After dinner I walked down to the bay one last time. I stood in a soft rain next to the bust of homeboy Jean Cocteau alongside the chapel he renovated in the 1950s, and looked one last time at the dark Mediterranean and the bright lights burned into the hillsides surrounding it.
The bust has a plaque underneath it, which reads:
Quand je regarde Villefranche je vois ma jeunesse, fassent les hommes q’ elle ne change jamais.
“When I see Villefranche, I see my youth again. Pray Heaven it may never change.”
Amen to that.
– Campaign Outsider, May 29, 2013
The Missus and I agreed: the trip celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary (a good start, yeah?) had been so perfect, we could never return to the French Riviera.
But about four months later, we looked at each other and said, “I wanna go back to Villefranche.”
And so we have.
Built in the early 1900s, Villa Kérylos is “a unique reconstruction of an ancient Greek home. ‘Kerylos’ means Halcyon, often identified as a kingfisher, a poetic mythical bird, considered to be a bird of good omen.
The house itself – “a faithful reconstruction of Greek noble houses built on the island of Delos in the 2nd century B.C.” – is austere, serene . . . reserved. It’s the polar opposite of, say, the villa designed by the whacko Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat.
Video tour of Villa Kérylos (en français):
Later, in the evening, the Missus and I sit on the terrace of our same (rental) apartment in Villefranche-sur-Mer as last time.
God bless WiFi. God bless Villefranche.
Having mastered the mysterious mechanics of the Billetterie SNCF, the Missus and I are on the train to Cagnes-sur-Mer. At the Nice-Ville station, Backpack Nation boards while we experience an interminable wait (this will become the theme of the day) and unintelligible announcements (even, I suspect, for the French passengers).
Eventually, though, we arrive at our destination and head to the Office de Tourisme to purchase a Côte d’Azur Card (nouveau! merveilleuse!), which provides free entry to 160 venues. Luckily, they have exactly two left, something we take as a good sign. Then we mosey down to Square Bourdet to catch the 11:30 #400 bus to Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul-de-Vence.
(It’s now 12 o’clock and we’re still at Square Bourdet so we’re hoping the 12:15 #400 bus might actually be running but we’re not taking bets.)
At 12:30, the whatever #400 bus arrives. It is, of course, packed with two busloads of people, but we squeeze on and are soon deposited at the Fondation Maeght stop, whence we proceed to walk straight uphill for 15 minutes. Halfway to the top, we see a sign for Hotel Messugues but I’m thinking maybe we should check into the Hotel Meshugge.
Finally, leg-weary, we collapse onto the counter of the admissions booth, where we flash our nifty Côte d’Azur card and a very nice young woman says, yes, but if we want to take photos inside we need to pay an extra- . . . at which point we cut her off and say we have no cameras or iPhones and she says she’s never met an American without at least one and there are smelling salts all around.
* * * * * * *
Before we head into the Fondation itself, we swing by Le Café F for a nice lunch of salade Niçoise and saumon fumé.
But then comes the Service Compris Standoff: L’addition is 24 euros, so I produce 25. And wait . . . and wait . . . and ask for my one euro change, which continues not to be forthcoming. And I realize that M. Garçon thinks he can wait me out – that any American would just leave rather than linger for a single euro.
But he’s wrong.
Several minutes later and one euro richer, I wander off wondering whether service compris is more corrosive to national character than legalized gambling or capital punishment.
Somewhere in the middle, yeah?
* * * * * * *
The Missus says we’ve been to the Fondation Maeght on a previous trip, although I don’t remember it at all. Regardless, we both agree this time that it’s a bit of a mishmash, although that’s not how it describes itself:
The Marguerite and Aimé Maeght Foundation is one of the major international institutions dedicated to innovation and creation. This private foundation of modern and contemporary art Is located near the town of Saint-Paul de Vence, 25 km from Nice. The Maeght Foundation owns one of the largest collections of paintings, sculptures and graphic works of the twentieth century in Europe. It organizes major thematic exhibitions such as the 2013 summer exhibition dedicated to painting and philosophy as well as retrospectives (Giacometti in 2010, Chillida in 2011 Gasiorowski in 2012, Josep Lluís Sert [who designed the building] in 2014) and exhibitions of today’s creators (Erik Dietman in 2011 Fabrice Hyber in 2012, Gloria Friedmann and Djamel Tatah in 2013).
