Good Times in Provence
Even just two or three days in the Provence area of south-east France is well worth the journey, as they say in the Michelin guides. Especially if you are an art lover and particularly if, like me, you enjoy classical modern art, Picasso, Matisse, Fernand Leger, Joan Miro, Alexander Calder. And, in the area around Grasse, you can combine two of my very favorite activities: hiking in beautiful countryside and visiting art galleries. No, make that three activities. I also love to eat and Provençal cuisine is delicious and also healthy. What more could anyone want?
In the last half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, many artists visited for the warm climate, the sun, the special light. Paul Cezanne and Claude Monet were among the first. The impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir, handicapped by rheumatoid arthritis, came for the warm weather; he built a house in Cagnes-sur-mer in 1907 where he spent the last 12 years of his life. Renoir’s hands were so so badly crippled by arthritis that his paintbrush had to be fixed to his hand, but in the balmy climate he could at least continue to paint. His suprisingly intimate family house, in its romantic grounds dominated by olive trees, can be visited daily except Tuesdays and holidays.
Warning: the French take lunch seriously, the house is closed from 12:00-14:00. Cagnes-sur-mer is a normal Provençal town, but in the area above the town, known as Haut de Cagnes, we discovered a pretty square called Place du Château in front of an old castle where there were several pleasant restaurants, a charming spot to while away an hour or so over lunch. Our friendly waitress had taken Engish lessons during the winter and was anxious to practise.
When I visit the Cote d’Azur, I like to stay in Grasse. This is partly because I am not particularly fond of crowded beaches and therefore prefer staying up in the hills above the coast where lavender and olive trees dominate the landscape and it is quieter rather than directly on the coast. Hotels are a bit cheaper away from the beach crowd too, and there are fewer tourist-trap restaurants. Grasse is known as a center of the perfume industry.
There isn’t a whole lot to see, perhaps enough for half a day, wandering the streets, which are fairly dominated by Fragonard, maker of perfumes and seller of home linen, gifts. Fragonard’s perfume factory is one of the oldest in Grasse, constructed in 1782, but it only took the name Parfumerie Fragonard in 1926 as a tribute to the famous painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard. But Grasse is an ideal center from which to explore the surrounding areas.
Favorite places to visit:
I particularly like to visit the Fondation Maeght, in nearby St.-Paul-de Vence, with its modern building, its gardens and courtyards with sculptures by Joan Miró and Alberto Giacometti. The Fondation’s galleries include works by 20th century artists such as Bonnard, Braque, Calder, Chagall, Giacometti, Léger, Miró.
More favorites include:
- The Fernand Leger Museum in Biot, a pretty Provençal village dating back to 154 BC. I hadn’t especially liked Leger before my visit to Biot, but when I saw this collection of his works, I understood and liked his art much better.
- The Chapelle du Rosaire chapel in Vence, with its stained-glass windows designed by Matisse.
- Antibes with its picturesque old town, harbor and Picasso museum (MusÃ©e Picasso) in the ChÃ¢teau des Grimaldi. The museum contains works by many important artists including Yves Klein, Modigliani. When I lasted visited, there were some wonderful paintings by Nicolas de StaÃ«l, filled with the colors of sky and sea.
- Nice has an enormous beach, many shops, and museums devoted to modern art (MusÃ©e dâ€™Art moderne et dâ€™Art contemporain), to Matisse (Musée Matisse), to Chagall (Musée Marc Chagall).
On my recent visit in May, we stayed one night in Grasse at the luxurious Bastide St Antoine with its wonderful Michelin-starred restaurant, before moving on to more modest surroundings in the deep countryside of the Var department, about an hour’s drive west of Grasse. We stayed in a small apartment on a country estate close to Tourtour and Aups.
Tourtour and Aups
For several days, we savored the rural calm and good cooking of our hosts, making only short trips to the nearby villages of Tourtour (population: around 300) and Aups (population: around 2,000). Tourtour was described in two different sections of our guidebook as ‘totally destroyed by rich incomers and tourism’ and ‘amazingly beautiful’ and of course it was both of those, very very pretty but perhaps a little dead and the only shops sold tourist kitsch and there were at least three art galleries selling ghastly paintings I would have destroyed immediately had I produced them. We did enjoy a stroll around though, and a late-afternoon pastis in a pretty café in the main square. Aups was much more authentique, as the French would say, with real shops selling food and postcards. Aups has a market every Wednesday and Saturday selling local products and handicrafts. Between November and February, Aups apparently also has one of France’s largest black truffle markets. I also noticed two hotels, both of which looked welcoming.
Gorge du Verdun
After several lazy days came a day of serious exercise, when we hiked part of the Gorge du Verdun. This immense canyon, second biggest in the world after the Grand Canyon in the U.S. according to our guidebook, was one of the most picturesque sights I have ever seen. The canyon’s steep walls, virtually vertical in places, are up to 700 meters (more than 2,000 feet) high.
We did not scale any vertical cliffs, although we did watch members of the local fire department practising with ropes and other equipment, instead sticking to a track down that, while steep was do-able in hiking boots. Once we had reached the bottom, clinging onto ropes and using ladders in places, we enoyed a pleasant walk along the river valley before clambering back up again. And then it was time to leave. Back to work… with some wonderful, wonderful memories.
Text © Ailsa Mattaj Photos © I. Mattaj