Opera buffs – and they increase exponentially each year – will travel far and wide to indulge their passion.

Perhaps opera buffs should try coming to the South of France, which offers them a richly variegated choice of Opera House, from modern, to rich 19th c. Belle Epoque and immensely varied productions, performances, and stars. They can indulge their passion, without totally maxing out their holiday budget for the year, because opera is heavily subsidised in France, on the whole ticket prices can be reasonable, compared to the UK, and are not a king’s ransom as in London, at Covent Garden, or at Bayreuth, and all over the winter spring season, there will be a choice of reasonable hotels to choose from. Winter cum Spring is not a bad time to visit this region, no crowds, and reasonably mild weather on the coast.

One of the incredibly great pluses now to planning a holiday is that one can do everything via the Internet, planes, trains, opera tickets, hotels, you name it, you are no long dependent on an expensive travel organisation or agency, with their very possibly circumscribed itinerary – you can do it all for yourself!

A good hotel website to use is www.venere.com which allows some leeway for cancellations, and also does not immediately charge, it offers good choices, and descriptions.

Just think, there are opera houses at Montpellier, Marseille, Toulon, Nice, and Monte Carlo, the jewel in the crown. Do the names excite you? They should.

Liceu Opera House – Barcelona

If one extended just beyond the French borders, one could start an exciting Opera Tour by flying in to Barcelona, Spain, starting at the Liceu Opera House, which fronts directly on Las Ramblas – it tends to go in for quite original and innovative productions – and then fly out of Genova, Italy’s major and rather ugly seaport, but which has a technically sophisticated opera house just five minutes walk from the old sea harbour, and some notable productions.

The Liceu, Barcelona, was destroyed by fire three times, just like La Fenice, Venice, and like La Fenice, rose again from its ashes, with the auditorium recreated as almost exact replicas of their originals – catastrophic fires did tend to be a fate for some opera houses, something to do with ancient lighting systems.

Or one could fly into Paris, then take the fast train south – the TGV that gets one from Paris to Marseille in 3 hours. And of course one can fly direct into Nice or Marseille, and also into the very delightful small airport of Toulon-Hyeres from Paris.

One could quite easily do a tour from Marseille via train along the coast, trains are comfortable and fast, timetables, prices, can all be looked up and booked via www.sncf.fr or rent a car, and take ones time, enabling a variety of side trips, off the main track.

Montpellier Opera House

Montpellier to the west of Marseille boasts a very modern opera house with an imposing façade, its 2000 seat opera house, the Salle Berlioz in its monumental Corum. It also has the Comedie, 19th century house right opposite. The former magnificent pink marble theater was designed by Strasbourg architect Claude Vasconi, the mastermind of Les Halles Forum in Paris.

It’s February production of Mozart’s L’énlevement du Serail, looks to be sold out, but tickets at around €25/55 are available for its concert performance of Le Roy D’Ys.

Incidentally one way of checking out/buying tickets for all sorts of performances is via the French www.FNAC.com agency, one might pay an extra fee, but it could be timesaving, and useful.

The train journey between Marseille and Montpellier does involve at least one change, possibly two, something to be taken into consideration in any tour plan. One other useful note about Montpellier, if driving there, do get a really good map of the city centre, with all its one way systems marked up, otherwise, you might wind up in tears, trying desperately to find your way through its labyrinth! Montpellier is a very modern city, academic, and university campus, hosting most of France’s pharmaceutical companies and research institutions, who very likely are the Opera’s main supporters.

Marseile Opera House

Then one comes to Marseille Opera House, Municipal at one level, and Grand at every other level, its imposing colonnaded front gazes down over Marseille and its harbour. It too suffered from fire and its interior was totally destroyed to be rebuilt in 1924.

Marseille, like Monte Carlo, has the big bucks to pay for major performers, and so one will find its programme includes a recital by Nathalie Dessay (singing Michel Legrand) in December and for example in July, Berlioz’s “Les Troyens” featuring opera mega star Roberto Alagna, as Enee, and Beatrice Uria-Monzon, as Didon. Tickets in February (Strauss’s Elektra) range from around 25 to 77 euros, for the Alagna performances 25 to 90 euros.

Marseille, France’s second city is also now the European Capital of Culture, and has burst into a plethora of Art Exhibitions, displays, street festivals as never before. It all started off in January with every bell that has ever been, rung to the rafters city wide to announce this wonderful year, as a ”a great clamour”.

To find out all about the entertainments, street art, activities, Exhibitions, one just dips into the dedicated website www.mp2013.fr and voila.

Toulon Opera House

From Marseille it is just a hop up the coast to Toulon – less than an hour by train – France’s Naval seaport and home to the naval dockyards. It is a mainly blue collar working town, but is home to a delightful, and my favourite, opera house. Built 150 years ago, around 1860, its Belle Epoque interior is for me a total delight, its walls decorated with superb murals, featuring buxom, apple cheeked, one would think Italian, ladies festooned with flowers, and offering garlands and baskets of fruits Perhaps an echo of the past when Italians from Piedmont flooded into France for work.

Just off the main drag it sits at the beginning of the pedestrianized old quarter of Toulon, just about 5 minutes from the harbour, surrounded by sentinel tall palm trees on either side, and restaurants. If one is lucky sometimes a drinks bar is opened on a top terrace that overlooks the harbour, over the ships, and ferries that ply to Corsica, so one sees the blue Mediterranean, quite an enchanting sight, otherwise the drinks bar on the first floor delights with its buxom lady murals.Toulon likely does not have the budget for major stars, but they do try to innovate. A couple of years ago, I attended a performance of Kurt Weill’s rarely performed ”Street Scenes” sung in English, a co-production. And this February they are together with the Opera-Theatre of Metz, putting on a production of Stephen Sondheim’s superbly melancholy musical ”Follies”” in English.

From Toulon one can catch a train for Nice, the trip takes slightly over two hours.

Nice Opera House

The Opéra de Nice was designed in stone and steel by Niçoise architect Francois Aune, a student of Gustave Eiffel, the famous pioneer of steel structure, with the guidance of Charles Garnier who designed the Paris Opera house, now called the Palais Garnier, and opened in 1885, with a performance of Aida.

Conventional and charming, it sits in the middle of the old quarter of Nice, whose ochre and russet buildings echo the architecture of Italy, not surprisingly as Nice was for a long time part of the Kingdom of Savoy.

Seating 1,093, the Opéra de Nice today hosts quality programs of opera, concerts and the ballet company has been expanding its repertoire to meet the demands of dance lovers. L’Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice, with its 98 musicians, is considered one of the best orchestras in the province. Upcoming is Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. Tickets range from €12 to €78.

Monte Carlo Opera House

From Nice it is literally just a skip, 20 minutes by train to the real opera jewel of the region, the Monte Carlo Opera. Designed by Charles Garnier, in 1879 it tends to be known as the Salle Garnier to distinguish it from Garnier’s later Paris design and is his triumph, his version of a really truly luxurious theater for the rich.

As one patron told me who has had an abonnement for the past 24 years, it is an exquisite jewel of a traditional Opera House in miniature – great, tall, red velvet curtains against the tall windows towards the sea (which close for the performance), cherubs and gold and gold cherubs everywhere – it was all totally renovated, totally true to the original style in 2005 – comfortable seats except for the strapontins. Monaco attracts the most renowned singers for its annual Season, beginning in November; and the standard of performance is very high. Often known as the Casino building, one walks thru’ the lobby for the opera, gaming is on the upper floor.

However sometimes when opera sets are large, and perhaps a production attracting larger audiences, performances are staged in the rather ugly Forum, which is the multi-purpose concrete monstrosity between the sea and the avenue Princesse Grace, which holds goodness knows how many thousands more than the real Opera House. Architecturally, this building (inside and out) can only have been designed by an architect who had chronic indigestion. The only way to avoid that as a member of the audience, is to totally ignore the environment and concentrate on the stage.

This season both Cecilia Bartoli, and Bryn Terfel will be giving concerts. And tickets are around €90.

Do audiences dress up? Perhaps Marseille and certainly Monte Carlo they might do, but on the whole audiences tend to be not too dressy.

And whilst touring one does not need to miss the Live cinema performances in HD direct from the Met, Lincoln Centre, New York, as these incredible opera performances will be playing at cinemas in all these towns, one just has to check venues out at www.metopera.org/hdlive, & www.cielecran.com, but tickets for these one off shows, tend to sell out fast.

One can scoop up lots of art culture along the way, it is well worth taking a side trip to St. Tropez, say by bus from Toulon, or via ferry across the golf of St. Tropez, from St. Raphael to visit it’s small Annonciade Museum right on the port, which has a small, superb and choice permanent collection, featuring many artists from around 1900 onwards, Fauvists, Nabilists who painted in this region- Bonnard, Maillol, Derain, Seurat and Signac, it is featuring a temporary exhibition to March devoted to Paul Signac, whose family still lives in the region.

Then there are the Museum of Aseatic Arts, and the Naval Museum in Toulon, the Chagall and Matisse Museums in Nice, the recently opened Bonnard Museum in Cagnes, and also a new Museum devoted to Cocteau in Menton.

Opera di Genova www.carlofelicegenova.it

Opéra Municipal de Marseille www.opera.marseille.fr

Opéra de Monte Carlo www.opera.mc

Opéra Nationale de Montpellier www.opera-montpellier.com

Opéra de Nice www.opera-nice.org

Toulon Theatre Municipal www.operadetoulon.fr

Anita Rieu-Sicart is the Editor of VAR VILLAGE VOICE monthly magazine circulating to English speaking residents, mainly expatriates, living in the Var region of the South of France. VAR VILLAGE VOICE carries a regular monthly column devoted to Opera, written by Robert Turnbull. www.varvillagevoice.com

Beaulieu-sur-Mer is located on a sheltered cove that provides one of the French Riveria’s mildest climates and is located midway between Nice and Monaco.

This very charming resort occupies the emplacement of a prehistoric site and the antique Greek Port of Anao. It was later enlarged by the Romans who built residences of marble and mosaic. The town and its suburbs were razed during the third century; during the fourth century a small monastery was built of which the first abbey was St. Hospice.

