A French Exception to the Science Park Rule

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Perhaps no two words strike more fear into the heart of a business traveler than science park. These soulless industrial developments are invariably far out of town, since cheap land tends to be their primary raison d'être. Finding a decent hotel is usually not a problem, but a club sandwich from room service can be the culinary high point of a visit. And cultural stimulation tends to come from pay-per-view movies. Leave it to the French to come up with the exception that proves the rule. Sophia Antipolis, a burgeoning science and technology park on the French Riviera, is not a hardship destination for the thousands of business travelers who trek there each month.

The 1,200 companies located in the sprawling development, which gets its name from the Greek words for wisdom and the nearby town of Antibes, are just a 20-minute drive from the Nice-C&oring;te d'Azur airport and the Mediterranean Sea. Nice-based taxi drivers often have trouble — sometimes legitimately, sometimes intentionally — locating both start-ups and multinationals. To be fair, the technopole's confusing layout can present a challenge. The maze of roads — many with slightly pretentious names like Rue Dostoevski and Rue Albert Einstein — crisscross 2,300 hectares of rolling, pine-covered hills. Even with an up-to-date map (the billboards at the entrances are hopelessly out of date), it can be difficult to find office complexes with lyrical names like Algorithmes and Hermes. The best bet is for your local contact to provide you with a seasoned chauffeur.

Once in Sophia, it's easy to take a break from mind-numbing high-tech conferences, meetings and PowerPoint presentations. The environs boast scores of well-maintained hiking trails and jogging paths as well as two riding stables and 10 golf courses. You can stroll a well-marked 13-km path along the Brague, a stream that runs between Valbonne and Biot, two villages on the park's periphery. The municipal authorities have put up French-language signs identifying local flora and fauna and the walk features zen-like reflection pools.

For more worldly pleasures, Valbonne, a charming, square-shaped little town dating back to the 13th century, is just a half-hour walk along the Brague from Sophia Antipolis, or a five-minute drive. Its easy-to-negotiate cobblestone streets are lined with shops — not designer boutiques — that sell carved olive wood creations, art glass, olive oil, perfume, porcelain, Provençal cloth and soaps. You can even window shop for a Riviera pied--terre at the numerous real estate agencies — but be prepared to express an opinion about the starkly modern and controversial city hall.

The main square, the Place des Arcades created in the 16th century, is transformed into a lively market every Friday morning and is always a delightful spot for an outdoor drink — if the weather's bad, head for the comfortable chairs in Le Comptoir du Sud, just off the square. Valbonne has a dozen decent restaurants, including the recently opened La Pigeot (16 rue Alexis Julien) with Moroccan fare. If it weren't for the diners at the next table talking high-tech deals, you might even forget you spent the day in a science park.