In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy followed the yellow brick road. Right here in Provence, you can travel along another magical yellow route and not have to worry about any wicked witches spoiling the trip.
The Mimosa Route, inaugurated in 1999, joins eight of the loveliest villages on the Côte d’Azur, starting in the aptly named Bormes-Les-Mimosas, continuing through Rayol Canadel, Sainte-Maxime, Saint-Raphaël, Mandelieu, Tanneron, Pégomas, and ending 130 kilometres later in the perfume capital, Grasse.
The eight links of this floral discovery route shimmer like a precious chain of gold, thanks to the mimosa tree, that blooms in and around them all. It is a tree with the Midas touch, which transforms the drab winter season, when the rest of the plant world is slumbering, into a dazzling display of incandescent yellow. Its fluffy flower clusters light up the landscape and perfumes the air from January 15th until March 15th, with the most glorious display usually in February.
You can drive along part, or all of, the Mimosa Route at your own pace, stopping for a guided nature walk, or a visit to a mimosa farm or perfume factory, or to admire one of the Corsos fleuris (flower processions) that are part of the annual calendar in several of the villages. You can even munch on mimosa – more about that later – but please remember that you must not pick any of the enticing blooms.
With its old village perched on a hilltop like a Provençal crèche, Bormes-Les-Mimosas makes a picture-pretty start to the Mimosa Route. The old village, with its covered passageways, quaint alleys and tiny squares, offers one Kodak moment after another. Even in winter, its plantings are exceptional and you can see why Bormes-Les-Mimosas won a gold medal last year in the European-wide “Villages in Bloom” competition.
No other colour would do for Bormes. It added “les Mimosas” to its name in 1968 in honour of the golden tree that flowers so prolifically in its forests and gardens. The village has a collection of 80 varieties of mimosa, of the 1200 that exist in the world. The mimosa, part of the Acacia genus, hails from Australia. It was brought to Europe in the late 18th C by Captain James Cook and then planted on the Côte d’Azur by the British aristocracy.
Next on the Mimosa Route is Le Rayol-Canadel (Km 15). Facing the sea, with the Maures mountains at its back, it is renowned for the magnificent gardens of the Domaine du Rayol, once a private estate, which were redesigned by the landscapist Gilles Clément, France’s new Le Nôtre. He favours free-flowing forms instead of strict geometry, and created a mosaic of gardens using plants from Mediterranean-type climates around the world. Mimosas have no trouble stealing the show in February.
Both Sainte-Maxime (Km 42) and Saint-Raphaël (Km 59), the first overlooking the Bay of St. Tropez, the second with the dramatically sculptured backdrop of the Estérel mountain range, organize a Corso Fleuri in February, with Saint-Raphaël dedicating an entire week to the golden tree, including a mimosa market and the election of a Miss Mimosa.
The next three stops along the way, Mandelieu (Km 108), with its splendid château, the quiet little hamlet of Tanneron (Km 112) and Pégomas (Km 115), home of the Mimosa Brotherhood, are all ideal starting points for driving or hiking through the mimosa forests. In Mandelieu, you can see an exhibition on the mimosa region; in Tanneron, several “forceries” are open and you can find out how the budding branches are forced into bloom; in Pégomas you can sample a local specialty baked only in mimosa season --the mimosette, a brioche filled with a mimosa-flavoured cream.
Grasse (Km 130) makes a fitting end to the Mimosa Route, because it is here that the flowers are distilled into essential oils and then transformed by the alchemy of the perfumers’ art into the precious liquid gold that women – and men – around the world find irresistible.
Also hard to resist is a bouquet of mimosa, even though the cottony little pompons start losing their youthful powder puff appearance as soon as you bring them home and quickly age into shrivelled little balls.
Try putting them in lukewarm water, to which a special mimosa-preserving agent has been added, and avoid keeping them in too warm a room. No matter what you do, cut mimosa blooms will only last three or four days at most. They are a fleeting, yet heart-warming, ray of sunshine in winter, and for a brighter, more durable blaze of gold, you just have to follow the Mimosa Route.