Mon - Overnight flight
to Marseille (via Paris) on Air France.
2 - Tues - Avignon -
We transfer by private coach from Marseille Airport to the historic town of
Avignon (about one hour). Here we stay at the lovely Cloitre St
Louis which is a former monastery turned into a beautiful
four-star hotel and ideally located within
the medieval walls of the old city. There is time to rest
and in the afternoon we have a brief orientation walk in the
town. We then have a welcome drink and an early dinner in
the beautiful hotel dining room.
When the papacy finally
returned to Rome, Avignon declined until the late 20th
century when it became a chic centre for art and
theatre. Today, the town has lovely shops, markets, art galleries and
Day 3 - Wed - Avignon - When one thinks of Avignon we think of the children’s song
“Sur Le Pont d' Avignon”.
This morning we see this much serenaded St
Benezet Bridge and hear about its legend. The story goes that, in the year 1177
Benezet, a local shepherd
boy, was instructed by an angel to construct a bridge over the
Rhone. By miraculously lifting an impossibly heavy stone he
convinced the town elders to put him in charge of construction (sceptics today suggest
he used levers). Since there were few bridges across the Rhone this meant Avignon
prospered and became a
centre for travellers and trade.
Near the bridge stands the magnificent old Papal Palace. In 1309, when Pope Clement V fled from conflict-ridden Rome, he chose Avignon as his safe haven. Some historians
assume the location was selected for its defensive position while others suggest with a wink that
Avignon’s attraction was the superior wine produced in
this Cote du Rhone region. In any case, the papacy remained here
for seventy years and during that time Avignon was
the richest city in Europe. Art and culture flourished - although so
did vice. The gothic Papal Palace was built and within the
palace the popes
held extravagant court. We tour the palace with individual audio-guides.
You will see frescoes depicting
bloody hunting scenes and gluttonous feasts. Records show that for a
good papal coronation they needed to roast a thousand sheep and a few
hundred cows – in all, 90,000 dishes to provide for a single
meal ! The pope dined alone
seated on a throne under a canopy (with a taster to
his food to prevent poisoning).
In the afternoon there is free time to explore. There is an optional tour to
the nearby Chateauneuf-du-Pape winery
for those who are interested.
Day 4 - Thurs - Menerbes - Gordes - LaCoste -
Rousillon - Fontaine-de-Vaucluse- Winery
This morning we travel through the back-roads of Provence to
explore small towns and villages of the Luberon
It is a picturesque drive through the Luberon
wine country to Gordes which is listed as one of
the “Most Beautiful Villages in France”.
far away lies the village of LaCoste.
This hill-top village is
crowned by a castle looking out over a landscape of lavender
fields and vineyards. Given to
the infamous Marquis de Sade as a wedding present in 1763, this castle was the
scene of de Sade's
escapades for which he was eventually arrested. The castle
may hold dark secrets but in modern times was
purchased and renovated by fashion designer Pierre Cardin and
today hosts fashion
shows and art exhibits. At the pretty town of Menerbes we
find a country market with food stalls selling local
produce. We continue to see Fontaine-de-Vaucluse
where the renaissance scholar Petrarch penned his sonnets about Laura (a married woman he
admired from afar). Before returning to Avignon we stop at a vineyard for a wine-tasting
and our English-speaking
"cavist" explains the local grape varieties, the
vinification process and the art of wine-tasting. .
Day 5 - Fri - St Remy,
Les Baux, Arles Today we head south
by private coach through St Remy, a town known for two famous
inhabitants. The first was Nostradamus, the reputed 16th
century “seer” whose dire predictions are still remembered
today. Again in the 19th century St Remy had a famous
resident - Vincent Van Gogh painted many of his
masterpieces while in a psychiatric centre (formerly a
monastery) in a quiet setting just outside the town. We
stop to visit this centre which today contains a museum with
exhibits showing the history of psychiatry. It is now an art-therapy
institution and some of the modern works are on display.
continue through sun-drenched countryside to visit the restored medieval village of Les Baux. High on a
spectacular rocky outcrop,
this medieval fortress was, in medieval times, home to the powerful Lords
of Les Baux. Thanks to
their practice of ransoming prisoners, these lords
became wealthy and their court attracted troubadours who
sang romantic songs about courtly love and chivalry. However,
the lords' practice of sending troops throughout the
land to kidnap people was less than chivalrous. If a victim's
family could not pay a ransom, the poor wretch was forced to walk
a gangplank over the cliff's edge at Les Baux. Today it attracts
many tourists who explore the stone streets, medieval buildings
and quaint restaurants.
