Although not the most familiar name on the Riviera, this medieval village has plenty to lure you away from the glamorous resorts
I could never tire of the Côte d’Azur: a golden thread of sensory delights with its sentries of fragrant pines, the relentless chirrup of cicadas, chic boutiques, bouillabaisse and the sparkle of an impossibly blue sea. Neither, it seems, can the millions of tourists who flock here each year.
But few look beyond the cosmopolitan glitz and glamour of the coastal resorts and head inland to a lazier, quainter and altogether more French way of life. Just 13 kilometres north of Cannes and 25 minutes’ drive from Nice airport, Valbonne is one of my favourite inland villages on the Riviera; still considered part of this exclusive strip of coastline, but refreshingly removed from its frenetic activity – the very place to take a stroll.
The village was founded in 1519 alongside a 12th-century abbey and, influenced by Roman military camps, was laid out along a grid pattern, in contrast to the spiral layout of many of its neighbours. Two principal perpendicular avenues converge at a forum known as Place des Arcades. Today this attractive, quintessentially Provençal square, with its cheery pastel facades and parasols shading café tables from the midday heat, is Valbonne’s beating heart. Traffic is banned for much of the time, so it is just the place to while away a happy afternoon of people-watching with a citron pressé. Historical clues are etched and scrawled everywhere: the arcade of the prominent Hotel Les Armoiries is engraved with ‘1628’.
Wander from the square down any of the side-streets and you’ll find ochre stone houses with porches smothered in vines or exuberant bougainvillea, doors with lintels decorated with the emblems of penitents and journeymen, and the occasional snoozing cat. On Friday mornings, though, the village is shaken from its slumber to host a busy market, considered one of the best in the area. Spilling from the square on to the surrounding streets is a veritable riot of scents and colours; stalls are crammed with mushrooms and gleaming olives, rubbing shoulders with bunches of lavender and jars of local honey. Nibble your way around here and you almost won’t need lunch.
At the bottom of the village stand the 12th-century Église Saint-Blaise, its attached monastic abbey, the Moulin des Moines (now a restaurant) and ancient carved stone monuments. The abbey has been painstakingly restored and, together with its integrated museum proudly displaying Valbonne’s heritage, is the place to make for if you want to immerse yourself in history. The village is also noted for its many art galleries and creative workshops (especially for ceramics, pottery and glass) and has hosted several major exhibitions. A busy cultural calendar blends modernity with tradition in the form of numerous festivals: antiques, theatre and wine-making.