I’M unsure what Pablo Picasso’s favourite food was. Perhaps he was simply happy to wolf a plate of pasta, washed down with a rustic red. He was a man of huge appetites but these tended towards artistic discovery and sexual conquests. His creative legacy, and his poster image, is all over Mougins and Vallauris, but these hill villages inland from the Cote d’Azur also lure those of us for whom fine cuisine can feel like a work of art, too.
'As we wandered its picture perfect cobbled lanes, which must be murder on the Manolo Blahniks, we were relieved to come upon a shabby little Casino store trading in life’s little essentials'
Take Mougins, where Picasso spent his final 12 years before dying there in 1973 (while entertaining friends to dinner, as it happens – no, I don’t know what was served). He had first visited in 1936 when he infuriated the owner of the hotel where he stayed by painting on the walls of his room. This unknown dauber was told to wipe it all off!
By the time of his return as a celebrated resident another village star was in the ascendant. In 1969, nouvelle cuisine pioneer Roger Vergé opened Le Moulin de Mougins in the lower part of the village, followed by L'Amandier (the Almond Tree), which made Mougins famous around the world. By the 1970s, it was the most MIchelin-starred village in France, with a total of 11 across various restaurants.
L’Amandier remains today, refurbished, with a new cookery school, but minus its stars, while Vergé is long retired. There is still a plethora of places to eat, drink and swank in what is a seriously rich, yet still picturesque bolthole. As we wandered its picture perfect cobbled lanes, which must be murder on the Manolo Blahniks, we were relieved to come upon a shabby little Casino store trading in life’s little essentials.
The Riviera’s rich harvest of raw materials is never far away, mind. They were setting up stalls for a weekend food festival. We were still basking in the memory of our own private food demo from a chef creating his own legend. Serge Gouloumè has held his Michelin star for 10 years at Le Candille.
It’s the gourmet restaurant at Le Mas Candille, a Relais & Chateaux hotel perched on the spectacular edge of the village, with views north to perfume capital Grasse and the mountains. Serge’s food is pretty spectacular, too, especially when consumed at an impromptu “chef’s table” in the midst of a Michelin kitchen at full tilt. Impromptu because the restaurant was hosting a corporate dinner and there was no availability for us.
We felt more than privileged to be fed a succession of signature dishes by the man himself and enjoy the sheer theatre of it all. The show stealers were a seafood nage, sprinkled with edible flowers and a tatin of foie gras and Armagnac. And, of course, the wine flowed. Rather too much of it after an afternoon complimentary bottle of champagne in our vast, colourfull suite that might, at Cannes Film Festival time, have hosted the likes of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie (it certainly felt like a film set).
Maybe they had next door in the six-suite La Villa Candille, which was our base. This 2009 addition to the widely spaced hotel complex lies below the original 18th century Mas (farmhouse) building with its 20 more traditional bedrooms, public rooms and terrace. The Bastide up the hill towards the Spa offers 19 rooms and a suite.
Ah, the Spa. The Shiseido Spa – the only specialist spa of its type in France, built around a Zen philosophy. While my wife rediscovered inner calm there in a world of scents, I lolled around the Pergola infinity pool and took in THAT view again, all the way to the Pre-Alps. Afterwards I sipped a Luberon white with the hotel’s owner, expat Mark Silver, whose father used to be Leeds United chairman. As the fragrance of lavender and rosemary drifted across the hotel terrace and the lights of Grasse twinkled in the far distance, Hunslet and Harrogate seemed an awful long way away.
Back to Mougins, once a Ligurian hill fort and Roman staging post; later a mecca for artists such as Cocteau, Leger and Man Ray; today the height of sophistication in a more commercial way. Alongside its 25 galleries the stand-out art experience is the Musee d'Art Classique de Mougins – the largest privately owned collection of art in the world.
Established by Christian Levett, a British businessman and collector, it opened in April 2011 and houses a host of Roman, Greek and Egyptian artefacts as well as the world’s largest private collection of weapons and armour. There are also, bizarrely, works by old masters and modern artists, such as Rubens, Degas, Rodin, Braque, Picasso – and on to Mark Quinn, Damien Hirst and Antony Gormley.
I rather preferred the simpler Musee de la Photographie Andre Villers next to the Saracen’s Gate, where besides vintage photographic equipment you’ll find a wealth of images by Villers of that man Picasso. In his time Le Lavoir was the village laundry; today it’s an exhibition for local artists, none of whom are as remotely challenging as the Spanish master. That keen amateur painter and regular visitor to Mougins, Winston Churchil often painted the village’s Chapelle Notre Dame de Vie, which is lovely.
