Courchevel 1850

Last week I discovered the most chic winter destination in France. Courchevel is a ski resort in the French Alps. Part of Les Trois Vallées, it’s the largest in the world. Courchevel alone is made of up of three levels, the highest being 1850 meters up in the mountains. This was where we were headed. Having only skied in the U.S. and Italy, I was looking forward to the adventure.

Just over three hours after leaving Paris I arrived to hotel Le Strato, set high up in the mountains. This five-star alpine hideaway revealed stunning views of the Alps, with skiers passing by on the paths just outside my window. I was in snow-capped heaven! I breathed in the fresh mountain air as I settled into my luxurious room.

This family run hotel is one-of-a-kind. Opened in 2009 by “a young lady of over 80,” it was the realization of a dream for Jeannine Boix-Vives. It’s named for the Strato skis that had contributed so much to the Rossignol brand’s fame, a company once owned by Jeannine and her family. As she so wisely states “dreaming alone will not determine your destiny.” Every detail in the 25 suites is taken into consideration, from the elegant modern decor to the unique comforts (catching up on the news from the bathtub, for one). The unrivaled spa uses Sothys products and features two saunas, a steam-room, jacuzzi, gym and indoor pool. (My signature massage was heavenly!) I was thrilled too, to take an invigorating yoga class, adding to the bliss I already felt.

Symbolic of the three generations running Le Strato, family paintings hang in the library, dining room and along the corridors, complimented by wooden sculptures and artwork collected from around the world.

What makes Le Strato even more of a haute destination is its Michelin-starred gastronomy.  Restaurant Baumanière 1850 is run by Jean-André Charial (owner of the famous Michelin 2-star restaurant l’Oustau de Baumanière in Baux-de-Provence). With executive chef Lowell Mesnier working closely with chef Glenn Viel and Jean-André Charial, the food alone is worth the trip. Having already tasted Glenn’s cuisine on my visit to Baumanière, I knew I would dine like a queen. Every evening I looked forward to the gourmet feast following a cocktail at the cozy bar, live music filling the space. Breakfast in the same regal setting was an introduction into local tastes.

Ready to discover the mountains, I headed to the ski room for my gear, booked a teacher to guide me through the slopes and headed down the hill directly from the hotel. With many blue pistes to choose from, as well as a handful of red for those more advanced, I felt completely at ease. This was paradise!

Guided by the sun, we skied the smooth snow all the way down to the village and took the chair lift back up, with views of Mont Blanc in the distance. It took a few years, but finally I was feeling that ski high unique to those dedicated to the sport. I was elated and couldn’t wait to return with my expert Italian skier!

I even encountered art in the mountains during my first ever racket walk, a healthy alternative to skiing. “Doggy John” by painter and sculptor Julien Marinetti stands 175 cm at 2238 meters high.

Before the return to Paris I took a petit pause on the terrace, filled with gratitude at having experienced this tasteful family chalet that honored one woman’s life, while providing happiness to so many others.

The Velvet Hours

During these seven years living my own love story in the City of Lights, I’ve read quite a few others. One of the most romantic tales to date is the latest novel by international bestselling author Alyson Richman.

The Velvet Hours takes you into the lives of two women in very different circumstances, connected by a common thread. Inspired by the true account of an abandoned Parisian apartment, Richman composes a glamorous love story set in the period of the Belle Epoque. In colorful accounts of her life, Marthe de Florian recounts this story to granddaughter Solange. Marthe describes herself as A  woman of the demi-monde, the half-world. Caught between beauty and darkness. In some ways trapped, but in other ways completely free.

As the mysterious life of this beautiful courtesan is revealed to her, Solange tries to make sense of her own. She finds refuge in the company and stories of her grandmother as Germany invades France and Europe prepares for war. In time, she learns the secrets of her family history, and discovers her own unique path.

In lieu of Valentine’s Day, I share this book with you, written in Richman’s characteristic poetic prose. You can easily imagine yourself walking the streets of Paris, intertwined between the lives of Marthe and Solange. The Velvet Hours is certain to become a favorite of any romantic Francophile.

Nice: Top Picks

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After Paris, Nice is the largest city of art and culture in France. And if you like art as much as I do, then you must make a stop in this culturally rich city, where art finds a home, even around the city streets. There is so much to do and see in the capital of the Côte d’Azur, where does one even begin? By stopping in the Tourism Office you can certainly gather enough information to keep you busy for days. Or you can use this list of my top things to do, see and eat. Some of this advice comes from my Nicoise friend, and who better to trust than a local?

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SLEEP: To wake up surrounded by art and history, and with a view of the sea, stay at Le Negresco. This is the Art Hotel in Nice, and an experience you won’t ever forget. You can read all about my stay, here. If you’re on a budget, another artful option is Hotel Windsor, where each room is designed by a different artist.