In the afternoon we continue to Arles. Often called the "soul of
Provence", this town on the Rhône attracts art lovers,
archaeologists and historians. Julius Caesar established a Roman
colony here and today there is a wealth of classical antiquities.
The theatre was built by Augustus in the 1st century. An arena for
chariot races and gladiator battles was constructed in the 1st century BC.
modern times Arles is known as the place where, in 1888, Vincent Van Gogh
painted some of his most celebrated works, including Starry
Night and The Bridge at Arles.
Day 6 - Sat
- Avignon to Menton - We head south by private coach via beautiful,
fountain-filled Aix-en-Provence. Here we stop and you can perhaps
have lunch in a café once frequented by French cultural
icons like Cezanne, Edith Piaf and Jean Paul Sartre.
the afternoon we continue to Menton. With the Alps to the north
guarding against northern winds and with the Mediterranean
warming the breezes, Menton is a secret jewel of the Riviera
with a nearly tropical climate. According to
local legend, Menton originated when Eve, when fleeing
from Paradise with Adam, took with her a forbidden “Golden Fruit”
After travelling far, the
couple came across a beautiful bay with a mild climate and luxurious exotic plants evoking poignant
memories of Eden. Here, Eve planted the lemon and
a little piece of Paradise - Menton - was born. Actually, Menton's
first visitor probably arrived 30,000 years ago. He's still around --
or, at least, his skull is -- in the Musée de Préhistoire
For millennia Menton was a sea-port that changed rulers
frequently. Finally, at the time of Italian unification,
area was given the
choice of joining chaotic Italy or prosperous France. They chose France and –
Voila - the French Cote d’Azur quickly became a winter escape for
century European high society - a magical land with unending
Victoria was a frequent visitor to Menton.
Our accommodation for the next seven nights is at the
elegant seafront Royal Westminster Hotel. Late in the day we have a short
orientation walk including
a stroll on the
Promenade du Soleil – the walkway along the sea.- and then
continue to a nearby restaurant for dinner.
Day 7 - Sun - Menton - We have a leisurely start this
morning. It is lovely to enjoy breakfast in the hotel’s
garden restaurant with its outdoor terrace. After lingering over fresh croissants and
cafe-au-lait we have an easy stroll to see the Sunday morning
Menton market in an indoor hall built in the 19th century (about a 10
minute walk from the hotel). Here we find an extensive range of
delicious local food products creating a colourful display. Provencal
pastry delights in the shop windows may tempt
afternoon we explore the old town with its narrow streets and
“Belle Époque” buildings. Menton is known as one of the prettiest in France with a combination
of French and Italian structures. The Old Town is the place
where the well-ordered French side of Menton turns into more chaotic Italian Mentone.
Our tour starts on the "Petit
Train Touristique". This ride features an audio
commentary (in English) over its 7 km route through the old town
and along the seafront to the Italian border. Then there is a
choice - the "hardy" can climb the steep
winding passageways and stairs into the heights of the Medieval
Quarter (about 2 hours). Since this section of the town sits
astride seaside hills, navigating it may be too physically challenging
for some. The alternative is a visit to the Cocteau Museum located in a small
17th century fort by the sea. Jean Cocteau, a poet, artist,
novelist and film-maker, renovated the museum building
himself decorating the walls with pebble mosaics.
In the evening we have
dinner at a restaurant.
Today we travel to Cap Ferrat, a peninsula that has been called
"Paradise Found". Of all the oases along the Côte
d'Azur, none has quite the snob appeal of Cap-Ferrat with billionaires' villas in sheltered coves.