IMG_2001At the turn of the century the charming winter resort of Beaulieu welcomed the world’s celebrities who returned frequently, building elegant large residences. The best known are Léopold II of Belgium, William II, First Prince of Wales, the queens of Italy and Portugal, the Marquis of Salisbury, the inventor Marinoni, the founder of the “New York Herald” Gordon Bennett, Count Tolstoy and the French engineer, Gustave Eiffel.DSC_9557

DSC_9566Villa Kérylos
Theodore Reinach (1860-1928) was the youngest of three very talented brothers born into a family of bankers, originally from Frankfurt.

It was his great love of all things Greek that gave rise to the building of the Grecian villa at Beaulieu-sur-Mer erected on the “Baie des Fourmis”, not far from Rothschild’s famous Villa Ephrussi. Madame Reinach was in fact a cousin of Baron Maurice Ephrussi.DSC_9560


DSC_9552DSC_9555Theodore Reinach entrusted his project to an Italian archtect from Nice, Emmanuel Pontremoli (1865-1956). This architect and archaeologist, winner of the “Grand prix de Rome” and an elected member of the “Académie des Beaux Arts”, shared Reinach’s passion for ancient Greece. He fell in love with the idea and spent 6 years, from 1902 to 1908, creating the Villa Kérylos. The Greek word “Kerylos” means Halcyon or kingfisher which in Greek mythology was thought to be a bird of good omen.

DSC_9536The villa is an extremely luxurious re-creation of an ancient Grecian dwelling, complete with wall decorations and furniture. It has Doric and Corinthian columns of Carrara marble, intricate mosaics, colorful frescoes, a fountain in a peristyle, and exquisite fabrics. Based on the design of noble houses built in the 2nd century B.C. on the Island of Delos, the Villa Kérylos invites visitors to step right back into Ancient Greece.

DSC_9579DSC_9581Everything inside, from the arrangement of rooms to the stylistic details of the décor, was designed to recreate the atmosphere of a luxurious Grecian villa. From the garden around the villa there are fine views of the Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat peninsula, dotted with magnificent mansions. The garden contains a pleasing mixture of typically Greek plants : olive trees and vines, pomegranate and carob trees, acanthus and myrtle, oleanders and irises, pine and cypress trees, palm trees and papyrus all help create a Grecian look and feel in the lovely Mediterranean sunshine.DSC_9571

DSC_9571Villa Kérylos was classified as an historical monument in 1967. It is also close to another well-known villa, Ephrussi de Rothschild, and possible to visit both places in one day although count at least 3 hours to visit Rothschild villa due to its exceptional gardens.

You can find out more information about Villa Kérylos and opening hours by clicking here.

In 13 BC, during the reign of Augustus (who had been Octavian until 31 BC) the Romans planned a new coastal road into Gaul (Provence). This road became the Via Julia Augustus (or Via Julia, later to merge into the Aurelian Way that was built 150 years later). Augustus used this route to conquer the Ligurians and bring the Pax Romain to Provence. At La Turbie the road passed over the ridge that ran out from Mont Agel. This was not only a strategic site, it was also the highest point on the long Roman road into Gaul and marked the gateway between Italy and the Roman conquests of Gaul.

The Trophée des Alpes (also called “Trophée d’Auguste”) was erected in the year 5 BC by the Senate and the Roman people in honour of the emperor Octave Augustus. It commemorates the conquest of the Alps, and the submission of the 45 hostile inhabiting tribes, during the campaigns led or directed by Augustus in the years 25, 16 and 15 BC. These tribes were spread over the country that extended from the Adriatic sea to the Lake of Constance and over the Maritime-Alps. Their submission joined Gaul and Germania to Italy.

The unity of the empire thus created resulted in a peace which lasted for three centuries. The historic route from the Mediterranean coast of Italy into Spain then became a great highway and its security was assured. Serving Spain and the valley of the Rhône, pointing the way to Great Britian and the Rhine, this road was the great artery of the Roman world.

At its highest point, on the summit of La Turbie, the Trophée des Alpes (originally 49 metres high but now only 35) was erected to commemorate the definitive opening of the world’s ancient civilisation. Sadly, with the decline of the Roman Empire the monument suffered enormous damage.

By early 400 AD the Wisigoths entered Provence, followed by the Vandals and other “barbarians” who added to the general destruction of the area and the Trophy.

More destruction was to follow at the start of the 5th century when Saint Honorat, then Abbot of Lérins, ordered the statue of Augustus and that of his
generals to be smashed considering the monument to be dedicated to the pagen Apollo.

Then during the 12th and 13th century, the Trophy was transformed into a fortress and La Turbie was known as “Castri Torbia”. By 1388 the village came under the rule of the House of Savoy.

In 1765, the Trophy, now fortified but without any military value, was mined and dismantled under the orders of Louis 14th to humilate the Duke of Savoy. However, the central core of the Trophy resisted his best efforts.

Further destruction incurred as the site was used as a quarry as well as by the local inhabitants who used most of the remaining parts of the monument as building materials to erect a new pastoral church in 1764.

But then, in 1857 the princes of Savoy, sons of Victor-Emmanuel II, obtained authorisation to consolidate the rest of the ruins and put a halt to its destruction.

In 1865, five years after the annexation of the county of Nice to France, the Trophy was classified as an Historic Monument.

Excavation work began in 1905 as archaelogists Philippe Casimir and Jules-Camille Formigé set about uncovering the remains and drawing up plans of the original design.

The First World War put a temporary stop on further excavations but afterwards, during the 1920s, the wealthy American Dr Edward Tuck worked with Formigé to restore the Trophy, including replacing stones to where they deduced they once belonged.

Restoration work was completed in 1933 and in 1934 they built a small
museum. Further work was carried out during the 1950s when several buildings where demolished to create the present park. Located just opposite the Trophy, the musuem contains a model replica of the original Trophy as well as various busts of Augustus and a number of replica stones.

If your French is good, there is also a short 10 minute film concerning the history of the Trophy and the excavation work undertaken.

DSC_3878An added bonus of visiting the Trophy are the truly outstanding views overlooking Monaco.

After several visits to Mougins, we finally took time to visit the very peaceful area of Notre-Dame de Vie. We were drawn there for two reasons: it was here that Picasso spent the last 15 years of his life, and we wanted to find the hermitage once painted by Winston Churchill.

Finding the hermitage is relatively easy: by following the D3 and then signs for the Chapelle de Notre Vie. Although the road is fairly narrow, it later turns into a one-way track which is a little more reassuring. There is a small parking area on your left as you arrive.

A short walk along a grassy verge brings you first to the chapel and, next to it, the hermitage.

Built in 1613, the hermitage of Notre-Dame de Vie stands on a beautiful site overlooking Mougins and at the top of a long meadow bordered by two rows of giant cypresses.

The hermitage would normally shelter some poor soul, housed and fed by the Municipal Conseil. He would be permitted to beg for money as well as receiving a small payment for work entrusted to do. It was totally forbidden for any woman or young girl to enter the hermitage under pain of excommunication. Adjoining the hermitage is the Chapelle Notre-Dame de Vie.

Chapel Notre Dame de Vie DateBuilt in 1646, the chapel stands on the former site of an earlier church, Saint-Marie, built during the 11th century. However, it is interesting to note that this church was itself built on the original site of a temple dedicated to “Diana the Healer”.

The chapel was renamed Notre-Dame de Vie as it was said that one could find respite there. It was known throughout the area as a “Sanctury of Grace”; as it was believed that if still-born babies were brought here, they would resuscitate long enough to be christened during Mass.

In 1730, this belief was brought to an abrupt end when the Bishop of Grasse prohibited its practice and had the building, where the babies where kept, completely razed to the ground. A tomb in an adjacent enclosure holds the remains of all the tiny bodies.

The pinnacle, dating back to the 13th century, is the oldest part of the building as nothing else remains of the church Saint-Marie.

The porch has three elegant arcades built in 1656. Embedded at the base of the corner pillar is a Roman stone, funeral stele of one of the members of the Falvius family, whose villa was probably built on that spot. There are two other Gallo-Roman funeral inscriptions possibly belonging to another member of the Falvius family.

Interestingly, the nave was finished in 1556 and not 1646 as indicated on the door’s vault. The chapel itself is very humble, almost bare, and paved with ordinary, baked clay tiles.

On the high altar is a fine altarpiece of the Assumption in blue and gold. On the left-hand wall is a collection of votive offerings one of which is a commemorative plaque, made out of cloth, recording the violent storm of 1668 when hailstones “the size of oranges” wiped out Mougins’ harvest.

Picasso’s villa, (l’Antre du Minautore) is well screened by trees and bushes and located just opposite. He spent the last 15 years of his life here until his death in 1973, using his villa as both his studio and home. His house was a former mas, converted before the war into a luxurious villa by Benjamin Guinness, who also paid for the restoration of the chapel.

After your visit to the chapel, and if you’ve not already done so, you may like to walk round the lovely Etang de Font Merle located just a short drive away. In fact, as you continue along the one-way track you will find yourself at the top of this vast park. It is a spectacular sight, made more so when the lotus flowers are in bloom (between July and mid-September).

Golfe Juan Photo 1My initial introduction to Golfe-Juan occurred in 2001 when, after arriving on the Cote d’Azur and spending a couple of weeks in a hotel, I managed to rent a small holiday apartment for a few months. Consequently my stay in such a lovely seaside resort biased me somewhat towards the many others found along the coast as it remains still one of my favourite places.


DSC_2399Nestled between Cannes and Juan-les-Pins is a delightful seaside resort called Golfe-Juan. It lies at the foot of the Vallauris hills, in the centre of a large natural harbour stretching from Cap d’Antibes to the East, to the Cap de la Croisette to the West, on the outskirts of Cannes. It boasts roughly 1km of narrow sandy beach extending in a shallow curve and lined with tall elegant palms.

DSC_2362DSC_2367Since living there Golfe-Juan has changed somewhat due to its growing popularity. Additional apartment complexes have been built to home the growing number of residents as well as extra hotels to cater for the many tourists who are slowly discovering this charming seaside resort. In essence the town is made up of three main streets; Avenue de Liberté (N7) which is the main road linking Cannes and Antibes, Avenue de la Gare (that takes you down to the port) and Boulevard des Frères Roustan (N98) that hugs the old port and coastline into Juan-les-Pins.

