Guided by Patrick J Murphy’s book “An Art Lover’s Guide to the French Riviera”, Conor Power takes a driving tour of some of the Côte d’Azur’s artistic wonders
“It was over there, Anne Madden and Monsieur Le Brocquy’s house,” says Frédérik, pointing towards a charming and modest-looking red-roofed house, below us and way off in the distance.
We’re at the tallest room of the highest tower in the tiny town of Carros – the kind of bewitching mediaeval 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 (International Centre for Contemporary Art). 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.
Using the book “An Art Lover’s Guide to the French Riviera”, we’re following an art trail based on Patrick J Murphy’s entertaining book. Patrick is one of Ireland’s foremost artistic figures and an art collector of some note. His comprehensive guide covers some of the best places to find the indelible marks left by artists on the French Riviera over the last 150 years or so..
We drive along the Promenade des Anglais – an impressive 4km-long seaside promenade where the lorry attack of the 14th of July last has left an association with horror that will take some time to eradicate from folk memory.
Meanwhile, normal life seems to have returned in force to the both Nice and the Promenade. Tourism was badly hit in the area but on the warm 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 amid the refurbishment works on the pavement above to notice the makeshift memorials of bouquets left by loved-ones.
The Annonciade Museum houses a superb collection of Fauvist work. The Fauvists were another energetic offshoot of the Impressionists. They were all about reducing 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 that 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 the image he created 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. It’s a hauntingly beautiful experience walking around the house and garden of one of the most successful of the Impressionist painters. His home was very much an inclusive one, where the entire family and those who worked for him had equal share and access to the creative hub that was his house and garden – it’s no wonder that his sons also went into the arts (Jean Renoir was a film director/screen writer/producer/author while Pierre and Claude were actors). You can even see his 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 firmly puts art at the heart of its identity. The Polygone Riviera is hard to miss with its remarkable signature building featuring a giant head by Italian artist Sosno “peeping out” at the passing traffic on the dual carriageway. The concept of the place is based on the American “Lifestyle Mall” with an attempt to recreate the vibrancy of a real town in all its facets, from entertainment to great food, family fun and lots of art, as well as over 150 top shopping brands. Don’t forget to call to the information centre and pick up audio guides (in English as well as other languages) that will bring you around to see the artistic works at this unique centre. Some are so subtly placed that you could easily miss them otherwise.
A quick 20km drive south along the coast road brings you to Antibes. This is arguably one of the most characterful and well-preserved old towns on the French Riviera.Once you’ve tired of the (highly entertaining)fun of staring at the unfeasibly large private yachts in Antibes’ massive marina and Googling who owns them, a stroll through the old town will make you really fall in love with this part of the world.
The interior’s narrow streets and sea-wall ramparts seem to have not changed in centuries, despite the billionaire’s playground that surrounds it. 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 – another Antibes resident.
The unexpected highlight for me, however, was the visit to E-1027. This is the famous villa where maverick Irish designer Eileen Gray (a woman who has historically been far more famous in this part of the world than in Ireland) left her mark on the world of design in the form of a house that has become a French national monument. Gray designed every aspect of this stunning place, down to the bespoke sliding window shutters.You can only visit the E-1027 by pre-booking a guided tour (www.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 the manner in which 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.
A final Irish artistic connection is to be found just 1km from here at the Eglise Sainte Marguerite. It was here in 1939, after a sudden demise during a hotel stay down the road in Menton, that William Butler Yeats was buried. Although his remains were officially returned to Ireland by the Irish Navy in 1948, a report in the national press only last year confirmed that there was no official verification that the remains returned to Ireland belonged to the great Irish poet and the story goes that his remains are still there. It’s very hard to imagine a more stunning resting place.
The wonderful thing about following a trail of great artists on the French Riviera is that you invariably stumble across the 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, Anne Madden, Louis le Brocquy and so many other artists.
(Check out the video below, featuring two of the Riviera’s artistic highlights with strong Irish connections)
Get me There:
Aer Lingus have a seasonal direct service to Nice three times per week.
Where to Stay:
The Irish-owned Residence Les Mimozas is a great base for the region and only a short drive or bus from Nice Airport. It’s a four-star resort with swimming pool, fine dining options and electric bicycle hire, with the beach down the road and the Riviera’s oldest golf course next door.
Hotel Victoria, Roquebrune-Cap-Martin: With the sea on its doorstep and the coast of Italy within site, this three-star gem of a hotel offers relaxed Riviera style with its groovy airy bedrooms and interior and its warm friendly staff.
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.
Tell me More:
Check out the official French Riviera website, with details on everything to see and do on the Côte d’Azur.
What to Pack:
A copy of “An Art Lover’s Guide to the French Riviera” and plenty of sun cream.