Driving from east to west along the Mediterranean coastline of France allows the saavy traveler to sample a bit of everything that has, for centuries, drawn invaders, immigrants, and tourists alike, to this unique part of the world.
One begins near the border with Italy in the little city of Menton nestled between the seashore and the foothills of the Alps. Because of its protected location, Menton enjoys the mildest winter climate in France. The city is famous for its lemon trees, which bloom year-round, and for its lemon festival, which takes place each February. Visitors can sample local specialties of all sorts including an exquisite lemon scented olive oil.
Just twenty-three kilometers to the west, one reaches the city of Nice. Nice, too, has a character of its own, with plenty of evidence of its historical ties with Italy and the Roman Empire. The local food specialties include socca, a soft, thick, and peppery crepe made with chickpea flour, which is baked on outdoor griddles and served as street food. Nice is also famous for its namesake salade nicoise composed of boiled potatoes, flavorful canned tuna, slender deep green beans known as haricots verts, anchovies, and boiled eggs.
A half hourís drive further west, is the village of Antibes where the Picasso Museum is housed in a magnificent old fortress jutting out into the Mediterranean Sea.The ancient part of town, or vieux ville, is made up of dozens of winding ruelles, or little pedestrian streets where one finds specialty boutiques and restaurants. Closer to the sea, the vieux ville opens onto a magnificent open-air market complete with fish mongers, butchers, leather craftsmen and all manner of fresh produce both from France and northern Africa.
The world changes again another half hour to the west in the glitzy resort of Cannes where luminaries of the international film industry gather each year to show the best of what they have produced and to vie for the precious Palme díOr,
After Cannes, coastline scenery turns bit wilder as one passes out of the busy Alpes Maritime department and into the Var. Just a few kilometers from the sea, the hilly terrain is dotted with beautifully gnarled parasol pines and desert scrub. Rather suddenly, one comes upon the glamourous haven of Saint Tropez, more rustic in its visual appeal than itís wealthy Cannes, but equally chic and fully stocked with the latest club and beach wear from top Paris designers.
Next comes the maritime city of Toulon. Rougher around the edges than most cities and villages on the Cote díAzur, Toulon is homeport to a large contingency of American navy men and women as well as their French counterparts. It was from here that famous undersea explorer, Jacques Cousteau, launched many of his expeditions
Still further west, the little bathing resort of Bandol is known as much for its brilliant rose wines as for its beaches, restaurants and shops. The hills around Bandol, like many in other French wine appellations, are carved into hundreds of perfectly tended vineyards. With lots of time and just a little money, one can easily spend a full day or longer dropping by the tasting rooms of small family-run operations, chatting with the owners and their children and sampling among the best light wines in France.
Even if one can resist a stop in the picturesque seaside village Cassis, a walk along its nearby tall white cliffs, known as the Calanques is still a must. These breathtaking formations, similar to Norwegian fjords form quiet inlets for sailboats but can be viewed equally well from the walkways atop their lush, green, mesa-like crests.
Marseilles marks the end of the part of Franceís Mediterranean coastline known to Americans as the French Riviera, and to the French as the Cote díAzur. It is the second largest city in France and the most richly diverse. Heavily bombed during World War II, it nevertheless retains more than mere remnants of its ancient past. The closest port to French northern Africa, it is the perfect place to sample the foods and cultures of Morocco and the Ivory Coast. Ethnic markets abound and feature all sorts of prepared foods, exotic spices and African crafts.
The U.S. Navy maintains a presence here, as well, and, at nightfall, American sailors line up outside the doors of the many small clubs and bars on the north side of the rectangular harbor which forms the hub of the city.
Marseilles also lays claim to the exquisite fish stew known as bouillabaisse. Not exactly a budget meal, bouillabaisse is usually assembled tableside where local Mediterranean fish, including rascasse, are filleted and added to a rich saffron-seasoned tomato broth made from fish bones and indigenous aromatic herbs.
Beyond Marseilles, and moving farther along the coast toward Spain, one enters the Rhone delta, an exotic world of wild horses, pink flamingos. This area is known as the Camargue. It is sparsely inhabited and much of it is dedicated to future generations as one of the largest wildlife preserves in Europe. Local gypsy musicians and French cowboys lend the Camargue much unique personality.
Drawing nearer to Spain, one enters the Languedoc, where one encounters a more work-a-day world in which both traditional agriculture and modern technology thrive alongside one another.. The Languedoc region through a system of large cooperative vintners, supplies much of the vin-ordinaire, or table wine, consumed by the French.
Languedoc is also a tourist mecca for the people of interior France who flock each July and August to its large seaside resort towns such as Cap díAgde, which boasts one one of the largest naturist enclaves in France. Not merely a nude beach, the Village Naturiste is but a place where naturists can shop, dine, lodge, bank without ever having to decide what to wear..
Making the return trip away from the Spanish border and back toward Italy, one should travel ten or twenty kilometers inland in order to take in the beauty and charm of countless medieval hill towns as well as the spectacular university city of Aix-en-Provence, where Cezanne made his home, and Grasse, the perfume capital of France.
No one who has really explored the south of France leaves it without resolving to return. Unlike the resolutions we all make each January and have forgotten by February, this one lasts a lifetime.