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A CENTURY OF THE COTE D’AZUR

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Now give us lands where the olives grow,

Cried the North to the South,

Where the sun with a golden mouth can blow

Blue bubbles of grapes down a vineyard-row!

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Cried the North to the South.

--Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1861

As Browning lay dying behind her celebrated Casa Guidi windows, she summed up in her last poem the sentiments of northern Europeans for the sun, the soft and perfumed air, the old stones of the Mediterranean world . . . longings satisfied first in Italy and later along the south coast of France.

In fact, it was the chill-blained Britons who “created” the French Riviera, beginning with the writings of Sir Tobias Smollett and then the powerful presence of Lord Henry Peter Brougham, England’s Lord Chancellor.

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In 1834 he was on his way via Provence to a holiday in Italy, but was turned back at the port of Antibes because of a cholera epidemic, and so stopped in a small fishing village named Cannes. During the next 34 years he introduced his fog-free find to friends in the English aristocracy.

This year the Riviera is celebrating its 100th birthday as the Cote d’Azur, having been so baptized in 1888 by a civic functionary and sometime-poet of Dijon named Stephen Liegeard. He was moved by the beauty of its light and setting and, no doubt, by the smartness of winter visitors who paraded in elegant carriages from villa to villa and casino to casino, dressed to the nines.

It was the English colony, crowding closer and closer to the sea, that in 1820 constructed a waterfront path in Nice known today as the Promenade des Anglais.

The hill towns behind and above the coast sing a siren song to me, in part because they remain--with a few famous exceptions such as St. Paul de Vence--relatively remote from tourism.

So I boarded the 10:41 a.m. high-speed TGV train in Paris’ Gare de Lyon for the seven-hour ride south to Nice via Lyon, Toulon, St. Raphael, Cannes and Antibes.

I had planned to use two luxurious hotels as headquarters for prowling: the year-old Vista Palace in Roquebrune (which I had visited when it was a restaurant named Vistaero), high on the Grande Corniche above Monte Carlo and Menton, and the Chateau du Domaine St. Martin in Vence.

I had promised a friend I would seek out the village of Sospel and the Musee d’Art Naif in Nice, as well as a couple of hill towns new to me. The most efficient and reasonably priced way to do it was with the new France Rail ‘n’ Drive pass.

Summer days are long in France (Paris is on the same latitude as Newfoundland), and twilight was nowhere around when I arrived at the Nice-Ville station, picked up the keys to a waiting rental car and started nosing my way through traffic, heading for the hills.

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The resort town of Roque-brune-Cap-Martin (population 11,246) spreads east along the coast from Monte Carlo. It’s the toniest suburb of Menton. More intriguing is the old hill village of Roquebrune that grew up around the oldest feudal--and only Carolingian--castle in France.

I was bound, however, for my isolated aerie, the Vista Palace, pointing out from the Grande Corniche like a ship’s prow sailing off into the sky.

That night I dined at its Vistaero restaurant as traffic swirled far below in spaghetti strands of light, beautiful but insignificant at the feet of soaring, blue-black peaks.

From Menton the Castillon Pass Road runs through the lemon groves of the Carei Valley, through Menton Forest, then winds up and over the pass (2,320 feet), finally cruising into the Bevera Valley and Sospel.

Trucks ahead of me choked along the narrow way, bruising the banks of gold, red and lavender wildflowers, and for a mile or so a dog kept speeds low by dancing back and forth in front of a Peugeot he seemed to regard as a playmate.

Suddenly, Sospel: I stopped under the plane trees of the Place des Platanes across the street from Bar-Snack Freddy. A gray-haired, aproned madame opened the door of her Fruits-Legumes store, slammed it definitively and closed the curtains. Silence. It was the sacred hour: lunch.

The lure of the little town is in part, surely, due to its almost stage-set prettiness: the medieval stone bridge spanning the Bevera River, the rank of pastel houses rising along the left bank, the winding streets and alleys near St. Michael’s Church on the right bank, and St. Michael’s, surprisingly large and opulent, with beautiful gilding and trompe l’oeil frescoes.

