The following itinerary lists a range of site visits which we plan to visit. Many are accessible to the public, but some require special permission. The daily activities described in this itinerary may change or be rotated and/or modified in order to accommodate alterations in opening hours, flight schedules and confirmation of private visits. Participants will receive a final itinerary together with their tour documents. The tour includes breakfast daily, lunches & evening meals indicated in the detailed itinerary where: B=breakfast, L=lunch and D=dinner.
Menton - 5 nights
Day 1: Wednesday 7 September, Nice Airport – Menton
- Arrival transfer for participants arriving on the ASA ‘designated flight’
- Short Orientation Walk
- Light Evening Meal
Participants arriving on the designated flight will be transferred from Nice Airport to the Hotel Napoléon in Menton. Situated on the French Riviera, Menton is nicknamed ‘the pearl of France’. Writers discovered this charming town a long time ago. Dante came here when in exile from Florence. Guy de Maupassant loved it and called it “warmest and healthiest of winter residences”, and when doctors recommended its climate to the sick, it attracted tubercular patients from around Europe. Among them were Laurence Sterne, Katherine Mansfield, Chekhov, Nietzsche, Swinburne, Aubrey Beardsley, Robert Louis Stevenson (who was inspired by the town to write his essay Ordered South) and Nabokov – they all came in hope of a miracle, but they did not find it. Queen Victoria, Blasco Ibanez (who created there a garden of ceramics dedicated to important writers) and Agatha Christie were other, though healthier, literary visitors. Samuel Beckett lived in Menton too and, appropriately for the author of Endgame, his street is the last one in France – it ends at the Italian border.
This evening we will take a ‘promenade’ to see, as did Katherine Mansfield, “the houses all bright in the sun”. We then enjoy our first group dinner at a restaurant near the sea. (Overnight Menton) D
Day 2: Thursday 8 September, Menton – Monaco – Menton
- Princess Grace Library, Monaco
- Guided tour of Menton incl. the Salle des Mariages (Wedding Room) by Jean Cocteau
The earliest recorded writer-tourist to Monaco was Casanova, who was there in 1763 (typically, he recorded amorous adventures). Scotsman James Boswell was carried in a sedan chair up the steep hill; Guy de Maupassant sailed there on his luxury yacht, as did Edith Wharton. Petrarch, Smollett, Hans Christian Andersen, Vita Sackville-West, Colette, Proust and Paul Theroux have all been in Monaco. Karl Marx felt nature had been improved by art there, and Baroness Orczy wrote over 20 novels when resident there. Some writers came to gamble – Chekhov, Arnold Bennett, Graham Greene, Dorothy Parker and Ian Fleming, and they also created fictional gamblers in Lily Bart (The House of Mirth), Bertram (hero of Greene’s Loser Takes All) and James Bond. Little wonder that W. Somerset Maugham called Monaco “a sunny place for shady people”. Virginia Woolf entered the casino and found the gamblers a “rather sordid crew, with their faces all set and expressionless … They had something peculiar. One couldn’t place them.” The same look is on the faces of gamblers playing there today.
In 1955 one visitor to Monaco, an American film star, had a meeting with Prince Rainier. One year later she married him in the cathedral and became Princess Grace of Monaco. Canadian poet Robert Service, who lived there, wrote a poem to celebrate the wedding, as did Jean Cocteau. The last book Princess Grace read before her death in a car crash was Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers, and it was Burgess who suggested that the Prince set up a library to house the hundreds of books and manuscripts about Ireland that she had collected in her lifetime. The Princess Grace Irish Library was opened in 1984. We will visit the library and see its treasures.
This afternoon, we do a walking tour of Menton (nicknamed ‘the pearl of France’). Our tour will make us imagine we are people convalescing in Menton during the Belle Epoque era, an age when royals, artists and writers came to spend the winter and improve their health.
Jean Cocteau was a remarkable man – poet, novelist, playwright, painter, designer and filmmaker, and friend to Proust, André Gide, Picasso, Coco Chanel, Marlene Dietrich and Edith Piaf. He was an exponent of the avant-garde. He spent a great deal of time in Menton over the years, and we will visit the Jean Cocteau Wedding Room, a room in the City Hall which Cocteau decorated with frescoes in 1957 and 1958. He chose the furnishings, carpets and even the doors, and illustrated it all with a theme of ‘Love’. (Overnight Menton) B
Day 3: Friday 9 September, Menton – Antibes – Cap d’Antibes – Juan-les-Pins – Châteauneuf-Grasse – Menton
- Walking tour of Antibes, including the Musée Picasso, Château Grimaldi
- Cap d’Antibes scenic drive
- Lunch at Hôtel Belles-Rives, Juan-les-Pins
- Jardin de la Villa Fort France, Châteauneuf-Grasse
This morning we explore the historic Old Town of Antibes and the Musée Picasso in the Château Grimaldi. Picasso arrived in 1946 and stayed for 6 months, and the museum now holds one of the world’s finest collections of his art.