Vallauris, five miles away, back towards the coast, was another place where Picasso made his home, making a studio out of a former perfumery, then reinvented himself as a creative potter. The Galerie Madoura, where he learned ceramic techniques, is still there. The village offers a parade of commercial pot shops these days, so be wary while window shopping. The Chateau de Vallauris houses Picasso pottery in the Musee Magnelli, Musee de la Ceramique (see Fact file).
By 1949 Picasso was losing interest in clay as a medium. In an effort to keep him there the village presented him with a bare deconsecrated chapel to decorate. The ambitiously monickered Musee National Picasso features a diptyque portraying war and peace that some consider a masterpiece. Others don’t. Make your own mind up.
Below sprawling Vallauris you are back on the chaotic coast along the Golfe de Juan and I for one found myself longing fondly for haughty Mougins and the delightful retreat that is Candille.
Don’t miss Part One of Neil Sowerby’s Riviera Road Trip: Antibes – Absinthe, Authors And Azure Allure
Le Mas Candille
Boulevard Clement Rebufel, F-06250, Mougins. Tel +33 (0)4 92 28 43 43. www.lemascandille.com.
5* boutique hotel, a member of Relais & Chateaux, with 38 bedrooms and seven suites.
Where: Mougins, Côte d'Azur, 5 miles from Cannes, 14 miles from Nice International Airport.
Facilities: 1 Michelin starred restaurant ‘Le Candille’ and 1 summer poolside restaurant ‘La Pergola’, Jacuzzi, 2 heated swimming pools (1 infinity pool), 2 meeting rooms, 10 acres of extensive gardens. A multi-award winning Shiseido Spa with 5 treatment rooms, hydrotherapy pool, sauna, outdoor jacuzzi, al fresco gym, private yoga terraces. Free Wifi, free parking. Set in 4.5 hectares of grounds.
Rates: Start at €305 for a classic room.
Until April 24, 2014 the hotel is offering a special Luxury in Provence package, costing 360 euros based on two people sharing. The luxurious one night stay includes a four course dinner with drinks, breakfast and use of the hotel’s multi-award winning Shiseido Spa facilities.
Le Mas Candille is among 520 Relais & Châteaux properties, recognising the finest hotels and restaurateurs worldwide. For reservations call Relais & Châteaux: 00 800 2000 00 02 (toll free) or visit www.relaischateaux.com. Alternatively, visit the Maison des Relais & Châteaux at 10 Beauchamp Place, Knightsbridge, London SW3 1NQ, where the English-speaking Relais & Châteaux team will be delighted assist with your holiday plans. The concept grew from the vacationing traditions of well-heeled French society, who traveled to a variety of "relais" (lodges) and "châteaux" (castles) which, while different in architecture, scenery and cuisine, presented consistently high standards.
Fares from London to both Avignon and Antibes start at £119 standard class return per person. To book, contact Voyages-sncf (formerly Rail Europe)on 0844 848 5 848, visit www.Voyages-sncf.com or call into their Travel Centre at 193 Piccadilly, London W1J 9EU. They are the experts in train ticket distribution, covering over 30 countries across Europe.
To make the breakfast time Eurostar train to Paris from St Pancras, Neil Sowerby stayed at London Central Euston Travelodge at 1-11 Grafton Place, a two minute walk from Euston Station and a further 10 minutes to St Pancras International Rail Terminal. www.travelodge.co.uk/hotels/344/London-Central-Euston-hotel. The Euston, like Manchester Central, is among the Travelodges revamped to include Dreamer Beds and other fresh facilities. Double rooms at Euston start from £78.
Museums of Art
Musée Picasso, Chateau Grimaldi, Place Mariejol, Antibes. Picasso once rented a cold, damp room here and left in lieu of rent works that became the foundation of today’s collection. The ancient seafront bastion is an atmospheric place to view an eclectic collection of other artists, including that other “local”, Nicolas de Stael.
Picasso Museum In AntibesMusee de la Photographie Andre Villers, Portes Sarazine, Mougins. +33 4 93 75 85 67. This link.
Musee d'Art Classique de Mougins., 32 Rue du Commandeur, 06250 Mougins, France. +33 4 93 75 18 65, www.mouginsmusee.com.
Musée National Picasso, La Guerre et La Paix, Place de la Libération 06220 Vallauris. +33 4 93 64 71 63 www.musees-nationaux-alpesmaritimes.fr/picasso/.
Musée Magnelli, Musée de la Céramique, Place de la Libération 06220 Vallauris. +33 4 93 64 71 83.
And for an escape from all that art and food, the Parc de la Valmasque, just off the A8 autoroute east of Mougins, offers the spectacular opportunity to watch the enormous flocks of migratory birds on the Etang de Fontmerle, fringed by lotus trees.
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