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VISIT: With over fifteen museums and dozens of galleries, which are most worth visiting? That remains a matter of opinion depending on interest, but ones that I would not miss are Musée Matisse, exhibiting one of the world’s largest collections of Henri Matisse’s works, Musée Marc Chagall, dedicated to much of the artist’s religious work, and the Museum of Contemporary and Modern Art, highlighting the work of more recent artists including sculptor and painter Niki de Saint Phalle. I recommend picking up a 48 hour Museum Pass which will gain you affordable access to these and many other museums and galleries. Keep in mind that most are closed on Tuesdays.

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DO: To really get to know a city, stroll its morning markets. This is where you’ll interact with the locals and simply observe the life of the city. On Cours Saleya in the Old Town, there’s a market every morning from 6:30am. The most famous is the Marché aux Fleurs, or Flower Market, from Tuesday to Sunday. This market is the most well known, since it was in Nice that the first wholesale flower market in the world appeared in 1897. Here too you can purchase fruits and vegetables until around 1:30pm, with the flowers being sold until 5:30. If you’d like an expert guided tour of the food market followed by a cooking class, Rosa at Les Petits Farcis is your girl!

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EAT: The specialities of Nice include pissaladière, bread with a topping of caramelised onions, olives, garlic and anchovies, and socca, a sort of fried chickpea cake, much like the farinata I often eat in Cinque Terre. Both of these you can try at many cafes in the Old City. Here are food expert David Lebovitz’s favorite socca spots in Nice. As for where to dine, one local spot serving the best plate of pesto pasta I’ve ever eaten outside of Italy, is La Merenda. It’s a tiny restaurant in the Old Town that doesn’t take reservations, but worth the wait. Also be sure to stop by Maison Auer for the best candied fruit and chocolate covered almonds in France, among other delicacies!

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WALK: Be sure to walk around the Old Town and get lost in the maze of streets lined with pastel colored buildings. The Promenade des Anglais is the famous stretch in front of the sea. Follow it all the way to Castle Hill for the best views of the city and its surroundings. Climb the free elevator at the seaside; look for the ‘Ascenseur de la Chateau‘ sign. From the top you’ll have a view of Nice all the way to Antibes, and from the other side you can see Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat.

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Le Negresco

My last trip to the Côte d’Azur was in March. I spent a little time in Nice but was eager to become better acquainted with this, the region’s capital. Aside from its Mediterranean climate, it’s a city of art and culture, another reason to fall in love with it. To properly immerse myself in the world of French art, where better to stay than at the historic hotel Le Negresco. Centrally located between Cannes and Monaco, it sits on the famous Promenade de Anglais. It is here in this National Historic Monument, that the French works of art from Louis XIII to modern art, have a home. I knew I would be in good company.

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Upon entering, the grandeur of this hotel is hard to describe. I’ve stayed in many beautiful hotels around the world, but Le Negresco is in a class of its own. The Versailles Lounge alone takes your breath away, with Louis XIV’s portrait, marble floors, hand-painted ceiling, and elegant furnishings. The fireplace too, is original. I could imagine the decadent events having taken place in this salon since Henri Negresco opened the hotel in 1913, now over 100 years old.

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Next I entered the Royal Lounge, centrally situated beneath a large glass dome. This is Negresco’s soul, and you can certainly feel it. Once an elegant ballroom, it’s now an elaborate event space, displaying portraits of French royalty, including Napoleon III. A stunning Baccarat chandelier provides the centerpiece. Fittingly, the hotel’s 93 year old owner Jeanne Augier’s portrait also has a place on the wall. After all, it is she who welcomes each guest to her home, which she has taken great pride in decorating. She lives on the top floor with her cat, and ensures that this private, family run hotel remains at the highest 5-star level in comfort and cuisine.

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A good friend from Nice had often spoken about the restaurants at Le Negresco, particularly the vibrant and colorful La Rotonde. It’s in fact an 18th century carousel with wooden horses circling the restaurant. My eyes opened wide in amazement as I entered this space and understood immediately why it’s such a warm and welcoming place dedicated to families. The terrace opens up to the sea and this is where I chose to have lunch, accompanied by the sun. Breakfast would be enjoyed in the carousel.

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Le Negresco is also known for its haute cuisine. Le Chantecler is Nice’s finest restaurant, with two stars in the Michelin Guide under the culinary expertise of chef Jean-Denis Rieubland. He defines his cuisine and style as “inspired by Provence, with the respect of its products and traditions”. This is THE place for French gastronomy, boasting a wine cellar of over 15,000 bottles, with woodwork dating back to 1751. After dinner you can unwind at the neighboring bar with live music and a good digestif.

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With each of the 96 rooms and 21 suites uniquely decorated with period furniture, I was eager to take a closer look. Mrs Augier being an art connoisseur and collector, walking through the hotel and up the four floors feels much like being in a museum, with artwork from Salvador Dali and Sonia Delaunay, tapestries from Raymond Moratti and sculptures from Niki de Saint Phalle, to name a few. And the rooms? Timeless perfection.