We didn’t care much for the special exhibition on Jörg Immendorff, but the joint has some knockout sculpture from the likes of Calder, Giacometti and, especially, Joan Miró.
Waiting for the 2:22 #400 bus back to Cagnes-sur-Mer, we see drivers continually stop on a curve in the road to take photos like this one of Saint-Paul-de-Vence high off in the distance.
Idiots – they’re lucky they’re not taking photos of rear-end damage to their cars.
Meanwhile, the whenever #400 bus is . . . wait for it . . . exactly. In many ways the Lignes d’Azur bus schedules are some of the most riveting works of fiction you’ll find in all of France. But as the Missus says, channeling Hector Barbosa, “they’re more what you’d call guidelines, than actual rules.”
(To be fair graf goes here.)
To be fair, this is the second time we’ve come here and not rented a car – which we really love – except right this moment.
Enfin! (and only 45 minutes late, a vast improvement on the 75 minutes for the outbound bus) and miracle! – when we arrive back at Square Bourdet the #44 bus is waiting for us with open doors, soon to whisk us off to Château-Musée Grimaldi. a total mashup of the old, the odd, and the newish.
From the Nice Office de Tourisme:
Situated at the heart of the medieval village of Haut-de-Cagnes, the château is home to the “Musée de l’olivier”, the Solidor donation (forty portraits of Suzy Solidor painted by famous artists such as Foujita, Lempicka, Laurencin, Picabia, etc.), an outstanding painted baroque ceiling and a number of contemporary art exhibitions.
The Solidor room is a hoot. Representative sample:
Everything you didn’t know you wanted to know about cabaret singer/owner Suzy Solidor (along with most of the other portraits) can be found in this Modern Art Consulting post.
There’s also lots of ethnographic whatnot there, such as the Musée d’Olivier, which features “tous les objets liés à la production de l’olive et de l’huile dans notre région” such as:
There was also a special architecture exhibit that had no discernible organizing principle, but that was par for the course and just added to the fun.
Back to Square Bourdet and – voilà – the #400 bus to Nice was just pulling up and we took it as a sign from the transportation gods and got on. Always happy to tromp around Nissa la Bella.
* * * * * * *
Sitting outside a café just off Place Masséna, lingering over a café crème and Michael Eric Dyson’s epic takedown of Cornell West in The New Republic, and thoroughly enjoying both.
Dyson’s climactic conclusion:
If West was once [Mike] Tyson in his glory, he is Tyson, too, in his infamy. Once great, once dominant, once feared, he is now a faint echo of himself. Like Iron Mike, West is given to biting our ears with personal attacks rather than bending our minds with fresh and powerful scholarship. Like Tyson, he is given to making cameos—in West’s case, appearing as himself in scripted social unrest, or playing a prophet on television in the latest protest. He has squandered his intellectual gift in exchange for celebrity. He’s grown flabby with disinterest in the work needed to stay aloft: the readiness to read, think, and recast thought in the crucible of written words . . .
West admitted [in an interview] that he went “ballistic” about Obama because he had been “thoroughly misled”; or, put differently, he was crushed that Obama had ideologically cheated on him.
West’s narcissism in this matter is not exemplified by his sense of being jilted but in the way he has personalized his grief. And the longer West has nursed his resentment, the more he has revealed parts of himself that even he may not understand or be able to explain, since political disappointment in a politician’s behavior rarely provokes such torrents of passion, such protracted, dastardly, and sadly, such self-destructive hate. The volatility that West said roils his personal relations may also mar his political ones. Now he lumbers into his future, punch-drunk from too many fights unwisely undertaken, facing a cruel reality: His greatest opponent isn’t Obama, [Al] Sharpton, [Melissa] Harris-Perry, or me. It is the ghost of a self that spits at him from his own mirror.
* * * * * * *
We often eat dinner at home here (the Missus makes a mean salade mixte-up ), and afterward we take a post-prandial promenade down to the port.
