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FRANCE CONNOISSEUR

THE FRENCH RIVIERA AND PROVENCE     October 3 - 14, 2017

ITINERARY

Day 1 - Mon - Overnight flight to Marseille (via Paris) on Air France.

Day 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 interesting old town.  We then have a welcome drink and an early dinner in the beautiful hotel dining room. 

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 sample all his food to prevent poisoning). 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 museums. 

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 region.  It is a picturesque drive through the Luberon wine country to Gordes which is listed as one of the “Most Beautiful Villages in France”.  Not 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.
 
We 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. In more 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. 

In 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” (a lemon).  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 Régionale. 

For millennia Menton was a sea-port that changed rulers frequently. Finally, a
t the time of Italian unification, the 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 19th century European high society - a magical land with unending sunshine. Queen 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 t
his 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 you..

In the 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.

Day 8 - Mon -
   Cap Ferrat and Beaulieu
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 lavish parties for the crème-de-la-crème of high society and of the Baroness's eccentric life-style.

The villa 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 nationalities. 

Day 9 - Tues -   Antibes and St Paul de Vence  
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 shops. 

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). 
If 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 

Day 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. Dinner tonight is not included.

Day 12 -  Fri  -  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 often irregular.  


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