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I felt very much at home in my room overlooking the Bay of Angels and knew I would return to this Art Hotel called Le Negresco.

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Grand Sud : Part II

The following day it was time to visit the medieval town of Carcassonne, located in the Landuedoc region. I was eager to explore this World Heritage Site. Arriving just in time for lunch, I opted for the speciality of the region. Cassoulet is a slow-cooked casserole traditionally made with white beans and pork. Delicious! Onwards to the main attraction, the medieval citadel La Cité. First built in Gallo-Roman times, various additions were made in the 13th and 14th centuries. It’s hard even to describe the grandness of this hilltop fortress.

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Within the walled Cité sits Château Comtal, a 12th-century castle. Led by an expert guide, I discovered this castle and its ramparts, which provided an incredible view of the town. I was blown away (quite literally in fact) by all the history. For a view from afar, I headed to the River Aude, followed by a walk around Carcassonne’s center.

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I also discovered the historic Canal du Midi, excavated in the XVIIth century, which links the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. I watched as numerous boaters used this main waterway along their route through Carcassonne. In 1996 it became a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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As the sun was preparing to set, it was time to head back to the citadel. Just opposite  the 12th-century Basilica of St. Nazaire and St. Celse, and a 2-minute walk from the Château Comtal, sat Hôtel de la Cité, my home for the night. What a regal setting! I already knew it would be hard to leave in the morning.

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I toured the elegant hotel, where once upon a time Winston Churchill slept, as did Princess Grace and Walt Disney. Now it was my turn to slumber within this Neo-Gothic mansion built in the XIX century. I couldn’t stop staring at the views from my balcony, rightfully so as the light kept changing and dusk settled in, the town illuminated in the distance.

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My next stop was dinner at La Barbacane, their Michelin star restaurant. Yes, I did feel like a princess in a castle. Thankfully, it wasn’t yet midnight and the dream continued.

 

 

Grand Sud : Part I

After returning to Paris for a quick change of clothes, I once again boarded the train, high speed ahead, direction south. Can one ever travel too much? Considering I once spent 13 months on the road, I think not. There is so much more to discover beyond the City of Lights, and along with the France Tourism Board I was well on my way to discovering. In just under 3 hours I arrived to Avignon.

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The first stop was lunch at a riverfront restaurant with quite a history. Guinguette de Vieux Moulin, located at the foot of the tower Philippe le Bel on the Rhone, a few miles from Avignon, opened in 1901. It was here that a bridge once linked the castle of the popes to Villeneuve les Avignon. In 1761, as the name suggests, 6 mills were installed, 3 for water and 3 for wind. In days past this was the place for fishing competitions and nautical games, now a place of relaxation and classic French cuisine.

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Onwards to the highlight of the day, a 2,000 year old aqueduct bridge. Pont du Gard is a 30 minute drive away, and worth every mile. Approaching the bridge from a distance, I was completely taken with the enormity and elegance of this ancient Roman structure. It’s hard to believe that this three level masterpiece, 360 meters long and 50 meters high was built in only 5 years.

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This massive bridge provided those living in Nîmes with running water for close to 5 centuries, making this a highly prestigious city in the south of France. Much of it was used for their bath houses. Water was collected from the Eure river at the foot of Uzès. Led by my expert tour guide I had the opportunity to discover the canalization, walking inside the bridge along the exact path where the water flows. Not to mention the views!

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Surround by 408 acres of a stunning natural landscape, this is the perfect place to spend an afternoon swimming, canoeing, enjoying the flight of Bonelli’s Eagles, that is, if you’re lucky enough to catch a glimpse.

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What makes it even more of a destination is that the Pont du Gard was the first French site to be awarded ‘Grand Site de France’ in 2004. This great honor presented by the Ministry of Ecology and Sustainable Development, safely combines tourism, local life and the protection of nature. There are now 14 sites in France with this distinguished title. What’s more, this is a Unesco Heritage site since 1985.

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After several hours learning about the structure and admiring its grandeur, I dug deeper into the history of this Roman aqueduct by way of the museum. I could have easily spent the rest of the afternoon there but it was time now to continue the journey. I vowed to return for the annual music festival in July. What a venue! Now it was time to end the day a short drive away in the village of Castillon-du-Gard.

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As soon as I entered into the world of Le Vieux Castillon, located in the heart of this small Medieval village, I was enchanted. Newly renovated in minimalist elegance, this 32-room boutique hotel resides in a Renaissance building. Its history is felt in every room, within the spacious gourmet restaurant, through the courtyard and to the pool which overlooks the picturesque Provençal landscape. Just in time for sunset, I perched on a lounge chair to enjoy the view, and a moment of zen.

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Needless to say, when morning came, I didn’t want to leave this tranquil paradise. But it was time to discover another famous French destination.

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