In the most spectacular location of all we find the Ephrussi de
Rothschild Villa and Garden.
Built in the early 1900's by the eccentric Baroness Beatrice de
Rothschild when she inherited a vast fortune, the villa now displays
her art collections. It
is a collector’s paradise with priceless 18th-century furniture,
Savonnerie carpets, screens and panels from the Far East, Gobelin
tapestries and Sèvres porcelain. Touring the various reception and private rooms gives an interesting
insight about how the well-off lived during the Belle Époque. Stories are told of
parties for the crème-de-la-crème of high society and of the
Baroness's eccentric life-style.
is surrounded by nine themed gardens including an exotic fantasy of cactus, a
mysterious gothic stone garden, a tranquil Japanese garden
and a rose garden with hundreds of varieties of pink roses. Every twenty
minutes the famous “musical fountains”
move into action accompanied by Mozart.
We tour the villa using individual audio-guides and then have time to wander in the gardens.
A special treat is our group lunch at the Villa Rothschild
served in the elegant, high-ceilinged dining room or on the
garden terrace (weather permitting). Both venues are spectacular
with views of the Bay of Villefranche.
We continue to nearby Beaulieu where we find Villa Kerylos. This villa is a faithful
reconstruction of an ancient Greek palace on the island of Delos in the 2nd
century BC. Built between 1902
and 1908 by the French archaeologist Théodore Reinach, it
invites visitors to step back into ancient Greece. Reinach, a bit
of an eccentric and a lover of all things Greek, lived here for
20 years, preferring to bathe, eat and dress with his
male friends (who pretended to be Athenian citizens), while
segregating the women to separate suites. Guests
removed shoes at the entrance and garlands of foliage were
placed on their necks as "slaves" washed their feet.
Fully furnished, the villa faithfully reconstructs the
sophisticated décor of ancient Greek villas. Designated a historic monument of France, with its spectacular
sea-side location, its Italian
marble and its ivory and bronze copies of vases and mosaics, Kérylos
is a visual knockout. It seems odd to have a bit of ancient
Greece in France but it reminds us that this sunny region has
attracted the artistic, the wealthy and the eccentric of all
Day 9 - Tues -
Antibes and St Paul de
This morning we drive the Grand Corniche (built
by Napoleon on the route of the Roman Via Julia Augusta) to Antibes.
Originally founded by Greek traders in the 5th century BC,
Antibes was "discovered" in the early 20th century
during the jazz age of glitter and glam. It enjoyed a
particularly roaring 1920's with the help of party animals like
Rudolph Valentino and Charlie Chaplin. The town also attracted
artists. Picasso came here after the war, spent 1946 painting
and, when he departed, gave the museum all the work he had done.
We explore the Picasso Museum located in the Château Grimaldi.
There is time to see the lively market with its riot of color and smells
and perhaps to sample something tasty at the many pastry
11 - Thurs - Free
day to relax and enjoy Menton.
For those who wish to be active, there is frequent train
service to Nice for shopping or sightseeing.
We then continue by private bus into the hills above the Riviera
to the lovely medieval town of St Paul de Vence.
The beauty of the surrounding area, quality of life and
exceptional light have inspired numerous famous painters,
writers and poets who took up residence in the
village. There is time for lunch here. Perhaps
sample typical Provencal dishes like Salad Nicoise, Daube ( a
typical Provencal stew) or Soup au Pisto (rich vegetable soup
with basil and garlic).
you are interested in modern art, nearby
is the Fondation Maeght. This avant-garde building houses one of
Europe's greatest modern art museums and is remarkable for both
its setting and its art. White concrete arcs give the impression
of a giant pagoda rising from a hill in a pine forest and,
inside, colourful canvases radiate with the joy of life. A stunningly designed terraced garden is a
setting for sculptures, fanciful fountains and mosaics.
At Vence we see the Chapelle du Rosaire built and
decorated by Henri Matisse. Our private tour (in English)
is led by a Catholic Sister who is always pleased to share her
knowledge of and fondness for the chapel.
