Sunday, 28 June 2015

Grasse - perfume making

The approach to Grasse doesn't really give any clue as to its leading role in the world of perfume and scent. I imagined a golden citadel surrounded by lush fields of lavender and roses, plus of course, an overwhelming smell of flowers. To be honest though Grasse seems pretty much like any other rather unattractive industrial town with lots of superstores scarring the outskirts. I mentioned before that you can't park a campervan in Grasse, so I took the bus (see Cannes entry) which drops you off right in the centre. It's in the old town that you get a flavour of the pretty Grasse, the one that's associated with perfume production. Vintage adverts on the walls bear testament to Grasse's elegant and sophisticated past.

Grasse was originally a tanning town, famous for its leather goods. But given the natural abundance of Provencale flowers available locally and the town's strong trade links, it also developed a leading reputation for scenting leather - particularly gloves. And so Grasse's role as a perfume-making mecca developed. There are several production houses still based in the town. I visited the rather lovely old Fragonard factory which dates back to 1926 (there are more modern production houses on the outskirts) and learned about this history of perfume making. The tour is free as they know that you're likely to be tempted into buying something at the end - yep, of course I did! It's also rather Willy Wonka-ish, with the processes simplified and theme-parked somewhat. Nonetheless, it's an entertaining (and fragrant) way to spend 45 minutes and there's a good collection of historical items associated with perfume production on display too.

You do get the urge to be refined in Grasse - there are some beautiful mansions housing free museums. The garden of the museum all about Provence's history is a good spot for a selfie!

The Fragonard brand has somewhat overtaken the town. Inside another beautiful house is a small but perfectly formed collection of costumes and jewellery from the formerly influential Arles region put together by Hélène Costa who's closely associated with Fragonard. Again this is free to visit, and is very well curated. You get an informed and analysis of the role of Provençale fashion from the 18th to the start of the 20th centuries as well as some wonderful examples of the clothes themselves.

Back in the Fragonard clothes and interiors stores (more branding) you can see how the textile craft techniques used on these regional clothes in the past have influenced Fragonard's stylish offering today. Embroidery, needlepoint detail, quilting, colour choices, all bear witness to the techniques of the past. The prices are pretty reasonable too, which means I doubt they are produced in France....

I love these sorts of techniques and how they're adapted for modern living.  My mind started whirring with ideas for a Mary Jane range using textile craft skills too. Well, you never know! My first design is sketched out on the right. Orders to please!

Out of office

Love this pic!

Cannes glam on the cheap!

I may like wild swimming, but as my friends know, I also need a large slug of glamour to top up my zest for life. Thus after my adventures in the Alpes-Maritimes I headed down to the French Riviera to Cannes. Now of course I can't afford to stay in Cannes in a luxury hotel (or even a basic one),  so instead Bambi and I made the 'canny' decision (actually it was just pure luck) to stay in a campsite called La Paoute near Grasse. The reason I ended up in this lovely campsite was that unbeknownst to me, campervans can't park in Grasse and nor are they meant to go into the centre of the town. I discovered this after going round and round in the boiling heat and being beeped at over and over again by French drivers with their upturned noses well out of joint. Anyway, as it happens, I found La Paoute, 5km from Grasse, in my Aire Du Campingcar book. Not only is it a great campsite with roomy spots surrounded by olive trees for only 13 euros a night (I'm still not in high season), but it also has a proper-sized swimming pool and a lovely welcoming team, including a British guy who does the food at the bar should you choose not to not cook for yourself.

Much to my delight I also discovered that from the campsite you can take the bus from the end of the road to both Grasse and Cannes for just 1.50 euros each way. Such is the wealth of this part of France that it can subsidise bus fares quite merrily. It's 40 minutes to Cannes door to door, and so this girl, much in need of some sophistication,  hopped on the bus!

One expense I chose to indulge in was to pay 10 euros for one of those mini tourist trains that takes you around the well-known sites of the town and throws in a bit of history too. I was really glad I did this as I was able to sit back and gaze at the old world glamour of the famous hotels built in the 30's along the glitzy La Croisette without lifting a finger or indeed a pied! Apparently, the twin cupolas of the Carlton are modelled on a pair of very pert breasts. Fancy! All the film stars in the world have stayed at these hotels. I will stay there too of course - one day!

It may sound crass. But I really wanted to SMELL THE MONEY in Cannes. And I did. The yachts make you choke in their over-indulgence and the beautiful people are suitably kept apart in their private beaches. Luckily, you can use the public beaches too for free. Which of course I very happily did.

No visit to Cannes would be complete without a glimpse of the red carpet at the Palais des Festivals et des Congres. I'm looking forward to when my film director brother Anthony Baxter gets a screening here which I know he will at some point.