Then, we take a scenic tour of the Cap d’Antibes, stopping to admire the bust of Victor Hugo gazing out to sea, the wonderful view from Plateau de la Garoupe, the homes of Graham Greene (who, in spite of his wealth, roughed it in a one-room apartment), Scott Fitzgerald and Nikos Kazantzakis (author of Zorba the Greek).
We lunch in a luxurious hotel, Hôtel Belles Rives at Cap d’Antibes, Juan-les-Pins. Located right on the beach, it was where Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald stayed in 1926: “On the pleasant shore of the French Riviera, about half way between Marseille and the Italian border, stands a large, proud, rose-coloured hotel. Deferential palms cool its flushed facade, and before it stretches a short dazzling beach”, he writes in Tender is the Night. Many writers were seduced by the charm of Cap d’Antibes, including Greene, Nabokov, Hemingway and Verne. W. Somerset Maugham wrote a brilliant story, The Three Fat Women of Antibes which is set in a hotel there, and involves a lot of eating! Scott loved dining there – he once lured a local band inside the villa, then locked them in an upstairs room and tossed away the key. The band was forced to play dance music all night for Scott and Zelda’s guests, before finally being allowed to depart at sunrise.
After lunch, we drive up in the hills near Grasse, overlooking the Côte d’Azur, to visit the garden of the Villa Fort France. The original owners, Lady Winifred Fortescue and her husband Sir John, an archivist and military historian, bought it in 1935. Lady Fortescue wrote a best-selling account of her struggles to create her home there entitled Perfume from Provence, which was illustrated by A.A. Milne. She followed this success with two further books written when she moved to Opio: Sunset House and Trampled Lilies (which recounts her time during the war years). The rose garden she created was expanded to form the current garden by Jeanne Gruniaux, who continued to advise the present owners Pierre and Valérie de Courcel until her death. The de Courcel have added their own deft and artistic touches to create a lovely garden full of colour, much of which comes from a superb use of annuals (poppies, larkspur, love-in-the-mist and aquilegia plus a sweet pea hedge). (Overnight Menton) BL
Day 4: Saturday 10 September, Menton – Saint-Paul-de-Vence – Vence – Menton
- Walking tour of Saint-Paul-de-Vence
- Maeght Foundation
- Matisse Chapel, Vence
Saint-Paul-de-Vence was once a frontier post facing Savoy. Today its 16th-century ramparts offer views over a delightful landscape of cypresses, red-roofed villas and palms, and it is one of the most visited hill villages near Nice. It proved a magnet to artists – Picasso, Signac, Bonnard and Modigliani came and often paid for their rooms with paintings, resulting in the priceless collection there today. Marc Chagall is buried in the cemetery. Galleries and studios still dot the village today. It also attracted writers – Colette, Sartre and De Beauvoir, and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. American novelist James Baldwin came in 1970, Yves Montand purchased local property and poet Jacques Prévert lived in the village for several years.
We will take a walking tour with a local guide who will conjure up Jacques Prévert’s memory through readings, reveal to us the links that Chagall had with the area, and tell us the stories of the literary and artistic visitors and residents, past and present. The local restaurant ‘La Colombe d’Or’ has, over the years, attracted many writers and famous people. The Fitzgeralds fought here, Richard Wright and Jacques Prévert often dined there, and artists decorated the walls in lieu of payment for their meals.
After lunch, we visit the Marguerite and Aimé Maeght Foundation, which hosts an exceptional collection of twentieth-century works. Writer André Malraux, then Minister of Cultural Affairs, inaugurated the Foundation on July 28th 1964. It is a unique example of a private European art foundation. This architectural ensemble was entirely conceived and financed by the Parisian art dealers Aimé and Marguerite Maeght to display modern and contemporary art in all media. Painters and sculptors collaborated closely in the realization of the complex with Catalan architect Lluis Sert by creating works, many of them monumental, that were integrated into the building and its gardens: the Giacometti courtyard; the Miró labyrinth with sculptures and ceramics; mural mosaics by Chagall and Tal-Coat; a pool and stained glass window by Braque, and a Bury fountain. We shall enjoy its collection of paintings, sculptures, drawings and graphic works by artists such as Bonnard, Braque, Calder, Chagall, Giacometti, Léger, and Miró.
