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Vence – Provence – Alpes – Cote d’Azur, France

A Hinterland Escape Minutes from the Riviera

A microcosm of the arriere-pays, the rolling backcountry beyond the coastal Riviera, Vence was long a Provencal magnet for artists and writers. Nestled in the hills covered with pines, cypresses, and olive groves, it still attracts well-heeled visitors who want to escape the coast’s comme-des-sardines crowds.

Cognoscenti are attracted to the open-air market, regarded as one of the best in the region, and to Yence’s unpretentious every­day feel. The Matisse Chapel here is a 20th-century tour de force. After recovering from a long illness in 1948, Henri Matisse promised a Dominican sister, who was one of his nurses and sometimes his model, that he would dec­orate the Dominican Oratory connected to the home.

Brimming with enthusiasm, he began the Chapelle du Rosaire at seventy-seven and died three years after its completion. “Despite its imperfections, I think it is my master­piece,” declared Matisse after five years of work, “the result of a lifetime devoted to the search of truth.”

Visitors can prolong the experience by checking into the elite Château du Domaine St.-Martin, a handsome inn tucked away on a wooded hillside above the town. The secluded hostelry sits on the site of a 12th-century Crusader castle whose drawbridge and chapel still remain. The present structure was built in 1936 and, with its hillside villas, encom­passes 35 acres, with magnificent panoramas at every turn and a soothing pool area shaded by olive trees.

St. Tropez – Provence – Alpes – Cote d’Azur, France

A Nostalgic Myth That Never Dies

Brigitte Bardot lives. Since first arriving in 1956 to star in Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman, la Bardot has never left. A parade of nubile Bardot lookalikes, golden boys, and bon vivant wannabes fill the topless —and sometimes bottomless—beaches, some of the nicest and sandiest on the Riviera.

“The good old days” and their sybaritic hedonism have dimmed over the decades, but St.-Tropez has survived its fame, success, and ballooning summer crowds and has even become fash­ionable again. Its flirtatious charm remains evident, especially in the early-morning hours or off-months, when the light and innocence of this old fishing town can still be appreciated.

On the other hand, this craziest of resorts is all about its eccentric habitues and im­promptu street theater. Maybe Colette started it in the 1920s, when she scandalized the out­side world by going around with bare legs. It’s not the place to get away from it all. For non­pareil people-watching, turn up for breakfast—or apres-beach, when everyone has baked at the popular Plage Tahiti (where topless sunbathing is said to have originated) or at Pampelonne—at the portside Cafe Senequier command post on the Quai Jean Jaures.

This is the perennially “in” place to watch the parade of those in various aesthetic stages of beach and resort chic that they could never get away with back home. The St. Tropez glamour quotient remains intact, with flair and dare aplenty.

La Fondation Maeght – St. Paul de Venee – Provence – Alpes – Cote d’Azur – France

World-Class Art Collections in a Village Perche

St. Paul de Vence is a gem of a medieval pedestrian-only hill town north of Cannes, whose ancient charm is not lost despite high-season crowds. Step inside the cool galleries of the Fondation Maeght and be transported by one of the world’s most famous small museums of modem art, with views like no other.

Founded in 1964, this low-lying gallery and its breezy pine-shaded, terraced gardens showcase world-class works by Giacometti, Miro, Calder, Braque, Matisse, Kandinsky, and others. Many of the major 20th-century artists represented either lived in or regularly visited St. Paul de Vence, dining at the charming La Colombe d’Or and leaving behind their work to pay the bill.

The restaurant and inn, once little more than an informal bistro, is now one of the region’s most renowned, in part because it was the haunt of great artists and writers as well as for the original Chagalls, Picassos, and Legers that decorate the walls of the dining room. The rich and famous check in here, but to experience one of Provence’s perfect stopovers, stay at another small hotel of enormous charm—Le Saint-Paul, right in the heart of town.

Vieux Nice – Provence – Alpes – Cote d’Azur – France

A Beautiful Diva on the Sea

On balmy summer nights Vieux Nice—the medieval warren of the Old Town (called bahazouk in the Nigois dialect)—and the popular Cours Saleya buzz with a mix of young and old, locals and tourists. Although Nice is the fifth largest city in France, it has a small-town ambience, and the main market, Tuesday through Sunday, evokes the colors, smells, and wonders of the Provencal countryside just out­side town.