DSC_2372A visit to Golfe-Juan at the height of summer is now fraught with traffic congestion and crowds. Yet it wasn’t always so. This was once a sleepy little fishing port, numbering only 180 inhabitants in the early 1900’s. Small fishing boats would be tied to wooden posts on the sandy beach, at the foot of olive trees and blackberry bushes that grew alongside.

DSC_2380DSC_2432Once again, the advent of the railway was to herald a dramatic change of pace and lifestyle along the Cote d’Azur as Paris became only 22 hours away. It also led to the beginning of a new industry: tourism. Much in the way that Cannes was “discoverd” by Lord Brougham, Golfe-Juan was equally “discovered” by Juliette Adam (1836-1936).

DSC_2346From humble beginnings, Juliette Adam slowly imposed her name in the world of French literature, founding “La Nouvelle Revue” in 1869 and becoming the oracle of Léon Gambetta. She had a sharp political mind and her entourage comprised many literary and political people (George Sand, Prosper Mérimée, Adolphe Thiers to name a few).

Ill-health brought her to Cannes in 1858 where she hears that the municipality of Vallauris are distributing land in Golfe-Juan and thus decided to buy a plot upon which to build a villa. As a passing anecdote – custom had it that, in those days, women could only inherit land from Golfe-Juan as it was considered totally unusable. Men, however, automatically inherited the rich and fertile land of Vallauris as it was naturally taken for granted they were far more capable of exploiting it.

Juliette Adam’s presence in Golfe-Juan, along with the new railway, inspired more people to visit and enjoy the peace and tranquillity of this charming fishing port.

DSC_2409DSC_2436Nowadays it’s a thriving resort, catering not just for local residents but holiday makers too. There’s a fairly modern railway station linking the town to Antibes and Cannes and situated just off Avenue de la Gare, as well as an excellent and frequent bus service.

A range of truly excellent little specialist shops selling superb cheeses, excellent wine, wonderful bread, quality fresh salads, vegetables, and succulent roast chickens make it a pleasure to shop here.

DSC_2461If you feel your French too rusty to deal with these individual shops, there are a number of medium-sized supermarkets that will make life easier for you. And with a variety of boutiques, hotels, tea-rooms, and the inevitable estate agents (around thirty-three at our last reckoning) as well as a bustling provencal market every Friday around Square Nabonnand you’ll find everything you need here to make life very pleasant.

DSC_2364There is also no lack of restaurants in Golfe-Juan. At our last count there were fifty-five. Most are located along the Vieux Port and across to Port Camille Rayon and the Théâtre de la Mer Jean Marais (exhibiting the artist’s many excellent paintings and sculptures). Others can be found more inland and along the main road. But whatever your taste and budget you’ll find something to please you.

You may now be wondering about the price of houses here. As for most homes, location is everything and Golfe-Juan is no exception to the rule. For example, a modern flat with one bedroom, a bathroom and reception room would be priced around €128,000 whereas a French Bourgeois style apartment within walking distance to the beach, with a 19m² terrace, one bedroom, a bathroom and a separate furnished kitchen would be priced around €260,000.

DSC_2419DSC_2440On the other hand, a four bedroom house with about 200m² of living space, two bathrooms, three shower rooms, two dining rooms and a fitted kitchen would set you back by €1,000,000. You will need to count more if you want a swimming pool and parking facilities.

DSC_2431As Golfe-Juan is a seaside resort, you’ll find the accent firmly placed on water sports. There are two beaches; “Plages du Soleil” and “Plages du Midi”. Here you can rent pedalos and take swimming lessons too. There are also three scuba-diving clubs, a water-skiing school and ascensional parachuting club.

DSC_2424Fishing enthusiasts are more than provided for as there’s a rather nifty fishing shop in Port Camille Rayon, and good fishing spots along the harbour. Notably the small green-painted light tower called “La Fourmigue” in the middle of Golfe-Juan’s bay, marks the position of a dangerous and rocky reef, but is equally home to a rich variety of fish. You can also rent a broad spectrum of boats, ranging from bareboat, dinghies, catamarans, sail-boats or high-powered yachts, for a day or for longer – with or without a crew.

DSC_2455Finally, Golfe-Juan is closely related to Napoleon Bonaparte. And perhaps this, more than anything else, has put Golfe-Juan firmly in the spotlight. For it is here, on the afternoon of March 1, 1815 that Napoleon landed with over 800 of his men and French history was again made.

As a byline, every year in March Golfe-Juan commemorates Bonaparte’s historic landing.

Vence is a small cathedral town and – a town with a small cathedral. Its eleventh-century church is among the smallest in France. The old town is a vaguely concentric maze of narrow streets protected on one side by monumental gates of Roman origin, and on the other by medieval ramparts. Elegant, urn-shaped fountains play in sheltered squares, of which one served as the Roman’s forum and another housed the town guillotine in Revolutionary times. The old town is now the traveller’s reward for having negotiated the suppuration of hotels and ugly apartment blocks that surround it.

Vence stands almost a thousand feet up in the hills, about ten miles inland: two features that, in January 1930, caused the English novelist and travel and short-story writer David Herbert (D.H.) Lawrence to move there. In Bandol, he had been examined by Dr Moreland, an English chest specialist on holiday in the area, who had told him that he should move to a higher altitude, away from the coast.

Lawrence finally, and belatedly, accepted Dr Morland’s diagnosis: that he had had tuberculosis for many years. As Katherine Mansfield had done 13 years earlier, he left coastal Bandol for the last time.

He had hoped that his ranch in Taos, New Mexico, might better meet the doctor’s requirements, but, apart from his visa problems, the doctor was sure that Lawrence was in no condition for such a long journey.

So he moved into what he called ‘a sort of sanatorium’ in Vence. When he got there he weighed just six stone – 85 pounds – and was close to death. The building had formerly been the home of a local astronomer, and both its name, Ad Astra (‘To the Stars’), and its location – just across the road from the cemetery – now took on a grisly significance. Frieda checked into the nearby Hôtel Nouvel.

It was not really a sanatorium. As Lawrence wrote on a postcard to Aldous Huxley’s wife Maria, it was just ‘an hotel where a nurse takes your temperature and two doctors look after you once a week’. H.G. Wells, who was living near Grasse at the time, came to see him there, as did the Aga Khan. On 27 February, after only two weeks, he wrote to the Huxleys again.  This time with a P.S.: ‘This place no good.’

The next day Frieda took him away from the home to a villa she had rented: the Villa Rochermond (later the Villa Aurelia) near the great 2,400-foot cylindrical rock of St-Jeannet.

Optimistically, she took a six-month lease starting on 1 March, and moved her bed into his room because he wanted to be able to see her. He was writing a book review when the Huxleys arrived and he grasped Maria Huxley’s hands and said, ‘Maria, don’t let me die.’

At 9 pm the next day, a doctor came from the ‘sanatorium’ and gave Lawrence morphine for his pain. He said, ‘I am better now’, and fell asleep. He died at 10.15 pm.

Lawrence was buried beside a south-facing wall in the Vence cemetery. In addition to Frieda and Barby, her daughter by her previous marriage, the small group of mourners included the Huxleys and their friend Robert Nichols, an English poet living in Villefranche.

At the time, no one thought that, exactly five years later, another small group would gather in carré 7 of Vence cemetery to witness Lawrence’s exhumation.

In the time between burial and disinterment, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, on their way home from a holiday in Italy, had made a side trip to Vence to visit the grave – and, it being 1933, found him in. In the meantime, Frieda had been comforted by a number of lovers, at least two of whom had shared her with Lawrence while he was still alive.

One was John Middleton Murry, with whom she had had a torrid affair immediately following the death of his wife Katherine Mansfield in 1923. By the time Lawrence died, Murry had acquired another consumptive wife, whom he left with their children in his haste to fulfil his urgent mission to Vence, to fill the void left by Lawrence’s death.

It is uncertain who comforted whom: Frieda at 50 was still alluring enough for him to write later, ‘You don’t know what you did for me in Vence … you recreated me.’

The next to console her was Angelo Ravagli, the Fascist Italian army officer who had served as her occasional extra-curricular lover during her marriage, and was the reason for her late arrival at Port Cros. By 1935, he and Frieda had moved to Taos. He had built a small mausoleum chapel there – a friend called it a ‘station toilet’ – in Lawrence’s memory, and had been charged with exhuming Lawrence’s remains in Vence and shipping them to Taos to complete the shrine.

Deterred by French bureaucracy from exporting a long-dead body, Ravagli had the remains burned and urned in preparation for their 5,000-mile journey. At the docks, in New York, the ashes – just as the live Lawrence had done – suffered immigration difficulties, but they were finally accepted as unlikely to have subversive intent or communist sympathies and permitted to board the train to New Mexico.

The anarchic Lawrence would probably have enjoyed the rest of the story, as researched by biographer Brenda Maddox. Distracted by the enthusiasm of Frieda’s welcome, Ravagli left the urn and its incinerated contents on the train, after which the fate of the ashes becomes confused. Either Ravagli went back to the railway station and collected them, or he was unable to find them at the station and bought another urn, which he filled with similar substance.

The disposal of the ashes has raised even more conspiracy theories. Some, including Maria Huxley, believe that the anti-Ravagli school suspected that he had built the Lawrence mausoleum in Taos with a view to charging admission to tourists, and they planned to thwart him by stealing the ashes and casting them to the desert winds. Frieda, hearing of this plan, tipped them into the mixer that was making the concrete altar stone for the chapel.

Twenty years later, a drunken Ravagli revealed that immediately after the cremation of Lawrence’s body in 1935, afraid of hassles with the French authorities over the export of the remains, he had tipped the original ashes out in Vence and replaced them with cindered wood.

Although this contradicted his earlier, already conflicting, statements, it seems to leave only three possible fates for the true ashes: they are either in Vence, or in a block of concrete in Taos, or in a left luggage office somewhere in New Mexico. And the one true tomb of David Herbert Lawrence is the one in carré 7 in Vence cemetery, over which a plaque reads, ‘David Herbert Lawrence reposed here from March 1930 to March 1935′.

Murry (without mentioning his relationship to Frieda) swore on oath that he had seen a will in which Lawrence bequeathed all the rights of his works to her, and none to his family, and Frieda and Angelo lived on in New Mexico, getting ever richer on the royalties. They married there in 1950, his Italian wife having given her consent for them to marry.

