Yeah, I suppose you have every reason to dismiss me with boos and hisses for what on Earth is it in that destination in question, Cote d’Azur, or the French Riviera, as it is refered to in English (although the original name reflects the real thing so much better), right? (right???) except for some ugly beaches, lousy weather, bad food and cheap wine. But bear with me, please. It was MY holiday after all.
First things first: Cote d’Azur, probably France’s finest stretch of coast, is just as good and beautiful as I remember. Maybe even tiny weeny bit better but memory can be, oh, so deceiving. Nah, it is disgustingly fabulous. We shall be returning.
Our short holiday on Cote d’Azur this summer was so colourful I’m having hard time assembling all the impressions for this post. Where do I begin?
For starters, we followed some of the big masters’ steps: Picasso, Matisse, Renoir, and I’ll throw in an ostentatious Rothschild villa for good measure. After alI, it is a destination of wealth in all its forms.
It’s a well-known fact that artists take to the French Riviera like fish to water. No wonder, who’d not? I guess it’s fair to say that the climate is stimulating and the ambience motivating. Also, the abundance of well-heeled patrons (and consumers of art) has something to do with it too.
Anyway, my personal favourite has always been Pablo Picasso and this hasn’t changed. I’m drawn to his works as by magnets and I still, after all these years of seeing numerous exhibitions of his immense legacy, feel utter admiration for his artistic stamina and productivity. He lived on different locations along Cote d’Azur, so there’s a lot to be seen here that comprises of him as a person and/or an artist.
There’s Andre Villers’ museum of photography in a stupendous hill-top village of Mougins that exhibits a collection of marvellous portraits of Picasso, some of them famously notorious. He was his own best PR director and photographers followed him around like bees.
In Antibes, the fortified coastal town, there’s Picasso Museum in Grimaldi mansion right next to the sea where the artist was lent a studio in 1946. There’s a lovely collection of Picasso’s ceramic plates and some great paintings from his “early” cubist era that were donated to the museum by the artist himself (and some added by his wife Jacqueline after his death).
Also, it seems to be unavoidable, there’s another collection of photographs of the artist and his friends and family members. Like I said, he was a skilful self-advertiser.
Auguste Renoir chose to move with his family to Cagnes-sur-Mer , another town on the French Riviera. He built a splendid stone house for his family, very modern at the time, up on the slopes above the town with uninterrupted (at the time) views over the Mediterranean Sea.
The property includes family’s olive grove and a citrus tree garden where there’s unexpected peace and quite, surprising for Cote d’Azur. Expect original fittings, furniture (including Renoir’s easel!), some art by the great painter and his visitors (he had plenty), some photographs from the family album. You come to admire the artist’s home; his great artworks are to be seen elsewhere around the world.
Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence is also known as Matisse Chapel since it was designed and constructed by the great artist himself down to the last detail (candle holders, tabernacle, priest cloth included). Henri Matisse lived in near-by Nice (and for some time also in Vence) and committed himself to conceive this chapel as a kind of thank-you to the Sisters of the Dominican order.
At the time of its consecration, in 1951, it surely raised a brow or two, and I have certainly not seen anything like it before. I found it clean, no-frills, almost basic, plain on the outside, colourful but serene on the inside. The stained glass windows are marvellous, the murals are simple and abstract, and the whole place is peaceful and cheerful at the same time. I could easily imagine my praying there had I been a religious kind.
Then, there was food. In Le Rouret, a tiny hinterland hillside village, we had a memorable dinner at the restaurant Le Clos St Pierre where Chef Daniel Ettlinger prepares delicious meals. Of course, we congratulated and thanked him when he came out of the kitchen to greet his guests. A corpulent man with a gentle face, I tell you.
What’s more, in this little but proper (meaning there’s a stone built church, a lively school, a hotel, a typical plane tree park) village of Le Rouret there’s also Le Bistro Du Clos run by the same family serving a bit less demanding but nonetheless delicious fare.
Cote d’Azur convinced us it may represent the potency of old and new money but one can still discover the down-to-Earth, authentic (I hate this word just as much as I despise the word inspire with all its derivatives), almost pure Mediterranean emotions, moods and passions. Paying attention to not so obvious things, my dears, pays off.
Nothing can erase the memory of fantastic smells of the sea, the pine trees, the sunburnt grass, the macchia, the rosemary and lavender; the nuances of the azure sea, the cerulean sky, bougainvilleas and oleanders, agaves and olive trees; the naked shoulders and strappy sandals, the never-ending vistas, the refreshing breeze, the ups and downs of winding roads, the summer heat. These remain imprinted on my mind forever.
Still, one word of criticism albeit a trivial one: as close as one gets to the origin – and you almost can’t get closer than this – confusion about the salad niçoise deepens. Hoping I will get none of tuna and plenty of anchovies when I order it in Antibes (scant 30 kms from Nice in a vast country of France) this is what I get:
I almost forgot I promised a glimpse on wealth: we enthusiastically visited the Ephrussi de Rothschild Villa on Cap Ferrat. It’s very impressive on the outside, quite backwards on the inside – all in all really and truly very lavish indeed.
The socialite Beatrice de Rothschild (1864-1934) had it build in Venetian style on the vast piece of land that was turned into nine gardens from classic French with musical water features to Florentine, exotic, Provencal, Japanese, rose and more. If nothing else the visit was worth it for the magnificent views from numerous viewing points on several carefully planned positions throughout the extensive grounds.
The lobby of the villa is the most impressive part of the house, especially if one imagines the vaulted ceiling used to be painted to represent the starlit sky. I was expecting to find a more modernist interior though, since the timeframe in which it was built (just before the WWI) is considered a synonym for innovation plus the Baroness’ reputation of a modern-thinking lady promised a bit more: she was, so we’re told, a good driver, a member of the Nice aviation club, very much interested in flying, an avid art collector, loved to travel.
It turned out she liked to cling to times past at least in terms of furniture and interior decoration (the villa was used as summer holiday retreat, it was never her main residence). There’s a Tiepolo, a Versailles carpet, Marie Antoinette’s furniture pieces, endless porcelain collections, chandeliers, kitschy upholstery and the lot. However de gustibus … Anyhow, lots of money spent there during Belle Époque, very well preserved altogether, well kept as a museum.
For more modern opulence there’s Cannes . Take a walk up and down the spectacular Croisette, do at least some window-shopping, sip on something refreshing, watch the world go by. Prove yourself normal. I’m convinced I was the only female with my own natural eyelashes.
Wikipedia on Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Villa_Ephrussi_de_Rothschild
Fondation Maeght near St Paul de Vence
Still the best icecream in Nice