The golden era when Nice was Europe’s most fashionable winter retreat is reflected in the deep pinks and ochers of the town’s elegant Italianate architecture (Nice, after all, belonged to Italy; it was ceded back to France in 1860). The wedding cake Hotel Negresco, built in 1912 on the seafront in the grand style of a French château, is one of the Riviera’s great hotels and deserves a lingering visit.

Recently restored, this national landmark shimmers like a gem; the immense 19th-century Baccarat crystal chandelier in the Salon Royal was commissioned by a Russian czar. The Gobelin tapestries on the wall seem too big to be real, but they’re the real thing. Rooms facing the Bay of Angels have balconies overlooking the fabled Promenade des Anglais, where a twilight stroll reminds you why the Cote d’Azur is still the coast with the most.

Mougins – Provence – AIpes – Cote d’Azur – France

Gastronomic Center of the Riviera

Another idyllic day on the Riviera, another authentic “perched village,” with wandering cobbled lanes and open-air markets that smell of fresh herbs and cut flowers. Mougins is particularly charming, despite having been discovered decades ago, and has remained surprisingly untrammeled.

Today it has become a gastronomic center for the Riviera as the home of Le Moulin de Mougins, the internationally renowned restaurant of Roger Verge, the master chef who helped put Provencal cuisine on menus around the world. (Picasso was the unrivaled local celebrity until Verge arrived.)

In an atmospheric 16th-century olive oil mill surrounded by palms and mimosas, Verge creates what he calls his cuisine du soleil; a traditional, simple, but modernized cuisine using the aromatic herbs, spices, and sun-ripened vegetables of Provence, mostly from Verge’s own garden. After 35 years, the affable chef and his wife, Denise, will pass the torch to the well-known Alain Llorca, who promises continued suc­cess.

A handful of guest rooms are available for people who refuse to eat and run. The decor bears the infallible touch of Madame Verge, whose aesthetic influence is evident everywhere in her husband’s hilltop empire.

Les Baux-de-Provence – Provence – Alpes – Cote d’Azur, France

A Splendid Medieval Citadel

Cardinal Richelieu once called Les Baux-de-Provence a “nesting place for eagles.” Framed by the sheer rock ravines of the Val d’Enfer (Valley of Hell), Les Baux’s lonely position on a windswept plateau overlooks vineyards and thousands of olive trees (some planted by the Greeks and Romans) that produce some of the best limited-production wines and olive oil in the south of France.

Les Baux’s amazing collec­tion of narrow, climbing streets and medieval and 16th- and 17th-century stone houses are now home to local craftsmen who sell their wares to a steady stream of tourists. In the 17th century, Cardinal Richelieu, under orders from Louis XIII, was responsible for the destruction of what remains of the Viile Morte (Dead City); the ruins of this 13th-century cliffside castle and ramparts outside the main town are a romantic vestige of Les Baux’s glorious past.

Tucked between the crags below, the princely L’Oustau de Beaumaniere restaurant is housed in an old Provencal manor house in a verdant oasis. Dining under the vaulted ceil­ings or on the terrace, overlooking the sylvan duck ponds and partaking of L’Oustau’s fabled wine cellar are culinary experiences of a high order.

Eze – Provence – Alpes -Cote d’Azur – France

High-Altitude Views from a Favorite Aerie

As you approach Eze at 1300 feet above the cobalt-blue Mediterranean, you may forget that this scrupulously restored medieval town was designed for military defenses, not tourist dollars. It is the highest of Provence’s perched villages and one of the most visited.

An extraordinary sight, clinging to a cone of sky-born rock, Eze’s stopped serpentine alleyways and flower-decked cobbled passageways are home to artisans and antiques dealers catering to the tourist trade. Eze’s Jardin Exotique (Exotic Garden) boasts an exceptional collection of cacti – and everywhere, those views! High inspiration seems to come with the altitude. Friedrich Nietzsche, a regular visitor, wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra in Eze; a mule path wending down to the sea is now known as Sentier Nietzsche (Nietzsche’s Path).