It was convenient that Italian law had not recognized Angelo’s American divorce and marriage, because after Frieda died in New Mexico at the age of 77, Ravagli’s wife was able to accept him back as her legal husband without further ceremony.

Towards the end of the Second World War the artist Matisse moved to Vence, fearful that the south coast would be bombarded by the liberating Allied troops. While there, he designed and decorated the Chapel du Rosaire at the upper end of the town in what is now, appropriately, named the avenue Henri Matisse. The chapel is administrated by the order of the Dominican Sisters, and Matisse reflected the Dominican theme in his frescoes, painting the Stations of the Cross in black on the white ceramic walls in his minimalist style of the time.

He said later ‘What I have done in the Chapel is to create a religious space … to give it, solely by the play of colours and lines, the dimensions of infinity.’

Among others, a visitor to the chapel on 6 January 1956, was the American poet Sylvia Plath.

She had made the train journey south on New Year’s Eve of 1955 with her lover of the time, Richard Sassoon, and her journal records her anticipation:

Off into the night, with the blackness of a strange land knifing past. In my mind, a map of France, irregularly squarish … and a line of railway tracks, like a zipper, speeding open to the south, to Marseille, to Nice and the Côte d’Azur where perhaps in the realm of absolute fact the sun is shining and the sky is turquoise.

Anyone who has made that train journey will recognize her evocation of the first sight of the Mediterranean:

Then, lifting my head sleepily once, suddenly the moon shining incredibly, on water. Marseille. The Mediterranean. At last, unbelievably, the moon on that sea, that azure sea I dreamed about on maps in the sixth grade.

The Mediterranean. Sleep again, and at last the pink vin rosé light of dawn along the back of the hills in a strange country. Red earth, orange tiled villas in yellow and peach and aqua, and the blast, the blue blast of the sea on the right. The Côte d’Azur. A new country, a new year: spiked with a green explosion of palms, cacti sprouting vegetable octopuses with spiky tentacles, and the red sun rising like the eye of God out of a screaming blue sea.

And, on arrival, her first impressions of Nice:

There is the sea, heaving blue against the roundly pebbled shore, and the white gulls planning and crying in the quiet air, like the breath from a glass of iced champagne. Everywhere little black-clad people walk along the sparkling Sunday morning pavement, sitting in the turquoise-painted deck chairs along the Promenade des Anglais and facing the rising sun: painted bleached blondes pass by in high heels, black slacks, fur coats and sun glasses.

Plath was 23 at the time, on a Fulbright scholarship at Cambridge University. From Place Garibaldi in Nice, she posted a word-packed postcard to her mother in the USA on 7 January:

Yesterday was about the most lovely of my life …

How can I describe the beauty of the country? Everything is so small, close, exquisite and fertile. Terraced gardens on steep slopes of rich red earth, orange and lemon trees, olive orchards, tiny pink and peach houses. To Vence – small, on a sun-warmed hill, uncommercial, slow, peaceful. Walked to Matisse cathedral – small, pure, clean-cut. White, with blue tile roof sparkling in the sun – I just knelt in the heart of the sun and the colors of sky, sea, and sun, in the pure white heart of the Chapel.

But first – a little background history
After Tsar Alexander I and King Frederick William III of Prussia marched into Paris on March 31, 1814, Napoleon was forced to abdicate.

He left Fontainebleau on 20 April 1814 and encountered some hostility on his passage to
St. Raphael where he embarked nine day later for Elba, a small island off the coast of Tuscany, on board the English frigate, Undaunted.

There he remained for ten months, during which time his mother, Madame Mere, came to live with him on the island. His sister Pauline and his old friend Maria Walewska were to be frequent visitors.

He “reigned” there from 3 May 1814 to 26 February 1815 when he escaped British surveillance and returned to France.

DSC_2455On the afternoon of 1 March 1815, Napoleon landed on the shores of Golfe-Juan, at a point then called “La Gabelle” on board his vessel l’Inconstant, a small brig armed with 40 cannons and 300 hundred of his Guard.

DSC_2465The rest of his Guard and troops, totalling some 1,100 men, sailed on the rest of the flotilla made up of l’Etoile, Le Saint-Joseph, Le Saint-Esprit, La Caroline as well as two feluccas (small Mediterranean vessels with oars and lateen sails), La Mouche and l’Abeille.

Golfe Juan Napoleon DebarkationUpon landing Napoleon gave a rallying speech to his soldiers. Once his two generals, Drouot and Cambronne had landed with the rest of his men, he despatched a captain with a company of chasseurs to a garrison at Cap d’Antibes to feel the pulse of the soldiers. The latter was taken prisoner with all his company, and two officers sent to demand their release shared the same fate.

At eleven o’clock that night, Napoleon, who had waited in vain at a nearby inn for the rallying of the troops and return of his men from the Antibes garrison, took up his march for Cannes.

That night, he and his men bivouacked on a sandy beach now known as La Croisette.
Before sunrise the next morning, Napoleon and his troops were already marching towards Grasse and arrived there just before midnight. Thus begins the “Route Napoleon”.

During the first weekend of March, a reconstruction of Napoleon’s landing is played out on the beaches of Golfe-Juan.

In collaboration with the Tourist Office and Town of Vallauris and Golfe-Juan, this small seaside resort steps back in time to re-enact the events of March 1, 1815.

There is always much to see and participate in. From “Le Village Napoléonien” to “Le Bivouac”, cavalry exercises with sabres, battle simulations with cannon fire, hand-to-hand combat with bayonets and musket fire, military band music to conferences, and a temporary post office issuing a special Napoleon postmark, there is something for every one.

Vallauris-Golfe Juan Tourist Office
Bd des Freres Roustan
06220 Golfe Juan
Tel: 04 93 63 73 12
Fax: 04 93 63 21 09

One Christmas Eve, long ago, when I was but a small child, my mother gave me a very special present: a tiny glass teddy bear with perfume inside his transparent tummy. With him came two small teddy bear-shaped white soaps fragranced with the scent of apricots. It was my first introduction to perfume.

Ever since these childhood days, I have enjoyed buying and receiving some wonderful perfumes and have cherished them all. It is impossible for me not to think of perfumes as a source of luxury, and Parisian. Yet it was only when I moved to the Cote d’Azur that I discovered that the real heartbeat of traditional French perfumes is not Paris but the small and gentile town of Grasse, perched in the hills above Cannes and Nice.

So let’s journey back in time and discover how this out-of-the-way town became the perfume centre of the world for, oddly enough, it seems that it is all to do with tanning and the art of glove making.

Leather-tanning was practised all over France wherever there was an abundance of water and livestock. The expertise brought by the Moors, the advances in dyeing as a result of the Crusades, the advances in techniques for glove making with individual fingers along with the craze for gloves, both religious and secular, as a sign of power, all favoured the development of leather work and glove making.

Today modern methods of tanning have greatly improved, but nonetheless it still involves the process of converting putrescent skin into non-putrescible leather. While today the smell of leather goods can be intoxicating, prior to the 15th century, most finished leather goods smelt unpleasant.

Two main towns, Montpellier and Grasse, took centre stage for this industry but each for different reasons. Montpellier came to prominence with its very famous Montpellier Faculty of Pharmacy founded in the 12th century (though there is mention that it was founded earlier in the 8-10th centuries). Within this faculty, the first medical school in Europe, pharmacists, druggists and apothecaries concocted perfumed preparations for medicinal usage.

Grasse on the other hand had become greatly renowned throughout Europe for its excellent tanning and quality of leather. This was due in part with its well-established trade links with Genoa and Spain, from where it bought its quality pelts prior to shipping them to Marseille. They would then leave the skins to steep in bilberry and pistachio powder in their tanning pits for eighteen months, which rendered them water-proof, impossible to wear out and gave them a characteristic green tinge.

But Grasse also had something extra special that would be the ultimate prize: an exceptional micro climate.

As the Montpellier pharmacy faculty stimulated a growing demand for perfumed products, which France had to import from Italy, the town of Grasse began to develop its production of flowers, its raw materials for the perfume industry.

Already growing naturally and in abundance around Grasse were lavandula (“aspic”), roses, iris, bilberry, thyme, violets, rosemary, and trees such as pistachio, olive, and bigarade but around 1560, vast fields of fragrant jasmine were soon joined by May rose, lavender and tuberose which flourished in Grasse’s pleasant climate.

Once the region of Provence joined the kingdom of France in the 16th century, the exquisite leather from Grasse won favour at court. So when Catherine de’ Medici (1519-1589) arrived in France to marry Henri II, Duc d’Orleans, and brought perfumed leather gloves with her (the height of fashion in Florence), everyone wanted to wear them. Indeed, when she left Italy, she brought with her not just her favourite astrologer, artists and poets but also her own perfumer, René le Florentin (born Renato Bianco). It is said that it is he who scented the gloves that poisoned Jeanne d’Albret, mother of Henry IV. Legend also has it that Queen Catherine came and stayed in Grasse accompanied by le Florentin whom she instructed to create a distillery and an alchemy laboratory much along the lines of those in Florence.

In 1656, Louis XIV (1638-1715) “the Sun King”, created the Corporation of Master Glovemakers and Perfumers and granted them the monopoly of perfume distribution. This was a momentous step as sole monopoly formerly belonged to apothecaries and druggists. In March 1673, under Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s economic management, the gantiers-poudriers-parfumeurs were awarded pride of place in the Six Corps: the six most powerful guilds of the day.

In 1724 the perfumed-glove manufacturers of Grasse were officially recognized as guilds and facilitated the conversion of their tanning factories into the exclusive business of perfume making.

The “master-glover perfumer” craftsmen started operating shops where they would sell their perfume creations and many opened in Paris, although one, Jean de Galimard, Lord of Seranon, decided to open one in Grasse in 1747: it was called Parfumerie Galimard. In 1768 Chiris inaugurated his perfume factory and business which proposed soaps, creams, perfumed oils, and “quintessence” or essential oils obtained through distillation.

For a while the guild flourished until the 18th century when Royal Decree dissolved the guild, and free-enterprise-style anarchy spread as regulations vanished. Worse was still to come with the French Revolution (1789-1799) causing the downfall of the flourishing leather industry, taxed nearly out of existence and to customers’ growing indifference to wearing perfumed leather gloves as also perfumed waistcoats, doublets, shoes, belts and even fans. This indifference was possibly due to the fact that many did not want to be associated with the King’s court: “Madame La Guillotine” was rather a persuasive lady.