Villefranche-sur-Mer is a bit of a dining mecca in these parts, and the parking lot next door to Restaurant Row on the Mediterranean is always filled with fancy cars; last night we spied a red Ferrari, a matte-teal tricked out BMW sports car, and a black Bentley. Tonight I made the trip solo (see Fondation Maeght climb above) and actually saw who drives the Bentley: an older guy with too-long grey hair, a powder-blue sports coat, and a blonde half his age.
Then again , cliché is a French word, non?
We’re on a quest to reach the Jean Cocteau-decorated Villa Santo Sospir in St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. We take the bus to the Nouveau port and then embark on 45 minutes of squirreling, largely uphill, to get to the house. Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat is the second-richest community in the world (Monaco is first) and it shows: Every house is gated and named. Walking along Avenue Prince Ranier III de Monaco, I expect les gendarmes to be summoned at any time. But no. They probably think we’re someone’s housekeeping staff.
The villa itself is spectacular, with a great backstory:
In 1949, the poet Jean Cocteau during the filming of Enfants Terribles, directed by his famous novel by a young filmmaker of the time, Jean Pierre Melville, made the acquaintance of Francine Weisweiller. Nicole Stéphane (real name Nicole Rothschild), the leading actress of the film, cousin Alec Weisweiller, presented the poet Francine; there was among them a stroke of lightning friendship.
In Spring 1950, after mounting Enfants Terribles, Francine invited Jean Cocteau and his adoptive son Edouard Dermit (interpreter of the role of Paul in the film), to spend a small holiday week at his home in St Jean Cap Ferrat overlooking the bay of Villefranche.
The villa Santo Sospir, built shortly after the war, was bought by Alec and Francine in 1946. Used as a holiday home, the walls of the villa remained empty. A few days after his arrival, Jean Cocteau say: “idleness tired … I myself dry. “. He asked if he could draw Francine charcoal head of Apollo above the living room fireplace. Little by little, he tattooed frescoed the walls of the house. Matisse had said: “When we decorate a wall the other is decorated, he was right.” Cocteau also said: “Picasso opened and closed all doors, left to paint on doors, that’s what I tried to do. But the doors open in the rooms, the rooms have walls and if the doors are painted the walls look empty … “
Cocteau wound up staying for 11 years.
Among the amazing frescoes (all the artwork was done freehand – no sketches) there’s Le Mythe du Soleil ou Tête d’Apollon.
And Le Mythe de la Lune : pêcheur endormi et licorne.
And here’s La salle à manger Judith et Holopherne:
Cocteau even painted some of the furniture.
As for the name of the villa, Santo Sospir (or “Saint Sigh”), it comes from Saint Jean’s previous name, so designated because when fisherman returned to port there, they would invariably sigh at the town’s beauty.
We arrived at Festival de Cannes this morning and immediately left – to visit Musée Bonnard in Le Cannet, the “first museum in the world dedicated to the work of Pierre Bonnard, a leading figure of the art of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The museum is naturally at the heart of the city of Le Cannet, which inspired the artist by its landscapes and light of the South. It was during this time that he painted his finest works.”
None of which, unfortunately, are here. But it’s a pretty place, compact and sparkling new. Here’s a sample of the nice work that is here.
An altogether lovely visit to a place with an interesting, if modest, collection.
Neither of which applies to the crowds walking around Cannes, where everyone is on exhibit. It’s one big Keister Parade, an endless tide of tight white jeans, short skirts, shorter shorts. And everyone on the the lookout for celebrities, of which they’ve seen exactly none so far today because why in the world would, say, Sean Penn ever go some place we would?
At midday, it’s pretty much the unimportant in pursuit of the self-important. No one with any juice is out and about at this hour.
We wander up – and up – and up – and . . . finally arrive at Musée de la Castre.
LOCATED ON THE HEIGHTS OF SUQUET, THE HISTORIC DISTRICT OF CANNES, IN THE REMAINS OF THE MEDIEVAL CASTLE OF THE LÉRINS MONKS HISTORICAL MONUMENT, THE MUSEUM OF CASTRE DOMINATES THE CROISETTE, THE BAY AND THE LERINS ISLANDS.
