My mother always said she wanted to ‘die tidy’. But I never imagined she would file everything away quite so neatly as she did.
One drawer in her desk was given over to travel. It included a little Hermès box containing a leather docket given to her by Hotel-Du-Cap-Eden-Roc in Cap d’Antibes after she and my father spent their honeymoon there in 1950. It was a passport to the hotel, allowing them to go as day guests whenever they wanted for the rest of their lives. Which is pretty much what they did. They would spend two weeks every year in a B&B in St Jean Cap Ferrat and enjoy at least one day at Eden Roc (built in 1870 by the founder of Le Figaro newspaper), lounging by the pool with Cannes shimmering in the distance.
My wife and I turned up last year with the passport. We were treated royally, though not perhaps as royally as Princess Grace, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Elizabeth Taylor and Rex Harrison, all regulars during the South of France’s golden age.
Today, the whole of the Alpes-Maritimes is, well, different. It’s still exotic in its own moneyed way but we had not expected to come across quite so many Russians in flowery shirts accompanied by their mistresses in not very much at all.
Never mind. There’s still something reassuring about trundling along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. You might think the prickly French would want to rename it. Ideally, you rent a classic car and throw some leather suitcases in the back. Then it’s a case of imagining you’re either David Niven or Marilyn Monroe and having a ball, forgetting what the author Gerard Noel said of this part of the world: ‘The biggest stars, the greatest loves, the richest plutocrats — all treated with equal condescension.’
Once upon a time, Monaco, to the east of Nice, was part of the Alpes-Maritimes and it’s still a short drive along the scary coastal road. We didn’t quite make it there but we did stop in pretty Villefranche-sur-Mer, where most Sundays there’s a French equivalent of a car boot sale, but without the cars. We snapped up a couple of silver salts for peanuts.
Grasse — capital of the perfume industry — is due north of Cannes. It should come with an envy warning, because you’ll want to buy a villa overlooking the old town but you may not be able to afford it.
Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume was set here and it’s worth visiting the Parfumerie Fragonard to get an idea of how scents make it from Grasse to fancy bottles in shops all over the world.
Antibes itself is a pleasure. Sitting high up near the cathedral is the Grimaldi Castle, where Pablo Picasso (he lived here in the 1940s) holds court in a museum dedicated to his work. His paintings are fascinating and through the castle windows the whole gilded region fans out in every direction.
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Mark Palmer is travel editor of the Daily Mail.
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