Fortunately, things changed and with the growing success of perfumes in the 1850’s there expanded a need for fresh plant extracts. Within a few years the surrounding countryside of Grasse became covered in perfumed plants of a universally acknowledged high standard as country-dwellers and perfume manufacturers bought immense tracks of fields in the area. From here, the perfume makers conquered foreign markets. Perfume companies installed their factories at the edge of the town in the disused convents that had been closed down during the French Revolution.

At this point Grasse moved into the industrial phase, by specialising in the raw materials of perfume and adapting the principals of the industrial revolution to suit this process. Perfume making in Grasse then underwent an important development. It expanded to new sites – in 1846 there were 46 perfume producers in Grasse and 12 in the surrounding area; by 1866, there were 65 in Grasse and 14 in the surrounding area.

Flower cultivation for perfume reached its prime at the turn of the century. Up to 2000 tons of orange blossoms, 100 tons of roses, 500 tons of jasmine and 300 tons of violets were produced, as well as a large number of tuberoses, geraniums, heliotropes, carnations and mimosa on over 4000 hectares of flower plantations in Grasse. These were divided into 5000 farm estates and while many of them were small a few had their own mobile distilleries.

The phenomena of perfume for Grasse and its surrounding area also led to an expansion of associated craft industries: glass-makers, tinsmiths, cork cutters, ironmongers, printers, haulage contractors, etc. New machinery and new techniques for extraction were invented, including notably the process of perfume extraction with volatile solvents, for which the Grasse-based manufacturer Leon Chiris acquired the first patents in 1894.

New techniques of extraction also appeared. A process called enfleurage, involving the washing of a scented pommade with alcohol, was carried out from the beginning of the 19th century. Slowly but surely the industrial revolution marked the arrival of industrial organic synthesis, which put a number of synthetic substances at the disposal of perfume makers at very reasonable prices.

Hard hit by two world wars, the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and increasing international trade, Grasse lost a fair bit of its supremacy in the 20th century. After World War II, fragrant plant cultivation nearly ceased in the Grasse region, in favour of other areas where labour and land were more competitive. However, instead of being threatened by this challenge, manufacturers had foreseen it and intensified their production of aromatic raw materials in other regions.

While most modern, mass market perfume industries are now based in Switzerland, the United States and Germany and controlling lucrative perfume, cosmetics and food-flavouring markets, Grasse has remained steadfast in its resolve to remain the centre of traditional perfumery and the home of a large number of famous “noses”, (the subject of another article) and an essential place to visit for anyone interested in the magic of the history and making of traditional perfumes.

In fact, those of you visiting the Cote d’Azur for the first time will probably notice the abundant supply of soaps, lavender, gaily coloured Provençal earthenware pots and olive oil on sale in every little corner shop or market; the perfumes of Grasse are easily missed. So it’s important to know that there are three major perfumeries still in existence today in Grasse: Galimard, Fragonard and Molinard that you can visit.

Galimard – which I’ve already mentioned – created by Jean de Galimard some 250 years ago in 1747 has kept the same traditions of its founder and continues to produce some wonderful perfumes and soaps. The other, Fragonard, opened in 1926 and is in one of the most ancient tannery factories of the town, dating back to 1782. The factory belonged to a glove-and-perfume maker, Mr Maubert, who took the name of Parfumerie Fragonard as a tribute to the famous painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806). Different laboratories, distilleries and workshops allow you to follow the stages of the creation of perfumes. Like Galimard, Fragonard also has a branch in the very pretty medieval perched village of Eze.

Lastly, Molinard, which opened in 1849 and has played a major role in building the reputation of the world’s perfume capital with its artisanal and traditional knowledge handed down throughout many generations and is, still today ,an entirely family-run business (one of the oldest in France). It has a fabulous display of antique Molinard perfume bottles (designed by famous glass-makers such as Lalique and Baccarat) as well as a unique collection of labels while the sales shop is furnished with authentic Provençal-style furniture from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

All three perfumeries offer free guided tours of their facilities thus giving visitors the chance to find out more about the various stages in perfume manufacturing. And all three also give you the opportunity to create your own perfume which you can re-order once you’ve run out as they keep every single recipe.

Molinard began by manufacturing Eaux de Fleurs (flower-scented waters) and Eau de Colognes and while it is somewhat of a diversion and a bit naughty of me, I can’t resist sharing with you the extraordinary story of Eau de Cologne.

First of all, Cologne is the French name given to the German city, Köln, yet the origins of eau de cologne are firmly rooted in Italy. It was created by the Italian Gian Paolo Feminis, a barber from Val Vigezzo who left his native Italy to seek his fortune in Germany and decided to settle in Köln. When there, he created a perfume called “Aqua Admirabilis”. When it was released in 1709, Feminis was stunned to learn that customers had swept it off the apothecary shelves, begging for more. To help meet demand, Feminis recruited his nephew, Giovanni Marie Farina, and together they managed to satisfy their customers. In 1732 Giovanni took over the business, marketing “Aqua Admirablis” as a consumable cure-all for a variety of ailments, ranging from stomach aches to bleeding gums.

Word spread of this remarkable water (made from grape spirits, oil of neroli, bergamot, lavender and rosemary) during the Seven Years’ War which the soldiers dubbed Eau de Cologne. Anyway, to cut a long story short, word of its endorsement by Napoleon (he apparently consumed entire bottles of it each day) reached Germany, prompting the Farinas to open a shop in Paris. Annoyingly, a number of copycats then popped up, both in France and in Germany, so Farina eventually sold the formula to Léonce Collas and retired to Italy. Collas inherited the same copycat problems and in turn sold the formula to Roger et Gallet who today still owns the legal rights to the Parisian Eau de Cologne.

But here’s the twist! Johann Maria Farina, a German descendent of the original Farina family, sold the Aqua formula to Perfumer Wilhelm Mülhens, also living in Cologne. Mülhens opened his shop in 1792 at 4711 Glockengasse. Today, this traditional fragrance is still sold under the name 4711 and is currently the world’s oldest and most continuously produced fragrance. Isn’t that incredible?

As we come to the end of my article, the question must surely be: what of Grasse’s perfume industry in today’s world? Although perfumes and natural extracts still form the backbone of Grasses’s expertise, the use of flavours and fragrances in an ever widening range of applications has transformed the market. Local companies are currently active in a host of sectors such as health and beauty, cleaning products, wash powders, candles and lots more. For example, Azur Fragrances, established in 1978 in Grasse, produces about 350 fragrances used in 450 products from perfumes to clothes softeners and air fresheners.

Changes in consumer expectation have resulted in the major industrial names calling for the development of new “olfactory notes”. New trends are constantly emerging, such as perfumes for men or oral hygiene products. The corporate vibrancy of the region is consolidated by training institutions, higher education and public R&D units. Created in 1972 by the National Association of Manufacturers of Aromatic Products (Prodarom), the ASFO-Grasse, is a professional training body specialising in fragrances, food flavours and cosmetics. Their classes are broken into 4 streams: fragrances, flavours and cosmetics; chemistry and chemical engineering; hygiene, safety, quality and environmental sciences; and information technology and management. The Grasse Institute of Perfumery, which opened its doors in 2002, trains a selection of international students to become perfume creators or “Noses”.

Grasse’s fragrance and flavour industry is now well-established and consists of about 60 companies, generating direct employment for about 3,300 people and indirect employment for around 13,000. It has a worldwide dimension with operations on all five continents, generating 610M Euro in turnover representing 50% of the French market and 8% of the worldwide market. From such humble beginnings Grasse has secured an invisible platform.

For those of you thinking of coming to the French Riviera with time to see Grasse then a visit to one of the afore-mentioned perfumeries should be on your list. Also, if you intend on coming here later in the year, a visit to Grasse’s International Perfume Museum is a must.

If time is of the essence (couldn’t resist the pun), both Galimard and Fragonard have branches in the delightful medieval village of Eze, a much sought-after summer destination, while Fragonard has an outlet in St Paul de Vence, another top destination on the French Riviera, and of course one in Nice too. Alternatively, any stroll through a local market will indulge your senses as here you’ll find a wonderful selection of locally made natural soaps made from regional ingredients. And don’t forget Gourdon, a haven of scent and blessed with the most stunning views of the French Riviera from the hinterlands to the Mediterranean Sea: pure magic . . . just like perfume.

* * ** * * *

While researching for this article I came across a couple of interesting websites which you may like to browse:

Perfume Shrine

Personal Perfumes

Historical Perfumes

Perfume Projects

The Musée Picasso in Antibes reopened in July after an extensive two-year renovation. Housed in the centuries-old former Château Grimaldi, built on the site of the ancient Greek city of Antipolis, the museum has the old village of Antibes at its front door, and the Mediterranean at its back.  It exhibits an impressive collection of Picasso’s paintings, drawings, and ceramics, as well as works of other modern and contemporary artists.

Photo Album Photo 9Antibes Picasso Museum I&DThe Musée Picasso in Antibes was the first museum devoted to Picasso’s work alone; the city council of Antibes renamed their Château Grimaldi in Picasso’s honor in 1966.  Twenty years earlier, the curator of the Château, Dor de la Souchère, had invited Picasso and his companion, the painter Françoise Gilot, to set up their studio on the second floor of what was then the museum of the history of Antibes.  Picasso and Gilot worked in their château studio throughout the autumn of 1946, leaving at the end of November, when the building—sited high above the sea, with single-paned windows offering little protection from the mistral—became too cold to work in.  They returned to Paris, but Picasso left 23 paintings behind, a gift to the museum.

Those 23 paintings form the nucleus of the collection and marked a change in the destiny of the museum of Antibes.  In 1947, a gallery dedicated to Picasso’s works opened, followed by, in 1948, a special exhibition of Picasso’s works; more galleries devoted to Picasso opened in 1949, and two years later, in 1951, museum curator Dor de la Souchère began to collect modern art for the museum.  For the following 15 years, the château was divided between rooms showing works of Picasso and modern artists—on the second floor—and rooms containing documents, paintings and material culture documenting the history of Antibes on the other levels.  That changed in 1966, when the historical collections were moved out and all of the galleries were redesigned to exhibit Picasso and the modern art collection, and the château’s name was changed to the Musée Picasso.