Antiquity lies deep in the nearby Alpes-Maritimes. Archeologist Jacquetta Hawkes considers the cave of Le Vallonet, at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, perhaps the oldest inhabited site in Europe. Stone tools have been found there more than a million years old.

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From there I drove on to La Turbie in search of a Roman milestone.

It was the habit of Rome to put milestones along the military roads of the empire. The first--Miliarium Auren, in gilded bronze--was placed in the heart of the Eternal City. (A Roman milia was 1,000 Roman paces, or a 1,760-yard mile.)

After Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, several troublesome Alpine tribes remained to be subdued, and the task of pacifying them was left to Augustus. In time the Via Julia Augusta extended from Genoa to Cimiez, capital of the new colony, and beyond.

In 6 BC Augustus allowed the senate and people of Rome to commemorate his deeds by constructing a “trophy,” Milestone 604, at the point where the major road crossed the Alps. The village of La Turbie grew up around what is today the Trophee des Alpes, taking its name from the Latin, Tropea Augusti.

The Trophee des Alpes is 164 feet high, 125 feet wide and is topped by a classical, circular Doric colonnade that supported a statue of Augustus the Modest. Today, 2,000 years later, its mutilations partially restored by the generosity of American businessman Edward Tuck, it still knocks your socks off.

One brilliant morning it was time to leave the Vista Palace and check into the Chateau du Domaine St. Martin in Vence, after the promised detour to the Musee d’Art Naif (of Naive Art) in Nice.

This museum ranks among my favorite small ones anywhere. It is home to a donation of about 600 paintings and drawings of the late Yugoslav collector Anatole Jakovsky. It represents artists from 27 countries, all of whom are capable of a charming, child-like wit (often a delightfully wicked one) as they translate to canvas the face of France.

I was still chuckling as I drove through Vence and up to Domaine St. Martin, which sits in a 35-acre park hung above a Provencal valley alive with cypress and olive trees, pines and oleanders. From the terrace of my apartment I looked out over 60 miles of Cote d’Azur and breathed in what the French call le calme .

The main attraction in Vence is the remarkable Chapelle Rosaire (the Matisee Chapel), in which artistry and religious vitality meet.

Although the town has mushroomed into a metropolis among hill towns (population: 13,500), I like it. I like sipping at a sidewalk cafe in the Place du Grand-Jardin. I like ambling the streets of the Old Town and photographing the Place de Peyra, the former Roman forum.

I was in search this time of quieter corners, though, and so the first morning headed for Carros.

Carved Out of Rock

Unbelievable. Carros, only 15 miles from Nice (but almost straight up) and 10 miles from Vence, is a stone relic seemingly carved out of rock. You know it’s antique France when there’s no sidewalk cafe nearby and nobody sells Kodak film.

Then it was on to Tourrette-sur-Loup, where tall and thin old houses form a rampart, a veritable defense work, so that one is tempted to drive right through and not stop at all. That would be a mistake.

Tourrette represents the most effervescent example of a decaying medieval town. A few years ago, craftsmen of the creative-but-not-cute persuasion began to move in. Now it’s a center of workshops for, among others, weavers, potters, painters, ceramists and workers in olive wood.

I walked the semicircular Grand Rue where shop windows display ceramics of wondrous diversity, puppets, marionettes, weird children’s clothes, soaps, masks and caprices in olive wood.

A sign on a house just off the center square (the only place one may realistically park) states that operatic composer Francis Poulenc spent summers there during the 1950s while completing “The Dialogue of the Carmelites.”

On an evening of transcendent blue light I went back to the Avis-Nice-Ville station and boarded the Train Bleue. At precisely 9:14 p.m. we eased down the tracks, picked up speed and began clipping along the old English high road.

I unwrapped my Nice-style pan bagnat , opened a bottle of Cote de Provence, pulled down the window, snuggled under the covers and felt the breath of the new century of the Cote d’Azur on my face.

