One of our favorite movies is Hitchcock's "To Catch a Thief", which features Grace Kelly and Cary Grant traveling through the French Riviera. Since we first watched it together in a Cleveland basement at least 10 years ago, it was always one of our goals to take in the glamour, old-Hollywood history and beautiful scenery of the Cote d'Azur in the south of France. Now that we are based in Lux, it is only an hour flight into the heart of Nice. We woke up at dawn, drove to a local airport in Strasbourg, jetted over the snow-capped Alps and landed by lunchtime.
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Hotel du Cap in Antibes
For our first stop, we decided to head to the famous Hotel du Cap in Antibes to catch a glimpse of high society. This historic hotel is where F. Scott Fitzgerald penned "Tender is the Night", where the Kennedys summered, where Chagall sketched beachside cabanas and where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton rendezvoused. More recently it's the spot where celebs hang out during the Cannes Film Festival and where paparazzi snap shots of Beyonce jumping off the seaside diving boards and cliffs into the Mediterranean Sea. Although the food is totally overpriced, we wanted to take in this piece of pop culture history for a few hours, so we set up a lunch reservation a month out.
We enjoyed walking the perfectly manicured grounds. We scoped out the cliffside salt water pool and the ropes, rings and diving boards extending out over the sea. We lazily watched the comings and goings to the yachts moored just off the resort. We enjoyed people-watching over rose wine, salads and sandwiches and taking in the quintessential glamorous scene until late afternoon. Then we drove inland toward Grasse--the world's capital of perfume. As we ascended into the mountains from the coast, we noticed the vibe change from glam to rustic. We checked into our lofted cottage and walked down a winding staircase into the town centre to explore.
Grasse is the home to three major perfume factories, including world-famous Fragonard. We gravitated more towards the small, organic perfumeries. We did a scent exploration testing with a local perfumer, and as we got to talking he let us know that the only place he'd visited in the US was Cleveland, Ohio. Funnily enough, his daughter attended a private high school near University Circle, and his only trip outside of Europe was to visit his daughter in Ohio. The more and more we travel, we realize just how small the world is and how the connections among people are unimaginable. After chatting for a bit with the perfumer and purchasing one of his small-batch scents, we circled the local market and tasted socca, a famous local dish that is a chickpea flower pancake, served hot out of a stone oven topped simply with salt and pepper. We finished our snack as we walked the winding medieval streets and climbed up the nearly 300 stairs back to our cottage.
Gorge du Loup
The following morning, we woke early and enjoyed a breakfast on the terrace, consisting of oven-fresh rolls and croissants, fresh-squeezed juice, fruit and tea. We hit the road and drove further into the mountains for wild swimming. Our first top was the Gorge du Loup, a densely wooded spot with waterfalls and river pools that are famous for canyoneering trips. We hung out for a bit, then continued our drive inland through the mountains. All along the drive, we were winding along cliffside highways, through stone tunnels and passing along tiny mountain towns. It was all picturesque and epic in scale. We pulled off the road to climb on a crumbling castle and admired views of a tiny town perched on the side of a mountain.
After a few hours of beautiful but challenging driving, we made it to our destination goal for the day: the Clue Aiglun, a series of gorges in the hills north of Cannes. In the Clue, water flowing down from the Alps sculpted grottoes and rock passages in pristine white limestone. We arrived at the spectacular road bridge spanning the gorge and climbed a steep path far down the gorge to the river, which was filled with almost neon turquoise mountain water. We spent hours diving into the crystal water, climbing on rocks and lounging in the jacuzzi-like rapids. At one point Dave stopped to remove a rock from his shoe and Erin scrambled down some rocks to find an alternative route down, so there was a bit of drama and panic when Dave thought Erin was carried downstream. Besides the little bit of a scare, we absolutely loved this spot. Due to its remote location and the sketchy hike to make it down, we were able to spend our entire time swimming, climbing and scrambling completely alone. This was absolutely one of the coolest stops in all of our travels.
Moustiers Sainte Marie
After Aiglun, we continued our mountain driving to Moustiers Sainte Marie, a town in Provence that is known as one of the most beautiful in France. The town sits atop a hill between two cliffs. A spring flows out of the cliffs and creates a waterfall in town, providing water power. A church sits atop the mountain overlooking town. Above the church, a gold-painted star hangs on a nearly 600 foot chain suspended between the two cliffs. Its origin dates back to the 10th century. According to the legend, during the Crusades a knight was held prisoner and vowed to hang a star over his village if he was able to return. No one knows how the star was originally hung there, but Dave theorized that a bow and arrow was used to connect the chain between the cliffs.