Picasso Museum Antibes 6We spent a recent afternoon exploring the renovated museum.  It had rained the day before, and the wind following the rain had blown all night—which meant that the day of our museum visit was gloriously clear.  We left our car in the vieux Port parking and bypassed the enormous yachts and old men playing boules, walking instead through the arch in the old city walls and into the narrow streets of the vieux village of Antibes.  Up the hill, we followed the signs to the Musée Picasso:  past the cafés with their sidewalk tables, past the shops selling everything from lavender sachets to coffee pots to signs to hang in your beach house.  We turned left at the Hôtel de Ville—it was a Saturday afternoon, and there was a wedding going on inside; the bedecked wedding car was parked directly in front of a no parking sign—and walked up the—steeper and narrower—street to the place in front of the peach and ochre cathedral of Antibes, the seat of one of the most powerful bishoprics in France for almost a thousand years.  There was another wedding, and another illegally parked, decorated wedding car, this time an old Citroen 2CV, just in front.

Picasso Museum Antibes 3The Picasso museum was just a little further now.  Built as the château of the ruling family, it was, as is the castle in nearly every other French town, next to beside the cathedral:  church and state, the two major authorities, next door.  In Antibes, the château has pride of place over the cathedral, being a little higher up, at the very top of the hill.  We walked through a square, up a cobbled ramp and entered.

All the necessary facilities—tickets, toilets, cloakroom and bookshop—occupy the ground floor of the museum.  Passing through the entrance hall, we followed more signs, up two levels to rooms displaying Picasso’s works.  During the recent renovations, the former castle guard room which Picasso and Gilot used as their studio in 1946 was turned into a gallery, displaying many of the works that Picasso began and finished in that burst of productivity in the autumn of 1946.  They are framed as Picasso directed them to be, in black iron frames, and hung around the white walls of the high-ceilinged room.  The windows are small and sparse—what you would expect in a medieval guardroom perched on a sea cliff—and yet the lighting in the room has been designed to give the impression of cool daylight.  We walked through the room, soaking in the paintings of fauns and sea urchins, centaurs and fish.  Between the paintings, through the windows, we had glimpses of the twin blues of the sea and sky, punctuated by white boats skimming along or delicately bobbing at their moorings.Picasso Museum Antibes 7

Down a half flight, we walked through a smaller room dedicated to photographs of Picasso and Gilot, their studio and friends, during that autumn 60 years ago.  Picasso is in short trousers and sandals.  He glares at the camera, defying it to interrupt his work.  Dishes from lunch are stacked nearby on a worktable, where they share space with an array of wine bottles, glass jars of paintbrushes, painters’palettes, and tins of turpentine.  Gilot, forty years younger than her companion, is beautiful and glowing and elegantly dressed, looking into the camera with a slightly ironic expression.  Friends drop by, and everyone lines up in front of one of the canvases:  men in suits, women in print dresses and hats, Gilot with her hair done almost like a schoolgirl, and Picasso in his short trousers.

Picasso Museum Antibes 2We began, then, to sense an atmosphere:  Antibes in late-summer days, the second year after the occupying army of the war had been driven out by the Allies.  The French economy was still reeling—the paintings that Picasso did in those months, he did with the cheapest materials available, using recycled canvas, wood, because that was what there was.  But those paintings convey an almost elemental joy:  mythical creatures level their gaze out from the canvases, daring the viewer to doubt their reality.  Still lifes show platters of seafood, bottles of wine; a marvellously exotic aiguière, or pitcher, shows up again and again.  Picasso turned 66 in 1946 and Françoise Gilot was 25.  The first of their two children together was born the following year.  The war, and the occupation, was over.  We sensed a return to life, a guarded optimism.  Picasso’s works recalled the ancient Mediterranean past of this castle mount, reaching back to the Greeks and their myths, and placed them side by side with today’s seafood platter and carafe of rosé in one long continuum of sea and light and life.

Downstairs, we walked through galleries devoted to the museum’s collection of other modern artists and stopped for a while in front of Nicolas de Stael’s painting of Antibes’ Fort Carré, all greys and blues, the colors of the coast in a storm.  Downstairs, too, we began to feel the presence of the château itself.  Out from under Picasso’s domineering gaze, we noticed the vestiges of the medieval castle:  intricate carvings in doorframes and a differently shaped hand-cast terracotta tile pattern for the floor of each room.  Each time we passed a window, the sea caught our eye and reminded us where we were.

Back on the ground floor, we went through a door in the inner courtyard and found ourselves face to face with the sea itself.  The museum’s back terrace is a sculpture garden and an overlook:  we looked to the east and took in the Cap d’Antibes, to the west, past the port of Antibes and along to Nice, and south, across the blue of the sea.  That afternoon we understood why those paint chips in hardware stores call it Mediterranean blue:  the sea after the rain and the wind was a brilliant deep blue.  The sky was so clear that the line where it met the sea was sharp.  Seagulls called and swooped and played on the breeze, and a wedding procession drove by on the street below us, horns blaring in celebration.

We stood on the terrace for a long time, alternately studying the sculptures and the view, before we wandered out of the museum and back down into the town.  The wedding in the cathedral was finished, and guests were milling around checking their watches and getting directions to the reception.  Outside the Hôtel de Ville, the guests for another wedding were gathered, waiting for the bride and groom to come out of their civil wedding ceremony.  We joined them, just behind the (again illegally parked) vintage Bentley; in a few minutes, the couple—she in full-length beaded white satin, he in tails—and their toddler, dressed for the occasion in a very small suit, emerged to the cheers of the assembled.  On the way back to the car, we made one more stop, for ice cream.  We chose two kinds—nutella and watermelon (not together)—and sat on a bench with our cones while Antibes went by.  It wasn’t quite like having a drink with Picasso, but it wasn’t bad.

If you’re hungry after your afternoon at the museum, and if all that showing off means that you have to sweeten the deal for your companions, a stop at the Gelateria del Porto (4, rue Aubernon, vieil Antibes, will help.  Jean Marc makes it all himself.  Nutella gelato is a year-round treat; watermelon (pastèque in French) is seasonal.

Matisse first came to Nice in 1917 at the age of 48 to recuperate from bronchitis he had caught whilst visiting his eldest son Jean, posted as an aeroplane mechanic to the airfield at Istres on windswept salt marshes thirty miles west of Marseilles. Matisse had left Paris in mid-December, catching the overnight train down. It was a long journey which left him physically ill.

After waiting four days in Marseilles with his patience close to breaking point, he finally managed to obtain permission to see his son. He was shocked by what he found. The young conscripts were cold, hungry and dirty, living ankle-deep in mud without latrines or anywhere to wash, except an icy stream once a week. He took Jean back with him to Marseilles on a 24-hour pass and treated him to the pleasures of shops, cafés and an evening out. The next day Matisse sent him back to camp, repleted with good food, wearing clean clothes and a warm army greatcoat.

Matisse Hotel Beau RivageBut the shock of seeing his son’s terrible camp conditions and being out and about for days in cold & wet weather weakened Matisse still further and he caught a chill that slowly turned into bronchitis. Thus, after organising food & clothes parcels for Jean, he decided to journey along the coast to the sheltered Bay of Nice where he felt he could cure his illness with a few days rest and clement weather. He arrived on Christmas Day and took a room overlooking the sea front in the Hotel du Beau Rivage, then a modest hotel, located on Quai du Midi (now Quai des Etats-Unis).

Matisse Beau Rivage 1916But the weather was just as bad as Marseilles: biting cold, high winds and driving rain. Matisse was sorely tempted to pack his bags and return home that first week. Nonetheless, he braved the weather to call on Renoir living just a few miles along the coast in Cagnes-sur-Mer in a pretty villa called “Les Collettes”. Perhaps his chat with Renoir helped, for Matisse stayed on in Nice, visiting the older painter thereafter on a regular basis. The cold made it difficult for Matisse to paint; his chilled hands could hardly hold a paintbrush and, on his infrequent painting sessions outdoors, he resorted to wearing sheepskin foot-warmers to stave off the cold. After a month of continuous downpours, Matisse had had enough and made up his mind to leave Nice and return to Paris.

But the next morning the weather was magnificent: clear, silvery and soft in spite of its amazing brilliance. The north wind had driven the clouds away and brought with it such luminosity of light that Matisse was captivated. He was overjoyed and resolved to stay in Nice.

By now his days were well structured and almost monastic in routine. He rose early, walked to his studio and worked throughout the morning, either painting or drawing in his studio with the light streaming though the window. A short break for a frugal lunch was followed by another working session drawing at the local art school before either visiting Renoir in Cagnes-sur-Mer with a roll of canvas under his arm or returning to his hotel room to play his violin. (He played so loudly and so obsessively that the hotel management banished him to a distant bathroom for fear of complaints from other guests). A simple supper and an early bedtime ended his working day.

His wife Amélia and daughter Marguerite travelled down to Nice in February to visit him; but they did not stay long. A note from Jean, (recuperating in Istres after a stay in hospital due to an abscess on his leg) told them that his wound had still not healed and that, worse, he had now developed abscesses on his arm and eye as well. Alarmed, Amélie and Marguerite rushed to his side leaving Matisse to continue his work in Nice. After their visit they caught the train from Marseillse back to Paris, where Marguerite needed to continue medical treatment on her throat.

DSC_6156In April, Matisse moved into a rented apartment when the war effort caused his hotel to be requisitioned by the American army, forcing Matisse to find accommodation elsewhere. He found it in a villa situated on Mont Boron, a beautiful 57 hectare parkland created in 1860 and located above the Port of Nice. Although the house was small and rather plain, his rooms faced west with panoramic views along the coast to Cagnes-sur-Mer and across the old town to the Estérel mountains beyond. He felt like a human being again as he rose each morning to watch the Mediterranean sun rise over the sea. This was a peaceful interlude for Matisse as he painted the wild roses, cypress trees, umbrella pines and Eucalyptus trees that grew in abundance on the hillside. But his stay at the villa was short-lived. Anguished by the strength and power of the German advance into Paris, he returned home at the end of June to be close to his family and remained away from his beloved Nice until December 1918, one month after the end of hostilities.

