FRANCE: the Route du Mimosa, festive wintertime!
Till the end of March, millions of downy yellow flowers with a heady fragrance cover the hills and dales of the Côte d'Azur. From Bormes-les-Mimosas to Grasse, this itinerary will allow you to discover all the aspects of mimosa so typical of the Belle Époque.
We had somewhat forgotten the fact that the Riviera was created for wintering! Winter is when it is at is best with remarkably pure light and empty beaches beckoning you for a stroll. The English lords, who started tourism on the Côte d'Azur in the 19th century, never stayed here beyond the month of May, just like the great writers, from Maupassant to Somerset Maugham. So, like them, let's take advantage of the flowering mimosas to rediscover the very essence of the Côte, a unique mix of winter mildness and retro charm.
Located close to the sea, on the slopes of Massif des Maures, this colourful 12th century village was dubbed 'les-Mimosas' in 1968. What a pleasure to visit this site as early as January, without the summer crowds! The old Bormes smells fragrant and radiates between the yellow of the mimosa and the blue of the sky – a real Matisse! When you arrive at the old castle overlooking the sea, you'll see in the distance the Islands of Port-Cros and the Levant.
Then stroll down the sloping little streets lined with eucalyptus. You'll have plenty of time to admire the tiled facades of the houses built on the very flanks of the rock. A specific characteristic of Bormes are the covered passageways crossing the bottom of houses. At the bottom of the village, Gérard Cavatore's nursery presents a unique collection in France of more than 160 varieties of mimosas. Visit the nursery and ask this horticulture buff for advice.
Nine miles from Bormes, the Mediterranean gardens at Domaine du Rayol are one of the most beautiful sites on the Var coast. Exotic species are to be seen here alongside mimosas, pines and cork-oaks. A monumental staircase connects the beach to a belvedere bedecked with a pergola: these two Art Nouveau masterpieces have been listed as historic monuments since 1989.
We suggest you momentarily leave the Route du Mimosa, as presented in the tourist office leaflets, in order to discover Roquebrune-sur-Argens.
Located inland, between Sainte-Maxime and Saint-Raphaël, this typical Provençal village has kept its character and peacefulness. Apart from its Romanesque chapel, the view over the foothills of the Maures is magnificent, especially the Rocher de Roquebrune whose red sandstone rock is like that of the Estérel chain.
If you like orchids, do not fail to visit the 2,500 sq. m. of the Serres de Raphaëlle Vacherot which supplies in particular the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris. Several hundred species flourish in these greenhouses heated to 25°C, from Proust's famous cattleyas to the most unusual orchids.
Saint-Raphaël and the Estérel
After this brief detour, return to the Route du Mimosa which heads towards Saint-Raphaël. Built where the slopes of the Estérel reach the sea, this seaside resort is located on the southern cove of Golfe de Fréjus.
After driving along the very beautiful Rade d'Agay, we advise you take the century-old Route de la Corniche d'Or overlooking the red creeks of Anthéor and Calanques du Trayas.
You should explore on foot the Massif de l'Estérel, one of the most beautiful sites of Provence. Wild mimosa grows here at the foot of Pic de l'Ours and Mont Vinaigre (614 m) but it is forbidden to cut it!
First port of call in the Alpes-Maritimes, Mandelieu-la-Napoule owes its development to the precious flower that covers Massif du Tanneron. The arrival of the railways at the end of the 19th century indeed allowed cut flowers to be dispatched to Paris. But the charm of the old town is above all due to its Belle Epoque heritage, like the famous Old Course, the first golf course on the Côte d'Azur which the grand duke of Russia commissioned in 1891 on the model of the links at St Andrews in Scotland.
A piece of advice: hurry to visit Château de La Napoule early in the morning when the coast is bathed in sunlight. Restored and enlarged in the 1920s by a millionaire and whimsical American sculptor, Henry Clews, this strange half-Gothic half-Art Nouveau mansion features a magnificent terrace overlooking the sea from where you can see the port of Cannes.
To perfect your knowledge on the growth of mimosa, we advise you visit the Forcerie artisanale de Bernard Vial, in Tanneron. On leaving Mandelieu, the road to it is winding but crosses an extraordinary mimosa forest (Europe's largest) and also offers exceptional views over the Côte. The forcing house is a workshop where mimosa that is still green is made to flower. The temperature in it is 20 degrees and humidity is maximal. Complicated alchemy then begins during which the producer spends his time sorting branches by hand, then covering them alternately with plastic sheets or blankets so as to alternate phases of humidity and of heat.
Why does a bunch of Mimosas wilt so quickly? Bernard Vial tells us it is because its vessels are blocked which stops the water from feeding the flowers. In order to keep your blooms for at least one week you have to dip them in hot water (40 degrees Celsius) in which you have diluted a product developed by the Institute for Agricultural Research. This magic potion (supplied by florists or the producer) acts to clean out the Mimosa's vessels.
The Route du Mimosa finishes in Grasse, the capital of perfume where the legendary Chanel No. 5 was created. Built on the plateau which gives it a splendid view over the coast around Cannes, the old Grasse is warming to the winter visitor! Its high Medieval houses are painted in the colours of the setting sun: ochre, red, orange, yellow...
On some mornings, you will smell the fragrance of mimosa, jasmine or roses: the laboratories of the former Grasse perfume plants (Fragonard, Gallimard, Molinard) are making a new fragrance from fresh flowers.
You can attend the perfume production process by visiting the very beautiful Musée de la maison Fragonard.
The Musée international de la parfumerie, located in one of the finest 18th century mansions in the town, presents for its part a world unique collection of boxes and bottles, from ancient Egypt to the creations of the 20th century signed Lalique and Baccarat.
Tourist Office, Bormes-les-Mimosas
Tourist Office, Grasse
Tourist Office, Mandelieu-la-Napoule
Domaine du Rayol
Av. des Belges
83820 Le Rayol-Canadel
Tel: 0033 (0)4 98 04 44 00
Bormes-les-Mimosas: ©Alamy / hemis.fr
Saint-Raphaël: ©A. Copson / age fotostock
Esterel: ©A. Sarti / imageBROKER / age fotostock
Mandelieu-la-Napoule: ©R. Manin/hemis.fr
Grasse: ©Travel Pix Collection / age fotostock