The next morning we awake to another royal breakfast spread and smiles from Viri and Pierrette. Today we’re off on an exploration of some of the villages around town, for once enjoying a chauffeured tour courtesy of Viri in her mum’s fancy car! We start off in a funny little place, Port Grimaud, which was the flight of fancy of architect Francois Spoerry in the 1960s. He imagined a Venice-like town around little channels and bridges, but with French St-Tropez-like houses and restaurants. The effect is pleasant but a little bizarre, like a theme park almost. There are sailing boats and little yachts moored here and there, but only a few people milling around among the slightly forlorn-looking tourist eateries and shops, although in the summer this must be packed with people. In the little church, there’s the tomb of the architect (hello ego) and some striking stained glass windows by Vasarely.
We get back in the car to head up the hill to Grimaud village, the inland and original part of the town. It’s beautiful as soon as we park the car, heading up a little path to the Chapel of the Penitents, a little church with a cypress outside that looks a little like it belong in a Wild West movie.
Inside is a weird painting of a skeletal bishop surrounded by skulls – it’s Saint Lazarus, who was brought back from the dead by Jesus (yikes), one of a really camp saint in golden armour with a little moustache, and one of the Virgin Mary stabbed by seven swords to represent the seven great pains in her life (cheerful Catholics are cheerful).
We meander around Grimaud’s flowery streets, with the scent of jasmine, wisteria and fig trees in the air. After finding a nice café entirely covered in autographed rugby balls that does good food, we climb up the hill to the ruined castle, which served as a refuge for aristocrats fleeing the plague. The walk around the castle takes us under some little oak trees where we see a blue jay and wildflowers everywhere. The views from the top are pretty spectacular too!
Feeling thoroughly spoiled, we then depart for a more coastal destination, with Viri indulging my love of windy roads with a particularly epic climb among the hills to more beautiful viewpoints over the gulf of St Tropez – unfortunately, Zaza’s not the greatest fan and I have to deploy many tricks in the back seat to keep her semi-quiet. We return to Sainte-Maxime where we’ve got a reservation in a nice restaurant to thank Pierrette and Viri for their hospitality.
As we get to the restaurant, the staff look completely panicked that there is a baby; we get directed in weird clipped tones to a table, and peruse the menu. Viri discovers that as a vegetarian she can have a “vegetarian plate” or vegetarian spaghetti (on enquiring, she gets told that these are just plain spaghetti with no sauce at all – for a mere 16€!) – she manages to get the restaurant to include “any carbs at all” with the vegetarian plate, but it seems this has further terrified the staff who turn up with not just the vegetarian plate with added plain spaghetti, but also random chips and random rice to go with our fish. The weirdness continues when I ask for another carafe of water and they scramble to bring it, putting it down as they say “here’s your emergency water” (what??). Anyway, it’s a pleasant dinner despite the weird service, and we enjoy hearing about Pierrette’s interesting life as a journalist turned diplomat, and delight in stories of Viri’s childhood between three countries.
We are sad to leave Sainte-Maxime, but we get to see Viri for a little longer as we’re giving her a lift to Nice to see her father who’s flown in from Brussels to see her. We manage (just about) to ram the roof box, boot and back seat of the car to leave one small space for Viri to squeeze in, and depart after a surprise breakfast of pancakes, strawberries and cream (and jam and maple syrup and honey and raspberries). The plan is to go along the gorgeous coastal road and have lunch in Nice.
Unfortunately, Zaza has decided that newborn insert or not, she still hates the car. Viri, like the legend that she is, bravely sings in three different languages, shakes the baby’s legs and feet endlessly, crinkles the car toy until her hand is numb, but we are still treated to a full-on tantrum, and have to perform an emergency stop in the outskirts of Frejus to calm Eliza down, her screams echoing among the high-rise flat blocks while we speed-walk up and down the street.
Finally we’re back on the road and shortly after that, we enter the city of Nice and head to its most famous street, la Promenade des Anglais, where Viri’s dad is waiting for us in front of its fanciest hotel.
Of course, there is no way to park near the Promenade, so we follow signs for parking lots… many signs to many parking lots, which are all either full, or height-limited (bloody roof box), or both. We go round and round the entire city (which is gorgeous, by the way), and we cannot find parking. It’s baking hot in the car, traffic is bonkers, there are people parked right in the road everywhere. More and more parking lots are rejected. I’m starting to really want to leave, although I feel sad about it because it really does look like a nice city! We decide to head back towards Viri’s dad to drop her off and leave. Suddenly, a parking space appears! In the street! In a legit parking bit! Ecstatic, we park the car and head to the Promenade des Anglais at last.
On the way there we spot beautiful town houses with elaborate turrets and balconies, and spectacular Art Deco hotels. The Promenade runs all along the sea front; in recent months it’s been talked about for tragic reasons, because a mad moron in a truck mowed people down to please his god there in the middle of Bastille Day fireworks last year. But today there is no trace of tragedy, just the blue blue sea, sunshine and many people enjoying a walk. We finally meet up with Javier, Viri’s dad, who looks a little like Antonio Banderas and goes gaga with Zaza. We enjoy a snack at a beach bar underneath famous hotel Negresco and enjoy listening to Viri and Javier dropping in and out of Spanish, French and English in conversation.
In the end it’s time to leave Viri to her visit in Nice and regretfully go it alone. We will miss Viri enormously and we wish we could take her all the way along with us – what a radiant, wonderful human.