Postcards from Provence

Carol Drinkwater on life in the sunny south

I have spent a fair portion of this year on trips, enjoying wonderful adventures, meeting people, privileged to do the job I do. Still, when the pilot announces that we are approaching Nice, my heart soars at the sight of that winding Riviera coastline with its foamy, lapping waves, its uniquely turquoise Mediterranean water, the palm-fringed, verdant hills... I am home. The familiar sights that make travelling all the sweeter: the sun beating down upon white sailing ships, rust-red rocks, limestone hills, open-top sports cars gleaming in the heat, sprawling villas shot with red and purple climbing bougainvillea, Wedgwood blue swimming pools in every backyard… and once landed, the distinct perfume of eucalyptus as I roll my luggage out into the fresh, sea-salted air.

Is it any wonder that every 19th and 20th-century artist worth his paintbrush found his way here? When I am homesick, I go to galleries to seek out canvases of those Riviera giants, to imbibe images of my adopted homeland, but now that I am chez nous for the summer with a head full of stories to write, I have no need to substitute reality with art, except that the Côte d’Azur offers such a wealth of art work that it is hard to resist. There are the regular exhibitions that draw me back time and again and there is always a special celebration to entice me away from my desk.

In the village of Le Cannet, just north of Cannes, where film star Rita Hayworth lived for a short while, is the new Musée Pierre Bonnard. When my head is swimming with words and the heat overtakes me, I immerse myself there for a few quiet hours. Picasso, whose last home was just a few miles from our Olive Farm, died 40 years ago. And this year the museum dedicated to Henri Matisse, in the artist’s former home on the hilltop of Cimiez in Nice, celebrates its 50th anniversary. The collection of works on permanent display is inspirational both in colour and versatility.

Should you have plans to visit the medieval walled village of Vence with its clear spring drinking water, do not miss La Chapelle-du-Rosaire. Matisse designed the chapel as a thank you to the Dominican sisters, one of whom had nursed him through sickness. The Riviera is full of love stories but this one is unusual. In the 1940s, when the great painter was diagnosed with cancer and underwent surgery, he advertised for a ‘pretty young nurse’ to assist him through his convalescence. Monique Bourgeois answered his call, caring for Matisse lovingly. She also posed for him on several occasions. Later, she became a nun with the Dominicans in Vence. They were planning the construction of a new chapel. Monique, now Sister Jacques-Marie, asked her friend to design the chapel for them. At the age of 78, Matisse began what he later regarded as his chef d’oeuvre. I visit Vence regularly to slip into the cool embrace of this sublime masterpiece, with its cobalt-blue, stained glass windows and its discreet lines.

I have recently been researching the life of Jean Cocteau. A remarkably versatile film-maker, writer, dramatist and poet, he painted the interior of the Chapelle de Saint-Pierre des Pêcheurs in Villefranche-sur-Mer. Cocteau was a true citizen of the Riviera when the coast was at its most opulent. Cocteau died 50 years ago and was equally flamboyant and hedonistic. He kept company with everyone: Coco Chanel, Yul Brynner, Marlene Dietrich; and he died within hours of his close friend, Édith Piaf.

It is rare to find an artist who is not attracted to the good life, company and food that can be enjoyed in such magnificent surroundings. Is it any wonder that my heart soars when I return home?

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