Day 3: Scenic Drive in the Mountains
This special action-packed day definitely requires a car. Since we’re based in Antibes, we’ll explore the mountain villages just north of town. However, if you’re based in Nice for this 5 days in the French Riviera trip, you can swap this itinerary in favor of a scenic drive to the villages of Peillon, Peille, Luceram, Coaraze, Contes and l’Escarene. Since day 5 will be a relaxed day with a few options to choose from, you can actually do both scenic drives (more on that later).
Today’s drive will take us up and around the lovely perched villages at the foothills of the Alps. Steeped in history and saturated with breathtaking views of the Riviera – these villages offer a welcomed escape from the summer madness that seems to take over the Riviera’s coastal towns and cities.
Our first stop will be the village of Mougins, just a 20-minute drive from Antibes. The village overlooks Cannes and has been visited in the past by many artists such as Jacques Brel, Edith Piaf and even Pablo Picasso. In fact, Picasso spent his final 12 years in Mougins. But artists aren’t the only ones to have settled in Mougins. The village has a very rich culinary history thanks to chef Roger Vergé and his famous restaurant Le Moulin de Mougins. The restaurant still exists today, along with other gastronomical pilgrimage sites that attract foodies. The art and food scenes of Mougins, along with its close proximity to Cannes, make it a popular excursion for Hollywood stars during the days of the Cannes Film Festival.
The next stop on this village-hopping road trip takes us to the small village of Valbonne – meaning ‘the good valley’ in Provencal (the local language spoken by some). Unlike its hill-top neighbors, Valbonne is laid out in a grid pattern – thanks to its history as an ancient Roman military camp. The architectural highlight is Place des Arcades – where the village’s main streets meet.
Continuing our climb up the mountains, the scenic drive will take us to Grasse – the perfume-making capital of France. For hundreds of years, locally grown lavender, rose and jasmine have been delicately turned into raw ingredients for powerhouse brands such as Dior and Estee Lauder.
Grasse is a much larger village than what we’ve seen so far. Start your visit at the main square – Place du Cours. This public garden boasts a terrace overlooking the entire Cote d’Azur. The panoramic views are splendid and the gardens make for a lovely stroll.
At the edge of the square is the Parfumerie Fragonard – a large traditional perfume shop that you’ll also find in the village of Eze. For a factory tour, you’ll actually have to visit one of the rival families just outside of town: Galimard and Molinard.
Once you’re done sniffing and sampling, stroll around the old city of Grasse. Like its neighbors, the fun here is to get lost in the maze of narrow alleys and lanes. If you make it to Place aux Aires in the morning hours, you’ll be treated to a flower and food market. Otherwise, stroll around and eventually make it to the 12th century Notre-Dame du Puy and the Hotel de Ville (city hall).
Unlike its neighbors however, we found parts of the old city of Grasse to be very run-down and overtaken by Middle Eastern shops and shisha bars. Not exactly, the art galleries and French restaurants you’d expect. That said, Grasse is worth a stop since it’s on the way and due to its historical and present-day roles in the global perfume industry.
If you thought the views were pretty so far, wait for this leg of the scenic drive. From Grasse, take the D3 road towards the perched village of Gourdon. The mountain road twists and turns high above the Gorges du Loup, a deep gorge which follows the path of the Loup River.
Just before the final turn to Gourdon, stop on the side of the road for a mesmerizing view of the village. If it’s a sunny day, you’ll probably see a few paragliders riding the thermals from the valley below – so jealous!
Gourdon is a tiny village that was surprisingly not that packed with tourists, even on the sunny Saturday when we paid a visit. There’s just one main street which leads to Place Victoria – a square right on the cliff’s edge.
Aside from soaking the views and checking out the cute flower-decorated brick homes, pay a visit to La Source Parfumee – another traditional perfume shop. This one actually served as the distillery for the Galimard family, and you can still see some of the tools and learn about the perfume-making process. There’s very little chance you’ll come out of here empty-handed.
