From Gaillac, France to San Casciano, Italy via the Côte d’Azur

Cannes, France © 2014 Mufidah Kassalias

Before day had broken on a mild mid-January morning in the South West of France, Sean and I were on the road once more.

After spending four-and-a-half months in a hamlet just outside of Gaillac in the Midi-Pyrénées region of France — where we embraced a hermit-like existence as dog carers and guardians of a 100-acre property nestled in the hills above the town — Sean and I have now moved on to the Tuscan village of San Casciano in Val di Pesa, 15km southwest of Florence.

Sunflower fields have been replaced by olive groves, but both landscapes are full of vineyards, Gaillac being one of the oldest wine-producing regions in France due to its location on the banks of the Tarn river, on the main route for transporting Roman wine to Bordeaux and Northern Europe in the first century, and San Casciano being in the south of the Colli Fiorentini (Florentine hills) area of the Chianti region.

We took two days to drive the 650 miles from Gaillac to San Casciano, leaving just after 6.00 on Sunday morning so we’d have time to enjoy the Côte d’Azur (French Riviera) along the way, as well as to arrive as early as possible.

Sunday afternoon drive along the Cote d'Azur

Sunday afternoon drive along the Cote d’Azur

We pulled off the motorway at Cannes early Sunday afternoon, parking by the marina, along which we strolled, looking at the super yachts parked sardine-like along the shore. One such yacht, Nevertheless, caught my eye, reminding me immediately of Alan Sharp, my daughter’s grandfather. A man who loved and owned boats throughout his life, he earned his living as a screenwriter, penning the Dean Spanley (2008) script in which the character Horatio Fisk expresses his thoughts on the superfluous nature of the word nevertheless: “Nevertheless. What does that expression mean, I ask you? Nevertheless. You might as well be clearing your throat for all the sense it makes.”

Leaving Cannes, we continued on the coastal road through Le Cannet, Antibes, Cagnes-sur-Mer and St-Laurent-du-Var, before driving into Nice along the appropriately named (for an Anglo-American couple) Promenade des Anglais that extends to the Quai des États-Unis, arriving in the Cours Saleya in the heart of the Old Town in the mid-afternoon.

We both loved Nice. A city of grand, colourful Italianate buildings with an Old Town that overlooks La Baie des Anges (Bay of Angels). Legend has it that Adam and Eve, after they were expelled from the Garden of Eden, were guided by angels to settle in the area. Another legend associated with the Bay of Angels is that of Sainte Réparate, a Christian virgin and martyr whose beheaded body was blown by angels, in the third century, to the bay that now bears their name.

Apollo Statue in the Place Masséna

Apollo Statue in the Place Masséna © 2014 Mufidah Kassalias

As our time in Nice was short we didn’t venture beyond the old town. Not that this was a hardship. Le Vieux Nice is a charming and vibrant part of town where narrow, cobbled streets connect busy squares with the bustling Cours Saleya, packed with market stalls in the morning and restaurant-goers in the evening.

Just behind the Cours Saleya is the the Place Masséna and the Fontaine du Soleil. Today, the fountain is home to an impressive seven-meter-high marble statue of Apollo, along with five smaller bronze statues representing Earth, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Apollo, of course, is centre stage. But despite his divinity, and being almost 60 years old, Apollo spent more than thirty years in exile, before being reinstalled as the fountain’s centrepiece in 2011.

Created by Alfred Auguste Janniot, Apollo was first unveiled in 1956 to much chatter, à la Niçoise. The people of Nice objected to Apollo’s four chariot-bearing horses being on his head, likening the statue to a then-current advert for a Renault 4CV (where CV represents horsepower), nicknaming him “the four horsepower statue”.

But that wasn’t the only cause for controversy.

Apollo’s nakedness created a division concerning the size, or lack thereof, of his male appendage. Those of a conservative bent believed he was too well endowed, whereas many older — perhaps more experienced? — women thought he could’ve been blessed with something altogether larger. Either way, students took to adorning Apollo’s renowned member with a variety of decorations, further minimising the statue’s standing as a serious work of art. Janniot, deciding to take matters into his own hands, chiselled Apollo’s talking point down to what he hoped would be a more acceptable size.

As far as the Catholic ladies of the League of Femenine Virtue were concerned the resizing operation only scratched the surface of their objection.

Apollo was still as naked as the day he was unveiled. So, too, were the bronze sculptures. And the Catholic ladies were firm in their opinion that they all had to go. Pressure was brought to bear and sometime in the 1970s the ladies’ mission succeeded.

All six statues were dismantled and removed to more inconspicuous locations. Apollo went briefly to the Mayor’s office before being moved further out of town, near to the Charles Ehrmann football stadium. The bronzes were moved to a rather more insalubrious home next to a water treatment plant, where they were spotted by a journalist researching a story in 2007.

The journalist was intrigued enough to write an article about his discovery and, as a result, the bronze statues were reinstated, but without their overseeing god, Apollo, who wasn’t granted the right to return for another four years. The Fontaine du Soleil is now restored to its former glory. Even if we can’t say the same for Apollo.

