Où les abeilles bourdonnent.
High in the Provençal hills, nestled above the picturesque village of Valbonne, lies Opio. The countryside is lush – green, rolling hills stretch as far as the eye can see, verdant views whatever your vantage point, blue-green mountains, snow-capped in winter, trap the cold air and contain it which means it’s colder than you can possibly imagine and no one believes you when you say you live in the South of France and it’s freezing!
On Sundays you wake to medieval church bells chiming, insects humming outside the window, despite the cold; a stark and vivid contrast to the arid, desert landscape of Morocco that I left behind. The air there was dry, particles of sand frequently stuck to your skin. Here the air is damp, thick with pollen, heavy with the dust of the countryside. Sometimes it is hard to breathe.
Treetops tangle across country lanes laden with flowering jasmine bushes, their scent so powerful it feels like an open air parfumerie.
Spring and winter colours compete for supremacy in the fields, in the lanes and in the sky, red versus yellow versus blue versus white. It’s like the Paris Fashion Week of nature.
In February, a weak, watery sunshine washes the sky; a pale, pastel imitation of the Mediterranean heat I was expecting. Le Mistral howls through the tiny country lanes, whipping scarves against faces, turning umbrellas inside out. It is reminiscent of an Irish winter in the countryside, but somehow the wind seems more glamorous when referred to as le mistral. As it rips through the paysage provençal it causes the beautiful lavender- blue shutters to bang against the walls of the luxurious villas they belong to that dot the landscape, their swimming pools visible only to the most observant.
The jewels of the Côte d’Azur glitter nearby, Cannes, Nice, Antibes, 15km this way, 20 km that way, La Croisette awaits. The sea laps the expensive shoreline, designer sunglasses glint in the sun, traffic clogs the narrow arteries into the coastal towns but high in the hills, the air redolent with the scent of flowers, away from the clamour of the coast, peace and tranquillity reign.
English chatter echoes around the Place des Arcades, in Valbonne, a tiny British colony in a town that looks like it leapt straight from an episode of that enduring tv series ‘Allô ‘Allô. I half expect René to appear from behind a pillar. The car park is packed to capacity with convertible cars, one bigger and shinier than the next. The prices in the boutique shops are eye wateringly expensive, even by South of France standards.
It looks and feels like you are walking around a postcard complete with la boulangerie, la pharmacie et la pâtisserie until you notice the Irish pub on the corner, then reality bites and just opposite is a pizzeria, bringing your French fantasy back to earth with a bang!
Roads wind in and out of Valbonne, from all angles, veering left, right, left again, for those prone to motion sickness beware les virages! The entire coast is like this. Buses are cheap- 1.50 to anywhere in the region, clean, punctual and fast and not so busy off season.
Opio is an option for those who are not beach lovers and even for those who are, one is never far away. Golf, tennis, hill-walking, driving, sightseeing, plenty to do and see. Grasse and St Paul de Vence are close by if you like perfume, walled towns and history. Monaco is an hour and a half away by car if you like palaces, yachts and celebrity spotting.
And so began my own ‘Year in Provence’ , this time last year, or so I thought. It turned out to be only three months. Memorable though. For lots of reasons.