Perhaps the toughest sporting event of them all, Le Tour de France, is now into its closing few days.
Those precipitous mountain roads of the Alps & Pyrenees that they climb make me wince just thinking about them. Hopefully the sport is now totally drug free meaning the event truly is the ultimate test for a human body to endure in the world of sport.
For those of you who like me prefer a less exhausting way of getting from A to B, France has countless opportunities for exhilarating tours of sections of the country by road and rail. During the last knockings of Le Tour I will be sharing a few ideas based upon my own experiences.
La Côte is as close in France as you get geographically and culturally to Italy, encompassing beautiful golden beaches with azure seas, expensive yacht marinas, picturesque towns & villages, wonderful wining & dining opportunities and loads more besides.
Your likely start point and possible base is Nice, interesting enough for a short break in its own right with a nice beach stretching most of the 7 km long length of the palm tree lined Promenade des Anglais, plus plenty of other things to do if you like strolling, shopping, eating & drinking (the harbour, flower market area and old town are all very pleasant venues for this) often accompanied by live music or very presentable Piaf impersonators.
A lovely side trip from Nice is to take the unashamedly touristic Train des Pignes up into the Mediterranean Alps. You can go the whole 151 km to Digne-les-Bains, which is some three and a quarter hours away.
However, I would recommend going just over halfway to the medieval walled village of Entrevaux. You still get to see the majority of the most stunning scenery as you climb away from the blue waters and traverse vertigo inducing viaducts and bridges over deep gorges, whilst the village is undoubtedly the prettiest on the route.
The picturesque village is entered by walking over a drawbridge over the river and gorge below. If you are feeling particularly energetic you can walk up the steep hill to the 17th century citadel for stupendous views over the village, River Var and the surrounding Alpine area.
The best way to explore the wider area of Côte d’Azur is to hire a car to take in the likes of the delights of Cannes, St Tropez and Antibes. Mix with the locals and millionaires alike in these legendary seaside playgrounds. All easily accessible, not as expensive as you think and with plenty to keep you occupied even if you are not lucky enough to be invited onto a yacht.
Not far away from Cannes is the perfume centre town of Grasse, a pleasant interlude away from the coast.
The best things to do in town are to get yourself on a free perfumery tour (we did the excellent Fragonard version) and just to wander the narrow colourful streets of the old town and take coffee at a little pavement cafe.
A word of warning – the tour may be free, but the shop at the end definitely is not!
The ultimate playground of course is Monte Carlo in Monaco.
Drive part of the famed Grand Prix circuit before parking up somewhere incognito fashion (unless you are driving a Porsche minimum!), put on something stylish and march into Hotel de Paris as if you own the place for an expensive coffee or much pricier cocktail, flutter away €20 at the Casino de Paris, window shop in les magasins sans price tags and play the game of spotting the most expensive sports car or yacht/cruise ship.
I even saw a car shunt on one of the occasions that I visited involving a Lamborghini and a Ferrari – a pretty expensive insurance claim in waiting!
You can easily get there by train from Nice (a journey taking less than twenty minutes) or for a really memorable journey drive one or more of the corniches in a convertible (Fiat 500 in my case) whilst pretending to be Grace Kelly or Sean Connery.
The corniches (Upper, Middle & Lower) are the three winding roads that go up into the mountains around the bay of Monte Carlo. All hairpin bends and amazing views.
In a blatant piece of showing off I even arrived in Monte Carlo twice by helicopter from Nice in the late ’90s. Low-cost flight from London £50 return, single 5-minute airborne taxi £150 one way – well I was on expenses!
Whilst in the area, visit the stunning medieval hilltop town of Eze – your digital camera will get quite a sweat on! Drive down to Cap Ferrat too – another place where you can smell the money, but is quite reasonably priced for a memorable sundowner.