Nice, France © 2014 Mufidah Kassalias

After our short walk around the Old Town we joined our host Vincent in his lovely fourth-floor apartment overlooking the Cours Saleya and the Bay of Angels. We immediately began sharing stories and exploring our mutual interests over a lovely aperitif.

Conversation continued as we walked to a fantastic restaurant just a few yards away, one of Vincent’s favourites. Restaurant Safari is a Nice institution, having first opened their doors over forty years ago. Serving incredibly fresh Niçoise cuisine, such as calamars aux artichauts (calamari with artichokes, which Sean opted for) and morue à la niçoise (salt cod with anchovies, capers, black olives, roasted red peppers and new potatoes, which I ordered), it’s not surprising. Our meal was gorgeous and one of the best we’ve eaten in a restaurant in a long time. The restaurant’s fame also extends to its clientèle, reportedly having served the likes of Louis Armstrong and Robert de Niro.

The following morning we were up and out by 8.00, as Vincent was heading to work and we wanted to continue our brief exploration of Nice before hitting the road for the second stretch of our journey. Being Monday it was brocante day in the Cours Saleya, when every stall is filled with antiques and bric-à-brac.

We meandered around, watching the stallholders carefully lay out their wares and soon were ready for breakfast. We wandered over to the crêperie Vincent recommended, but for some reason we didn’t understand the crêpes weren’t going to be ready until 11.30, so we went in search of a nearby alternative. Fortunately, such a place was only a street away and we were soon tucking into breakfast omelettes. Not quite the same as crêpes but certainly more sustaining for the drive ahead. And just as French.

Côte d’Azur, France © 2014 Mufidah Kassalias

Leaving Nice we continued along the coastal road, going around Le Cap de Nice, where we stopped to look back at the coastline with the Nice lighthouse jutting out into the Bay of Angels. We continued through Villefranche-sur-Mer, Monte Carlo (Monaco), Roquebrune-Cap-Martin and Menton, the last town on the Côte d’Azur before crossing the border into Italy.

Once we rounded our first Italian bend we were surprised to see how different everything looked. Although the underlying elements are the same — a coastline bordering a beautiful azure sea with mountains a short distance inland — the coastal hills are home to countless long glasshouses that give the landscape a completely different feel. Rather than the hills being filled with (often grand) houses as they are in France, the Italian hills are terraced for agricultural purposes, giving an impression of stacked horizontal lines.

Shortly after entering Italy we rejoined the motorway, which also runs parallel to the Costa Azzurra (Italian Riviera), affording fantastic views of the coastal towns, rugged hills and deep valleys below. The road itself, the A10 which stretches as far as Genoa, was quite an intense drive, being filled with lorries whose drivers were constantly changing lanes at high speed. Even in the tunnels, of which there were many cutting through the hills. The weather added to the intensity when it shifted dramatically from low-lying cloud to rain coming down in torrents.

Monday morning drive along the Cote d’Azur

Monday morning drive along the Cote d’Azur

We arrived in San Casciano early evening, in time to join our friend Mari for dinner at her olive farm high on the Sorripa ridge. As it had been dark since just after turning inland towards Florence, we couldn’t see the surrounding countryside until the following morning when we awoke to a gorgeous panorama overlooking the narrow valley between the Sorripa ridge and the town itself.

San Casciano, Italy © 2014 Mufidah Kassalias

San Casciano is just outside the Chianti Classico sub-zone, of which seven compose the entire wine-producing region. Since 1716 when the wine was first produced, the Chianti region has expanded considerably, and in 1932 the boundaries were redrawn and divided into the sub-zones of Classico, Colli Aretini, Colli Fiorentini, Colline Pisane, Colli Senesi, Montalbano and Rùfina. The black rooster seal that’s associated with Chianti indicates the wine originates from the Classico region, the Chianti heartland.

Although we’re on the edge of the Classico region, we realise we’ve found ourselves once again in a place that’s connected by a thread to the place we’ve just come from. In Italian, the black rooster of Chianti is gallo nero, the same root from which the name Gaillac stems. Images of a red cock are found all over the Gallaçois area, as it’s part of the town’s coat of arms, and Gaillac wines are known as les vins du coq.

Our previous travels through France and Spain were also connected by a thread, that of Le Chemin de St. Jacques or Camino de Santiago, which has multiple routes in France that converge as one shortly after entering Spain. Towns and villages on the French routes that we’ve visited include Paris and Orléans on Le Chemin de Paris, Eymet on Le Chemin de Vézelay, Bergerac on a new variant of Le Chemin de Vézelay, and Toulouse on Le Chemin d’Arles.

Of all the things we love about our slow travels, forming connections is one we enjoy tremendously — be they hundreds of miles apart or within a single town or city. Our world is vast and varied, yet when we pay attention we can often see those commonalities that connect one place to another.


Mufidah Kassalias is a writer, photographer and slow-travelling digital nomad. She’s also co-founder of Creative Thunder, helping creative individuals and small businesses to fire up their online presence and prowess through strategic content, website and social media solutions. To get a free copy of the Creative Thunder Manifesto, click here.