Nearby Vence is where D.H. Lawrence came to die in 1930. He had hoped the high altitude would cure him and went first to the sanatorium. His wife then optimistically took a 6-month lease on a local house – Lawrence died a day after getting there. Matisse moved there towards the end of WWII, and designed and decorated a chapel. Evelyn Waugh called it “the Matisse public lavatory cocktail bar chapel”, but Sylvia Plath knelt to pray in its “pure white heart” and loved it. We will visit the chapel. (Overnight Menton) B
Day 5: Sunday 11 September, Menton – Villefranche-sur-Mer – Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat – Menton
- Villa Ephrussi, Cap Ferrat
- Chapelle Saint-Pierre by Jean Cocteau, Villefranche-sur-Mer
- Jean Cocteau Museum, Menton
Somerset Maugham once described Cap Ferrat as “the escape hatch from Monaco for those burdened with taste”. The town dangles like an earring from the Riviera coastline and today some of the most sumptuous villas on the Riviera are to be found there, including Maugham’s own Villa Mauresque, where he entertained Kipling, T.S. Eliot, Arnold Bennett, Churchill, H.G. Wells, Cocteau, Dorothy Parker, Ian Fleming and Noel Coward. One of those villas is the Villa Ephrussi, the terracotta and marble mansion that belonged to the Baroness Ephrussi de Rothschild. It is furnished as she left it, with items that belonged to Marie Antoinette, paintings by Fragonard and superb tapestries and paintings. There are 9 gardens, each with a different theme, which we will explore before having lunch in the tearooms overlooking the water. This villa was part of the fabulous Ephrussi heritage described so memorably by Edmund de Waal in his book The Hare with Amber Eyes.
We then stop at Villefranche-sur-Mer with its 16th-century citadel, historic port, and majestic sweep of shoreline. Cocteau decorated a chapel there, working on it from morning till night for 6 months. “Villefranche shaped my youth”, he once told his friend Coco Chanel. After lunch at leisure, we will admire Cocteau’s chapel.
We return to Menton to visit the Jean Cocteau Museum which includes 990 works by Cocteau. All of the artist’s key periods are represented, from the first self-portraits of the 1910s up to the ‘Mediterranean’ period towards the end of his life. There are drawings, prints, paintings, ceramics, tapestries, jewellery, books and manuscripts and 172 photographs relating to Cocteau. There are also works by fellow artists Picasso, Modigliani, Di Chirico and others. (Overnight Menton) B
Aix-en-Provence - 4 nights
Day 6: Monday 12 September, Menton – Cagnes-sur-Mer – Villeneuve-Loubet – Aix-en-Provence
- Musée Renoir – Domaine des Collettes, Cagnes-sur-Mer
- Lunch at local restaurant, Villeneuve-Loubet
- Fondation Auguste Escoffier, Villeneuve-Loubet
This morning we travel to Cagnes-sur-Mer, now a suburb of Nice, where we visit the Renoir museum, displaying 17 sculptures in plaster and 2 original paintings. Renoir moved there hoping to cure his arthritis. Cézanne and Modigliani also visited this charming medieval fishing village.
We have lunch at a local restaurant. Our second visit of the day is to the Escoffier museum in Villeneuve-Loubet. Auguste Escoffier, who was born there, is the founder of French haute-cuisine, a culinary writer who updated and popularised traditional French cooking methods. The museum is in his childhood home, and contains historic cooking equipment (some invented by Escoffier), his menus and even chocolate sculptures. Escoffier created Pêche Melba in honour of Australian soprano, Dame Nellie Melba. We continue our journey to Aix-en-Provence. (Overnight Aix-en-Provence) BL
Day 7: Tuesday 13 September, Aix-en-Provence
- Guided tour of Aix-en-Provence on the footsteps of Cézanne and Emile Zola
- Atelier Cézanne, Aix-en-Provence
- Afternoon at leisure
This morning we visit the studio of one of the world’s great painters, Paul Cézanne. Dickens visited Aix, Provençal poet Frédéric Mistral went to school and Marcel Pagnol attended university there, and it was Émile Zola’s home town. As a boy he became friendly with Cézanne, and the two enjoyed long excursions where Paul would paint and Émile would write. In Zola’s fiction Aix becomes Plassans, a quiet provincial town in The Conquest of Plassans. The studio gives a fascinating glimpse into the life of a great artist, an artist who also inspired a novel, Zola’s The Masterpiece. From the nearby Terrain des Peintres (Painters Park), we shall enjoy views of Mont Sainte-Victoire, painted so often by Cézanne.
