Discovering the secret charms of the Riviera, never more attractive than during the fall of the last cool days into rampant warm spring, is akin to a pilgrimage to some scented god shrine. The Parisian sidewalks might well be heaving under the weight of fragrant offerings by posh and less posh boutiques, but nothing beats the sheer thrill of nature red in tooth and claw. Trailing the small towns and villages that spot the map of the Côte d'Azur and beyond in the throes of spring is an experience that everyone interested in fragrance and beauty should indulge in.
The medieval houses amidst the flowering vines reflect the shades of the sunset ~ochre, vermillon and purple~ and gracefully contrast with the deep azure of the Mediterranean sea which brings on its own special aromatic blend of iodine, salty spray and maritime pines to the places that are wetted by its waters.
Even though it's preferable to veer off the beaten track, especially where hordes of tourists litter the paysage with their visually jarring presence, one can't escape following a time-honoured path, that of the Route de Mimosa (known as The Mimosa Road), an inter-village mimosa-celebrating trail of 130km/80miles of drive-and-stop-along-the-sights, crossing 8 famous stopover cities, starting from fittingly named Bormes-les-Mimosas through Le Rayol-Canadel, Sainte Maxime, Saint Raphaël, Mandelieu la Napoule, Tanneron, Pégomas and Grasse, with a side-tour of Cannes. Until the first days of April, literally millions of downy flowers fragrance the hills and valleys of this region, rendering it a golden feast for both eyes and nose; the sugar-spun scent of mimosa (an acacia species), persistent and entracing, mixed with the tannic aroma of cork oaks and dry Provençal herbs. It's hard to resist thinking how magnificent a ready-made perfume composed of exactly those aromata would be!
The blooming town of Bormes-les-Mimosas at the arms of the Maures mountains, is slumbering and small, as befitting something out of a Flaubert story of provincial doctors and their bored housewives searching for that transporting romance to no avail.
Missing as we did the festivities of January and February (according to our tour leaflet, available at every port of call), the main attraction was the Pépinières Cavatore, a surprisingly quaint nursery bursting under the variety of mimosa plants grown: Over a hundred varieties make for an embarassement of riches, whetting our appetite for more. The answer seems to be Les Jardins du Domaine du Rayol, situated in Rayol-Canadel-sur-Mer, offering a unique vista from the ravined mountain terrain down to the Var coastline, connecting the gardens with the beach via the monumental Pateck staircase following the Art Nouveau style of decoration of the 1920s, leading up to Le Rocher du Drapeau (Flag Rock). Unfortunately, today only the central part of the stairs remains intact. Local lore wants the steps to be the connector between Heaven and Hell and if the swarms of tourists are anything to go by it can certainly ring true to my ears! But, slightly detached as I am most of the time, I still managed to rub the leaves of the vine garlanding the pergola between finger and thumb, to leave a fragrant imprint of this magnificent spot in my mind.
But the garden delights never end: Sainte Maxime boasts its own Jardin des Myrtes, with a lovely three-star hotel tucked in that little pocket of land (Parc des Myrtes, 83120 Ste-Maxime, France). In Greek mythology myrtle is sacred. Pausanias explains that one of the Graces in the sanctuary at Elis holds a myrtle branch because “the rose and the myrtle are sacred to Aphrodite and connected with the story of Adonis (Aphrodite's lover), while the Graces are of all deities the nearest related to Aphrodite.” At the Roman festivity of Veneralia, women bathed wearing crowns woven of myrtle branches, the plant also participating in wedding rituals. Throughout the Mediterranean, myrtle symbolises love and immortality. A local tavern (with an owner of Corsican extraction) after a hearty meal of coq au vin and snails in onion and tomato sauce treated us to mirto rosso fino, a digestive liqueur made of myrtle, its bittersweet taste redolent of the aromatic heart of this ever-present plant.
Loquat trees, present in several yards, are also burdening under the weight of the fruits, already gleaming even under the slightly overcast skies. And of course the sweet smell of lilac coinciding with Easter, evoking its Greek name: Paschalia (pa-scha-leeA).
The very idea of medieval gardens was pleasuring all five senses, like the Persian paradeisos a cloistered alcove of erthy delights. [Roman de la Rose de Guillaume de Lorris (13th century) and le Dit du vergier by Guillaume de Machaut (15th century)] These gardens often included a viridarium (the Roman pleasure garden), a pomarium (orchard) and a herbarium; the latter taking the form of a jardin de plantes médicinales (medicinal plants garden) or more affectionately called le jardin secret (hortus conclusus), a secret garden. The mostly Arab-derived concept came through Toledo and Seville, Spain and on to Montpellier, France. Italian style gardens's elements ("humanist"-called, because there is no seperation between artificial garden and environment) also enter the scene through the glorification of a theatrical mise-en-scène.
Luckily for us Le Corniche d’Or (Golden Ledge) coastal road, which runs between St.Raphaël and Cannes, with the Roman coastal town of Fréjus on the west, was quieter and breathtaking, the road dipping between rocks, literally "licking" the sea and its deserted beaches. The volcanic scenery with the rocky inlets of Le Trayas made me think of the rough mountaineous solace of Grenouille as depicted in the film Perfume, Story of a Murderer (never mind the film was actually shot in Spain): Can an abundance of stimuli become too much, too exerting on one's own system, so that the only refuge would be a red cove under the cool shade? The feeling of being far removed from everything fills one's soul, nostrils aflare to catch the painfully precious air of solitude. And how can the porphyric lava, much like in the island of Santorini in Greece, can account for such a fertile, yielding soil?
Mandelieu-la-Napoule, termed the mimosa-capital is the beginning of the way to the Massif de Tanneron, where early spring has the slopes covered into a forest of yellow pom-poms. The area, not coincidentally, comprises the largest mimosa forest in Europe. So prevalent is the mimosa in this area that in Pégomas we are informed that there is a Miss Mimosa pageant at the end of January! If one has time, the small resorts of Anthéor, Agay and Boulouris are also worthwhile visits which we reserve for next time. The bigaradiers, full of orange blossoms that are shedding petals like a carnival parade throwing confetti at the gentlest gust of the wind, aromatize the air as we pass, the refreshing, joyous smell a welcoming salutation for weary wanderers. The picturesque village of Tanneron seems like some fairy godmother has magically placed it on top of the hills, hanging there till the end of days, comprised of humble-looking hamlets for the most part.
In late March and April there are also plenty of wisterias, their powdery spicy scent trail perceivable several meters before the eye confirms what the nose knows. The purple grappes hang from the stems like grapes and tempting the birds that catch petals and small branches with their beaks in order to make their nests. Scattered around the perimeter are the so-called "forceries", barns or rather workshops in which nature is coaxed into calculated submission: the yet greenish branches in bud are cut and forced into the mimoseries, long troughs of steaming spring water, whereon the mimosa is thrown to encourage it to open, we're told. There seems no need to speak of coaxing when the mimosa season is almost over, yet the very idea of producing flowers that will end up being sold at the big flower markets of Nice. The preservation of the flowers so they don't wilt in the interim is a work that requires a lot of attention and specialized techniques. One of them, which I was surprised to learn and am sharing with you now, is crushing a baby aspirin in a glass of water and adding it to the water of the flower vases!
To be continued in Part 2
Pics by Elena Vosnaki, Black & White Le Nu Provençal, Gordes (1949) by Willy Ronis