Upon his return, Matisse took a room at Hotel de la Méditerranée et de la Côte d’Azur (no longer exists today) on the Promenade des Anglais and spent each winter there from October to May for the next five years. Work monopolised him from the start: four days into his stay at the hotel he acquired a new model: her name was Antoinette Arnoud. Over the next two years, Matisse produced a steady stream of noteworthy paintings and drawings. In the spring of 1921, Arnoud’s place was filled by Henriette Darricarrère. She had been posing intermittently for Matisse for six months after he had first noticed her working as a film extra at the newly opened Studios de la Victorine on the western outskirts of Nice.

In 1921, perhaps tired of hotel rooms and the restrictions they imposed (he still played the violin to obsession), Matisse rented a two-room flat on the third floor of a house on Place Charles Félix. The high ceilinged rooms, spacious and lined with pretty white false mosaic tiles, looked out onto the sea through a vast picture window.

DSC_7316The house, known as Caïs de Pierlas Palace, had been built at the very end of the 17th century and completed the construction of the Palco (the former name of Cours Saleya) on the eastern side of Place Charles-Félix. Built by the Ribotti family, Counts of Valdeblore, it was acquired in the 18th century by the Caïs de Pierlas family, who decorated its façade with bas-reliefs. Happy in his new lodgings, Matisse leased the fourth floor in 1926, this remained his home until 1938. He retained his third-floor apartment as his art studio until 1928.

In 1927 Matisse became enthralled with canoeing and joined the Club Nautique de Nice, remaining a member for two years. He rowed every afternoon across the bay in his own skiff and painted in the morning when the light was right. His 154 outings at sea in nine months earned him a medal of assiduity, a source of great pride for him.

If painting eluded him throughout 1929, lithos however, flowed naturally surprising him by the ease and spontaneity with which he could draw straight onto copper plate or stone. Working sometimes six hours a days he produced three hundred works in five months. Perhaps despairing that he would ever find spontaneity with painting again, his thoughts slowly turned to Polynesia and travelling there with Amélia. But if 1929 was not such a good year for Henri Matisse, neither was it a good year for Amélia. Summer had found her prone in bed with kidney and spinal problems and at the beginning of October she collapsed; for several weeks she was very poorly. She revived sufficently to make the journey down to Nice in December but there was no longer any question of further travel as doctors confined her to bed until Easter the following year. Heavy in heart, Matisse set sail alone for New York in February 1930 aboard the Ile de France, and then, after a month in the United States set sail again in March onboard the RMS Tahiti for the South Seas. He didn’t return to France until the end of July, having been away five months.

In 1931 and back from his travels Matisse rented a very large garage on rue Désiré Niel situated just off Avenue Félix Faure (today known as l’Atelier Soardi) and a few blocks away from his studio on Place Charles-Félix which he temporarily turned into a studio. He had been commissioned by Dr Albert C. Barnes, a serious art collector who had established the Barnes Foundation in 1922 at Merion in Philadelphia, to paint a mural, The Dance, for three lunettes in the Main Gallery. The choice and form for the new work had been left entirely to Matisse. It seems that Matisse had never considered painting anything but a Dance and drew his creation freehand directly onto three adjacent canvases more than twice his height, using a stick of charcoal tied to a bamboo pole. It was a monumental work for which he resorted to the technique of gouache-covered paper for the first time. He finished it two years later in April 1933, drained both physically and mentally.

By 1934, Matisse’s marriage suffered another set back that slowly led to a separation. After the long and arduous ordeal of creating The Dance for the Barnes Foundation, his wife urged Matisse to take a short break from painting. After much discussion he finally relented. His publisher had a villa on the beautiful peninsula of St Jean-Cap Ferrat and, as Matisse had enjoyed visiting him while dazzled by the light and incredible landscape, they rented Villa Lou Mandiou, located near to the harbour for two months (his son Pierre is buried in the cemetary there). Although Matisse’s health was somewhat precarious, that of Amélia was equally so, if not more. In constant need of an attendant to care for her, she suggested a Russian who had proved a most dependable studio assistant and who they had employed before: her name was Lydia Delectorskaya.

Lydia had first worked for them in the autumn of 1932. It had been a six-months position, originally as a studio assistant for Matisse and then as a domestic for the household in general. Young, beautiful, strong and very competent, Lydia was the perfect companion for Amélia and as nanny for their grandson, Claude – Marguerite’s child.

Now, two years later, Lydia was back but this time under full-time employment. Everything seemed to be going well and so the following year (1935) they asked if she would consider moving in with them. She agreed and received room and board as well as a regular salary. Her competency, ability to organise, direct and manage the household was to be, sadly, her downfall. In addition to looking after Amélia, she was now posing for Matisse, managing his affairs as well as that of the household. And it is this working relationship, rather than any question of adultery, that precipated the crisis in Matisse’s marriage. Amélia felt lost and left out. Faced with an ultimatum from Amélia (“It’s her or me”), Matisse chose his wife and sacked Lydia. But it was too late. The damage to their marriage was done.

Matisse & his dovesMatisse’s passion for birds (and especially doves) began during the summer of 1936. Back in Paris and strolling along the banks of the river Seine, his attention was drawn to the merchants selling a variety of caged song birds and doves. He’d returned home with five or six birds at a time and delighted in their shapes and colours, plumage and singing. His love of birds lasted the rest of his life. Nearing the end of his day, Matisse gave Picasso, who loved birds and had canaries and pigeons of his own, the last of his fancy pigeons. Picasso drew its portrait on the famous poster, Dove of Peace.

Although their marriage was still somewhat fragile, the Matisses had decided to stay on in Nice when their lease expired at Place Charles-Félix in the summer of 1938. To this end they had already bought two adjacent apartments in January that same year on the third floor in the old Excelsior-Regina Palace, the last and grandest of Nice’s imperial hotels, located above Nice in the hills of Cimiez. Constructed by Biasini in 1897, the entire west wing had been occupied by Queen Victoria in the 1890’s. By 1914 it had become obsolete and then boarded up for years after the First World War. It was finally converted into private apartments; Matisse being the first and, for a long time, the only purchaser. During renovation work on their new apartments, Matisse stayed at the British Hotel during the months of September and October and then moved into his new home in mid-November.

Sadly, the relationship between Matisse and his wife, already strained and difficult, had grown progressively worse and in February 1939 her lawyer drew up a deed of separation. One of its key provisions was that everything would be divided equally between the couple. Through these turbulent times, Matisse found consolation in his birds (by now nearly three hundred) which he had installed in a room tiled specially for them and tended by a birdman who came in daily. But days were to get darker still. On 1st September 1939, Hitler’s armies invaded Poland and two days later France followed Britain in declaring war; the Second World War had begun. Matisse departed immediately for Paris.

The artist returned to Nice at the end of October but stayed in extreme isolation and anonymity, going nowhere and seeing virtually no one except his models. The war seemed to fall into a lull so Matisse returned to Paris at the end of April 1940. While there he suffered acute stomach pains and a doctor had to be called, but found nothing wrong. At the beginning of May, news came that Hitler’s armies were again on the move, invading Norway and Denmark, then Belgium, Luxembourg and Holland. Two days later Hitler’s army was in France and bombs started falling on Paris. On June 14th German troops entered Paris, the government resigned and France capitulated. All seemed lost.

While in Paris Matisse had sent word to Lydia to ask if she would come back as his assistant (his wife had made it clear she had no intention of returning) as he needed someone to handle the day-to-day tasks that distracted him from working. Lydia arrived with a bouquet of white daisies and blue cornflowers from her Aunt’s garden on July 15th, St Henry’s Day. When word came that the Germans were closing in on Paris, she and Matisse fled, first taking the train down to Bordeax and later travelling down to St Jean de Luz, a coastal town near the Spanish border. This was the turning point in both their lives. Their working collaboration was to last right up to Matisse’s death in 1954. Her will throughout was indomitable; she typed, kept records and meticulous accounts and paid the household bills. She also organised Matisse’s correspondence and coordinated his business affairs with an iron grip as well as being his studio assistant and muse. And when called upon, even scoured the countryside on her bike for provisions during the war. Matisse claimed that his entire household came to a standstill in her absence which, in the light of what Lydia accomplished is anything, if not an understatement.

Returning with Lydia to Nice at the end of August Matisse came home to a deserted apartment. After assuring that his paintings, bronzes, furniture, record collection and hangings were safe in storage, he was left with just the bare necessities: a bed, a couple of wicker garden chairs, a table. By the autumn the war was starting to be encroach on Nice and punitive public cutbacks on fuel, food and transport started. The abdominal pains that had taken hold of Matisse in Paris in May and again in July, returned and nearly killed him. Lydia urgently contacted Marguerite who arrived and, much against the protests of hospital consultants, removed her father physically from his hospital bed for a difficult 12 hour train journey to reach the Parc de Lyon Clinic that was run by the Dominican Nuns of Grammond. The operation was performed by Dr Santy, assisted by Dr Leriche. Two days later Matisse suffered a pulmonary embolism, which he narrowly survived. By some miracle, Matisse started to improve and by the end of March he was well enough to leave the clinic and stay in an hotel. He was then 71 years old.

Although still very weak, his strength had improved enough to travel back to Nice at the end of May 1941. His aviary was now half full, his birds having died for lack of special ants’ eggs impossible to find in wartime. A pair of songthrushes he prized above all died soon after he returned as did his faithful companion, his dog Raudid. He engaged day and night nurses and found ways to restore some normality to his daily routine. He began drawing again. The days slipped by and summer turned to autumn and then gently into spring. But things were not boding well for Matisse. He had been bedridden since March with excruciating spasms of pain in his stomach and liver. By August of that year he had spent nearly six months in bed. And then, unbeknownst to him, his life and work were to change completely and culminate into the creation of his greatest work. In September that year he employed a temporary stand-in for his regular night nurse. The agency sent him a young, twenty-one year old student nurse: Monique Bourgeois.

Monique was a soldier’s child, and had suffered a very strict and rigid upbringing. Made homeless during the war, her family had been evacuated by cattle car from Metz to Nantes. The trip took three days and two nights. Her father, seriously wounded in the 1914-18 war was fatally injured during the Second World War and hospitalized in Purpan, a little village next to Toulouse. He was later moved to Vence where he died from his injuries in December 1940 at the age of 48. Monique was the eldest of three children and it now fell to her to provide for them and her mother. After a year in nursing school she made her way to Nice to find work at the nursing school placement office. She was in luck. An artist by the name of Henri Matisse was looking for a temporary night nurse. On September 26, 1942 she rang the bell to Matisse’s apartment in Cimiez. Lydia answered.