The rest of the day will be at leisure for you to enjoy Aix-en-Provence, the ‘city of a thousand fountains’. (Overnight Aix-en-Provence) B
Day 8:Wednesday 14 September, Aix-en-Provence – Marseille – Aix-en-Provence
- Musée des Beaux-Arts
- The Old Port area of Marseille
- Château d’If, Marseille
- Bouillabaisse dinner, Marseille
We set off this morning for Marseille, once a Greek settlement founded in 7th century BC. It is France’s largest port and second-largest city, and is exotic and lively. Dickens opens his novel Little Dorrit with a brilliant scene set at the Marseille port on a very hot day: “Everything in Marseille, and about Marseille, had stared at the fervid sky, and been stared at in return, until a staring habit had become universal there. Strangers were stared out of countenance by staring white houses, staring white walls, staring white streets, staring tracts of arid road, staring hills from which verdure was burnt away.” The city has many other literary associations – Rimbaud had his right leg amputated in a Marseille hospital, Joseph Conrad lived there for 3 years and gained his first experiences of seamanship and loved eating “bouillabaisse ladled out into a thick plate” in its cafes, Edmond Rostand (author of Cyrano de Bergerac) was born there in 1868, Simone de Beauvoir taught at a local school, and Senegalese novelist Sembène Ousmane set his book Black Docker in the city where he himself had worked at the docks.
Dominated on one side by the old town, ‘Le Panier’, and on the other by the church of Notre-Dame de la Garde, our walk reveals the city’s ancient Greek and Roman origins. Nearby we also visit the recently renovated Musée des Beaux Arts in the 19th-century Palais Longchamp where the highlight is a fine collection of nineteenth century French art including works by Daubigny, Courbet, Corot and Millet.
After lunch, we take a boat from the port out to a small island made internationally famous by Alexandre Dumas – the island of If, where the Château d’If is located. The château was built in 1524 and became a state prison. One inmate was Mirabeau, revolutionary, writer and journalist, who was locked up for debt. But the most famous prisoner is a fictional one – Edmond Dantès, Count of Monte Cristo in Dumas’ novel. We will visit the cells where he and the Abbé Faria lived so many years: “a room almost underground, whose bare and reeking walls seemed as though impregnated with tears”.
Dinner will be enjoyed in Marseille, where the bouillabaisse so enjoyed by Conrad is still a speciality. (Overnight Aix-en-Provence) BD
Day 9: Thursday 15 September, Aix-en-Provence – La Treille – Aubagne – Aix-en-Provence
- Nature walk in the steps of Marcel Pagnol
- Lunch at Le Cigalon restaurant, La Treille
- Maison Natale de Marcel Pagnol, Aubagne
This morning, we follow in the footsteps of Marcel Pagnol. “As soon as we left the village the enchantment began and a love that lasted all my life was born. Immense scenery in a semicircle arose before my eyes up to the sky”, he wrote in his autobiography. As a boy he walked the hills with his friend Lili des Ballons, as a man he used this terrain for his fiction and his movies. La Treille, perched high above Marseille, was where he spent holidays and is the model for his fictional village Les Bastides Blanches. He loved the local springs (so important to the plot of Jean de Florette), and he now lies in the little cemetery near La Treille. Our walking tour in this magnificent countryside will include superb panoramas, places used in his films, readings from his works and, as an added artistic bonus, views of Mont Sainte-Victoire, painted so often by Cézanne.
Our lunch will be in Pagnol’s ‘Le Cigalon’. In the 1935 film Le Cigalon, written and directed by Pagnol, Cigalon is a chef who refuses to cook for anyone who will not appreciate his cuisine. The woman next door opens a restaurant and serves anybody, which means Cigalon has to ask her to marry him!