The museum presents the prestigious collections belonging to the city of Cannes: primitive arts Himalaya-Tibet, Oceania, Ancient America and Mediterranean antiquities world music instruments (Africa, Asia, Oceania and America) and also landscape paintings 19th century. Its square tower of the twelfth century (109 steps) offers an exceptional 360 ° panorama over Cannes and its region.
Here’s one-quarter of that panorama:
As for the collection, it may well be “prestigious,” but there’s no question it’s odd. You can poke around it here if you like.
We decide to get back on the train and go poke around Nice, our default destination. And immediately there’s a mini-drama: Someone is locked in la toilette aboard the 4:10 to Menton, and despite the frantic attempts of three – count ’em, three – fellow passengers, there’s no opening the door. Since the trio is flopping all over the place in their Herculean efforts, we move closer to the front of the train and wind up in the Loud Car. Still better than the Panic Room.
At the Nice Museum of Contemporary Art we encounter an army of museum personnel and a huge crowd waiting for – this is true – Sylvester Stallone. We have no idea why he’d be showing up there; we just want to get into Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain to see artworks from the like of César, Yves Klein, Niki de Saint Phalle, and Arman.
Turns out all those people turned out for a gallery opening that featured the artistic endeavors of the once-upon-a-time movie star.
From Le Huffington Post:
Sylvester Stallone et ses toiles accueillis au Musée d’art moderne de Nice par Christian Estrosi
CULTURE – Le Musée d’art moderne de Nice accueille jusqu’à fin mai une rétrospective des oeuvres de Sylvester Stallone, plus connu pour ses rôles au cinéma que pour ses talents de peintre. A cette occasion, l’acteur américain est venu présenter sur la Côte d’Azur, ce samedi 16 mai, l’exposition qui lui y est consacrée.
“La peinture touche les sens, la vérité est immédiate”, a expliqué l’acteur-peintre au cours d’une conférence de presse aux côtés du député-maire UMP de la ville Christian Estrosi. “L’écriture peut aussi toucher tous les sens mais je pense que la peinture est la forme la plus authentique, la plus honnête de tous les arts, parce que c’est simple, ça ne pardonne pas”, a ajouté l’interprète de “Rocky” et “Rambo”.
Sylvester Stallone! The Mayor of Nice! A retrospective! Does it get any more French than that?
From the Real Love exhibit:
What a hoot.
It’s Villefranche Day!
This fishing village has a storied history as home to, among others, Jean Cocteau, Charlotte Salomon (there’s an exhibit of her artwork at the Chapelle Saint-Elme in La Citadelle), Aldous Huxley, Tina Turner, Keith Richard and Anita Pallenberg (the Rolling Stones recorded their 1972 album Exile on Main Street at Villa Nellcôte here).
It’s also been a magnet for moviemakers – To Catch a Thief, An Affair to Remember, The Bourne Identity, and many others featured scenes from Villefranche.
We start our ramble where all good Villefranche sallies should start – at the fabled Cocteau Chapel, more formally known as Chapelle Saint-Pierre Des Pêcheurs.
From Catholic Eye Candy:
Originally used to store nets for the fishermen of the French Riviera town of Villefranche-sur-Mer, the Chapel of St. Peter of the Fishermen was decorated by Jean Cocteau in 1957 to depict the life of St. Peter.
And what a depiction! Just a taste:
I’m guessing, unlike at Santo Sospir, the old boy didn’t do this one freehand.
From there we just wander the town – La Plage to La Citadelle, soaking up the warm lazy Sunday afternoon like sponges.
And later we sit on the terrace and watch the birds wheel and bank and dive like some fly-by homage to Tippi Hedren and we listen to Frank and Billie on WBGO and see the horizon turn from light blue to pink to dark blue and hear the incessant coo of the doves down below and then the lights along the hillside begin to wink on – there there there there – and, man, it is swell.
It’s the Menton Death March.
First stop in La Perle de la France after we get off the train: Musée Jean Cocteau Collection Séverin Wunderman, which is currently hosting the exhibition Les Univers de Jean Cocteau, the fourth since the museum’s opening.
With more than 2,000 works by the artist from its reserves, the museum has the chance to propose each year a new journey of discovery to visitors and to exploit the many facets of the genius of Jean Cocteau.
