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The Other South of France

By Anthea Gerrie

Since Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald lured the Beautiful People to the pine-scented beach colony known as the Côte d’Azur, this storied strip of Mediterranean coast has weathered a century as a playground for affluent Americans, Brits, and Russians—as well as French and Italian high society. Yet the Fitzgeralds came late to the game, two thousand years after the emperor Augustus made the South of France a beloved outpost of Imperial Rome. He built palaces and temples in which to sup the region’s succulent wine and local produce, arenas to entertain, aqueducts to bring fresh water, and—of course—magnificent spas to make the most of the glorious Med and its rose-colored healing salts.

While the focus shifted east toward the Italian border when the belle epoque villas and beach resorts were attracting hedonists two millennia later, a new generation is again looking west to the shores closer to Spain, which were once the only place to be. Here, historic towns of great beauty are now attracting design-conscious travelers as architects create new pleasure palaces within ancient buildings for those looking beyond the overcrowded Côte d’Azur to enjoy a Mediterranean lifestyle.

Camargue cattle are almost as majestic as the region’s famous wild horses. | Photo by Groul, Manade Saint Louis/Gard Tourisme

To discover the delights of “the other South of France” can take a bit of effort, involving a change of planes or one of the ultra-high-speed trains which have shrunk France for travelers. But, given that you can have breakfast in Paris and be in Barcelona by teatime these days, it’s no wonder many gourmands break their journey in Montpellier. There they can enjoy one of Europe’s finest Michelin-starred lunches before journeying on for a sleepover in one of the south’s newest and loveliest lodgings. The five-star Hôtel Richer de Belleval is housed in a former town hall on the city’s exquisite Place de la Canourgue. Its gourmet restaurant, Jardin des Sens, presided over by world-famous twin chefs Jacques and Laurent Pourcel, makes it well worth the trip. As Montpellier also fields an international airport, it’s the obvious place to start this particular voyage of discovery.

The majestic Chevaux de Camargue | Photo courtesy of Gard Tourisme

Overlooked by the Romans, Montpellier evolved as a seventeenth- and eighteenth-century architectural jewel, now the center of the booming Languedoc wine trade and a lively university town packed with bars and restaurants. It also happens to be the gateway to the magnificent Camargue, where the Mediterranean turns wild, fragmented into a series of lagoons ringed by marshes. It’s populated by flamingos, white horses, black bulls, and gitanes—those elegant cowboys who can strum a mean flamenco guitar and sing their hearts out; this is the area that spawned the Gipsy Kings pop group.

A beautiful vineyard in Uzès | Photo by Christophe Grilhé/Vignerons Duché Uzès

At La Camargue, the oldest and most atmospheric restaurant in the tiny walled town of Aigues-Mortes, you’ll be told the Kings got their start here. From spring to fall, their successors will serenade you on the weekends as you pick at an anchoïade—anchovy and olive dip served with a garden-sized bowlful of colorful crudités. Perhaps follow it up with octopus in a garlicky aioli, the fingernail-sized local clams known as tellines, or taureau, as the Camarguais call the beloved beef they love to cook over a wood fire and serve with potatoes from the embers.

Villeneuve-lès-Avignon on the Rhône is a medieval destination known for art, markets, and cafes. | Photo by J.M.André/Gard Tourisme

There is a five-star hotel even in laid-back Aigues-Mortes—the art deco Villa Mazarin, distinguished by a peaceful garden and spa facilities. However, my inner hipster booked this new kid on the block on a recent visit: the four-star Hôtel des Remparts. It faces the city walls that can be walked on and explored when all the quaint, narrow streets packed with covetable local artifacts have been exhausted.

Still, getting out of town into the glorious countryside is the main attraction. All roads south lead to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, a former haunt of Ernest Hemingway, where the Mediterranean finally makes its appearance unobstructed. Its sandy beaches, lined with seafood cafes, draw crowds promenading beneath the bell tower of a magnificent medieval church.

 
Margaret – Hotel Chouleur in Nîmes

If any town can seduce vacationers away from the Camargue, it’s Nîmes, an hour north. The original Roman metropolis is unequaled in the region for its history, beauty, and sophistication—no wonder Augustus and his successors stayed here for five hundred years! The Arena no longer fields gladiators, just a dozen annual toned-down bullfights in which the beast is not killed, and the beautifully preserved colosseum also hosts musical events. A warren of limestone-paved pedestrian streets reveals a plethora of exquisite decorating shops, wine emporia, and fashion boutiques, including the flagship store of Souleiado. The brand’s Indian cotton goods, block-printed in sunshine yellows, the deep blues of Mediterranean skies, and the reds of the setting sun, have become synonymous with French provincial chic worldwide.