We then drive to the pretty town of Aubagne, just out of Marseille, where we visit Marcel Pagnol’s birthplace. Marcel Pagnol was a novelist, playwright and filmmaker and was the first French ‘cinéaste’ to be elected to the Académie française. All his work was influenced by the language, society and culture of his native Provence. His best known books are Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources (which have both been filmed). Following this visit, we return to Aix-en-Provence. (Overnight Aix-en-Provence) BL
Mazan - 3 nights
Day 10: Friday 16 September, Aix-en-Provence – Lourmarin – Ménerbes – Lacoste – Mazan
- Walking tour of Lourmarin on the steps of Albert Camus and Henri Bosco
- Lunch at Restaurant La Bastide de Marie, Ménerbes
- Village of Lacoste and the Castle of Marquis de Sade
Lourmarin is listed as one of the most beautiful villages of France. It has a castle, winding streets, great views and, most importantly, famous writers. Albert Camus, Nobel Prize winner, lived and wrote in Lourmarin, as did novelist and biographer Henri Bosco. Both men are buried in the cemetery. We will follow their footsteps through this charming village.
Lunch will be just outside of Ménerbes, a walled village. Peter Mayle (who now lives in Lourmarin) described his time here in A Year in Provence, which made the place incredibly popular with the British. The restaurant, La Bastide de Marie, is situated in the vineyards of the Luberon Valley.
Lacoste, located just a few kilometres away, was a stronghold for the Resistance in WWII. The town bridge is a 1st-century Roman bridge, which was closed to traffic in 2005. The last person to cross was Irish writer, Finnbar Mac Eoin. In the 18th century the castle at Lacoste was inhabited by the Marquis de Sade, who had to flee after various scandals. It is now the site of a theatre and is owned by Pierre Cardin. From the castle, one can enjoy superb views over the surrounding valley and village below.
We will stay for the next three nights in a very special hotel. Château de Mazan, a honey-toned château at the foot of Mt Ventoux, was built about 1720, in the French Regency period. It was the notorious Marquis de Sade’s family estate (his father and uncle were born there) and it was here that the Marquis organised France’s very first theatre festival in 1772. He usually acted in his own plays and was very innovative in his theatrical works. (Overnight Mazan) BL
Day 11: Saturday 17 September, Mazan – Maillane – Fontaine-de-Vaucluse – Mazan
- Musée Frédéric Mistral, Maillane
- Picnic lunch
- Walking tour of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse
- Musée-Bibliothèque François Pétrarque, Fontaine-de-Vaucluse
- Time at leisure: Optional visit to Musée d’Histoire Jean Garcin: ‘L’appel de la Liberté’, Fontaine-de-Vaucluse
- Dinner at Château de Mazan
This morning we visit the small town of Maillane, home of Frédéric Mistral, Provence’s most important poet and winner of the Nobel Prize in literature. When he was born on a farm just outside of town, his mother wanted to call him Nostradamus, but the authorities wouldn’t let her! We will visit the Mistral Museum to learn about this poet, translator, lexicographer (in the Occitan language) and ethnographer. He was a champion of Provençal culture, writing his own poems in Provençal, then translating them into French for a wider audience. His home was always in Maillane, and he was visited here by authors, Presidents and celebrities. He is buried in the Maillane cemetery.
Fontaine-de-Vaucluse has a natural wonder – an underground stream that comes out into daylight through a great hole in the cliff, forming a lovely pool. Petrarch came to brood over his love for Laura and be inspired and this has made it a place of pilgrimage for other romantics. Chateaubriand visited in 1849, Henry James was charmed by the “vast sad cliff, covered with the afternoon light, still and solid forever, while the liquid element rages and roars at its base”, but hated the commercialisation he saw going on there. We will visit the spring and also the Petrarch Library which contains valuable editions, drawings and stamps, as well as information on artists of the area.
In the afternoon there is time at leisure to explore the local history museum which recounts the story of this part of France during the Occupation, the Resistance work done by local heroes, their clandestine publications, and information about artists and writers involved in the struggle against the Nazis.
Tonight we dine at Château de Mazan. During pre-dinner drinks you will hear about the infamous Marquis and his contribution to literature. (Overnight Mazan) BLD
Day 12: Sunday 18 September, Mazan – Pont du Gard – Fontvieille – Saint-Rémy-de-Provence – Mazan
- Pont du Gard
- Walking tour on the steps of Alphonse Daudet, Fontvieille
- Saint-Paul de Mausole monastery, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence
- Château de Brantes, Sorgues: Garden tour, Provençal dinner and Classical music concert
In the morning we visit the Pont du Gard, one of the best preserved of all Roman aqueducts. Its survival testifies to the building skill of the Romans, for the massive blocks of which it is fabricated have remained in place despite the fact it is a dry stone construction using no cement.
