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Cultural Mix Enlivens Cote d'Azur

June 18, 1989|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers .

ST. PAUL DE VENCE, France — Everyone but the French calls it the Riviera, yet the stretch of coast from Italy to just below Cannes is more properly the Cote d'Azur--a string of beaches, colorful bays, fishing villages and awesome scenery.

But the haut pays (high country) behind this 72-mile strand is equally arresting to the eye and spirit, thanks to the ancient perchees (perched villages) riding the peaks and hillside flanks of France's Alpes Maritimes foothills.

Built high as a defense factor against Germanic hordes, Moslem pirates and medieval mercenaries, each town draws much of its character from the daunting ramparts and weathered buildings built from mountain stone.

The region is a mixture of French and Italian, with just a touch of the Greeks, who brought in the all-important olive trees and grapevines six centuries before Christ was born.

From a base in St. Paul de Vence, one of the prettiest and most popular of the perched villages, we made a footloose swing through the haut pays and Cote d'Azur.

Getting here: Air France flies nonstop to Paris, UTA the same from San Francisco. American, TWA, Pan Am, Delta and Continental will get you here with stops. Take Air France or Air Inter to Nice, 12 miles from St. Paul.

How long/how much? You can do the highlights of the region in a week, but it can be a more leisurely trip spread over two weeks. Lodging costs in smaller countryside hotels tend to be moderate, but dining prices vary from moderate to very high, because the French will pay dearly for good food.

A few fast facts: The franc recently sold at six to the dollar, about 16 cents each. Visit from May to October because the high country gets nippy during winter months. A rental or leased car is the best way to visit small towns; leasing sometimes costs less because you don't pay the 28% value-added tax. Try Hertz, Avis or Budget for rentals, Renault USA toll-free at (800) 221-1052 for leasing.

On your own: St. Paul, a prosperous medieval village, was rediscovered by painters and sculptors in the 1920s.

To experience a small French hotel, consider Les Remparts (Rue Grande; $37 double), built as a private house in the 16th Century. Bedrooms are tiny and a bit funky, but clean. Some rooms, as well the terrace restaurant, have balconies that command the best view in the village.

Not far away is La Marmite, a 19th-Century romantic spot with lovely traditional furnishings, flowers and candles on formal tables, and original art on the walls. A three-course meal is $15; others higher.

On the same street, Le Cellier du Connetable was a wine press in the ancient village. It's now a wine bar, and its cold platter of smoked duck, Bayonne ham and salad costs $7.50.

And Henry's (opposite the main square, where local actor Yves Montand is probably playing boules) is a good spot for no-frills dining at a moderate cost.

Architectural Marvel

Just west of St. Paul you'll find Le Mas d'Artigny ($130-$262 double), a first-class hotel that also has separate villas with private pools for $362. The Mas dining room boasts a Michelin star, and huge bedrooms have balconies with views. This is the place to relax while being pampered.

Also visit the Fondation Maeght in St. Paul. It's a contemporary architectural marvel that contains a stunning collection of art, including some by Marc Chagall, Joan Miro, Fernand Leger, Georges Braque, Alexander Stirling Calder and Henri Matisse.

Anyone exploring towns of the Var River Valley might want to base at Servotel (Route N202 at Castagniers les Moulins; $70-$80 double, half-pension), a motel-like place with pool, three tennis courts and a separate restaurant (the original, century-old inn) serving regional food. These are high-season prices (June 15 to Sept. 15), so it's a real bargain.

The town of Cagnes sur Mer was a 14th-Century stronghold of the Grimaldis when their influence reached along the coast from Monaco. While the lower town has little to commend it, the hilltop Haut de Cagnes is as cramped and picturesque as they come.

Sumptuous Villa

The original castle-fortress, built by Rainier Grimaldi in 1309, was converted into a sumptuous villa by another member of the clan in 1620, and they held on there until the French Revolution. Today the upper village is a home for painters and writers.

Le Cagnard ($58-$100 double, apartments $121-$166) was once an annex of the Grimaldi chateau, its vaulted dining room the former guards' quarters. Twenty-five years ago, the owners converted a small pension into one of the most exquisite inns we have ever seen, its dining room (open to non-guests) holding a coveted Michelin star.

Each bedroom and apartment has a character of its own, all furnished in antiques and Provencal fabrics, with fresh flowers scattered around.

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