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IMG_0945 - 2013-04-15 at 11-16-18On the Monday of our trip I booked a private tour of the hills beyond Nice with Mira, whose company Friend In France provides transfers and tours in the French Riviera. Without Mira I would never have been able to squeeze in as many activities as I did that day – and her expertise and knowledge proved invaluable for me to get the most out of my time.

IMG_0843 - 2013-04-15 at 10-03-33Mira picked me up at the apartment at nine in the morning and we began by driving the forty minutes to Grasse – the “perfume capital of the world”. Grasse represents half of France’s perfume production and grows two-thirds of France’s ‘natural aromas’, due to the rich, fertile fields of flowers such as lavender, jasmine and rose which grow nearby. I haven’t read it but apparently the last few chapters of Patrick Suskind’s novel Perfume take place here. There are three main perfumeries open to the public in Grasse: Molinard, Galimard and Fragonard. Grasse is also the place where Edith Piaf died in 1963.

IMG_0793 - 2013-04-15 at 09-11-06I visited the Cathedral, Notre Dame du Puy, which dates to the 11th century. It is built of white chalk stone called “stone of la Turbie”.

IMG_0796 - 2013-04-15 at 09-12-37The nave. The vault of the nave shows early Lombardian rib crossings. There are twelve pillars, one representing each of the apostles. There are no buttresses outside, so the walls are 1.7 metres thick to hold the weight of the vaulting.

IMG_0798 - 2013-04-15 at 09-14-39The old lady who volunteered there was very pleased that I asked, in my halting French, where the Rubens were – I’m not sure many tourists seek them out.  She pointed to the three paintings to the right of the aisle and counted un, deux, trois – The Thorn Coronation, Sainte Helene and the Ecstasy of the Holy Cross,  and The Foundation of the Cross.

IMG_0824 - 2013-04-15 at 09-27-19The bell tower.

IMG_0822 - 2013-04-15 at 09-26-51The view from behind the cathedral.

IMG_0829 - 2013-04-15 at 09-33-46Narrow streets.

IMG_0839 - 2013-04-15 at 09-55-44This the Chappelle de l’Oratoire, built in 1632.

IMG_0857 - 2013-04-15 at 10-22-13Next we drove further into the hills to visit the tiny hilltop village of Gourdon. It overlooks the Vallee du Loup and is 760m above sea level. If you look carefully to the right of the picture you can see the donkey trail that zigzags down into the fertile farmland below.

IMG_0887 - 2013-04-15 at 10-39-20Gourdon is charming and very small.

IMG_0918 - 2013-04-15 at 10-50-33There were some shops and a few cafes getting ready for the midday trade.

IMG_0924 - 2013-04-15 at 10-56-29There are also craftsmen and the homes of the villagers. There is a castle with a wonderful garden too, but they are no longer open to members of the public.

IMG_0915 - 2013-04-15 at 10-49-45The highlight of Gourdon is the panoramic view from Place Victoria.

ViewFromGourdonIf you click on the picture it should open in another window (it’s a very big file but worth wait for it to load), then you can click again to enlarge. In the centre of the picture on the horizon, just to the right of the large mountain, is Nice, then all the western towns of the Cote d’Azur, including Antibes, Cannes and beyond to St Tropez, stretch out to the right.

IMG_0953 - 2013-04-15 at 11-26-59We then left Gourdon and travelled along the Gorges du Loup Road. Mira slowed the van on a bend so that I could take a couple of shots of this waterfall from the window.

IMG_0952 - 2013-04-15 at 11-26-50I’m pretty impressed that I got these shots from a moving vehicle. The waterfall is called Le Saut du Loup.

IMG_0954 - 2013-04-15 at 11-42-00Next on the itinerary was another hilltop town: Tourrettes sur Loup. It is the only town whose main industry is the cultivation of violets. There are also many artisans who live and work there.

IMG_1031 - 2013-04-15 at 12-18-42The bell tower.

IMG_0980 - 2013-04-15 at 11-54-51Steep winding streets.

IMG_0988 - 2013-04-15 at 12-03-29Quaint houses.

IMG_0990 - 2013-04-15 at 12-04-09Another gorgeous view.

IMG_0968 - 2013-04-15 at 11-51-12And a perfect spot for lunch!

IMG_1034 - 2013-04-15 at 12-36-59Time to rest my feet and enjoy a glass of wine, or two.

IMG_1045 - 2013-04-15 at 14-18-21After my lunch, Mira and I continued on to the Matisse Chapel du Rosaire just outside of Vence. Unfortunately you cannot take photos inside but you can see plenty here. Also, depending on what country you are in, you may be able to watch this six minute piece on YouTube about it, which is worth watching. At the end of his life, the artist Matisse designed and built this chapel for the Dominican nuns who had nursed him through his illnesses. It was his last, and he said his greatest, work.

IMG_1044 - 2013-04-15 at 14-18-04The gardens also have a wonderful view of Vence. I’m not sure if they are open to the public, as I entered through a gate next door where workmen were doing some building.

IMG_1116 - 2013-04-15 at 14-55-51Next we travelled to the Fondation Maeght, just outside of Saint Paul de Vence. Opened in 1964, it is a private museum of contemporary art founded by Marguerite and Aime Maeght, who were wealthy art collectors.

IMG_1054 - 2013-04-15 at 14-38-20It was such a fascinating place, with art both inside and out.

IMG_1178 - 2013-04-15 at 15-07-56There were works by Giacometti, Ellsworth Kelly, Leger, Braque, Chagall and many others.

IMG_1152 - 2013-04-15 at 15-03-27Just wonderful, and so peaceful amongst the trees and the hills.

IMG_1105 - 2013-04-15 at 14-53-14There are also contemporary art exhibitions in some of the spaces. Until June 16 there is a Gloria Friedmann exhibition.

IMG_1259 - 2013-04-15 at 15-44-11The final stop on my tour was Saint Paul de Vence.

IMG_1238 - 2013-04-15 at 15-39-20Another hilltop town, this one is crammed full of shops selling local artisan works, art and antiques.

IMG_1236 - 2013-04-15 at 15-38-50Place de la Grande Fontaine.

IMG_1220 - 2013-04-15 at 15-35-12Stone paved streets. This is the Rue Grande.

IMG_1257 - 2013-04-15 at 15-42-39Houses in the peaceful courtyard of La Placette.

IMG_1252 - 2013-04-15 at 15-42-06Flowerpots.

IMG_1285 - 2013-04-15 at 15-52-24The church.

IMG_1288 - 2013-04-15 at 15-53-12Inside.

IMG_1264 - 2013-04-15 at 15-44-59At the very end of the town is the cemetery where Marc Chagall is buried.

IMG_1199 - 2013-04-15 at 15-27-48St Paul de Vence is a fortified town but just outside the walls is the Place de Jeu de Boules where petanque is played on the dusty square.

IMG_1190 - 2013-04-15 at 15-25-18Opposite is the famed La Colombe d’Or, a restaurant frequented by famous artists such as Matisse, Picasso, Chagall and Leger. Many artists dined there before they were famous and paid their bills by giving the owner artworks which are now worth a fortune and still on display there.

IMG_1299 - 2013-04-15 at 15-59-07It was closed but I sneaked a peek through the door onto the terrace. Notice the sculpture of a thumb to the left.

It was almost five o’clock and time for Mira to take me back to Nice. It had been a terrific day and I had worked up a great appetite. Luckily we were booked in to Luc Salsedo, where we had the best dinner we have ever had on the French Riviera!