Also well worth seeing is the old town of Le Suquet which was once a sleepy fishing village before it became the focus of so much glitz. There's a great view from the Notre Dame church. Oh, and a road called St Antoine full of cute places to eat. I admit, I did splash out on a delicious meal and half a bottle of Sancerre. Well why not? Why else did I slog my guts out on the BBC's foreign planning desk if not to be able to indulge in a little luxury from time to time on my hols!

Clues of the Esteron - Alpes Maritimes

The Alpes Maritimes has to be one of the most spectacular regions of France. High craggy mountains, extremely arid in places, elsewhere covered in forest, cut through with deep gorges where the white rock gives the water the glow of emeralds. I drove here from the Cinque Terre, determined to see what this area was like. It was a long hot journey not terribly pleasant to be honest, along the over-developed coastal motorway. I stayed a night near the fortified village of Sigale (that's a story in itself folks!) and next morning headed even higher, putting Bambi's engine and my nerves to the test! We drove through numerous tiny villages all clinging to the rocks for dear life!

There are frequent rockfalls on the narrow roads and it really isn't for the faint-hearted. Of course I made the mistake of only using the TomTom and not checking a proper map to see where I was going - or how high I'd have to climb. Thus I ended up on probably the most white-knuckle drive of my life on a one-track road between Aigulun and Castellane - sheer cliffs on one side diving hundreds of metres down into the valley and rockfalls on the other. I don't even know if I should have been on that road to be honest in a campervan. 

Still, once up there you have to go on - you can't turn back on roads like that. Later, a man showed me the detailed map and I could see straight away how stupid I'd been not to check the details first. 
Lesson learned I hope.

I came up here purely because I'd read the stunning descriptions of this location's wild swims in the book below by Daniel Start. Sitting in London exhausted and fed up, I looked at the pictures of the green pools along the Esteron and thought that one day I'd swim there too.

And did it live up to my expectations? Most certainly. It was breathtaking. A real pilgrimage. It wasn't exactly relaxing in the blistering heat, and you have to be incredibly careful swimming in gorges, especially on your own - but it was exhilarating. As I was sitting on the rocks groups of canyoning enthusiasts came by. Maybe next time? I'm not sure I want to dress up in the gear. I like to feel the water on my skin!

At one point along the river I found this lovely old bridge and a ready-made wigwam. One day I want to come back with the love of my life and wild camp in this spot!

I was so fraught after the driving that I didn't linger up in the craggy heights any longer than I needed to. Instead I very gingerly made my way down to Castallane (that was probably the most scarey bit of the drive). Thankfully the landscape became much more gentle and Provencale once I got into the valley. There's a great aire for camping cars in Castallane that costs only 6 euros for the night - AND there's a public loo on site too. Hurrah! No shower, but then I'd been in the river that day so who cares! Castallane is a great centre for canyoning and kayaking incidentally.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Hair do's for travelling divas - Cinque Terre

A hairstyle for a sunshine-filled day on the beautiful Ligurian coast.  Hairband made from Suffolk puffs. Always a little touch of home!

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Mary Jane´s Mobile Makery - Florentine necklace

I thought it was high time we actually had a make on this trip - and so I bring you a very simple but hopefully stylish summer necklace made from chandelier drops found at a flea market in Florence. Take a look - and check out the video below, (almost) live from The Cinque Terre in Italy!

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Liguria - Camogli

A few years ago, I went to the Cinque Terre on the Ligurian Coast for the first time and was completely entranced. Well I've made it back to Liguria in Bambi after about four hours drive from Aosta. It's proving harder to find campsites or overnight campervan carparks in Italy, so I booked into a hotel in one of my favourite places, Camogli, for a cheeky night of relative luxury! I have to say though, at 60 euros La Camogliese was very good value for money and I fell asleep to the sound of the waves crashing on the stony beach. There was a big buffet breakfast to set you up for the day too. Hurrah!

Camogli is a beautiful place to stay and there's free parking (and a market) on a Wednesday, which means you can leave the wheels behind for a few hours, stock up with goodies for a picnic,  and take the train to discover the delights of the Cinque Terre. In fact, I might just go and do that now! If you scroll down the photos I took last night, at the bottom you'll find a slightly older shot. This was snapped about 15 years ago when I visited Camogli with some very good friends of mine Geoff and Yolanda. We were guests at the holiday home of another mutual Italian friend whose parents had a wonderful holiday home here with stunning views of the port of Genoa. Seems just like yesterday...... If you're reading this Tomaso, I could do with somewhere to park Bambi!

A hat-tastic night with new friends

This is what happens when you have a milliner staying at a rainy campsite! Made lots of new friends during the downpour at the Mont Blanc campsite in Aosta. Lovely welcoming crowd. Anyone recognise the mystery man? Stan?

