The prospect of spending the winter on the French Riviera sounds enticing – especially if you would otherwise be spending it in more northerly, rather chillier climes. So when the opportunity came up to do exactly that, we didn’t need a second invitation. The place we would effectively be house-sitting from the beginning of December through to the end of March looked palatial in the photos we were sent, came with its own swimming pool (as do most of the large properties in this area), and was set a little way up the slopes overlooking the town of Mouans-Sartoux, a 15-minute stroll away. Excited? We were practically hysterical!
Of course, the reality often turns out to be not quite as glorious, but while this was the case to a degree, we found that wintering in the south of France certainly has its charms, and is infinitely preferable to freezing up north. One of the things we discovered was that although the temperature often reaches 18 degrees in the afternoon, so that we were able to achieve enviable tans by sitting out in the garden for a couple of hours every day, the nights do get cold, as it is
winter after all. So, as there was a large fireplace in the living room, we became regular customers at Azur Poêle, a friendly firewood supplier near Cannes, and had a good workout every two to three weeks hauling a half stère (half a cubic metre) of oak logs into the van and back out into the garage when we got home. It’s amazing how quickly you get used to sitting in front of a roaring fire in the evening – we even took to toasting marshmallows over it! And that fire is certainly something we’ll miss when we leave.
The town of Mouans-Sartoux, some of it on gently rising foothills, is about a ten-minute drive north of Cannes and about forty minutes away from Nice if you take the toll road (it’s worth it, as it only costs €4.30 for a van, and less for a car, and the rather longer alternative is a tortuous mountain road that winds through a number of villages). Mouans-Sartoux is also on the railway line linking the perfume capital of Grasse at one end with the Italian town of Ventimiglia at the other, with Cannes and Nice in between. While this sounds – and is – very convenient, the trains only run at the most every hour, and sometimes not even that often – and stop quite early in the evening on weekdays. We didn’t realise this at first, and were caught out after lingering too late in Nice one night, with the result that we had to pay €20 for an Uber back from Cannes.
The winter attractions
But Mouans-Sartoux is also ideally located for visiting a number of smaller, typically French medieval towns and villages, including Valbonne, Tourrettes-sur-Loup, Mougins and Vence. Come the summer, I have no doubt that these places will be bustling with holidaymakers attracted by their charm, their history and their enticing shops selling locally made crafts, lavender products, bottles of the pale rosé wine characteristic of the Côte de Provence and the delicate perfumes of Grasse. But during the winter months, happily for us (but not so happily for the shop proprietors), these goods were still available, but the towns were appealingly empty, and we were able to wander along the cobbled alleyways at our leisure – definitely a big plus as far as we were concerned!
The medieval town of Valbonne is centred around a cobbled square lined with restaurants. The Café des Arcades always seemed to be in the sun, and as a result, its outside tables were packed every time we visited. Valbonne’s main attraction, though, must be its eclectic Friday-morning market, with stalls selling everything from hand-stitched toile de jouy bags to spicy wasabi nuts, and from local leather goods to bohemian clothing. Once again, the cobbled square is at the centre of operations, though the market spills out into the alleyways that lead off, as well as into the free car parks surrounding the town. Most definitely worth a visit!
The historical village of Tourrettes-sur-Loup lies high up in the Alpes-Maritimes department, and getting there involves negotiating a twisting mountain road, as well as avoiding the keen cyclists who frequently tackle it, particularly at the weekend. The back gardens of many of the precipitously built dwellings here are nothing but a sheer drop to the scrubby, cactus-strewn valley below, which seems highly impractical today, but must have made their occupants feel very secure from the marauding hordes back in the day. A loop off the church square takes you into a cobbled paradise of craft shops (some of them selling products made from violets, which seem more prominent here than lavender) interspersed with houses still occupied by local residents who are most likely the descendants of those early generations who fought off the marauding hordes. Market day is Wednesday, with many of the products on sale closely resembling those found at Valbonnes on Friday. There is a pay car park in the centre of the village, but there’s also a much more accessible, and free, car park at the far end (if you’re coming in from the west).
The vieux village
of Mougins is characterised by two things: Picasso lived (and died) there, and it is arranged on a hill in a snail-shell-like circle, which means that whichever narrow cobbled alley you choose to wander up, you will always end up circling back to the point at which you started. The Picasso link is evident from the huge bronze head of the artist (with scary-looking holes where the eyeballs would be) at the entrance to this old town, as well as from the shops selling everything Picasso, from prints to mugs to practically any other abstract-themed accessory you can think of. The Francobelge Café, tucked away in the maze of alleyways, is a lovely little intimate eatery that we frequented every time we went there, attracted by its friendly, unhurried ambiance. Once again, the car park at the edge of this unusual and attractive village is free and has plenty of spaces.
As well as being full of arty shops, Vence is known for its chapel with stained-glass windows designed by the artist Henri Matisse. He took this task upon himself, as far as we could make out, as a result of his close friendship with a woman who, to his chagrin, went on to become a nun. When the sun is shining, the colourful windows cast a glorious pattern across the chapel floor and tiled walls (also designed by Matisse). However, on the dull day we visited, sadly there were no such reflections, just a beady-eyed attendant preventing us from taking any photos (apparently for copyright reasons), and we came away slightly disappointed. Winter was perhaps not the best season to view Vence at its best, and the drive back to Mouans-Sartoux the pretty way (i.e. avoiding the toll roads) was made more hazardous by the fact that we were driving due west into a sun that was now – too late for our visit to the chapel – shining extremely brightly into our eyes.
Winter or summer – which is best?
It really depends on whether you like full-on sun and crowded roads and beaches or whether you are more content with sitting out for a couple of hours in the afternoon and making the most of the peace and quiet that typifies this sheltered enclave in the winter months. For us, the latter was definitely preferable!