Easy rider on the Riviera

The free public beach in Cannes © Tristan Rutherford

The free public beach in Cannes © Tristan Rutherford - Credit: Archant

Hiring a scooter allowed Tristan Rutherford to beat the traffic as he hit the artistic trail around Cannes

Traditional fishing boat © Tristan Rutherford

Traditional fishing boat © Tristan Rutherford - Credit: Archant

I am in Cannes when it hits me. I zip past the Hôtel Martinez beach club – sun lounger €59 a day – en route to far more secluded stretches of the Côte d’Azur, but the Promenade de la Croisette is blocked. The driver of a four-wheel-drive is having a staring contest with the driver of an airport-transfer people carrier. Behind, the driver of a Smart car is looking at his iPhone, while a Ferrari owner is staring out to sea. I cruise past them on my €30 rental scooter. Yes, two wheels are so much better than four.

A secret beach © Tristan Rutherford

A secret beach © Tristan Rutherford - Credit: Archant

Indeed, the Côte d’Azur artists’ trail that I plan to explore was waymarked before the era of the mass-produced motorcar. The route that the Surrealist photographer Man Ray followed to Mougins, the path Picasso walked around Vallauris, the mule track Henri Matisse followed to Antibes; all were made by bicycle, on foot, or on one of the then new-fangled 50cc mobylettes. It is in the finest tradition that I am following these back roads of the Riviera on a mission to see where those artists painted, partied, sculpted and swam in a single day.

My first port of call is the Musée Pierre Bonnard in Le Cannet, three kilometres north-east of Cannes. As a scooter novice, I am nervous about how to stop, dismount and park my motorised steed. I solve this problem by stalling directly opposite the museum and simply skipping inside.

Light and airy

The museum – the first in the world dedicated to this post-Impressionist master of colour – is light and airy. I am handed an iPod Touch and told to explore the three storeys of canvases: blood red, ochre orange and sky blue. I reach the exit, but staff haven’t finished with me yet; they hand over a four-kilometre walking itinerary through the countryside that inspired Bonnard (plus Raoul Dufy, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and countless others). Six alfresco plaques show the artworks that Bonnard painted in situ. Ciel d’Orage sur Cannes (Stormy Sky over Cannes) portrays the Mediterranean backdrop one can still see today.

I motor on towards Vallauris, five kilometres away. No buses connect these two towns; and the plane trees and maquis shrubland scents would be lost in a car. The Riviera coast glitters below, from the private airport at Cannes to the Cap d’Antibes. But up here in the hills, one can hear a cicada sing and a wood pigeon coo.

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There are prettier places on the Riviera than Vallauris – Menton, Mougins and Monte Carlo to name but three. But Vallauris holds a special place for modern-art enthusiasts. Picasso moved here in the 1950s, trying his hand at pottery making – the town’s traditional industry – at the Galerie Madoura (now being converted into a cultural centre). The artist, who was in his seventies at the time, made his move permanent by marrying one of the gallery’s employees, Jacqueline Roque, and producing more than 4,000 pieces of ceramics during his sojourn.

Picasso’s gift

The old-town streets of Vallauris still hum with Picasso’s legacy. I buy a ceramic bowl from a woman who tells me: “My father introduced me to Monsieur Picasso in a café when I was a little girl. He also used to make a little corrida (bull fight) for the public in the local square.” I complete the purchase with a handshake, thereby shaking the hand that shook Picasso’s. You would be hard-pressed to encounter such an intimate moment in Monaco, that’s for sure.

That local square, Place Paul-Isnard, is now home to Picasso’s parting gift to the town, the sculpture L’Homme au Mouton (Man with Sheep). Local officials wanted it enclosed and protected, but Picasso insisted it remain “where the children could climb over it and the dogs p*** against it.” Around the corner, on the walls of a ruined chapel, lies the Musée National Picasso’s La Guerre et La Paix, the Spaniard’s supersized visual contrast between war and peace. The work is claustrophobic and spellbinding in equal measure, and I’m soon glad to be riding toward the coast.

There are a dozen secret beaches on the Riviera. The writer and artist Jean Cocteau favoured Plage Passable in Villefranche-sur-Mer. The painter Paul Signac liked the coves around Saint-Tropez. I scoot instead to the mansions of Cap d’Antibes. The six-kilometre ride from Vallauris winds down a valley, then picks up the coast road through Juan-les-Pins.

This summer the American film-maker Woody Allen has been shooting a romantic comedy at the restored art deco Villa Eilenroc at the end of the headland. The film is set in the roaring twenties and due for release in spring 2014. Below the mansion, a newly opened seaside footpath was once the private preserve of the beau monde – Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis and screen legend Greta Garbo among them – who had an outdoor bar blasted out of the rock.

However, for me, the best beach in the area is Plage de la Salis, with a view of the Château Grimaldi in Antibes (now another Picasso museum) that was captured on canvas by Claude Monet. On the afternoon that I pass by, a dozen artists are painting the same fabulous panorama. Personally, I’m back in the saddle. The bright lights of Cannes are just a 10-kilometre scooter ride away.

FACTFILE

Holiday Bikes (tel: (Fr) 4 97 06 07 07, www.holiday-bikes.com) has an office near Cannes railway station, as well as rental outlets in Nice and Juan-les-Pins. Renting a 50cc scooter costs from €30 per day, plus security deposit.

Musée Bonnard

16 Boulevard Sadi Carnot

06110 Le Cannet

Tel: (Fr) 4 93 94 06 06

www.museebonnard.fr

Musée National Pablo Picasso, La Guerre et La Paix

Place de la Libération

06220 Vallauris

www.musees-nationaux-alpesmaritimes.fr

Villa Eilenroc

Impasse Beaumont

06160 Cap d’Antibes

Tel: (Fr) 4 97 23 11 11

www.antibes-juanlespins.co.uk

Musée Picasso

Château Grimaldi

Place Mariejol, 06600 Antibes

Tel: (Fr) 4 92 90 54 20

www.antibes-juanlespins.co.uk