In this part of 'Provence Verte', protected for centuries from development by
inaccessibility and poverty, every village seems lovelier than the last. The squares,
with their refined vernacular architecture, shuttered houses, fountains, churches
and markets draw tourists from all over the world.
Cotignac, a medieval village de caractère, which has all of these in spades, is set
apart from other pretty Provencal villages by its unique and romantic position
nestling under a great cliff, with many grottos and twin Saracen towers above it.
Older houses and storerooms were built into the cliffs and many are still occupied.
Some of these buildings, including a hospice built for veterans of Napoleon's
campaigns are open to the public.
The main square, the Cours Gambetta is lined with cafes, restaurants and shops, shaded by plane trees and cooled by a fountain at one end and the old lavoir or clothes washing area at the other. Cafes sell pale local rosé by the pichet and delicious salads. The restaurants are generally good, the wine cave will satisfy the most outrageous connoisseur, and the modest Spar sells everything from artisan cheeses and foie gras to oven chips and fish fingers. This is a real place. People live and work here all year round. There are bakers, dress shops and hairdressers; a butcher, a fish shop and a tabac as well as souvenir shops and studios selling ceramics. During the summer there are markets several times a week selling food, local wine, pottery and antiques. Occasionally on market days the old knife grinder pushes his barrow up and down the main street, singing to attract custom. The markets, bars and restaurants are an ideal place to rub shoulders with the courteous, country-minded, Provençal people.
On Friday nights in summer, in a corner of the Cours, one of the cafes puts on a family disco where everyone -- locals and holidaymakers of all ages and nationalities -- can bust out their moves. The French love a disco. The sight of extended families, babies and dogs included, forgetting themselves, joining in and dancing to French pop, with style or embarrassment, is a joy. An evening stroll up the hill to the Place de la Marie, with cliffs behind the Mairie floodlit and even more beautiful than they are by day, is wonderful too. Pay your respects to the statue of WW1 soldier - he peers anxiously out from the top of his monument - then continue up past the old olive mill. Soon you'll reach the base of the cliffs and be afforded a spectacular view of the night sky. Or get a ticket for one of the many events: concerts, films, and plays, held in the open air theatre beneath the cliff.
For one night at the end of July the Cotignac becomes le Village du Rock welcoming a sensational German cover band -- the bizarrely named, Five and the Red One, to the Cours to perform 3 ear splitting hours of rock - spanning Elvis and the Beatles to Oasis. If rock is, or was once your thing, this is the highlight of the summer. About a thousand tipsy locals and holiday makers dance, laugh and sing. It's like a massive school disco but without the inhibitions --but in reverse. It's the offspring that look on with disbelief or indulgence depending on their age. Not to be missed.
During the day there's plenty to do without leaving the village. Across a bridge at the bottom of the village there is a path to the right that leads alongside the river, La Cassole, through woodland for about a kilometre and a half. At the end of the path is a cascade and pool, perfect for bathers who prefer wild swimming.
At the top of the village, after a brisk 30 minute walk uphill (don't be put off - the scent of ripening figs and wild flowers more than compensates for the effort), the village unravels into the classic Provençal scenery of vineyards and olive groves. Higher still are forests of green oak and pine. Walking here through the heady scent of hot earth, pine, wild jasmine, rosemary, lavender and thyme, it's hardly surprising that nearby Grasse is a world leader in the perfume industry. Butterflies of yellow, green, orange and lilac in gently flitting profusion are not the only creatures you'll encounter on these tracks; you might see deer or even catch a glimpse of a sanglier (wild boar); but of your fellow human beings there will be few. Birdsong, the hum of insects and even church bells are drowned out by the cigales. After years of underground grub life, they emerge when the temperature reaches 27'C, and sing to attract a mate. The sound of a million lovesick cigale is the unforgettable soundtrack of high Provençal summer.
Take a map (3443 OT Aups Salernes) and walk for hours. It's hot. Take sunscreen, plenty of water, a baguette, cheese, oranges and an opinel knife bought from the market or tabac for your cutlery. Or how about a ice-cold bottle of rose wrapped in a towel? Lie under a tree and contemplate the fathomless blue. Explore the shepherd's hut, Cabanon Sara, visit the churches of the Monastère St Joseph and Notre Dame. Walk further, along the old track beneath the Bessillon, towards Pontevès. and enjoy the views south over the valley towards Correns. The area is crisscrossed with waymarked walking trails: follow the yellow or blue paint daubed on trees or boulders.
Canoeing, kayaking, cycling, fishing, horse riding, rock climbing, an adventure park and tennis are all on hand. For more things to do in the area, for example visits to the many local vineyards such as Chateau Thuerry visit the tourist information office in Cotignac or go online.