With the announcement of this year’s A-level results, it has come to light that there has been a 10% drop in the number of students studying foreign languages. Enquiries are currently being made into the possible reasons for this but I hope it is not for the simple -and rather ignorant- reason that ‘everywhere else speaks English’. Having studied French at University and being an adequate speaker of the lingo of France, I hope this is not going to be an ongoing trend amongst school pupils. The ability to speak French comes up more often than I ever imagined it would in my daily life and there seem to be fewer people than I expected who have the skill to parler français. As Editor of the Sawday’s French Special Places to Stay guides (based in Bristol), I used French on a daily basis, since moving to another job where my French was not a prerequisite I have been summoned by various colleagues to carry out an eclectic mixture of translation tasks. These include legal translation, tweeting in French, booking a B&B, acting as an interpreter for market research interviews and sourcing a mooring for a yacht on the French Riviera.
This last task led me to pen a petit memoir about one of my most favourite French regions and the time I spent there ‘inspecting’ quirky B&Bs, self-catering boltholes and charming hotels in southern France as Editor of Sawday’s Special Places to Stay French guides. To any students out there who may think there is no point in studying a foreign language, here is just one of the many adventures my language skills have afforded me.
Read on for a one-woman adventure across the realms of Provence…
The landscapes, light and warmth of the Côte d’Azur have enchanted artists (Chagall, Picasso, Dufy), rich folk and British Royalty (Queen Victoria for one) for years. From the rugged sun-scorched mountains to the cobalt waters of the coast, in my few days on the Côte d’Azur I was charmed with delectable food and wine, lavender-perfumed air, buzzing streets, medieval towns, and wonderfully friendly people wherever I went.
In a flurry of excitement and nerves as before every inspection trip, I set off for the glitz and glamour of the French Riviera. Of all the regions I have visited in France, this is definitely one of my favourites and I marvelled at the fact that my job description required me to seek out the ‘special’ in this picturesque and fragrant land.
Arriving to a balmy twenty-eight degrees, I placed my trust in a satellite navigation system and winded and wended up narrow roads along the side of a great gorge, deep into the green hills towards my first inspection. A quite terrifying experience with a GPS that intermittently recognized roads (French postcodes are not as exact as English ones) and local drivers who seem to think nothing of overtaking on blind bends!
Villa Estelle: Propped up on the side of one of the prettiest streets I’ve ever seen, is this gorgeous B&B. Once the old inn or ‘auberge’ for the town where painters would once have stayed (and still flock), this charming B&B is opened up in the evenings for drinks so the locals can enjoy this wonderful part of their heritage. Hailing from Ireland, bubbly Fiona and her dog Tess will look after you immaculately during your stay.
B&B L’Air du Temps: My second place of the day, I arrived starving, a little high on caffeine and a slightly weary due to my 3.30 am start. It was with gracious relief that I was welcomed with the speciality Belgian biscuits and friendly faces of the Scassaus. In the afternoon sun we talked ‘business’ in their garden whilst their chirruping green Amazonian parrot, Ramon, cackled (the exact same laugh as owner Rose) and whistled happily in his cage. Their house is in a perfect location, a short walk from the beaches of Juan Les Pins – from here you can catch a boat to St Tropez (far more preferable than driving). Visit the surrounding museums and perfumeries, or soak up the sounds of the annual JLP Jazz festival.
Hôtel la Jabotte: Reaching my final stop at the Cap d’Antibes, I breathed a sigh of relief after a successful first day on the road. Awaiting me was a gorgeous, jewel-coloured suite with private terrace, a Westie named Tommy intent on consuming a lizard and generous, kind owners. I was completely in awe of my location, a short saunter from this quintessential Mediterranean town – think cobblestone streets, covered market, chilled out restaurants, a yacht-packed port and sandy beaches. Fabulous breakfasts of yoghurt, homemade apricot biscotti, croissant, breads, cheese, nectarine and freshly squeezed OJ are served in the sweet-smelling courtyard.
I now had to master the art of lone-dining. In the past I’ve been plied with limoncellos as waiting staff took pity on me for dining solo in the most romantic of candlelit restaurants, one stranger even bought my dinner for me! “Vous mangez toute seule?” they exclaimed in surprise to this petite fille anglaise as they led me to my table and proceeded to shower me with impeccably attentive service (astonishing how increasingly attentive the male waiters become).
And so it was that I discovered that people watching with a glass of chilled rosé wine and a juicy Provençale salade niçoise isn’t that bad after all.
Onwards to the timeless, magical village of Eze and a château set beautifully into rock. I left plenty of time in anticipation of any problems en route. Through long mountain tunnels I drove, satellite signal I lost…at particularly crucial moments. The calm but insistent voice on the GPS telling me repeatedly to ‘please take the exit’ was met with flustered swearing as I sped past aforementioned exit…back onto the péage the way I had come and thus encountering additional, entirely unnecessary tolls and no option but to drive 7km in the wrong direction, making me late for a scheduled appointment.
St Paul de Vence was my rest stop for the night. A fortified village that attracted the likes of Picasso and Chagall, who once paid their way with their creations at La Colombe d’Or. Nowadays Roger Moore and Rod Stewart are residents and regulars at the famed restaurant. Book well in advance if you want a table.
Villa Saint Maxime: Just down the road from this perched city, two friendly, generous Americans greeted me, their speciality? Opening champagne bottles with a sabre! If you want, John will teach you this great party trick and you get a certificate for accomplishing this feat! It would have been wrong not to sample their renowned champagne breakfast, which drew photo-text exclamations of envy when shared with colleagues back in the office.
Overlooking the valley –it’s hard to pick the best photographic viewpoint – do I pose in front of the pretty medieval village? Capture the sea views behind? Position one’s visage in front of the scenic valley to the right or include the contemporary gem of a house behind? Ohhh the hardships of an inspector’s daily decision making…
Next, the fashionable, long promenades of Nice. I opted for the (cramped) bus to take me into town rather than wrestle with the steering wheel when trying to drive deep into the depths of the underground parking lots. I strolled from hotel to hotel peddling my wares, spreading the guide book word, past folk slowly savouring their lazy boozy lunches.
La Locandiera: Daniela’s house is right on the seafront, a fantastic location – you can come and go as you please, drawing stares of jealousy from passers-by who believe you to be the lucky inhabitant of the house. It was here I spent my last night, reflecting on the lives of those French property-owner folk. Each one individual, authentic, surprising and delightful in their own way, devotees of local food, countryside and heritage, allowing a glimpse into another life and encouraging an immense sense of wellbeing in the visitor.
This little trip was enough to satisfy my cravings for French food and wine (tartare de saumon, Magret de Canard, Assiettes de fromages, lashings of hearty carbs, sorbet, Kir Royales), though how I wished for my stay to be longer. For my beloved to be at my side, sauntering down promenades and drinking in the sunsets, to feel the heat seeping up from the baking roads, to while away the hours with a cold glass of rosé (always tastes so much better in the heat don’t you think?), to peddle past endless rows of vineyards, eating baguettes, croissants and cheese like our lives depended on it….Massively cliché perhaps but so wonderfully unique to France.