... Of Mimosa and Misadventures In Bormes-les-Mimosas, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur
I'm going to have a really hard time not gushing about this week's guest, Amanda Ashworth. Not only is she a very talented artist, storyteller, and photographer, but she is also one of my dearest friends. Amanda and I met five years ago via Instagram and subsequently in person during my travels to England. Our adventures together took us from posh places like The Royal Opera House and Windsor Castle to searching for elusive Banksy graffiti in a London tunnel under the Waterloo Train Station.
I am beyond honored to introduce her, and her wonderful piece about dreamy Bormes-les-Mimosas. Prepare to have your wanderlust set on fire after reading this post!
All photos and illustrations: © Amanda Ashworth .
The TGV shakes off the cold grey northern winter on its dash south through the French countryside. Beyond the windows the landscape is bathed dusty gold on this late February afternoon and there is a tangible air of expectation among the passengers. We know we are the lucky few.
I'm here for the mimosa, which from January to March transforms the hillsides of the Var Department of Provence into clouds of brilliant yellow. Long ago I fell in love with mimosa on holiday in the South of France and throughout the growing-up years I loved its sunshine burst on a flower seller's stall on a rainy Liverpool street. 'Just one bunch, pleeeese' but the grownups' answer was always "no, it's awfully messy, you don't really want it". I really did though and the lure of trees dripping with gold still beckons... so here I am, destination Bormes-les-Mimosas, a tiny hilltop village and officially one of the Most Beautiful Villages in France, a flower-filled fairyland high above the Mediterranean.
But that's the thing with fairytales, to achieve one's heart's desire a series of challenges must first be overcome. The Eurostar from London was late which meant a mad taxi dash across Paris to catch the TGV with a minute to spare. Now the train, having covered the distance from Paris at a heroic two hundred miles an hour, is dawdling outside Marseille (signalling problem). Helpless, I watch my connecting train pull out of the station... without me. Hours later, too late for dinner, I'm in a hotel at Hyères where the railway runs out. Tomorrow is another day.
To reach Bormes I must catch a bus from the nearby airport. My cab takes 20 minutes to arrive. (Note to self: taxi drivers round here work from home, and distances can be considerable, allow much more time!) The airport entrance is set in a grove of spectacular pines with a scattering of palm trees. We drive in as the bus drives out. Ah, a five hour wait. But the sun is dazzling, the sky is cobalt blue and that looks like snow glinting on the nearest mountain. There is good coffee and salade niçoise, those gorgeous trees to doodle in my sketchbook, and an affectionate new friend, the airport's resident cat, though that could be down to the anchovies.
Bormes-les-Mimosas, Var, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur Photos © Amanda Ashworth
The bus whizzes along beside the brilliant blue sea, past fields of farmed palm trees awaiting a forever home (mine, please!) and newly-pruned winter vineyards. Turning inland the bus windows are filled with the longed-for yellow as we dash towards Bormes. I'm dropped off at the bottom of the hill (winter schedules). So near now, but first another indignity. My suitcase, once safely stowed in the cavernous luggage locker beneath the bus, has now slid into a corner at the very back, some thirty feet from the doorway. In panic, I consider abandoning it, but remembering the precious spare pair of comfy shoes, I clamber aboard. The space is only three feet high and so I crawl ignominiously on creaky knees the entire length of the compartment to reach it. The bus driver, impatient now, wondering what the hell is going on, shakes his head as I brush myself down. Not exactly the elegant arrival of my dreams...
OK, deep breath, onward and upward. Mostly upward. The road bends and twists as it climbs with its tantalising glimpses of the gorgeous coastline below. Dragging the faithless suitcase behind me, and convinced I might die on this hill, I'm tempted to hitch a lift from a passing Renault van, but it can't actually be much further can it? Well, yes it can. Another bend, another climbing stretch of road, this better be worth it! After ninety minutes, there it is, an Instagram-ready view framed by mimosa trees and despite the blisters, bruised knees and throbbing calves, it is indeed worth it.
Tall pastel-coloured houses rise up the dark wooded hillside to a sculpted treeline of massive parasol pines. The last few yards take me past a candidate for the 'prettiest police station ever award' and a village library swathed in bougainvillea. The café terraces on the Place Gambetta are full of patrons basking in the record-breaking 26 degree heat. Beyond the small oasis of palm trees there is a misty view of the distant islands of Porquerolles, Port-Cros and Île de Levant, golden islands floating on a silver sea. Outside my hotel a man is selling mimosa from his motorbike. What more could I possibly want?
Bormes-les-Mimosas, Var, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur. Illustrations © Amanda Ashworth Art
The morning sun pours in through my unshuttered windows. On the other side of the square beside the Tourist Office I can see trees heavily laden with oranges and lemons. Breakfast is served on the enclosed terrace three storeys above the street with the only other guest the giant crown of a lofty date palm whose fronds slap noisily against the plastic screens in the steadily rising wind, competing with the French music blaring from the bar.