We return to Menton for
dinner at a restaurant.
Day 10 - Wed -
Ventimiglia - Today we visit some of the beautiful gardens for which the
Cote d'Azur is famous. We cross the nearby Italian border and just
a few miles east
of Ventimiglia we find spectacular Hanbury Gardens, one of
Europe's most noted botanical gardens. British merchant
Sir Thomas Hanbury planted these gardens which descend on terraces
to the sea. (There are golf carts to ferry people up) As immensely important as the gardens were
to the 19th century study of botany, today they are a
pleasure-dome - a stunningly beautiful bower with heart-stopping
views of the sea around every corner.
There are a few hours free time in Ventimiglia Italy to browse
in the shops and sample a little Italian food for lunch. Local specialties
include barbagiuai, a crispy butternut squash and
cheese ravioli. Piscialandrea, a deep-dish
focaccia topped with tomato sauce, anchovies, olive and garlic,
makes for a flavourful midday snack.
Returning to Menton we see the lovely Villa Maria Serena which
sits next to the French/Italian border and is surrounded by gardens. Back
in town we stroll to visit the famous Salle des Mariages at City Hall. This room comes as a surprise
inside the building's neoclassical exterior. Menton's mayor gave
the artist Jean Cocteau free reign and he clearly made the most
of it, covering the walls and ceiling with whimsical murals.
Dinner at a restaurant
Dinner tonight is not included.
- Monaco - This morning we head for the nearby Principality of Monaco. This tiny country takes itself
terribly seriously with more police per square metre than any
other place in the world. With so many extraordinarily rich people to
look after, it has no choice. Monaco is a little bubble
of extravagance and luxury, a tax haven some call "a sunny
place for shady people". Beyond the sleek yachts
bobbing in the port, the Grimadi Palace looms over the
principality like a wise old patriarch -- a reminder that the
Grimaldi royal family has controlled Monaco since 1297.
We begin with an overview of the tiny principality aboard a small
train. On our circuit ride we take in Monte-Carlo's famous casino
and gardens, the formula 1 racing circuit, the cathedral where
Prince Ranier wed Grace Kelly, the port, and the impressive
building housing the Oceanographic Museum. Next, at exactly 11.55
am, we watch the perfectly synchronized changing of the
guards outside the palace.
We then head inside the palace.
Individual audio commentary permits guests to tailor their
visit to suit themselves Beginning at the top of
the Hercule Gallery and descending on to the main courtyard is a
spectacular double-revolution marble staircase dating from the
13th century. To enter
the state apartments one passes through the Mirror
Gallery. The dramatic effect of the
succeeding mirrors forms an image of a long succession of rooms,
an imitation of Versailles. Then comes the
Red Room furnished in the style of Louis XV. Following is the
York Room, so named because the Duke of York died there in 1787.
The Blue Room, which
is used for official receptions, has Grimaldi portraits, 19th century Italian gilt and the
dazzling Venetian chandeliers. In the magnificent
Throne Room the royal throne rests under a red silk
velvet canopy topped by the Grimaldi royal crown.
There is free time to explore Monaco's other attractions.... Prince of
Monaco's Classic Car Collection or
Princess Grace's Rose Garden. Window shop at the lavish boutiques of the Carre D'Or
where prices astound anyone who is not a zillionaire. Marvel at luxury yachts the
size of mansions bobbing in the harbour. With
little imagination you can visualise James Bond
heading for the Casino.
In mid-afternoon we board our private coach for a scenic drive
to Eze, a medieval village perched a rocky peak
overlooking the Mediterranean sea. The ancient fortified village
is crowned with the ruins of its 12th-century fortified castle.
We return to Menton for a farewell dinner at a restaurant.
Day 13 - Sat - Morning transfer from
Menton to Nice Airport for our flight home ( or perhaps you
would like to extend your stay in France ).
Participants in Europe tours should be able to walk
reasonable distances and climb stairs. France is not
well-equipped to deal with people with reduced mobility. There
are not always working lifts in public places. Sidewalks are