Sunday 26 February 2017

Art of the Cote d'Azur: Following an art trail on the French Riviera

Holidays in France

Conor Power

Menton, Cote d'Azur, South of France
Menton, Cote d'Azur, South of France
Conor Power takes in the view from Renoir's House at Cagnes-sur-Me
A narrow street in Cote D'Azur
Local talent: Add to your own collection at St Tropez

There's more to the French Riviera than beaches and famously owned yachts, says our visitor.

"Anne Madden and Monsieur Le Brocquy's house was over there," says Frédérik Brandi, pointing towards a charming, modest-looking red-roofed house, below us in the distance. We're standing in the tallest room of the highest tower in the tiny town of Carros - the kind of bewitching medieval village that many would overlook on a visit to the Côte d'Azur.

The tower in question is the CIAC (Centre International d'Art Contemporain; ciac-carros.fr), where Brandi is director.

Originally a castle belonging to the Grimaldi royal family, it had fallen into disrepair over the centuries. After it was finally purchased by the local town council, the first exhibition to be held there in 1998 was that of the aforementioned Irish couple.

Anne Madden and the late Louis Le Brocquy spent over four decades living in this heavenly and quiet corner of the French Riviera. Madden was asked to paint a one-off work - a magnificent canvas entitled Empyrius. Today, it still adorns the arcaded ceiling and walls of one of the downstairs rooms.

We're following an art trail based on Patrick J Murphy's entertaining book, An Art Lover's Guide to the French Riviera. Murphy is one of Ireland's foremost artistic figures, and a collector of some note. His guide covers some of the best places to find marks left by artists on the French Riviera over the last 150 years or so.

Conor Power takes in the view from Renoir's House at Cagnes-sur-Me
Conor Power takes in the view from Renoir's House at Cagnes-sur-Me

Our trip began with a drive along the Promenade des Anglais - the four kilometre-long seaside promenade where the July 2016 lorry attack took place, and which will no doubt remain raw in local folks' memory for some time. Normal life seems to have returned in force to both Nice and the Promenade, however.

Tourism has suffered, but on the sunny September day that we visited, there was little evidence of any sadness or additional security: the beach was full of people enjoying an exceptional Indian summer, and one had to look closely to notice the makeshift memorials of bouquets left by loved ones.

We also paid an early visit to one of the most alluring spots on the Côte - Saint Tropez. While many tourists were watching the yachts and other people, however, the majority were seemingly unaware of an exceptional art museum right in the centre of town beside the old port.

The Annonciade Museum (saint-tropez.fr) houses a superb collection of Fauvist work. The Fauvists were an energetic offshoot of the Impressionists, aiming to reduce everything to mere colour (as opposed to form) - a groovy experiment that had some spectacular successes as well as some iffy failures.

Check out the way Signac captured the London Houses of Parliament on the first floor, or an even better example is the pointillist painting by Seurat just opposite. You can practically feel the heat coming off his image of a rising sun over the Mediterranean Sea and a semi-barren landscape.

Eastwards along the coast brings you to the town of Cagnes-sur-Mer. It was here, on a site overlooking the town and the sea, that master Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir bought an old olive farm, saving it from the clutches of developers over a century ago and making it his home.

Local talent: Add to your own collection at St Tropez
Local talent: Add to your own collection at St Tropez

It's a hauntingly beautiful experience to walk around the house and garden of one of the most successful Impressionists. You can even see the studio where he continued to paint at speed from his wheelchair (also present), despite suffering from severe rheumatoid arthritis.

On the outskirts of town is a revolutionary type of open-air shopping centre that puts art at the heart of its identity. The Polygone Riviera (polygone-riviera.fr) is hard to miss with its remarkable signature building featuring a giant head by Italian artist Sosno "peeping out" at the passing traffic.

The concept is an attempt to recreate the vibrancy of a real town in all its facets, from entertainment to food, family fun, art and over 150 shopping brands.

A further, quick 20km drive south along the coast road brings you to Antibes, one of the most characterful and well-preserved old towns on the Riviera.

Once you've tired of staring at the unfeasibly large private yachts in its massive marina (and Googling who owns them), a stroll through the old town will make you really fall in love with the place.

The interior's narrow streets and sea-wall ramparts seem unchanged for centuries, despite the billionaires dropping anchor. A visit to the Picasso Museum is a must: another old Grimaldi castle, it was transformed into Picasso's studio space and he left behind a huge collection of paintings and ceramics. You can also see works from the extraordinary Nicholas de Stael.

The unexpected highlight for me, however, was a visit to E-1027, the famous villa where Irish designer Eileen Gray (a woman far more famous in this part of the world than in Ireland) left an indelible mark in a house that has since become a French national monument. Gray designed every aspect of this stunning place, down to the bespoke sliding window shutters.

Taking photos at E-1027
Taking photos at E-1027
A narrow street in Cote D'Azur

You can only visit E-1027 by pre-booking a guided tour (capmoderne.com) that starts at the Roquebrune-Cap-Martin train station - just east across the glittering sea from Monte Carlo. The villa was used in the making of the recent film The Price of Desire, which told the story of Gray's relationship with her boyfriend Jean Badovici, as well as how Swiss designer Le Corbusier (considered the father of modern architecture) bought the land around her and moved into her stunning creation, painting on its white surfaces like a jealous cuckoo.

Yes, the Côte d'Azur is a sensational coast. But the wonderful thing about following an artistic trail is that you invariably stumble across real treasures - the authentic corners of paradise and peace that seem otherwise very difficult to find in this built-up part of the world. In other words, you discover the real Riviera - the one that inspired the likes of Eileen Gray and so many other creative souls.

What to pack

A copy of An Art Lover's Guide to the French Riviera and, depending on the time of year you're travelling, plenty of sun cream. If you visit the Polygone, don't miss the audio-guided tour which points out the artistic highlights.

Get there

Conor flew with Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com), which runs a seasonal direct service to Nice three times per week (it re-starts on February 16). Ryanair (ryanair.com) also flies three times per week from Dublin to Nice, year-round.

Where to stay

The Irish-owned Residence Les Mimozas (mimozascannes.com) has three nights’ B&B with one dinner and golf or a spa treatment from €359pp.

With the sea on its doorstep and the coast of Italy within sight, the 3-star Hotel Victoria, Roquebrune-Cap-Martin (www.hotel-victoria.fr) offers relaxed Riviera style with its groovy airy bedrooms and interior and its warm friendly staff.

The Travel Broker (travelbroker.ie/art-holidays) has a seven-night art break including flights and B&B from €1,099pp.

Where to Eat:

Le Fellini: (7 Promenade du Cap-Martin, 06190 Roqebrune-Cap-Martin, +33 4 92 10 70 82). Lively spot with a very inexpensive and superb menu dominated by pastas and pizzas in a friendly family-owned Italian restaurant by the sea.

La Civette du Marché: (27 Cours Masséna, 06600 Antibes, +33 4 93 34 49 71). Another hidden gold nugget of a restaurant with no website. Under the awning of the covered communal market, enjoy simple affordable cuisine from a family-owned institution in the heart of old Antibes.

Irish Independent

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