If any town can seduce vacationers away from the Camargue, it’s Nîmes, an hour north. The original Roman metropolis is unequaled in the region for its history, beauty, and sophistication
A statue of French bullfighter Nimeño II outside the Roman Arena in Nîmes | Photo courtesy of Pixabay

There is more than one five-star hotel in Nîmes, another favorite Hemingway haunt, but nowhere to stay more stylish than the Margaret – Hôtel Chouleur, the astonishing conversion of a seventeenth-century mansion into cutting-edge contemporary lodgings. Its restaurant gets a nod from Michelin, but this is one town where you really want to be dining and carousing with the locals, and all credit to the inspectors for following inspired chefs into the super-buzzy covered market, Les Halles, where they have awarded what must be the world’s most gourmet lunch counter, La Pie qui Couette, one of their coveted Bib Gourmands.

Somewhat off the radar is the lovely medieval town of Uzès to the north—make a detour en route to the astonishing Roman aqueduct of the Pont du Gard, where hundreds of enslaved people labored for years to bring water from Uzès to the great and the good of imperial Nîmes. An excellent museum worth visiting after crossing the bridge to admire the golden arches from both sides and beneath tells the story and shows some of the amazing artifacts discovered on the site.

A quiet street in Uzès, France | Photo by Anthea Gerrie

Uzès itself, despite a distinctly more rustic vibe than Nîmes, boasts a Relais & Châteaux hotel, the Maison d’Uzès, where we enjoyed a romantic room with a vast white marble bathroom in the rafters overlooking the city rooftops. Still, its Michelin-starred restaurant felt a little formal and enclosed in a town so rich in winding lanes and alleys. New Orleans architect Prisca Weems, who recently moved here, recommends buzzy local eateries Ten (“great wasabi oysters!”), Le Barry, and Villa Curti. Certainly, getting out into the town is the only way to enjoy its nocturnal spectacle. It would be hard to find a more breathtaking square than the colonnaded Place aux Herbes, lined with huge, ancient trees and home to the annual winter truffle festival when gastronomy is everywhere, with many special menus based on the rarefied tuber.

The beautiful streets in Collias, near Pont du Gard between Nîmes and Uzès, are worth exploring. | Photo by A.Rodriguez/OT Destination Pays d’Uzès Pont du Gard

Truffles bring us full circle back to the Côte d’Azur, where they are regularly served to the rich, if not cultivated right on the spot. The luxury lifestyle fielded by the Riviera should at least be sampled on a trip to the South of France, given that this is where it all started for fashionable Americans. The exquisite art deco villa rented by the Fitzgeralds is now the Belles Rives, the best hotel in the tiny, chic resort of Juan-les-Pins. Dine here on a private beach overlooking the marina. Its yachts moor up every summer for Jazz à Juan, the annual international jazz festival set in an intimate pine glade overlooking the Med.

Expect more anchovies, olives, seafood, and basil—with oceans of golden-pink Provençal wine. These fragrant flavors of the south are enjoyed all along the French coast.
The beautiful streets in Collias, near Pont du Gard between Nîmes and Uzès, are worth exploring. | Photo by A.Rodriguez/OT Destination Pays d’Uzès Pont du Gard

During July, jazz is also served up in Nice, the cultural jewel of the Côte d’Azur awash in belle epoque villas and art museums, including those devoted to Matisse and Chagall. The jazz musicians stay at the chic Radisson Blu, where guests are entertained with free post-concert jams in the lobby lounge, but the most famous hotel is the eclectic Negresco, further down the iconic Promenade des Anglais. It fields a useful little address book of neighborhood eateries like Davia, where chef-patron Pierre Altobelli has won Michelin approval for the authentic “cuisine Nissarde” he learned from his grandmother. Expect more anchovies, olives, seafood, and basil—with oceans of golden-pink Provençal wine. These fragrant flavors of the south are enjoyed all along the French coast, which indeed is worth an odyssey from one end to the other, whether you start at the Italian border and work your way west, or vice versa, following in the footsteps of those canny Romans who got there first.

— V —


More information at Visit-Occitanie.com and CotedAzurFrance.fr.

Anthea Gerrie is based in the UK but travels the world in search of stories. Her special interests are architecture and design, culture, food, and drink, as well as the best places to visit in the world’s great playgrounds. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, the Independent, and Blueprint.



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