Monique quickly became comfortable with Matisse and soon their conversations turned more personal. Matisse spoke of himself, his family and his grandchildren whom he adored. He showed her pictures of his parents, of himself as a child and of his wife. Matisse explained that he had become very possessive and hard to please the older he got and Madame Matisse could no longer put up with his demands. Monique, on the other hand, admitted to him that she loved to draw and she brought Matisse several of her watercolours. When Matisse was able to, he got out of bed and showed Monique his studio and paintings. She cared for him for 15 nights, during which time he had several attacks in a row of severe stomach pains.

The return of Matisse’s regular night nurse drew an end to Monique’s duties. Wishing to continue her nursing studies Monique applied, and received, a scholarship that allowed her to continue. In between her studies, she would occasionally visit Matisse. With her he began to walk again, slowly at first around the lanes bordering the ancient Roman arenas of Cimiez. To help with her finances, Matisse asked if she would come and pose for him. She accepted. Lydia took her to what was called the “costume room” where she found a variety of different dresses intended for Matisse’s models in a large trunk. Matisse painted four canvases of her, as well as numerous sketches with charcoal or ink. She would sit in a pretty but rather uncomfortable straightbacked wooden seat for two or three hours at a time. Short periods of rest, no more than a quarter of an hour, were spent in total silence sipping a cup of tea. Their work together culminated in March 1943 with the painting of Tabac Royal.

Monique’s career then changed dramatically, as she took the veil on September 8, 1944 and given the name of Sister Jacques-Marie. She did not see Matisse again for two years.

Villa Le Reve Main Feature PhotoIn the meantime, Matisse had moved to Vence in June 1934. The war was still not over; Allied warships patrolled the Mediterranean preparing to invade Europe, and Nice was under the threat of Allied bombardment. Matisse thus decided to live further inland and asked his friend, André Rouveyre to look for a place for him; he found Villa Le Rêve.

The square ochre house with brown shutters had been built in 1930 for an English admiral on the outskirts of Vence, at the foot of a rocky white 673-metre Baou mountain. Framed by several huge, hundred year old palm trees, the villa was set in a garden full of pink laurels, yuccas, cypresses, olive trees and all manner of abundant plants.

DSC_6858Matisse brought with him his array of objects that had followed him from studio to studio for more than forty years. Simple, commonplace objects, others more exotic artefacts that he had brought back from his various travels, his books, his cats, Coussi and Minouche, and a few caged doves. The walls of his bedroom were hung with Polynesian tapa cloths and Kasaï textiles from the Belgian Congo. Lydia, now his nurse, assistant and muse was his only companion in the house. Josette, the housekeeper and cook lived in the village.

This was the first time he had ventured out of his home in more than two and a half years. Walking was still very difficult and he could only manage a few hundred yards. He set up his room and studio on the ground floor of the villa which opened out onto a terrace with steps leading down to a garden. Silence reigned in the villa with the absence of a phone or car as if the villa itself was wrapped in a cocoon.

Unable to paint, Matisse reverted to drawing on paper, copper plate or linoleum. He worked more and more by night or indoors with the shutters closed when he found it hard to see properly in daylight. Linocuts gave him the spontaneity that he so enjoyed as did the scissors-and-paper cut technique that he had done four years earlier. That first year in Vence Matisse created the triumphant cut-paper inventions of Jazz. Matisse arranged boldly coloured paper cutouts into striking compositions, and then added text in his own handwriting to produce a book that has been referred to as “the visual counterpart of jazz music”. He made his famous collages from white paper hand-painted with specially pigmented gouache. Matisse originally planned to call his book “The Circus” but changed his mind as he wrote the text. The book was issued as a portfolio of 20 colour plates and published by Tériade.

On September 9, 1943, the Germans entered Nice. Matisse’s basement at the Villa Le Rêve was commandeered as a canteen for German soldiers heading down to the Italian front. Vence became part of a military support zone. Air raid sirens broke the silence in Vence as Allied bombers attacked the South of France.

Matisse needed a very regular life if he wanted to work. Between sittings he would rest and take tea with his model and then smoke a cigar, play with his cat or take a turn round the garden. Then visitors would call; journalists and photographers came as did Picasso and Françoise Gilot from Antibes and Bonnard from Le Cannet. Rouveyre, who lived the other side of the village, would visit often too.

Drop Shadow Matisse Paper Cut OutMatisse spent much of winter 1944 in bed, working on his Jazz illustration. In April he was stunned when he received the terrible news that both his wife and daughter had been arrested by the Gestapo, (Marguerite in Rennes and his wife in Paris), for their collaboration with the Resistence. Anguish gnawed at him daily that he collapsed in a fever with symptoms similar to his abdominal problems of two years earlier. It was the middle of August before he was well enough to get out of bed and, by this time, Allied forces were landing along the coast between Marseille and Nice. Paris was liberated on August 24. Amélia was released at the beginning of October while news came through that Marguerite had been freed too.

DSC_7315In 1946, the first great Matisse exhibition was held in Nice in the stunning Palais de la Méditerranée situated Promenade des Anglais. It was to be several years later, in 1950, before Nice would hold a second exhibition devoted to the artist; the venue this time would be Galerie des Ponchettes on Quai des Etats-Unis and just a stone’s throw away from his old apartment on Place Charles-Felix. Inaugurated by Matisse himself, its opening triggered the French Riviera’s great artistic adventure, followed by the opening of the many museums that still characterize the region.

The summer of 1947 found Matisse more lonely and isolated than ever before in Vence. But the unexpected return of Monique Bourgeois, (now as Sister Jacques-Marie) provided the companionship and comfort that Matisse craved for. This gentle and sensitive soul was now working as a novice at the Foyer Lacordaire, just 100 metres away from Villa Le Rêve. The Foyer Lacordaire had been established as a nursing home run by Dominican nuns who had also set up a makeshift chapel in a derelict garage next door.

During her spare moments, Monique sketched out a little stained-glass window for the derelict building, little knowing the ramifications her drawing was going to make. At her next visit to Villa Le Rêve, she somewhat hesitantly showed Matisse her sketch and asked for his advice. His disproportionately enthusiastic response left her stunned to what, she felt, was a rather mundane drawing. But the die had been cast and Matisse had been inspired and was on the verge of creating his greatest work of art yet.

Towards the end of the year a young Dominican monk from Paris came to visit the Foyer Lacordaire. His name was Brother Rayssiguier. After a warm welcome from the Mother Superior he asked if anyone famous lived in the village and she told him about Matisse. She also told him to introduce himself to Matisse as the architect of their future chapel who wished to discuss with him their project of stained glass windows. Their meeting went well and plans were soon afoot to create the chapel. Little did either of them know then that this ultimate creation would demand so much from them both with hundreds of preparatory drawings, endless new restarts and anguished sleepless nights.

Vence Chapel 35Matisse’s fresh colours and joyous works for the chapel included three black-and-white murals, three semi-abstract stained glass windows, a stone altar, a bronze cross, carved doors, and an array of colorful vestments. There is a distinct feeling of spaciousness, although the chapel is only 15 metres long, 6 metres wide and 5 metres high. The floor, walls, and ceiling are white and plain, simple and clear cut.

The altar stands at the centre opposite the two naves and is made of three blocks of stone. The theme of three occurs throughout Matisse’s design for the chapel – which some believe to be a representation of God, The Son and The Holy Ghost. The stone came from Rogne and was the same type the Romans used to build the bridge over the river Gard. It was selected for its warm colour and resemblance to brown bread – the symbol of the Bread of the Eucharist. Set in the middle of the stone slab is the tabernacle and engraved by the artist, the crucifix, shaped by Matisse, presides over the altar as a whole. To complete the set of three is the ciborium decorated with an original aquatint.

Vence Chapel 1It is difficult to imagine the uproar the designs for the chapel caused at that time. Everyone who visits the chapel nowadays is enchanted by Matisse’s work and incredible use of colours, yet this was not so throughout its many construction phases, and even the press had a field day. The story of the celebrated artist enticed by a pure young nun made headline news in newspapers, on newsreels and in fashion magazines around the world. For Monique, this was only one of many private miseries she would have to endure in four years of increasing friction. Her fellow nuns at the Foyer Lacordaire stubbornly resisted the chapel from the start, and for the conservative majority of the Church, Matisse’s creations for the chapel were not just monstrous but blasphemous as well. Brother Rayssiguier also came under fire and his attempts to mediate between Matisse, the nuns and the builders often exasperated all parties. By the end of 1948, after nine months of intensive planning, the chapel had outgrown the Vence workshop. Matisse therefore decided to transfer everything back to the much larger spaces of his old studio in Cimiez and returned with his household to the Excelsior-Regina in the first week of January 1949. Matisse was now 80 years old.

On 12th December 1949, the first stone of the chapel was laid at Vence in a ceremony that Matisse was too frail to attend. Later, it was Pierre, his son, who represented his father at the consecration of the chapel on 25th June, 1951, a ceremony conducted by the Archbishop of Nice. By then, Matisse was suffering from cardiac fatigue, compounded by unusual insomnia, breathing difficulties and a deterioration in his eyesight. Towards the end of 1952, Matisse’s handwriting faltered for the first time. He now no longer visited Paris preferring instead to spend the summers of 1953 and 1954 in a villa in the countryside near Vence.DSC_6942

DSC_6937Lydia, distraught, stayed continually by his side unable to bear leaving him for even a moment. By the middle of October 1954 his heart began to fail and he suffered a stroke on November 1st. He died November 3rd, at four o’clock in the afternoon in his studio at Cimiez, his daughter and Lydia at his side. He was 85 years old.

Lydia left the very next day, suitcase in hand; Amélia Matisse returned as her husband’s widow.

We would like to thank both Les Héritiers de Matisse in Paris and the Foyer Lacordaire in Vence, for their kind permission and assistance in letting us take photos of the inside of Chapel Rosaire and to publish them on our website as well as permitting us the reproduction of the beautiful Matisse painting “Algue blanche sur fond rouge et vert”.

Photo Credits: Les Héritiers Matisse
© Succession H. Matisse “Algue blanche sur fond rouge et vert”, 1947.

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