We then drive south and across the Rhône river to reach Fontvieille. Alphonse Daudet was a prolific author and, in his day, very successful. Today he is best remembered for his comic Tartarin novels, and also for his evocative Letters from my Windmill. It was at a windmill in Fontvieille that he found spiritual peace: “That mill was in ruins. A pile of stones, iron, and old boards that had not been aired out in years that lay, with its limbs broken, useless like a poet… I loved it for its pitiful condition.” It became a symbol of his attachment to Provence.
A short walk away is the Castle of Montauban, where Daudet was a frequent guest: “Blessed home! … How many times, in winter, did I come here, to breathe the healthy airs of our small Provençal hills, return to nature, and cure myself of Paris and its fevers.” We will take this walk to see that ‘blessed home’, and visit the Daudet Museum to learn about his prose and poetry, his sad life and his inspirations.
Our next stop is Saint-Rémy-de-Provence where we visit the monastery of Saint-Paul de Mausole. Van Gogh stayed there from 1889 to 1890 as a self-admitted patient. He had two cells with barred windows, one of which he used as a studio. The clinic and its garden became the main subjects of his paintings. Some of his works from this time are characterised by swirls, such as The Starry Night. Due to limited access to life outside, Van Gogh also worked on interpretation of other artist’s paintings such as Breton, Courbet or Millet. In 1890 he left the clinic for Auvers-sur-Oise where he killed himself two months later. The monastery still functions as a psychiatric hospital today.
We then make our way to the Château de Brantes, located just outside the village of Sorgues, for a special evening tour and reception. The garden, which has the oldest magnolia tree in France (1780), was designed by the Danish landscape architect Mogens Tvede in 1956. The château, listed as a historic monument in 1987, is surrounded by an extensive plane-tree wood, and features a series of basins through which flows the river Sorgues. After a guided tour through the park and garden, we enjoy an al fresco Provençal buffet dinner, followed by delightful classical music concert given under the magnolia tree by a duo of professional harp and flute musicians. (Overnight Mazan) BD
Sète - 2 nights
Day 13: Monday 19 September, Mazan – Arles – Aigues-Mortes – Sète
- Musée de L’Arles Antique (Museum of Antiquities), Arles
- Saint-Trophime and its cloister, Arles
- Theatre and Amphitheatre, Arles
- Medieval town of Aigues-Mortes
“I wish I could have stayed longer”, wrote Flaubert after his visit to Arles in 1840. “These Roman monuments are like a skeleton whose bones stick out here and there through the ground.” He also admired the women of Arles, whom he thought particularly beautiful. Like Flaubert, we will be tourists in Arles, and will discover the wonders of this ancient city on the Rhône. We will visit the amphitheatre, the theatre, the Romanesque St Trophime church, the outstanding archaeological museum, and admire the statue of Mistral.
Daudet often came to visit his friend Frédéric Mistral in Arles. He thought the place “one of the most picturesque in France”, and the two men sat in cafes eating eel stew. Arles has also attracted artists, notably Vincent Van Gogh, who arrived in 1888. He wandered around reading Daudet and Zola – their literary landscapes influenced his art just as much as the real ones. He knew Letters from my Windmill almost by heart. Gauguin came to visit him in Arles, but the two men fought. Then Van Gogh cut off his ear and presented it to a prostitute. Tragically, his life ended in 1890.
The perfectly preserved walled town of Aigues-Mortes was once an important port. It was established in the 13th century by Louis XI to consolidate his power on the Mediterranean. This became a starting point for the Crusades. We will travel to the village across the famous salt marshes of the Carmargue, with their wild and beautiful scenery, flamingos and wild horses. In Deadly Camargue by Cay Rademacher Capitaine Roger Blanc has to solve the mystery of how a cyclist came to be gored by one of the black bulls of the region.
Aigues-Mortes was the birthplace of 18th-century French playwright Emmanuel Theaulon. Ernest Hemingway honeymooned with his second wife Pauline at nearby Le-Grau-du-Roi, and used Aigues-Mortes, a place he loved, as the setting for his unfinished and posthumously published book The Garden of Eden. In the novel, the village becomes a hotbed of tension when young writer David Bourne and his glamorous wife Catherine experiment with sexual identity and both fall in love with the same woman. It is fitting that today there is a ‘Rue Ernest Hemingway’ in the village. His friend F. Scott Fitzgerald also holidayed in this area.
