Follow in the footsteps of Renoir and Picasso to rediscover the French Riviera when the light is magic, the atmosphere friendly and the beaches (almost) empty
I can understand that sunshine is top of the list for most British tourists; I’ve lived in England for 20 years. So when I’m asked where my accent comes from and I say the French Riviera, I can see why they think I’m mad to live in the UK. But when you think South of France, do you just think sun, sea, and other 's's? Or is it glitzy Cannes and its film festival? The Mediterranean hilltop villages with their winding alleys? Or a sun-drenched terrace with a glass of rosé or a café au lait?
Of course it’s beautiful. The villages must be exotic for a foreigner. But what is it that the French Riviera has that has attracted quite so many artists over the years? Yes, the sunshine, OK. But is that it? I went back home to try and find out why great masters like Renoir, Picasso, Matisse, Léger and Chagall were attracted to the area like bees to a honey pot.
Generally, I go home to visit my family in the summer. It’s always scorching so I never feel like doing much apart from lying by the pool. This time, I fly to Nice in October and spend a couple of days in and around Vence. First stop, Renoir; well, Cagnes. Just over 100 years ago, Renoir, who was riddled with arthritis, fell in love with an olive grove and decided to buy it. Developers had their beady eyes on Domaine de Colette, and you can see why. Ancient olive trees on a hillside with uninterrupted views towards the hilltop village of Cagnes; it sure is a sight you do not forget. But it’s not just the view that catches me, it’s the atmosphere that goes with it. I am surrounded by these contorted old hollow trunks and somehow it’s as if they’re looking after me and calming me down. I suppose they represent peace for a good reason, or several.
Would the atmosphere be similar in St Paul de Vence, I wonder? Now here is a famous village in France. I have seen many a black and white photograph of Yves Montand playing pétanque in the square. He used to live here and I’m told that Roger Moore still has a house in the village. So when I arrive in St Paul, I head straight for the square. Sure enough, there are people playing pétanque but none of them speaks French. They can’t be very local then. I carry on into the village and meander through the narrow alleys of the pedestrian area. It’s pretty, it’s well-kept and it’s filled with galleries so if you’re after some art, you could find something there. But I still can’t find the atmosphere I’m after.
On my way back out, I’m invited to visit La Colombe d’Or. The famous restaurant is quiet - it’s outside of meal times - so I can walk around and look everywhere. What an amazing place. Back in the days when Picasso, Matisse, Léger and many more used to visit, the owner would say, ”If you can’t pay, that’s fine, just give me a piece of art”. So now you can eat with a Matisse or a Picasso watching over you from the wall. Beat that! And the food? A friend of mine celebrated her birthday on the terrace of the Colombe d’Or last August and raved about it. She also loved St Paul... I think my expectations are maybe a bit too high.
Once in St Paul, though, you should visit the Maeght Foundation. The building may look like it’s landed from outer space, with its curled up roof, but the collection of modern sculptures, paintings and mosaics is one of the largest in France and is really well presented. The Giacometti sculptures on the terrace look as if they are trying to grow taller and thinner still; the contraption of frames in the middle of the Chagall room makes me look at his paintings in more detail and bring a smile to my face. I end up wondering which bit of the painting I would take out and frame. If only.
I think I am getting nearer to understanding why the area is so loved by artists. Sun, warmth and a laidback atmosphere to go with it is a good start. All these big names knew each other and invited their friends to stay. But it’s not until I go to Antibes that I really understand what is so special. I love to take pictures and here I am - bear in mind this is in October - looking across the bay at the Alps. It’s a bit chilly although the sun is shining; the sky goes from navy to baby blue, and the sea is that very special azure blue. Little white triangle sails are dotted around on the water and just at eye level, there’s this blanket of white snow on the top of the ragged mountains. If this was August, there would be no snow, the beach would be heaving and if I took pictures in the middle of the day they would come out as if burnt by the sun. Well, like my body I suppose.
The sun is great for our mood but in summer it drowns the colours in a white haze like a blanket in the Sahara. The rest of the year, the light is soft and the beautiful scenery is just defined perfectly against the sky. And the azure blue sea? Well, it’s the name of the coast down here: la Côte d’Azur. Why was it translated to the French Riviera? I don’t know. Azure Coast sounds much more artistic and romantic, don’t you think?