The proposed route is organized into seven sequences which each represent one of the world of “Prince of Poets”: Perception or the “inner theater” of Jean Cocteau Location / Envers and poetry, Intermediate or figures as the angel Heurtebise that we find in his work, Cupids, with death is a major theme of his artistic work, spirituality and echoing the magic, astrology and parapsychology, and finally Space-time or “degravitation” by which means the detachment Cocteau philosophies that take the man and the earth to the center of the universe. A seventh sequence, the museum’s Bastion nearby, gives studying monsters and myths of artistic work of the poet.
Not quite sure what all that means but the building’s a knockout.
Cocteau himself was a sort of Jacques-of-all-trades – writer, artist, designer, filmmaker – all of which are represented here. (The entire collection will soon be available at Videomuseum – the mother lode of French art.)
From there we marched – wait for it! – straight uphill to Basilique Saint-Michel, which of course was closed, as was the adjacent chapel, which was either the Chapelle des Pénitents Noirs or the Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs, no idea which.
Undaunted (we had visited the church a decade ago on a previous trip), we traipsed even further uphill to Cimitière du Vieux Château, which Guy de Maupassant called “the most artistic cemetery in Europe.”
We were looking for the grave of the artist Aubrey Beardsley, who like many consumptives of the time went to Menton to die. Unfortunately, we had failed to consult Find a Grave beforehand, so we wandered around for half an hour but never saw Beardsley’s headstone. But that’s no reason you shouldn’t.
We then trundled back down to Menton centre to the Cocteau-decorated Salle des Mariages at the Hôtel de Ville.
This Mariage Hall was designed and decorated by Jean Cocteau, in 1957 and 1958. Everything you see in this room was signed by the artist: the lamps, the chairs, the panther-skin rugs, the doors, the curtains…
All mariages of Menton residents take place in this hall since a wedding ceremony performed in the town Hall is the only one legally recognised in France. Should the Couple wish to be married in Church or at home, they may, but the only ceremony which counts for the state is the performed here. “Tired of pen and paper – wrote Cocteau -I undertook a mountain cure on the scaffolding so that through bodily tiredness I would restore my mind. My impulsive acceptance came from my embracing the motto: «à I’impossible je suis tenu» – in face of the impossible I go on.
“The Town Hall struck me as rather unsympathetic. I needed to play tricks with it, to try to adapt the style of the turn of the century on the Riviera, with its villas mostly now gone, painted with sheaths of iris, algae and heads of waving hair. Such was my point of departure, from whick I was carried far at the command of that “other self” wich dictates what we must do.”
At that point we headed to Monaco, which we figured would not be closed. First stop: the Palais Princier de Monaco, which some consider a yawn but which we liked, except for the insufferable British guy narrating the audio guide.
Take your own tour here.
We also popped into the cathedral where Grace Kelly is buried in a tomb inscribed Gratia Patricia Principis Ranierii III Uxor.
More impressive is Musée Océanographique de Monaco, founded in 1910 by Prince Albert 1er, who “sank all of his casino profits into a passion for deep-sea exploration.”
For starters, it’s a beautiful building.
We also swung by Le Jardin Animalier de Monaco, which we do not recommend, mostly because they hid the hippopotamus somewhere, somehow. That’s just not right.
By then we’d had pretty much all the excitement we could handle, so we headed back to Villefranche. Later, around 10 pm, we heard a lot of booming so we went out on the terrace and – lo! – there was a big fireworks display somewhere in the general vicinity of Cap Ferrat.
Have I mentioned the weather? It’s been fabulous – warm, blue skies, only one really hot day (yesterday, of course). It’s uncanny (or un-Cannes-y): Two years ago we had the same kind of glorious stretch, and then, right after we left for home, it rained like the Dickens for five days, ruining the hairdo of every celebrity at the Film Festival.
(I hope I haven’t just given myself a canary – kahn aynhoreh in technical terms.)
* * * * * * *
We’re back in Nice, walking through Vieille Ville, strolling along the Promenade des Anglais, doing our best imitation of the classic French flâneur – something made slightly more difficult by the myriad selfie sticks surrounding us.
