Day 5 South of France: Cagnes-sur-Mer, Mougins and Knighthood - 18 May
This was going to be our last full day in Saint-Paul de Vence and we had the coastal town of Antibes earmarked. However, our trusted GPS, which seems to have developed a mind of its own over the past few days, had other plans for us. Don’t ask me how, but we found our way to a village called Cagnes sur Mer. Spotting what looked like a small fort in the distance, we decided to park our car and investigate.
Grimaldi Castle at Cagnes sur Mer: Called the Grimaldi Castle, the small fort sits on the Western slope of the hill on Upper Cagnes. Surrounded by walls, it overlooked the Medieval town and castle square. Built around 1300 by Rainier Grimaldi, ancestor of Monaco’s Grimaldi clan, Lord of Cagnes and Admiral of France, it was intended to be used for watch and defense. For two centuries, the castle withstood sieges and assaults before being converted by Baron Jean-Henri Grimaldi into a luxurious residence in 1620. As it stands today, the monumental staircase with a double bannister, an interior patio comprised of two floors of arched galleries, and reception and ceremonial rooms display a distinctly Baroque style. The Grimaldi castle became a Municipal Museum in 1946, then was declared an historical building in 1948. Today, it houses the Olive Tree Museum, the Solidor donation, the Modern Art Museum, and numerous contemporary exhibitions.
Having traipsed from one room to the other at the Grimaldi Castle, we stopped by the marble staircase and leaned on the double bannister, taking a moment to reflect on what we had just seen and trying to get a sense of history. We looked down to the ground floor and noticed one of the staff members looking up at us, anxiously pointing to his watch. Peter, thinking the man's watch had stopped, gave him the time in his broken French. The man then gesticulated in a way that unmistakenly said “Get moving!”. And so we did, although we hadn’t a clue why. We eventually worked out when we stepped outside that the castle closed at 12:00 for lunch, and it was 11:45. The guy was telling us to get a move on because it was nearly his lunchtime! Lesson of the day: Never get in the way of a Frenchman and his lunch.
Mougins: Mougins was our next port of call and was a real gem of a town. An artist’s and art lover’s paradise, this small town is filled with art galleries, artists studios and workshops. Little shops selling genuine craft and high quality products dot its character filled streets as opposed to the tack touristy souvenir shops that flood the more commercial towns of the Cote d’Azur, like Nice. The Museum of Classical Art is a ‘must see’ at Mougins, where you’ll discover how classical art influenced such artistic great as Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, and Rodin. In fact, Mougins was where Picasso lived the last 12 years of his life.You can still drive to his final home at Mas Notre Dame de Vie. It was appropriately called by the artist, “ L’Antre du Minotaure.”
Resto des Arts, Rue Marechal Foch, Mougins: Mougins is also known for its great restaurants. Taking the advice of one of the locals, Peter and I decided on a favorite local hangout called Resto des Arts. We settled on the set menu for 22,00 Euros per person for the choice of a starter (we both had an amazing vegetable and pesto soup), main (Peter had beef, I had lamb), and dessert (Tarte tatin pour deaux!), all of which were delicious. We noticed an equally popular restaurant next door filled with locals and their friends, called Le Petit Fouet. However, if you wanted a fine dining experience, then you can't go past La Place de Mougins.
After lunch at Mougins, and more pointedly after driving around the French Riviera for 5 days, our energy levels were low and our tolerance levels for the traffic had hit rock bottom. Knots the size of boulders had not popped up on my shoulders due to my prolific writing habits. Rather, they were the result of my shoulders shooting up to my ears each time Peter had yet another ‘near hit’ with an aggressive driver. The concept of “waiting one’s turn” and "giving way", which is so ingrained in Aussie driving etiquette, is unheard of in France. Here, it’s every man for himself. We decided to cut our sightseeing short on our last day and return to Villa St Maxine for a spot of R&R before dinnertime.
Knights of the Champagne Sabre of Villa St Maxime: On our last evening in Villa St Maxime, Peter and I were in for a surprise. I would be participating in a special ritual that dated to the times of Napoleon (or so John said) that Ann and John had prepared for their guests - or at least those game enough to give it a try - the popping of a champagne cork with the use of a saber blade. Yep, you read right. Not having a clue what I was in for, I gamely volunteered.
Nervous that I would end up slicing my own arm instead, or worse, John’s, I approached the task with trepidation. However, with John’s patient instructions, I was able to execute the task at hand with great aplomb. My privilege was to be knighted “Ladye Victoria Ugarte of the Knights of the Champagne Sabre of Villa St Maxime.” Thus, we completed our delightful stay at Villa St Maxime with a toast and a certificate of “knighthood”. I was chuffed!
While the knighting ceremony didn’t come out the best on video, you can see me deftly slicing the cork off with the blade by clicking on the YouTube link below.