In the morning, there was Paris . . . again.

-- -- --

Transportation tips: Rental cars are expensive in France. Right off the top a 28% tax is charged as part of the Common Market value-added tax system. A plan that provides more economy is the France Rail ‘n Drive Pass, available for seven or 15 days. In cooperation with Avis, it allows four days of train travel and three days of driving within one week; the 15-day pass has nine days of rail and six driving days.

Basic train travel is in second-class, although a first-class upgrade is available, and the Avis car will be of the A (most economical) category unless, again, an upgrade is requested and paid for. TGV travel is permitted with the pass, and several bonuses are included in the pass: transfers to and from Paris and Orly or De Gaulle airports, discount on a Paris city tour, half entrance fees to more than 100 monuments and memorials and some Paris museums, discount on a Seine River cruise, unlimited transportation on the Paris Metro-RER and RATP buses.

You may get a Rail ‘n Drive Pass through a travel agent. The agency officially designated by the French National Railroads to sell the passes and provide travel information is Wilson’s Travel, 9373 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills 90210; (213) 272-5124. To be valid, use of the pass must begin within six months of purchase.

One of the great benefits of this pass, in addition to the cost, is that you can use the train on long, tiring legs such as Paris-Nice, then poke around on back roads in your rented car.

The France Rail ‘n Drive Pass is priced as follows, per person for two traveling together: second-class, $129 for seven days, $219 for 15 days; first-class, $149 for seven days, $259 for 15 days. In comparison, a first-class train seat from Paris to Nice, one way, is $128 with no car.

The 70 rooms and suites of the Vista Palace all boast views of the sea, and have marble baths, private safe-deposit vault and bedside control panel for not only radio, TV, alarm and worldwide clock, but for opening the door, drawing the curtains, extending the awnings, etc. The Corniche Club offers a fitness center, health resort, squash courts, golf practice range, archery range, heated pool carved out of the cliffs, small bar and the Provencale restaurant.

Room rates from 900 to 1,000 francs a night single, 1,100-1,200 francs double; double suites from 1,400-2,500 francs and apartments with various amenities, 3,200-4,000 francs. Address: Grande Corniche, 06190 Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France. For reservations, contact a travel agent or Warner Distinguished Hotels, 307 Fifth Ave., New York 10016; (212) 725-1510.

The Chateau du Domaine St. Martin offers 15 rooms at the chateau and 10 suites in villas. It has a heated pool and two tennis courts. Bedrooms and public areas are decorated with Persian and Flanders carpets and antique furniture pieces. (Credit cards not accepted.) Chateau rooms cost 1,300-2,030 francs, suites 2,350-3,120 francs; the dining room rates one rosette in the 1988 Michelin guide. Address: Route de Coursegoules, 06140 Vence, France. For reservations: via your agent or Relais et Chateaux, David Mitchell & Co. Inc., 200 Madison Ave., New York 10016; (212) 696-1323.

A pleasant, somewhat less expensive find in Nice is Westminster Concorde, 27 Promenade des Anglais. It has 110 redecorated rooms at 500-900 francs, a good restaurant and terrace.

Some less rarefied hotels, but nevertheless worth recommending: Hotel des Etrangers, Boulevard de Verdun, 06380 Sospel (39 rooms, about 160 francs); L’Auberge Provencale, Route de Menton, 06380 Sospel (lovely hillside setting, 10 rooms, 150 francs); Le Napoleon, 06320 Cap-d’Ail/La Turbie (24 rooms, 250 francs); Floreal, 440 Avenue du Rhin et du Danube (43 rooms, 400 francs). A fine retreat, and member of the Relais du Silence group near Vence in La Colle-sur-Loup, is Marc Hely (14 rooms, beautiful garden, 250-350 francs).

For more information on travel to France, contact the French Government Tourist Office, 9454 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 303, Beverly Hills 90212; (213) 271-6665.


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