And then – slight canary – it starts sprinkling as we walk through the delightful Promenade du Paillon, a new park stretching from Place Masséna to Garibaldi Square. Best part: all the stuff for kids.
But not as much fun as Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, the elaborate creation of Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild, with its beautiful rugs from Versailles, furniture that Marie Antoinette once owned, wall panels from the Crillon in Paris (before it was a hotel), and etc.
While we’re walking through the house and listening to the audio guide, everyone else is taking photos or shooting video of just about everything they (don’t) see. It’s life lived through a viewfinder, quite possibly at its nadir during the Musical Fountains that go off every 20 minutes. Four people are shooting the watershow on cellphones. At one point a couple stop shooting and start to dance. Cute. But it only lasts about a minute before they’re back on video patrol.
People are idiots.
Last full day of the trip, so time to head for Citadelle Saint-Elme, the 16th century fortress that looms over Villefranche and houses the Town Hall, the Volti Museum, Goetz-Boumeester Museums, and the Roux Collection.
And the Chapelle Saint-Elme, where there’s an exhibit dedicated to the artist (and Holocaust victim) Charlotte Salomon.
Charlotte Salomon was a prolific painter who produced over 1,300 gouaches. A luminous work, like a cry, as the only escape from the darkness of the world.
The author of “Delicacy” [David Foenkinos] has reconstructed the life of this artist in a very beautiful novel “Charlotte” , hailed by critics. In honoring [her], he lifted the mystery about this work that the French will be able to discover in Villefranche after several international exhibitions in Europe and the United States.
The work of Charlotte Salomon is unique, conceived as an opera scenario: gouache each door on the back of musical references (classical, opera or popular) intended to highlight the action suggested by the drawing.
The U.S. exhibit mentioned above appeared at the Jewish Museum in New York in 2001.
During World War II, while living in exile in France, the young German-Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon (1917–1943) created Life? or Theatre?: A Play With Music, comprising almost eight hundred small gouache paintings. In this work, Salomon combined painting with text and musical cues to tell a compelling and autobiographical coming-of-age story set amid increasing Nazi oppression and a family history of suicide. Although the artist died in Auschwitz—a fact that deeply affects our view of the work—Life? or Theatre? survived and stands as a testament to Salomon’s life and singular artistic vision.
Structured like a play, Life? or Theatre? is divided into a prelude, a main section, and an epilogue, which are further divided into scenes and sections. The prelude focuses on Charlotte’s youth in Weimar and Nazi Berlin; the main section on her artistic inspiration and lover, Amadeus Daberlohn; and the epilogue on her life in exile. The images, painted with only primary colors and white, range from expressionist portraiture to montages of time and space that combine multiple moments within the same page. Through-out Salomon’s work are echoes of modern artists such as George Grosz, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Amedeo Modigliani—labeled “degenerate” by the Nazis—as well as direct references to Michelangelo and other old masters. This exhibition of nearly four hundred paintings from Life? or Theatre? marks the first time such a large number of Salomon’s works have been on display at one time, offering a rare opportunity to see the depth of her amazing but little-known masterpiece.
The exhibit in Villefranche is more modest but just as moving.
Unfortunately the Goetz-Boumeester Museum, with its “hundreds of works by contemporary artists” (including Picasso, Miró, Picabia, and Hartung) was closed, but we did catch the Roux Collection, which “features several hundred figurines which take visitors through the daily lives of men and women in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.”
And last but not least, Fondation Musée Volti.
Museum of sculptor Volti combining local architecture and sculptures. Nestled at the bottom of the casemates of the Citadel, a people of bronze women, copper and terracotta, display their voluptuous curves in a green gemstones.
(Don’t you just love Google Translate?)
* * * * * * *
Two years ago, on the last night of our stay here, I walked down to the port, stood alongside the bust of Jean Cocteau, and took what I believed to be my last look at the Mediterranean Sea.
But I got a mulligan.
So tonight I went back down, stood in the same place, and took what will be my last look at the Mediterranean. And said goodbye to the blue-green water, the clinkaclanka tympani of the boat tackle, and the triple strand of lights that adorn the hills stretching from Villefranche to Beaulieu to Cap Ferrat.
Then I walked up the 100-odd steps to the apartment (no stops this time!) and got ready to go home.