Trip to La Turbie

We decided to pop over into Italy on Saturday for a spot of food shopping and lunch. We left  later than we intended and just after the St Isidore exit we ground to a halt. There had been a major incident on the motorway  – a car had burst into flames. We didn’t move for over an hour. We then crawled along for a bit as the traffic was down to a single lane. As soon as we got moving again, we took an executive decision to annul our trip to Italy, we’d go next weekend.

This is the first time we’ve been caught up in this type of incident and our thoughts went out to those who may have been injured in the incident. I then had a lightbulb moment. We weren’t too far from a restaurant which I have adjudged to be the perfect neighbourhood restaurant.

Sadly, it’s not nearby, it’s in La Turbie, a charming historic village overlooking the Principality of Monaco, which stands on a remarkable natural site offering one of the most splendid panoramas on the French Riviera. Though not yesterday when there was low-lying cloud.

We got to know the village many years ago as it’s a favourite with cyclists. There’s a water fountain on the main road on the way back from rides to Monaco/Menton and just down the road from Eze. We found the restaurant, which is next to the fountain, while we were cycling back from a particularly arduous ride where my tank was empty. The restaurant was offering a very keenly priced set lunch which included lobster salad as a starter. Sold to the female cyclist!

It’s a restaurant where you need either to have booked or arrive as soon as service starts. It’s owned by the chef from the nearby Michelin starred Hostellerie Jerome, which is in a 13th century former Cistercian monastery. The restaurant looks unprepossessing, no starched white linen tablecloths but the food is excellent – menu short and seasonal – and the small selection of wines is keenly priced. On Saturday we snagged the only remaining table for two!

I had wild mushrooms to start followed by salmon with ratatouille. Sadly, there was no room for the home-made fig sorbet and figs. My beloved had home-made ravioli followed by a tip-top steak and chips with béarnaise sauce. Replete, we had a quick wander round the town picking up some bread from the excellent bakery and patisserie a couple of doors down, before driving back over Col d’Eze.

La Turbie has an interesting history, largely on account of its geographical position. The ancient Romans built a monumental Trophy there to honour the conquests of the Emperor Augustus which originally consisted of a round tower, surrounded by Doric columns, built on a square platform bearing the names of the 44 people subdued in the Ligurian campaign. It stood 49 metres high and was topped by a giant statue of the Emperor.

It was used as a fortress in the 12th century, dismantled by Louis XIV, and was then transformed into a … stone quarry. It was subsequently restored by a generous American donor called Edward Tuck. Today all that remains is a fraction of the tower with its columns and niches which housed the statues. That said, it’s still worth a visit, as is the village itself with its charming houses, meandering walkways and spectacular views back down to the coast.

12 days of Christmas: day 5

This is the magnificent Pont du Gard which we visited this summer during our trip to Uzes,  to see the start of the Vuelta a Espana in Nimes. It’s an ancient Roman aqueduct, the highest and best preserved, across the river Gardon, near to the town of Vers-Pont-du-Gard.  The bridge was built in the 1st century AD to carry water from Uzes to Nimes. The aqueduct fell into disuse after the fall of the Roman Empire but earned its keep as a toll bridge, an early peage! Rescued by the state in the 20th century, it’s now one of France’s most popular tourist attractions, becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985.

Postcard from the Vuelta

Unusually, this year’s edition of the Vuelta a Espana kicked off in Nimes. It’s only three hours down the motorway from us and it’s a place we’ve only ever driven past, never visited. We drove down on Thursday afternoon after an expensive lunch in Antibes. I rarely park in the road but there’s no parking fee in France during the lunch break (12:30 – 14:30)  – so civilised. We parked on the opposite side of the road, about 100 metres down from the restaurant. Tom was looking particularly fine as he’d just been for a wash and polish. When we went back to the car after a very pleasant lunch, I noticed someone had keyed the length of the passenger side of the car. I checked the cars either side but mine was the only one chosen for such treatment. Hence my comment about an expensive lunch.

I’d decided we would stay in Uzes, in a small, highly rated B&B which lived up to its billing. Uzes is a chocolate boxey, bastide town in the Occitane region, on the western fringes of Provence, 45km west of the Medieval walled city of Avignon, 25km north of the Roman city of Nimes and a mere 6km from the world UNESCO heritage site, Pont du Gard. Aside from its Roman origins, it’s home to the first duchy of France, whose glorious Ducal Castle, built on the site of the Roman Castrum (camp) is still in family hands.

There are plenty of grand Renaissance mansions, plus the Cathédrale Saint-Théodorit d’Uzès, a place of worship since Roman times, which dates from the Middle Ages. It has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. What remains is largely from the 19th century, only the organ remains from pre-Revolutionary times. Next door is its fascinating and iconic Fenestrelle tower, the only Lombard style campanile tower in France which dates from the 11th century and stands guard over a wonderful Medieval garden, restored to its former glory in 1995.

The town’s cobbled, largely pedestrianised streets spill out into elegant squares, shaded by gently worn, pale golden stone and shuttered buildings. In the centre of town, ancient sycamore trees dominate and shelter the Place-aux-Herbes and its fountain which is fringed by golden arches. This is where you’ll find the town’s famous twice-weekly (Wednesday and Saturday) market. The place is a gourmet’s delight, surrounded by truffle plantations, vineyards and home to Le Musee du Bonbon, opened in 1996 by Haribo. Though the town’s traditionally famous for its liquorice rather than gummy bears.

To be honest, all we did was stroll around the town, meandering along its cobbled streets, pausing every so often to oooh and aah over its captivating architecture, its wonderful specialist food shops and plentiful restaurant menus. We also visited Pont du Gard, an incredible World UNESCO heritage site, 275 metres long and 48 metres high, spanning the river Gardon, which was built in 50AD as part of the Nimes’ Roman acqua-duct, in use until the 6th century.

Sadly there was no time to visit any of the many wineries, olive oil mills or the Haribo Musee du Bonbon – next time! Nor, aside from Nimes with its amphitheatre, did we see much of the rich Roman heritage in the area in Arles, Orange, Avignon and Chateauneuf-du-Papes  –  another time.

Saturday was devoted to wandering around Nimes and watching the Vuelta’s opening team time-trial. The city is located between the sea and the Cevennes hills. It was established by the Romans, on the edge of the Mediterranean plain, some 16 kilometres inland, and has the finest collection of Roman remains in France, plus an attractive old town.

Nimes Maison Carree

The teams started on the steps of one of Nimes’ most famous Roman remains, the Maison Carrée – the best preserved Roman temple anywhere – and rode through the 2,000 year old Arena, one of only three large Roman arenas in the south of France. The city has several other Roman remains, in particular the Temple of Diana and Tour Magne.

Apart from its Roman monuments, Nimes has an attractive and historic centre, with narrow streets and tree-lined boulevards typical of the south of France. The park of the Jardins de la Fontaine, the site of Friday’s team presentation, laid out in 1745, is one of the oldest city parks in France, and a delightful area of greenery, fountains and shade on the edge of the old town. It also has some striking modern civic buildings designed by Jean Nouvel, Lord Foster and the Portzamparcs.

I had hoped to follow in the Vuelta’s footsteps for a few stages more but my beloved had to fly off to China at lunchtime on Sunday. While I might not visit Nimes again, I’d certainly consider a return trip to Uzes and its gummy bears!