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Prelude Season on the Cote d'Azur : Spring remains a quiet, gentle time, from the gardens to the bistros to the street markets.

April 25, 1993|JUDITH MORGAN

It is warming up now along the Riviera coast; spring rains in the French hill towns send clouds of lavender perfume gusting toward the sea.

Although most resorts on the Cote d'Azur reopen in late March or April, the huge holiday throngs do not check in until July. So spring remains a quiet and gentle time--except for the exuberant outburst of the Cannes International Film Festival in May.

A trickle of tourists begins to arrive, accompanied by tourist talk. (As I waited outside the Chagall Museum in Nice, an Englishwoman was fussing with a phrase book. Finally she blurted to a friend: "How do you say entourage in French?")

The exotic gardens of the Villa Maria Serena in Menton, that dramatic, opera-set port on the Italian border, hit their peak in May and June: roses and tiger lilies, rare cyclads and palms surround the villa, which was built by the architect of the Paris Opera for the 19th-Century French canal builder and diplomat, Ferdinand de Lesseps, who was between projects (Suez and Panama) at the time. Menton, with its snow-topped mountain backdrop, is said to be the mildest corner of the Riviera; its 16-day Lemon Festival each February is a golden version of the Tournament of Roses: folk music, fireworks and elaborate floats built of plump lemons and oranges.

Soon it will be warm enough to eat outdoors at Piccolo Mundo in Monte Carlo, a fabled little restaurant (it seats about 75) ruled by an 83-year-old woman who prepares a splendid Provencal menu and, in summertime, serves at tables set along a steep, cobbled street. I heard about Piccolo Mundo from London friends who spent New Year's in Monaco. It's high on my next-time list.

Other off-the-wall tips from the Riviera:

* Cannes rhymes with fan , not don . Juan--as in Juan-les-Pins--is pronounced Joo-ahn, not Hwan.

* A good--and tasty--buy from old-town street stalls: the Croque Monsieur, a sandwich of melted Gruyere cheese and thin slices of ham. Also: silky French ice cream; mint seems especially refreshing on a hot day. And in Nice, the favorite street snack is socca, a kind of thin crepe made from chickpea flour, water and olive oil; it comes out of the pan like crumbly corn bread.

* You can avoid traffic and parking problems by riding the inter-city trains along the Cote d'Azur. They are fast and frequent, shuttling like trolley cars along the sea, tunneling when necessary--such as below Eze--in this wild and craggy terrain. This allows you to visit many of the close-together towns from one base.

* A seaside hotel that, by Riviera standards, is a bargain is the refurbished Royal Riviera, which is nestled on the outskirts of St. Jean Cap Ferrat, at the edge of Beaulieu-Sur-Mer. The atmosphere is that of a breezy English country house, which happens to have a sandy beach and knockout Mediterranean views. When I had lunch there last October, a health spa with an indoor-outdoor pool was being finished at the far end of the garden.

* My favorite bistro meal--overlooking the dazzling bay at Cannes--was upstairs at Le Caveau 30, where yellow awnings gleam just beyond the bandstand in the long park called Allees de la Liberte. A three-course set menu of a heaping platter of mussels, entrecote with pasta and dessert (creme caramel or lemon or apple tarts) was about $30. The sidewalk tables of Chez Astoux next door also looked tempting; I'm a sucker for window boxes and balconies.

* Beside the famous Marche aux Fleurs, or flower market, in Nice, one block in from the sea, I enjoyed dinner at Le Safari, where a Provencal platter of starters--stuffed eggplant, stuffed peppers and egg frittata--was followed by the red wine stew called daube .

Early that morning, when the flower market was fresh and full, I had stopped nearby for coffee. Four American backpackers sat at the next table and helped launch my day with a smile.

"What's your sign?" a 20-something brunette asked a lanky young man.

"Slippery when wet," he replied.

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