Provence Experience

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Provence If You Like

Being Scott and Zelda

Married new money? Made a stock-market killing? Or just remember the old saw "If you don't travel first class, your heirs will"? Well, the Riviera has been a hard place to practice self-denial ever since F. Scott Fitzgerald arrived with the rest of his Jazz Age literati. So drain that glass of Dom. Enough lollygagging! It's time for a power decision: which luxurious pleasure palace will you treat yourself to? Hey, if you can't be self-indulgent on the French Riviera, where can you be?

Cap–Eden Roc, Cap d'Antibes. Where once Hemingway ordered yet another Pernod and Zelda wore her latest Poiret, this famous hotel is today the rendezvous of the film stars. You may find Justin and Jessica in the bar, Harrison behind his iPad, and Beyoncé keeping a low profile under her parasol by the cliff-edge pool. Try to be cool, and focus on the menu.

Château de la Chevre d'Or, Èze. Seemingly set just below cloud level, this sky-high aerie occupies some of the choicest real estate in Èze, that magical island-in-the-sky perched 1,500 feet over the sea and St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. Little wonder the views out your window rival those from space.

La Colombe d'Or, St-Paul-de-Vence. Yes, those are real Picassos, Mirós, Braques, and Bonnards over your dinner table. This legendary hotel and restaurant was once the favored hangout of these artists when you could buy one of their daubs for $5. Today, it is super-stylish, utterly elegant, and you can't move without bumping into a Calder mobile—or an off-duty celebrity dining on the enchanting terrace.

Villages Perchés

Practically defying gravity, the sky-kissing, hilltop-perched villages of Provence and the Riviera are some of the most spectacular sights in France. In the Middle Ages, pirates and Saracens drove villagers to move well above the fray. Thus sprouted these villages from the hilltops, Babel-like towers of canted cubes and blunt cylinders seeming to grow out of the rock. Houses mount several levels; thus freed from obstructing neighbors, their windows take in light and wide-open views. The tiniest of streets weave between rakish building blocks, and the houses seem tied together by arching overpasses and rhythmic arcades. Wells spring up in miniature placettes (little squares), the trickling sound echoing loud in the stone enclosure. Succumb to their once-upon-a-timeliness and be sure to visit two or three.

Èze. As cute as a Fisher-Price toy village, Èze is so relentlessly picturesque it will practically take the pictures for you.

Haut-de-Cagnes. Topped by a Grimaldi castle, once a forgetaway favored by the likes of Renoir, Soutine, and Simone de Beauvoir, this enchanting labyrinth of steep alleys and Renaissance stairways is a magical place where time seems to be holding its breath.

Oppède-le-Vieux. Isolated above the Luberon, this village stands alone in the mist, utterly noncommercial and lovingly cared for by its residents.

Relishing the Riviera

The Côte d'Azur is home to top chefs who are redefining the "new Mediterranean cuisine" in all its costly splendor: "scrambled" sea urchins; herb sausages with chopped truffles and lobster; frogs' legs soup with fresh mint; and poached sea bass flan with crayfish sauce. Grand names like Alain Ducasse still present such delights at showplaces like Monaco's Le Louis XV, but there are any number of young stars on the make. But with access to some of the world's best ingredients, Provençal chefs face a dilemma—do they uphold tradition or go out on a limb? Here are some legends who balance both schools beautifully.

Le Chantecler, Nice. At his restaurant inside the historic Hotel Negresco, Jean-Denis Rieubland says he’s "inspired by Provence," as is proven by his lightly seared foie gras and truffles, white-wine consommé, and brioche, made with local chestnuts.

Le Louis XV, Monte Carlo. Crystal, gilt, and period pomp frame the extraordinary cuisine of Alain Ducasse—truffle-sprinkled artichokes, ember-grilled pigeon breast, and salt-seared foie gras, anyone?

Le Park 45, Cannes. Furnished with Swedish teak and facing La Croisette, this sleek spot showcases young chef Sébastien Broda, who stops the show with such wows as his M&M–like balls of foie gras in pea soup.

Mirazur, Menton. Argentinean–Italian Mauro Colagreco excels at la jeune cuisine, thanks to studying with Bernard Loiseau and Alain Ducasse, then he adds in those much-talked-about modernist "techniques" such as spuma (foam).

Where Art Comes First

Artists have been drawn to the south of France for generations, awed by its luminous colors and crystalline light. Monet, Renoir, Gauguin, and Van Gogh led the way, followed over the years by Léger, Matisse, Picasso, Chagall, and Cocteau. Cézanne had the good fortune to be born in Aix, and he returned to it, and to his beloved country home nearby, throughout his life. The artists left behind a superb legacy of works, utterly individual but all consistently bathed in Mediterranean color and light. That's why a visit to this region can be as culturally rich as a month in Paris and just as intimately allied to the setting that inspired the work. Art museums abound—but don't forget to pay your respects to Cézanne's studio in Aix and Renoir's garden home in Cagnes.

Fondation Maeght, St-Paul-de-Vence. With its serene setting in a hilltop woods and its light-flooded displays of modern works, this gallery-museum is the best mixed-artist exhibition space in the south of France.

Musée de l'Annonciade, St-Tropez. St-Tropez was the Riviera's first "Greenwich Village" and artists—Signac, Derain, and Matisse, among them—flocked here in the early 20th century. Today, the collection has its share of masterworks.

Musée Matisse, Nice. In a superb Italianate villa above Nice, Matisse's family has amassed a wide-ranging collection of the artist's works.

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