If you feel like hiking, Gourdon is the starting point for the Chemin du Paradis, a trail snaking down from the village to the valley. An 80-minute hike will take you to Pont sur Loup and it’ll be 90 minutes to Bar-sur-Loup.
Gourdon is also a great lunch stop! Right above Place Victoria, grab a table at La Taverne Provencale and enjoy the panoramic views over a deliciously typical French meal (~20€ main). I used the opportunity to have my favorite French dish – duck breast (so damn good).
Saut du Loup Waterfall
From Gourdon, we’ll follow the contours of the gorge and river along the D3 road, eventually turning around to the opposite bank on the D6 heading back south. This is one of the prettiest and most impressive stretches of road you’ll ever drive on. Without much room to spare, the one-lane road is tightly squeezed by the rocky gorge and the river, at times even carved into the cliffside.
Look for signs to the Saut du Loup Waterfall and park the car. Drop 1€ into the metal gate and step down to a viewing area. The Loup River tumbles down in what’s known as the ‘washing machine’ into a pool that is fed by an additional waterfall en route to the Mediterranean Sea. It’s all very spectacular and you’re so close to the wet action!
Leaving the gorge behind, our next stop is the artist village of Tourrettes-sur-Loup. Along with St Paul de Vence which we’ll soon visit, these are the two most charming perched villages in this area.
Start your visit at the Place de la Liberation, where locals might be playing a round of petanque and where the doors of the 16th century Saint-Grégoire church might be open.
Step through one of the old city’s gates and just wander around the village’s cute lanes – lined with art galleries and colorful brick houses. Be sure to step inside La Bergerie and watch two generations of a pottery-making family in action. Their signature mark is the rooster, painted on almost every exquisite piece they make.
Eventually, step outside the old city and onto the ancient trail now known as the Chemin de Ronde. The trail leads down to neighboring villages via groves of olive trees, fruit-bearing cacti and pines, but you can just savor the panoramic views before heading back up.
Like in Grasse, Vence is a village that’s not only home to artists and galleries, but also to ordinary residents. This gives the stroll through the village a local and authentic feel that is sometimes lacked in the more touristy villages. Vence’s old city is accessed via gates through the ancient wall which encircles it. Highlights include water fountains, the old city’s signature tower and the 11th century St-Veran Cathedral.
Outside the walled city, you can drive to the Chapelle du Rosaire. Designed by former resident Henri Matisse, opening times are very limited and I have the feeling that you need to seriously be an art-lover to appreciate this place.
Saint Paul de Vence
Fifteen minutes downhill from Vence, the artist village of Saint-Paul-de-Vence is one of the prettiest and most visited villages in the area. Park the car somewhere (this might be challenging in high season) and walk through the ramparts into the old village. As we’ve already experienced, the fun here is simply strolling around, grabbing some coffee and checking out the wonderful collection of art galleries.
To get away from the crowds, veer off the ‘main’ streets and check out the narrow side alleys. Surely, those will lead to hidden squares and close to artist homes – where you might catch a genius at work!
Our last stop on this village-hopping tour is in Biot, just 20 minutes away from Antibes. Biot is known for its pottery and glasswork, so we’ll begin our tour with a visit to La Verrerie de Biot before it shuts its doors at 6:30pm. If you’re traveling with kids – this is a must. Free to enter, watch master glassblowers in action as they turns molten glass into vases, jugs, bowls and cups. Each finished item is unique, and like a work of art – bears the ‘Biot’ signature. Then, head to the gallery which displays the exquisite glass work of 35 international artists. Wrap your visit at the shop – of course.
Before we head back to Antibes for the night, check out the old village of Biot. Even though we’ve already seen quite a few charming village on this day, I must admit that Biot was a pleasant surprise. All the tourists we bumped into at the glassblowing shop didn’t seem to have continued the trail with us. The village was pleasantly quiet and thankfully had a much lower resident-to-gallery ratio than previous stops.