After the last day-tripper leaves, guests at the Château de la Chevre d’Or have much of the tiny town to themselves. They will feel like pampered guests in the stunning home of a wealthy friend. Few pools have a view like this one, and if you’ve checked into the Medieval Suite, your private terrace and alfresco Jacuzzi share the same panorama.

In a postage-stamp-size enclave such as Eze, it is surprising to find a second extraordinary operation, namely the Château Eza, a 400- year-old building refurbished in the 1920s by Prince William of Sweden. Today it is a luxury hotel with a noted chef and an outdoor dining terrace so hand­some that it can make you forget the wonderful food. (Dining is even finer at the Château de la Chevre d’Or, although the restau­rant is enclosed.)

Ballymaloe House – Shanagarry, Cork, Ireland

The Best of Irish Country Life and Good Eating

A rambling 19th-century house built into the ruins of a medieval castle draped in wisteria, Ballymaloe is the password for “coziest inn in Ireland.” Myrtle Allen has lived here since 1947, raising her six children and slowly building a reputation—first national and then international—as an inspired self- trained cook, cookbook author, and born host­ess.

Most kitchen ingredients (except for the signature fresh fish offerings direct from nearby Ballycotton Harbor) are from Allen’s famous orchards, gardens, and 400-acre work­ing farm that surround the country house. The ancient gatehouse and stables have been con­verted into large, comfortable guest quarters (Mrs. Allen tries to book guests into rooms that suit them best).

In a nearby converted apple barn, Darina, her ebullient daughter-in-law (herself a well-known cookbook author and leading authority on Irish food) runs the country’s first and most important cooking school (more than thirty courses are offered yearly, from one day to several weeks each).

Ballymaloe (“place of honey” in Gaelic) owes its special conviviality to the enveloping welcome of the extended Allen clan and family-like staff who cre­ate an elegant, but very unhotel-like atmosphere, “divorced from snobbery” as Myrtle Allen would say while describing her simple country-house cooking.

Longueville House – Mallow, Cork, Ireland

Every Day a Home-Grown Feast

Some claim chef William O’Callaghan is the most important force working in the Irish kitchen today. How appropriate that he is given carte blanche at Longueville House, his family’s ancestral Georgian mansion. On the family’s recently, Longueville boasted Ireland’s only vineyard, making its own limited production of a fine Riesling-like wine in this land enam­ored of beer and whiskies.

The entire O’Callaghan family is on hand to oversee a highly professional operation: Longueville is both smooth and casual. The hotel’s award ­winning Presidents’ Room restaurant is lined with the portraits of Ireland’s past heads of state; those still alive show up in person when in the area. The finger bowl set will not be dis­appointed, nor will those looking for the exceptional weekend or special occasion. The O’Callaghans have called this splendid man­sion home since 1720. Before that their ancestors, the Ua Ceallachains, resided in the 16th-century castle whose crumbling ruins can be seen on the grounds, at the foot of a grassy hill near the banks of the Blackwater River, the Irish Rhine.

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Assolas Country House – Kanturk, Cork, Ireland

One of the Best for Peace, Quiet, and Good Food

Winner of the much-coveted National Gardens Award, the postcard- perfect Assolas welcomes guests like family—one couldn’t hope to be treated more royally than at the memorable meals orchestrated in the red jewel-box Queen Anne dining room. The 17th-century vine-covered Assolas is run by consummate hosts: it has been the Bourke family home for generations, and it is impos­sible to guess when it began welcoming paying guests.

The simple charm and beauty of this lovely corner of County Cork should not be taken for granted. Young chef and co­-owner Hazel Bourke approaches her cooking with an appreciation for the strength of sim­plicity. Using only local and absolutely fresh ingredients, many from the house’s walled garden, she serves everything as straightfor­wardly as possible: the result is always superb.

Kanturk sits right in the middle of Ireland’s finest dairy region and provides Bourke with an excellent selection of farm-fresh cheese and dairy products: try her simple and simply wonderful cream of celery and lovage soup. For all its elegance, Assolas is also relaxed and homey: the waterproof boots at the door are for guests to use on an afternoon’s walk around the estate’s beautiful grounds in the Irish mist.