Monday, 15 June 2015

Mobile Makery makes over Maurice

I have to admit. There hasn't been a whole lot of making going on recently what with all the travelling. However whilst staying with my friends in Bourg St Maurice there was a perfect opportunity to sew-on-the-go! A little help was required to make-over my friends' campervan Maurice and so in the best Blue Peter tradition we got busy with some sticky-backed plastic, some quirky Ikea fabric and my trusty sewing machine. 

We made curtains for Maurice and used the blue sticky-backed plastic to give the table a cool blue '50's feel. Wildflowers from the garden for the photoshoot of course......

...and hey presto!! We used lace for tie-backs. Perfect as the lace has ready-made holes for hanging!

You know that every stylish camper van needs a homemade up-cycled hot water bottle cover for colder nights and so we put an old jumper to good use. Pin it around the bottle inside out to get your pattern and then stitch around twice before trimming. Turn the right way out.

You don't even need to felt the jumper first. This cover will come in handy once summer is done and is a quick and simple project for beginners to tackle. Chic on a shoestring!

Viva Italia!

So much to catch up with and have LOADS MORE to write about France (and indeed Belgium) but yesterday I crossed the Italian border much to my excitement. I'd had a few worries with Bambi's brakes but fortunately the friends I was staying with in Bourg St Maurice up in the French Alps helped me find a garage. Bambi was quite the star with all the staff taking photos. Not sure they'd seen anything quite like her before!

Given the problems, I was a little nervous about negotiating the 40 miles or so of steep hairpin bends over the Petit Col St Bernard which takes you up through the mountains into Italy. The pass is only open part of the year (the rest of the time it doubles as a ski run) and is favoured by bikers and cyclists as it ascends to over 2000 metres. Very kindly, my friend's husband who's a native of the mountains, offered to accompany me with their dog Cannelle who'd already shown quite an interest in Bambi. It's the first time a dog has hitched a ride!

I was very glad I had company as the climb up in Bambi was not for the faint-hearted! Sadly the weather was atrocious so the views of Mont Blanc were masked by fog. However we did stop off at the statue of the St Bernard dog, they're famous here of course for their role in mountain-rescue work. My personal guides for the afternoon were clearly enjoying their rescue role too! 

It was amazing to finally reach the top where we bumped into a group of VW enthusiasts on their way back from a rally in Italy. Rather than joining them for a beer we had a coffee in the Italian bar just over the border. 

It was such a memorable drive. Incredible to be up at snow level. 

You'll be pleased to hear Bambi and I made it down the hairpins on the other side into Italy in one piece. And my trusty guides? They safely WALKED home back to France dear reader!

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Fleamarkets - Paris - Montreuil

I'm just going to say one thing about this fleamarket, and that is, don't bother. I had read various reports that this was still THE place to go to nab a hidden gem. Out on the peripherique in the 20th district (metro Lemierre), I really struggled to find it at all, wasting an hour wandering around. I finally had to go into a Macdonalds to log onto wifi to try and figure out where I was. Tea and chips in a Macdonalds in Paris is not really want you want to be doing! Anyway after being told by the helpful guy behind the counter that the area wasn't even safe, I bravely marched on and finally located the place on the main junction with the motorway. Not sure how I missed it really as it's tucked under the Carrefour and stretches as far as the eye can see. After all that effort, what a disappointment! Row upon row of complete tat - lots of cheap household goods and new clothing.

The only thing of vague interest, was a barrow selling fresh herbs and a rather sorry yet intriguing-looking collection of dolls shoes - most of them missing their pairs. No fabulous vintage finds to be had at all. If there ever were real brocanteurs then they've long moved out. 'Nil points' I'm afraid for both location and wares.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Fleamarkets - Paris - Vanves

Another Parisian fleamarket that I've been to in the past and enjoyed, is the one at Porte de Vanves, in the 14th. It's a local outdoor market, much much smaller than the famous St Ouen/Cligancourt one - and used to be a place where you could still bag a bargain. It got a pleasant atmosphere, with stands straddling the road, but it's alot more touristy now than in the past. I met many Japanese and American visitors, who (along with the likes of us) have probably pushed prices up. All the stallholders now seem to speak English and I got a feeling that there was no longer much room for bartering and haggling which is a real shame.

The market is on from 7am to 2pm on Saturdays and Sundays (go to metro station Porte de Vanves) and you can quite happily wander around for an hour or two. But I'd say real finds are a thing of the past. For example, I saw little ceramic hot chocolate or coffee bowls priced at upwards of 15 euros - I've bought similar (if not nicer) ones at French charity outlet Emmaus for 50 cents. Linen smocks, fantastic for dying, used to be cheap. Now they've been pre-dyed for you and are selling for 30 euros. Hmm. Let US do the craft work please!