It was a coup de coeur as the French say – a simple fisherman’s cottage with a panoramic view of the bay of Toulon – and we fell in love with it over 20 years ago. Since then, we’ve extended the cottage by buying the land next door and building a pool in the garden. The whole project took over five years, involved two teams of builders, as well as many local tradesmen. The French words for tiles, screws, taps, drains, insulation and electrical fittings tripped off my tongue after many visits to Point P or Leroy Merlin.
While our house was a building site, we moved to Monaco for a summer of fun with the Grand Prix and other festivals. Not so much fun during the winter months though, when half the residents fly off to the Caribbean or Asia and the shops and restaurants lack the seasonal flow of tourists. Sometimes we’d experience a kind of cabin fever and need to go out west to Villefranche or Nice or head east to San Remo for a day or two’s escape. With our love of sailing, we discovered, to our frustration, that there’s not much wind in Monaco, compared with Hyères in the Var, where the Coupe du Monde is held annually.
The euro dropped in value, increasing our building costs considerably and after two years with no end date in sight, we had to sack our Bulgarian builders and turn to a French family firm. On the up side, we had the opportunity to visit other parts of Provence, like the stone village of Gordes in the Luberon or the aqualine river and limestone cliffs of the Gorges du Verdon, north of Brignoles, where you can kayak or swim in a freshwater lake.
Other places we came to love were Les Baux de Provence near Arles where the strange rock formations served as the location for hell in the film Le Testament d’Orphée by Jean Cocteau and, closer to Toulon, we discovered Sanary-sur-Mer where numerous German writers such as Berthold Brecht, Arnold Zweig and Thomas Mann lived in exile during the 1930s.
I realised that it wasn’t just Grace Kelly, Brigitte Bardot and Picasso who had made the region famous – people from Petrarch to the Knights Templar, Queen Victoria to Coco Chanel and many other, far more interesting if less well-known personalities have lived or vacationed here, leaving an indelible impression.
While millions clog up the roads in the summer along the Riviera, there are fascinating places not too far from the usual haunts along the coast. You can visit the studio of the artist Paul Cezanne in Aix or the Papal apartments in Avignon or take a boat trip to the Chateau d’If near Marseilles, made famous in Dumas’s novel The Count of Monte Cristo.
Being a writer, a project suggested itself and I began by persuading my husband that we needed to have some outings to unusual places for lunch or even an overnight stay. It wasn’t long before he twigged that we were on some kind of a research trip, especially when I insisted on visiting museums or taking numerous photos of a particular statue. I gathered up all the snippets of information, the dozens of photos of the places I’d visited, the many tasty local recipes and created a handy guide with information about the people, places and food of the region.
CHERYL’S POP QUIZ: What one-time Riviera resident’s body was held for $600,000 ransom by grave robbers?
The iconic English comic actor and director of the silent film era, Charlie Chaplin, was best known for his portrayal of The Tramp, a character he launched in 1915. By 1918, age 29, he had his own studio and complete control over the making of his films.
In 1919, with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D. W. Griffith, he cofounded United Artists, which distributed his films. Director Rex Ingram, who had a studio in Nice, introduced Chaplin to the Riviera.
His films made in the 1930s became classics, yet Chaplin’s left-wing sympathies forced him to relocate to Europe during the McCarthy era in the early 1950s.
Chaplin was often a guest of Florence and Jay Gould at the Palais Méditerranée in Nice, and he lived in Cap-Ferrat in one of the oldest villas, Lo Scoglietto (now La Fleur du Cap), which he sold to David Niven in 1960.
On Christmas Day 1977, Chaplin died at his home in Switzerland; his body was stolen on March 2, 1978. When the family recovered the body 5 weeks later, they reburied the actor in a concrete grave to prevent further thefts.