In Moustiers, we stayed at a renovated old mansion with original wood beams and slanted floors. The proprietor traveled the world and the place was filled with antiques from Asia, South America and Europe. We took some time to relax in our room and then hiked the hundreds of stairs up to the church, where we took in views of the town below and of the sun setting over the hills in Provence. At dinner, we enjoyed salmon risotto, chevre salad, and local beer and rose wine.
The following morning we drove 45 minutes to a trail head for the Imbut Trail hike into the Gorge du Verdon, also known as the Grand Canyon of France. At the base of the Gorge is a bright turquoise river. Different parts of the gorge are famous for swimming, boating and cliff jumping, but for the hike we headed to the most difficult part to traverse so that we would be able to take in the scenery without the summer crowds. We parked along side the Gorge 2,700 feet above the river and began the 6-hour Imbut Trail hike, which we were told features steep ladders, ropes and exposed cliffs.
We began the hike by climbing down a series of slippery rocks and loose pebbles down to the edge of the river. From there, we hiked up and down rocks and trees as we traced the path of the river. At one point the river flowed into a giant cave pool, filled with clear teal water and dotted with giant boulders. We scrambled onto the rocks, enjoyed a picnic of crusty bread and fruit and took a swim in the chilly alpine water. Resuming our hike, we came to a cliffside path with overhanging rocks. The path was only a couple of feet wide, and on one side was the rock face of the cliff and the other was a ledge looking down meters below into the rocky river. Built into the wall of the rock face was a metal chain, which we gripped tightly as we scooted along the narrow trail. We continued the hike, and in many parts we had to free climb or use built in ropes and ladders to continue on the path.
We've done a few crazy hikes before, including a wild climb down a waterfall in Havasupai, Arizona, but this was one of the most dangerous we've seen. Once we decided to ascend out of the gorge, we took a route called the Vidal trail, which has several sketchy features. The trail started with a vertical ascent up a rock face, aided only by a metal chain nailed into the stone. Once that portion was done, we had to climb a 70 degree ladder and then cling to tree roots to avoid falling down the cliffside below. We were both racing with adrenaline when we made it up out of the gorge, and we felt accomplished for making it up unscathed.
Boating the Gorge
After such an intense hike, we decided to take a more chill approach to viewing more of the Gorge, so we rented an electric boat and headed into the narrows via a nearby lake. We were pretty excited to cruise over the water, but once we turned the electric dial that brought the boat up to full speed, we realized that we would go faster on a paddle boat. Apparently, for safety and pollution reasons, all of the boats that enter the canyon are speed restricted. We glided slowly into the canyon and watched cliff jumpers and swimmers enjoying the beautiful water and surreal surroundings. After the boat trip, we headed back to Moustiers and enjoyed a low-key evening picnic in our room as we watched an epic sunset followed by a thunderstorm over the valley.
The following morning, after another delicious French breakfast of croissants, tea and fruit, we drove deeper into Provence to survey the lavender fields. Compared to the neatly-manicured rows of flowers in Holland, these lavender fields were more rustic and wild. Erin enjoyed a lavender-flavored ice cream and we picked up lavender honey, essential oils and soaps at a local farm. The entire region smelled amazing, and as we drove through the rolling hills of Provence we were amazed at the rows of bright purple lavender for as far as the eye could see. In a few spots, fields of lavender were directly adjacent to giant fields of sunflowers. densely packed and taller than us. We pulled alongside the road and wandered a bit in the fields of sunflowers and lavender, careful to avoid the swarms of bees ranging the abundant foliage.
From Provence, we drove further down to the coast to Saint Tropez. We were both a little frustrated with the traffic anywhere near the coast, but as soon as we drove out of the main part of Saint Tropez to Cap Taillat, we switched back into exploration mode. We parked our car along a small street and then hiked about 15 minutes along a rocky coastal bath to a series of flat white rocks and tiny coves opening up out into the turquoise sea. About 100 feet out, yachts and boats dotted the perfectly clear blue water. Since the spot requires a decent hike, we were able to get our own rocky area and cove all to ourselves. We spent the next few hours snorkeling, swimming and floating, watching the boats go by, snacking on salads, pretzels and bread and generally enjoying life.
There was a small boat selling ice cream and other treats to the people on the larger boats and yachts anchored nearby. The ice cream boat was captained by an older man, and the ice cream waitress was young, pretty and topless. The whole scene was very French, and we took in the scene watching the topless ice cream girl serve the boaters all around the sea.
We spent the day lounging in Saint Tropez and then made our way back to Nice for a 9pm flight. We were totally exhausted arriving back to Luxembourg after 2am including the drive home from Stasbourg, but we were grateful to be able to fit so much in to the four day trip. The South of France definitely lived up to expectations. We loved the mix of glamour and glitz with rustic charm and beautiful mountains and water. Next up, a short break in Lux, then heading to Croatia for some more summer fun.