French travel tips: Q&A with Lisa Gerard-Sharp
Posted on 14 December 2018
Ahead of her appearance on the Flavours of France Stage, travel writer, trail lover and Provence dweller Lisa Gerard-Sharp shares some of her French highlights
What made you fall in love with Provence?
First it was the mosaic of mountains, big skies and the sea. Then it was the quality of light and the characters – I’m including the wild boar, who are more common than celebrity bores.
Now it’s the texture of everyday life, from local flower festivals to growing our own grapes. I love the mad mimosa festivals that turn winter into spring: you can even drink cocktails of the yellow fluff. Even so, this is not soft-core Provence, with glittering Van Gogh cornfields and scented lavender beds as fragrant as a perfumery.
Our Pays de Fayence villages evoke visions of Provence before the famous artists painted `Provence’ into existence. With their crooked cobblestones, lopsided houses and mellow inns, the villages are quietly arty but much less touristy than St-Paul de Vence and Mougins. The villages border the Riviera but share nothing with chic, consumerist Cannes.
My terrace overlooks the island of St Honorat, founded by St Patrick, where wafting monks still concoct wines and lemon-scented brews. In the summer stargazing season, after midnight you can find me flat out on the terrace, looking for comets – braving the bats and boar.
Which other regions do you love?
I have a soft spot for Tarn, in the south-west, with moody Albi my favourite city break. Even if I’m a Londoner, I prefer Paris, where I used to live, for its bohemian districts such as Le Marais and Montmartre, areas saved from Napoleon III’s grand projects.
I’m always happy to drink in the Champagne region. Given that Champagne acts as a barometer for French health and happiness, these bubbles are far more than fizz. Chalons-en-Champagne, a beguiling medieval cloth town, offers an evening boat trip through the backwaters. This son et lumiere show illuminates fortified bridges and half-timbered mansions, casting shadows over spooky churches and twisted turrets.
I also love the Loire and Burgundy, regions that match great wine with great architecture. There’s nothing like some gentle intoxication after a day of abbey-traipsing.
You love hiking – can you recommend a favourite Provence trail?
South of Theoule, the Corniche d’Or combines one of the wildest coastal drives and hikes.
Overhung by jagged peaks, the Corniche feels recklessly romantic, with red rocks plunging down to the sea. From Port de Poussai, the hike around Cap Dramont reveals red-pebbled creeks and coves, plus a rocky island that inspired Tintin’s adventures.
And your favourite trail on the adjoining Cote d’Azur?
The Cap d’Antibes coastal path captures the spirit of the Riviera, passing villas that evoke the romance of the Jazz Age. This all-seasons clifftop trail promises swaying pines partially concealing movie-star mansions, with a picnic overlooking Billionaires’ Bay. Through the umbrella pines are glimpses of Roman Abramovitch’s villa, once the palatial residence of the exiled Duke of Windsor. Here, Mrs Simpson sank into her swan-shaped bath with gold taps, grand enough for Buckingham Palace or the Russian Tsars.
Why is France a much-loved destination?
France is a world in a country, often a world in a region. Even in the South, there’s such diversity. Smug Aix-en-Provence is populated by the olive-nibbling classes and revels in its picturesque setting, a canvas for Cézanne’s lush landscapes. Gritty, macho Marseille will never be a pampered poodle of a Riviera resort. On the other hand, Cannes presents herself as the coy poster girl for the Riviera good life – seductive, sophisticated, slightly tipsy – but available at the right price.
What will France Show talks reveal?
These travel-writer’s tales will transport you to insider’s France, revealing the country’s passions and people. there will be encounters with bizarre countesses and celebrity chefs, hoteliers and hunters, builders and billionaire art collectors.
For a frisson of naughtiness I’ll take you to the Marquis de Sade’s castle. Here you can live like a slightly mad marquess in an unstuffy 18th-century chateau in deepest Provence. Memories of the marquess include languorous female nudes and a wine cellar that resembles an erotic library.
At the other end of the scale, on our local island, the resident Cistercian monks are among the holiest and happiest you’ll ever meet. The monks understand temptation: my favourite was a hell-raiser and common criminal until he saw the light – and fell in love with winemaking. Women and wine, rebellion and redemption: it all sounds very French.
A Francophile with a home close to Cannes, Lisa is an award-winning travel and lifestyle journalist for international glossies and British nationals. She will be appearing on the Flavours of France Stage at The France Show 2019 – book your tickets now.