Travel: Technicolour dream Cote
That Summer: in the first of a series recalling seminal journeys, Fi Glover remembers a fortnight in the South of France with a blond, a camper van and a hostess dressed in Chanel
Saturday 21 June 1997
lt was the summer of 1987 and I had just finished my A-levels. I didn't really know Alex but we came from the same town in Hampshire and I had got bored with the people I was meant to be staying with in the South of France so I phoned her and, with the arrogance of that age, asked if I could come and stay at her infinitely plusher villa perched high on the hills above Cap d'Antibes.
A day later, I pitched up, as did two other Winchester stragglers. Jamie was tall and blond and sexy, and his friend was darker, duller but nevertheless appealing. He was called Jim or Tim or maybe even Dim. They had a VW combi which they had strapped together with bits of hope and spluttered down from Calais. I nearly wilted, I thought they were so cool. So me, Alex and her friend Kathy and Jamie and Dim spent two weeks haring round the corniche in a shabby van that smelt of boys and fags and booze. I thought life couldn't get any better.
I didn't realise that people actually lived in villas like Alex's, with manicured front gardens and pedicured back gardens overflowing bougainvillaea and the essential crystal-clear pool. Alex said that Ozzy Osborne had the villa next door, and we spent a lot of time peering over the incredibly high walls trying to catch of glimpse of a real rock star or at least a rock star's entourage. When we finally did see the occupants, they looked more like the kind of couple who came from a small town in Germany and went to swingers' parties at the weekends. But that didn't dull the allure of the Cote d'Azur. Ever since Coco Chanel turned the Cap d'Antibes into the melanoma Mecca of the Western World in the Thirties, it has attracted the kind of people who wear linen suits that don't crease and have skins to match their Louis Vuitton luggage.
Juan Les Pins sits in the bosom of the Cote, midway between Antibes and St Tropez. It's like a trashy white stiletto on an otherwise well turned out French woman. It's famous for two things: the jazz festival held there in May, and the fact that it's mentioned in the song "Where do you go my lovely?". It's a pretty town that is now slightly dwarfed by the big blocks of flats on the seafront. The population is small in winter but swells to unbearable proportions every summer when Europe's moneyed elite descend and sit around the cafes on the promenade making sure they look as rich as everyone else. With Cannes, Nice and the Principality of Monaco all within shouting distance it's a magnet for the kind of ladies who always have their bikini lines waxed. Their blokes are invariably older and have white gin palaces that they moor in the tiny harbour at Juan. The villas up on Cap d'Antibes once hosted parties for the likes of the Fitzgeralds and then for Brigitte Bardot. Now Joan Collins and George Michael have taken over.
Nobody seems to do very much apart from tan and chat in Juan Les Pins. But for those two weeks 10 years ago it didn't matter. We didn't have many plans anyway apart from working out which direction to send our hopping hormones in - so we just cruised around and sniggered at the smart people on the pay beaches. The boys had ridiculously small trunks on and seemed genuinely concerned about tanning their buttocks to the max ... and the girls had the kind of upwardly nubile boobs that even after childbirth probably won't look like two fried eggs sliding out of opposite sides of a frying pan.
I was amazed at the fact that people paid to go on beaches just because some poor geezer came along and raked the sand in front of their loungers every hour on the hour. We spent most of our days on the public beaches which are far more suited to the kind of throwing and kicking games that you always end up playing when you see some sand.
Most of all, though, I was awed into silence by Alex's mum who was the epitome of elegance. She wore about seven outfits during the course of the day. She had a swimming outfit, a lunch outfit and when she drove into Juan to buy dinner in the afternoon she changed into a Chanel suit. Her kind of shopping seemed to consist of buying two baguettes, a fat bunch of parsley and some French beans. With this minimal load she'd go into the kitchen and turn it all into a salade Nicoise for the five new house guests that had suddenly descended on her calm. I'd never met anyone like her. She used to tell Alex which clothes went with which hairstyle, a conversation that my mother had never felt the need to have with me. She put up with us spluttering home in the combi at ungodly hours hours of the morning, and skinny dipping and doing nonsense things just because it was the middle of the night - and when we ran out of tabs she kindly allowed us to bum long, thin Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes off her.
My eyes hurt by the end of our trip because I'd stared at people so much. I think I promised myself that one day I'd be that elegant and have lots of outfits and do things with parsley and beans. In fact my sister and I made a drunken pact one night after I got back from the Cote d'Azur experience. We said that when we were 60 we'd live in a big villa on Cap d'Antibes and wear lopsided bouffant wigs and dodgy full make-up and tan ourselves to the point of leather. Thankfully neither of us still hold that ambition close to our hearts.
The last I heard of Alex she was doing something dangerously close to lap dancing in a nightclub - perhaps she was inspired by her win at the Go Go club. I bumped into Jamie once a couple of years ago: he was flogging photocopiers in Fulham Broadway. I don't know what happened to Jim, or Tim or Dim. The combi van collapsed on its way back to Britain and is probably still in a lay-by off the autoroute.
I went back to Juan Les Pins last week as part of a new job. I'd forgotten about the dreadful dancing competition - until I turned on the radio while we were speeding east up the corniche late at night. An Americanised DJ came on the dial playing one of those self congratulatory jingles that are meant to make you think that you're listening to the station that has interviewed all the stars. "Hi! I'm George Michael", "Hi! I'm Barry White", "Hi! I'm Rick Astley". I think I had the grace to blush in the car.
Flying to the Cote d'Azur has become tougher since both Air France and Air UK dropped their services from London to Nice. The lowest fares are EasyJet's (01582 445566) from Luton, pounds 105.70-pounds 165.70 return including tax. British Midland (0345 554554) and British Airways (0345 222111) each flies from Heathrow. Eurostar (0345 303030) has a pounds 109 return to Nice, plus Montpellier, Nimes, Toulon and Avignon. From London Waterloo via Lille or Paris takes around 11 hours to Nice. French Government Tourist Office, 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL (0891 244123).
Fi Glover returns to the Cote d'Azur for BBC2's `Travel Show', when its new series begins on Monday at 8.30pm.
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