Low-season high living on the French Riviera

On a rainy December day in 1917, French Impressionist painter Henri Matisse checked into the Hotel Beau Rivage, then a budget hostelry, now a très-chic boutique hotel, on Nice’s Cours Saleya. Miserable, the 49-year-old artist complained in a letter to his wife about “this pig of a place.”

Then the sun came out. Matisse changed his mind and stayed on for nearly 40 years, recharging both his batteries and his career.

“What made me stay,” he explained, “were the great coloured reflections of January, the luminosity of the days.” In winter, the old buildings simply glow – deep ochre, Sardinian red, sea blues – all the colours that appear in his paintings.

These days, we tend to think of the French Riviera as a summer playground for bare-breasted bronzed beach babes, paparazzi, movie stars and international playboys flying their Ferraris along the perilous corniches to the baccarat tables of Monte Carlo.

But the Côte d’Azur shows its sweeter, gentler and less flashy side in the low season. The light so admired by Matisse lifts the spirits; the climate is blissfully mild, the scenery ravishing and the su-drenched cuisine delicious. You can play golf in the morning and head to the Alps for an afternoon on the ski slopes. Some brave souls swear that a daily dip in the Med is good for what ails you. Best of all, you’ll not have to contend with high season prices, traffic jams and crowds of summer tourists so horrendous that movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn once scoffed, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

In the off-season, natives seem relaxed, friendlier. Folks have time to chat. “Oh,” said a Cannes sales clerk one sunny January day, “You’re taking that home? Let me wrap it for you. You don’t want it to break.” Infinite care was taken to package a half-priced mimosa-patterned tray. When she spontaneously knocked another five euros (seven bucks) off a second purchase, we looked at each other in wonder. Where was that well-known French Shopkeeper Glare?

All week, we’d noticed this genuine friendliness and warmth. In the Nice flower market, a vendor volunteered to pose in front of the yellow-painted house where Matisse had rented an apartment for five years. “I’m an historical monument too,” he teased. “Take my photo.” Theresa, a dark-haired femme d’un age certaine, scooped freshly made socca (chick-pea pancakes) into paper cones for us, urging us to add lots of pepper. “They’re delicious that way.”

On one of the narrow alleys winding uphill the market square, we discovered the genial Nadim Beyrouti, proprietor of Oliviera Restaurant. We sampled his olive oils while he expounded on their virtues from “light and fruity” to the “more bitter” to the “grassy.” In a tiny open kitchen, his wife prepared our lunch. Every dish – from the aubergine and chèvre starter to the beef daube with gnocchi to the dessert of fresh cheese with quince jam – was lavished with lashings of hand-pressed oils. Regulars arrived, stocking up from the vats in his café-boutique, discussing oils with Nadim as others do wines.

Here, we met Joy Devive, a fellow Canadian who revelled on the sun-splashed Côte d’Azur last winter with nary a crowd in sight. This travel executive, who retired early, and her friend, Rose from California, spent three and a half months in Villa Cipressi overlooking the Mediterranean in Beaulieu-sur-Mer near Nice. Their five-bedroom spread, complete with gourmet kitchen, pool, terrace and garden, where they plucked fresh oranges and lemons, cost 5,500 euros a month, about one-fifth of the rental fee for the same property in summer high season.

Looking for a winter destination with a temperate climate and lots of cultural activities, Joy found southern France to be “a perfect fit.”

While some restaurants and establishments close for all or part of the winter, Joy, Rose and their visiting friends found no lack of activities to keep them occupied. Highlights included poking around art galleries and museums in Nice and Cannes, foraging for black truffles, formulating their signature perfumes in Grasse, attending local cooking classes, shopping for the catch of the day from local fishermen, attending concerts at the Monte Carlo Opera (only 15 euros) and exploring Provence’s hiking trails to work off their gastronomic indulgences. “Often, we’d eat lunch out but, for dinner, we preferred to come back to the villa and putter around the kitchen, using our market finds to prepare traditional Niçoise and Provençal dishes,” Joy recalls.

Another Canadian convert to the delights of winter on the Riviera is Toronto-based gardening guru and writer, Marjorie Harris. With husband Jack Batten, Marjorie has been spending the month of February in the south of France for almost 20 years.

“In the late ’80s, we found a rental place in a Haut-des-Cagnes, near Nice,” recalls Harris. Using the village as home base, they explored the coast until “we found our perfect spot by the sea.”

The one-bedroom cottage costs about 2,000 euros a month: It too would double or triple in price during high season. Coincidentally, it’s also in Beaulieu-sur-Mer. Unlike Joy, who relied on a leased Peugot to do most of her exploring, Harris and Batten despise driving, especially in another country.

“This coast is perfect for us because of the fantastic local transportation system,” remarks Harris. “We can hop on a bus or train and be in Nice or Antibes or any number of the lovely seaside towns in no time with no hassles.”

For the first few years, Marjorie and Jack “bumbled our way around” with their rudimentary high-school French. “However, we were extremely lucky to become great friends with Claude and Marie who lived in our village,” says Harris. “Their fluency in French has made all the difference.”

Harris cautions that a rental house in France probably won’t come with sheets and towels. Over the years, she and Batten have bought the linens, pillows, candlesticks and the bits and pieces that make their home away from home comfortable. When it’s time to leave, Claude and Marie store their stuff until next year.

Harris describes a relaxed routine – shopping for dinner ingredients at her favourite stalls in the Nice market, being warmly greeted and given “our table” at their favourite restaurants, exploring local towns and shops – all via cheap local transportation.

“February in France is officially the month of sales and the bargains are fantastic,” enthuses Harris. But it’s not all play. “Being freelancers, we can’t afford to disappear for a month,” says Harris, noting they take their computers and she keeps in touch with the staff at Gardening Life where she is editor-at-large, and Batten continues to work on a new book about Canadian wartime heroine Edith Cavell.

As for advice for fellow Canadians wishing to winter in France, Harris says that if you make an effort to speak French, the locals will welcome you.

“If you’re arrogant and rude, they’ll give it right back to you,” she adds. As for finding your perfect pied-à-terre, Harris says that practically every town and village has a website that lists rental properties.

All in all, Harris describes wintering on the French Riviera as an idyllic la vie en rose lifestyle. Compare that to a month of la vie en grey in Canada.

For tourist information, contact Maison de la France:
1-514-876-9811; www.franceguide.com

Finding rental accommodations
Click on “Your Home in France” for agencies specializing in everything from gites (inexpensive rural or village lodgings) to appartments, villas and chateaux.
Toronto-based Carol Murray specializes in rentals in the south of France. She suggests a cosy one-bedroom apartment for two on the Riviera that starts at 2000 euros a month in January and February would cost almost twice that in the summer high season.

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