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We were on the Promenade des Anglais (Walkway of the English) in Nice, looking out over the Bay of Angels. The brilliant sun was showering scene with gold and the water glistened with pinks and blues and lavenders. I thought of Henri Matisse saying, “When I realised that each morning I would see this light again, I could not believe my luck.” He had come to the South of France for his health and never left. Thus began his Early Nice period in 1917. We went right to the Matisse Museum on the Avenue des Arènes de Cimiez.
We were in Nice to start our road trip through the South of France where some of the most influential artists in the 19th and 20th centuries painted. But it wasn’t all about art. It was also about the towns themselves, steeped in history and French culture.
Old Nice’s alleyways that wind through town were dark and cool on the bright, hot day. We strolled past delis, boutiques and cafes on our way to the Cours Saleya, a market that takes up the centre of Old Nice with fruit and flowers—more flowers than we have ever seen in one place, an intoxicating profusion of colour and fragrances. Then on to the Place Massena with its stunning array of Neoclassical architecture.
From the summit of Castle Hill, we had a 360 degree view of all of Nice and beyond, a majestic and dynamic tableau. We tread the mosaic walkways that depict scenes from the Odyssey, a nod to the Greeks who founded Nice.
If you have never choco-cooned, you must. Where else can you roll around in creamy ganache and melted chocolate other than at La Bulle d’Isis? Decadent? Yes. Pricey? Oh, yes. It was one of our few splurges.
Nice is the culinary capital of the South of France and, of course, the meals were glorious, as was the wine, but the piece de resistance was the ice cream at Glacier Fenocchio, unequalled, anywhere in the world, not only for its luxurious creaminess but for its the rather whimsical (read that “strange”) flavours, such as cactus, lavender, olive and jasmine.
Our next stop was Cagnes-sur-Mer, only 20 minutes away from Nice.
Like Matisse, Pierre-Auguste Renoir came to the South of France for his health and never left. He settled in Haut-de-Cagnes, the oldest region of Cagnes-sur-Mer, at the summit of Colline du chateau (another “castle hill”). The town winds around and climbs the hill, and the streets with medieval and renaissance buildings are steep mazes with beautiful gardens and ancient fountains.
With copies of several of Renoir’s paintings of Cagnes landscapes and houses and Amedo Modigliani’s “Cypresses and Houses at Cagnes,” we went on a “treasure hunt” to try to find the exact locations portrayed. We didn’t find many that we could be sure of, but it was a marvellous way to see the town.
Amazingly, Cagnes-sur-Mer has preserved the quiet and easy rhythm of Old World village life.
Seven kilometres north of Cagnes-sur-Mer is Saint Paul de Vence.
Saint Paul de Vence
Many consider Saint Paul de Vence to be the most beautiful village in Provence. Because of that beauty, the exceptional light and the simplicity of life, 20th century artists flocked there, including Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Joan Miro, Marc Chagall and Fernand Léger.
We walked through the town that they walked through, down the one main, cobbled street from one end of the town to the other. At the end, we surveyed the magnificent countryside from a belvedere. Around us were medieval houses with peculiar facades; some had niches in the walls for statues. We visited the Fondation Maeght with its exquisite architecture that unites rooms and gardens adorned with mosaics done by Chagall and the art of Modigliani and Miro.
A mere 8 km drive and we were in Vence and on our way to the Chapelle du Rosaire, the “Matisse Chapel.”
The original entrances to Vence still stand, one from the 13th century. The town is ringed with houses from the 15th century, built against the walls that fortified it in earlier times. As we entered through an archway covered with flowers, we stopped to marvel at the ash tree planted in 1538 in honour of King Francois I, walked by the cobblestone remains of a Roman road to the Place du Peyra Renaissance, a fountain, built in the 19th century, flowing with pure mineral water that has streamed into the town since the 15th century. The towering cathedral was built in the 4th century and added onto until the 12th century. In its baptistry is a mosaic, “Moses in the Bulrushes,” by Chagall.
A fifteen-minute walk outside of the town brought us to the Chapelle de Rosaire, more often called the “Matisse Chapel.” Matisse designed both the interior and exterior and considered it his finest artistic achievement. The chapel reflects his artistic sensibilities and his late-found spirituality. The stark white interior is flooded with the jewel-tone yellows, greens and blues of the stained glass windows
Then we headed south to Antibes, 20.4 km away.
We started out in Old Vieil Antibes (Old Town) inside massive medieval walls, wandering along the twisting and turning cobblestone streets as we browsed the colourful and tempting boutiques and gourmet food shops, sat now and then in the shaded squares with ornate fountains, and continued on to the market in Cours Massena where we savoured the fine cheese and ambrosial wine.
Picasso spent six months in a chateau there, looking out at the sea and painting. The chateau is now the Musee Picasso. His “Night Fishing at Antibes” is unlike any fishing going on there (or anywhere). But when we gazed out at Fort Carre on a promontory overlooking the sea, it was no different a scene than as portrayed in Claude Monet’s “The Old Fort at Antibes” painted in 1888. He said of Antibes, “How beautiful it is here. So clear and pure in its pinks and blues,” and produced 40 landscape paintings there.
And then, the “green fairy” that was high on our “must do” list.
The “green fairy” is absinthe, that mysterious drink associated with the Parisian “intellectual bohemians,” including the Impressionists, in the late 19th century. It has been illegal in many countries for the last 100 years, but not here. The Absinthe Bar is tucked away in a cellar in Old Town. The décor reflected that time and place in Paris and covering the walls were absinthe-themed posters, including copies of “The Absinthe Drinker” by Edouard Manet in 1850, “The Absinthe Drinker Au Cafe” by Edgar Degas in 1872, and “The Absinthe Drinker” by Picasso in 1901. As for the absinthe, even though it was “cut” with ice water and sugar, I could only take a sip, just enough to say I did.
Then we had a longer drive to Aix-en-Provence. We took the scenic route along DN7 and were accompanied on our trip by the sparkling blue sea on one side and the rugged, rust-coloured Estrel Mountains on the other. We went off course to visit quaint unspoiled fishing villages.
DN7 led us to D17 and that led us into Aix-en-Provence with the most astounding views of the southern face of Mont Sainte-Victoire made famous by Paul Cezanne. Unlike the other artists, Cezanne was born in the South of France. He grew up watching the limestone mountain reflecting the light in shades of blue, gray, pink and orange as the seasons changed. We enmeshed ourselves into that iconic scene by hiking one of the many paths on the mountain.
The city of Aix-en-Provence is made up of sprawling boulevards and tiny tangled streets, both displaying the pride that small shop owners take in presenting their wares, an artistry of its own. The restaurants and cafes have menus with the typical Provence olives, olive oil, fresh fish, fruits, vegetables, cheeses and, of course, the lovely Provençal wine. Do not miss the callisson—a delightful confection of almond paste flavoured with melon and orange.
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