We continue to Sète, a fascinating small town on the French Mediterranean coast. The site is wonderful. Sète encircles a lone hill, the Mont St-Clair, on the otherwise flat Languedoc coast. It is all-but an island with the sea out front and the Thau lagoon behind (a vast expanse of salt water, colonised by oyster- and mussel-beds). Between the two, a network of canals brings the scramble of port and fishing activity right into the town centre. (Overnight Sète) BD
Day 14: Tuesday 20 September, Sète – Montpellier – Sète
- Musée Fabre, Montpellier
- Place de la Comédie and lunch at leisure in Montpellier
- Afternoon at leisure in Sète
This morning we drive to Montpellier. This is a vibrant town because of its university – established in 1289, it is one of the oldest in the world. Petrarch, Rabelais, Nostradamus and Paul Valéry are amongst its alumni. About a third of the town’s population consists of students. Here we will visit the Musée Fabre. In 1802 the painter François-Xavier Fabre gave the town 30 paintings which formed the basis of its collection. Other fabulous donations followed, and in 1968 Madame Espeyran gave her home to house the art works. Additions and modernisation took place recently (the 61.2 million euro renovation was completed in 2007) and today the museum holds a choice collection of Dutch, Flemish, French and Italian paintings, some Fauvist works, ceramics and sculpture.
After lunch at leisure in the egg-shaped Place de la Comédie, we make our way back to Sète where Italianate houses with their wrought-iron balconies overlook the Grand Canal. There will be time to make the climb to the Cimetière Marin where poet Paul Valéry is buried, or to explore the quirky Musée International des Arts Modestes which displays everyday objects in amusing new contexts. The remainder of the day is at leisure. (Overnight Sète) B
Florac - 3 nights
Day 15: Wednesday 21 September, Sète – Sainte-Eulalie-de-Cernon – La Couvertoirade – Florac (Cévennes)
- La Couvertoirade, Templar & Hospitaller village
Our day begins with a scenic drive into the Cévennes National Park, where we will enjoy the last very special days of our tour. En-route, we shall explore Templar territories in the Larzac region to the east of Albi, visiting Sainte-Eulalie de Cernon, their regional headquarters (commanderie), and their stunningly picturesque fortified village of La Couvertoirade.
Sainte-Eulalie de Cernon occupies a deep valley between ridges of the Larzac. It is the best-preserved Templar commandery in France, having been established by the Order in 1159, and then taken over by the Hospitallers when Philip IV eliminated the Templars.
La Couvertoirade, in a wildly beautiful setting, deep in the Larzac on the edge of the Cévennes National Park, was a Templar stronghold until the fall of the Order, when it also was taken over by the Knights Hospitaller who built the village’s curtain wall between 1439 and 1450. This wall still stands, and within it are a church, a small château, and a number of lovely old houses.
We shall also dine at a small restaurant in La Cavalerie, another fortified Larzac Templar site, halfway between Sainte-Eulalie de Cernon and La Couvertoirade. Our drive to Florac takes us over the impressive Millau Viaduct. We will stay in Florac which Stevenson described as having “an old castle, an alley of planes, many quaint street-corners, and a live fountain welling from the hill”, and “notable for handsome women”. The owner of our hotel, Monsieur Paulet, is also its chef, and he will introduce us to the culinary specialities of the region with a short talk about local foods. Stevenson dined on tinned meat, bread, cheese and chocolate – we shall dine in a greater comfort and style. (Overnight Florac) BLD
Day 16: Thursday 22 September, Cévennes NP
- Exhibition ‘Travels with Robert Louis Stevenson’, Florac – presented by the Association ‘Sur le Chemin de Robert Louis Stevenson’
- Nature walk with a donkey, in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson
- Mont Lozère scenic drive – Pont-de-Montvert
We spend the next two days exploring the Cévennes National Park in the company of local expert mountain guide Anne Nourry, Vice President of the Association ‘Sur le Chemin de Robert Louis Stevenson’.
The Cévennes are a range of mountains in south-central France, part of the Massif Central. There are deep gorges, rocky bluffs and panoramic views. In 1878 a young Scotsman wandered into the area, accompanied by a donkey. Her name was Modestine, and she was stubborn and recalcitrant. His name was Robert Louis Stevenson, and he was making the journey to gather material for a book. He slept out, and invented an early model of the sleeping bag for warmth, and underwent a gruelling 12 day journey which left him, and the donkey, exhausted. We will not follow Stevenson for 12 days, and we will travel in greater comfort, but we will enjoy a walk in this spectacular region and we will even be accompanied by a donkey (who will naturally answer to the name of Modestine for the day!). Our walk will be a true literary pilgrimage! As a result of his journey, Stevenson published one of the classic travel books of all time, Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes. It was also one of the very first books to present hiking and camping out as recreational activities.