Wandering idly through the village I discover tiny streets, cobbled, narrow, climbing steeply, plunging down, uneven stone steps, vaulted passageways, secret gardens with wrought iron gates, here a small square, there a bridge high overhead. Where does this lead? And who lives here behind those shutters and medieval doorways in this high place? Are they young, are they old? Should I turn left, or right, will I miss something marvellous? Though technically still winter, there is so much colour in this brilliant light. The houses in shades of apricot, ochre and terracotta with their blue or green shutters, but also the lushness of the natural greenery which seems larger than life.
The bare branches of plane trees gleaming silver against that intensely blue sky and the gutters are lined with golden dust from the mimosas and the occasional fallen orange. In the main street there are banana trees. Barbary fig and huge spiky cactuses grow from outcrops of rocky walls. There's glossy-leaved magnolias and fig trees about to burst into bud. The streets here are named after flowers; wisteria and bougainvillea and oleander and in the Boulevard des Amandiers the trees are already covered in almond blossom. What must this be like in summer?
Sometimes I catch a whiff of vanilla-y mimosa but in summer the scent must be sublime. By the village boules pitch, with its trophies of past successes, and in the shade of the monumental parasol pines, I stand for a while to soak up the view. My eye is taken by a distant pink house far below, sitting solidly among the pines set against the blue of the Mediterranean. Memory stirs... a scrappy photo of a pink house surrounded by pine trees against a blue sea, torn from a magazine many years ago and stashed away for a possible painting someday... couldn't be... could it? Zoom in with the camera, and yes, of course, it is. In fairyland some things are just meant to be.
A handful of the cafés, shops and galleries are open catering to winter visitors with the usual Provençal souvenirs, anything lavender, local pottery and artisan soaps, but the streets are mostly quiet, just a few locals going about their daily business. In the summer heat this is a tourist hotspot, but on a Friday night in February it is cold in the ferocious wind. Blowing hard enough to mask the sound of a saxophone from the Café des Progrès across the square and to blow over a massive pot with its tall frondy plant in front of the hotel. It falls with a crash into the road and shatters, soil everywhere, and the wretched plant starts to roll down the hill in the path of an oncoming car. 'Oh my God!' I dive after it, inadequately. From nowhere a very elderly nun appears and between us we struggle to get it upright. I go in search of backup from the hotel management and look back at the tiny figure wrangling a straggly fern twice her height, her veil flapping furiously in the wind. She also knows exactly where to get a "good pizza and a nice glass of wine" on this chilly night. Bless you, Sister.
The 'Sicilian' pizza is good, but I also witness with mischievious joy a little scene of Truffaut-esque magic. At the only other occupied table one of the middle-aged men is, I presume, Italian. He is winding up the young waitress, effortlessly chic in her black-framed glasses, white shirt and black skirt, a French film star to her very core... "Why don't you have Sicilian wine?" he asks. "It is not as good as French", she sniffs dismissively. "Ah, you are chauviniste!" he cries teasingly. A pout. "Non. Je suis réaliste." And with a fine Gallic shrug and a stack of plates held high on one hand, she is gone. I sip my glass of local rosé thoughtfully.
Bormes is not only a perfect hilltop village, it is blessed with several beautiful sandy beaches fringed with pine woods. To the east there is a busy marina, and family-friendly watersports. As with the rest of this spectacular coastline there is a well-maintained coastal path to explore. And it is here in Bormes that French Presidents enjoy their official summer bolthole, an old fortress built on a rocky peninsula high above the sea, the Fort de Brégançon. Today, it is windy and the changing light turns the sea from steely grey to clear turquoise in a moment. Apart from a man and his little son flying their kite in the shallows, I have it to myself. Not a President to be seen.
An involuntary paddle as an impertinent wave fills my shoes with sandy water and then it is nearly time to go. There is so much more to see and do and though with the help of a local friendly taxi driver I have managed a couple of sorties to other villages nearby, most notably St. Tropez, I kick myself (as you do) for what I failed to achieve. À la prochaine, (see you next time) dear Bormes, I hope I see you again, perhaps when the promise of all those flowers is fulfilled in the summer and when the ferries to the islands are operating, and I have the use of a car... I carry your sand in my shoes and you have truly touched my heart... though it must be said I do fear my feet and knees may well bear the scars forever!
Bormes-les-Mimosas, Var, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur Photos © Amanda Ashworth
Visiting Bormes - some practical info:
Bormes-les-Mimosas is situated in the Var Department of France, roughly half way between Toulon and St. Tropez. Famous for mimosa trees, it hosts several mimosa-themed events in January and February and there are many specialist mimosa nurseries in the area. In the summer season it is a dream destination for flower-lovers, watersports enthusiasts, walkers, and those who just want to enjoy the many beautiful sandy beaches. For up-to-date information check out the Bormes tourist office website and their Instagram account.
There is a local train service from Marseille Saint-Charles station to Hyères, where there are buses to Bormes. This involves either a walk to a town bus stop or a taxi ride to the local airport to pick up the bus. It is a regular service but there are only a few a day.
Nice airport offers a bus service, which takes about 4 hours.
By far the easiest way to get to Bormes is by car or hire car.
Access to the old medieval village is up a long and winding hill. A visit to the old village can be a difficult destination for someone with mobility issues. The small streets can be very steep and often involve flights of steps. Staying somewhere nearer the sea in the new part of Bormes or in nearby Le Lavandou and just visiting the old part for a meal or a drink by taxi or private car might be a better bet.