone up for a week. And hosts Nathalie and Gérard Graffagnino are very handy with suggestions.

CAA people pride themselves on knowledge of the region, both highlights and sideshows. We romped around Nice, then on to Menton and the Jean Cocteau museum, which proved less startling than I’d hoped, and then back to Bellet, for a wine-tasting at the Château de Bellet. It’s on the next hill along from Kilauea. The château is a key element of the tiny Bellet appellation, little of whose production gets beyond Nice. The reds are intense, though ambitiously priced at £18.

No matter. The pleasure of this trip was returning not to a hotel bedroom but to a house, with a garden to sit in, other guests to meet – we were particularly taken by an Australian couple: we often are – and hosts who, precisely because they’ve configured their home for receiving visitors, are likely to be pleasant people. We spent quite some time with the Graffagninos. This was wine-fuelled fun. For us, anyway. It’s possible they might have preferred an early night.

It was good all over again chez Mireille and Pierre Diot at the Mas Samarcande on the heights of Vallauris, between Antibes and Cannes. There’s glam for you – except not really. Here, instead, was the warmest possible welcome, attended by another perpendicular garden, good taste, comfort, colour – our bathroom had entirely appropriate swathes of yellow – and good conversation.

Cannes, there's glam for you – except not really Credit: ALAMY

Our hosts both had backgrounds in journalism so were automatically decent and interesting people. The views from the breakfast terrace – over Vallauris away to the Bay of Angels – almost, but not quite, overshadowed breakfast itself.

We’d recently done the Picasso tour of Vallauris, so went to the seaside at Golfe-Juan, to see where Napoleon had come ashore from Elba on March 1, 1815. Back then, Golfe Juan barely existed; it was marshland. Now, the emperor would have a good choice of loungers, tapas bars and fish restaurants.

The pleasure of this trip was returning not to a hotel but a house

We opted for the beachside Nounou on the grounds that it seems to have been there forever and is better respected locally than Bonaparte. It charges a lot, but the John Dory was first-class, and the motion of the sea, right there, calmed fears of financial meltdown.

And so to Châteauneuf-Villevieille, 30 minutes, and a whole world, away from Nice. There are 15 hairpin bends up to what was a mountain farming village. This is 13 more than I usually appreciate, for I have the head for heights of a halibut.

Châteauneuf-Villevieille Credit: Credit: niceartphoto / Alamy Stock Photo/niceartphoto / Alamy Stock Photo

A relief, then, to get to La Parare chambres-d’hôtes slotted in on the edge of the village – and not merely because my internal organs unfroze.

La Parare is an exceptional spot, emerging almost organically from rocks and mountainscape. It’s a 17th-century sheepfold of vaulted rooms, stairs, arches, nooks, crannies and a terraced garden which edges into the garrigue by way of olive trees and much else which is grey-green.

You could hide out there with a book and a sunhat for a week, especially given that there’s a garden honesty bar to hand – and views to the southern Alps so dramatic that it’s surprising they’re free. Swedish Karin and Franco-Dutch Sydney have invested the place with life, taste, a pool, exotica from Asian travels and a sense that, though they’re in the hospitality business, they’re not screwing up 1,000 years of history.

"Here was the warmest possible welcome – and good conversation"

“You want to go to visit Peille and Peillon? They’re beautiful villages perched even higher than we are,” asked Sydney. “No, thank you,” I said, with a certain firmness. “I have run through my monthly allocation of hairpins.”

Instead, we took a beer at a garden table. Later, we were joined for dinner by guests from France, Germany and Switzerland. The fellow from Switzerland worked for the World Health Organisation. He had recently returned from North Korea where, as he told it brilliantly, he’d had terrible trouble finding Pyongyang’s only advertised pizzeria.

I couldn’t think of any other way I’d have run into these people on the Côte-d’Azur. The food was as fine as the company and, next morning, al fresco breakfast was as good in its way. The mountains stilled nonsense, instilling tranquillity.

As mentioned, I may have been as happy on the Riviera, but never happier. “Just the 15 hairpins down again,” said my wife. “I’ll take them off next month’s allowance,” I said. And, as I seized up only slightly, we set out.

The essentials

Villa Kilauea, Nice 
(0033 493 378490; villakilauea.com, b&b doubles from £110)

Mas Samarcande, Vallauris 
(0033 493 639773; mas-samarcande.com, £102)

La Parare, Châteauneuf-Villevieille 
(0033 493 792262; laparare.com, £120).

More information at cote-azur-autrement.com/english

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