The route he followed has today become one of the most popular hiking trails in France, thanks in part to the work of the Association ‘Sur Le Chemin de Robert Louis Stevenson’, which was established in 1994 to develop the trail for tourism. The Association has put together an exhibition entitled ‘Travels with Robert Louis Stevenson’ featuring images, photographs, drawings and texts from and about Stevenson that illustrate his travels across France and highlight the writer’s international connections. Our guide Anne will guide us through this exhibition that has been set up in time for our visit.
We shall also take a scenic drive to the summit of Mont Lozère to view the Pic de Finiels which rises 1699m, highest peak in the Cévennes National Park. It offers some stunning natural scenery and is covered by coniferous plantations and moorland. In the heart of the National Park is Pont de Montvert, a pretty granite village with Neolithic standing stones, associations with the Knights Hospitaller, ancient cattle market, and an interesting Huguenot history. Stevenson passed through and thought the place “wore an indescribable air of the South”. He admired the waitress Clarisse who served him lunch, and reflected on the history of the Camisards (the Huguenots who were persecuted) while he ate. (Overnight Florac) BLD
Day 17: Friday 23 September, Cévennes NP
- Boat excursion through the Gorges du Tarn
- Causse Méjéan & Roc des Hourtous viewpoint
- Belvédère des Vautours (Vulture Lookout), Gorges de la Jonte
- Farewell Dinner
This morning we explore the great Gorges du Tarn, an impressive canyon cut by the Tarn through the harsh limestone plateaux south of the Massif Central. After driving along the gorge, we then take a boat excursion down the Tarn as it winds through the most spectacular section of the valley, passing through Les Détroits, the most beautiful and narrow section of the canyon, between towering vertical cliffs of up to 400 meters, through to the Cirque des Baumes, where the gorge widens forming a magnificent amphitheatre. The history of the boatmen and the boats of the Gorges du Tarn is tied to the area’s rugged geography and since at least the 14th century, the boat has been the primary means of getting around in the canyon. In the late 19th century, the first tourists arrived in the Gorges du Tarn by the new Paris-Béziers railway; hotels were created in the villages, and the first boat tours were offered.
Robert Louis Stevenson came well before other tourists and was greatly impressed by the landscape and the castles along the way. Stevenson struggled to find a place to camp as the terraces were so narrow. He washed in the river – “It was marvellously clear, thrillingly cool; the soap-suds disappeared as if by magic in the swift current, and the white boulders gave one a model for cleanliness.” He felt at peace beside the Tarn.
We next travel up onto the limestone plateau of the Causse Méjéan stopping to enjoy the spectacular view from the Roc des Hourtous, which towers 500m above the narrowest part of the Gorges du Tarn: Les Détroits. Following a picnic lunch we travel to the western edge of the park, where the Gorges du Tarn meets the Gorges de la Jonte. Here we visit the Belvédère des Vautours, an interpretive centre and viewing point for the many vultures that nest in the gorge, mostly Griffon Vultures, but now also Black Vulture. With the aid of national park officers, we may view their nests, and watch individuals and groups perched on the dramatic gorge walls. Two decades or so ago these giant airborne scavengers were almost extinct in the Cévennes. Now, thanks to a successful reintroduction program, some 75 pairs breed in the national park. Following a majestic aerial ballet performed by 30 or so vultures we return to our hotel and enjoy a farewell meal together.
When Stevenson finished his incredible journey, he wept. Perhaps we will follow his example as we end our tour with a group dinner at the hotel. But there will be cheering food and wines as consolation and we will have wonderful ‘souvenirs’ of our journeys in Southern France to take home with us. (Overnight Florac) BLD
Day 18: Saturday 24 September, Florac – Nîmes. Tour Ends.
Our last morning, we travel by coach to Nîmes. Following the spectacular scenic route of Corniche des Cévennes, we briefly stop at Col Saint-Pierre where Stevenson’s trail crosses our road one last time. We then continue our descent to Nîmes, birth place of Alphonse Daudet, to the TGV station, where you will be able to take a high-speed train to the airport or next French destination. B