When we first moved to France, I made a point of thoroughly exploring my new surroundings. Although we’d had a holiday apartment close by for over 2 years, there were still plenty of places we’d yet to visit. I would generally head to my chosen spot on a Wednesday. I can’t recall why I chose this day but maybe because I regarded it as a mid-week treat. I would arrive in time to enjoy a morning coffee with my L’Equipe in a local cafe in the Town Square before wandering around everything on offer. Some places, because of their size and location, were lumped together. A lot of the perched villages are very pretty and sympathetically restored but a couple of hours will suffice to see their treasures, shops and market. I would also eat out at lunchtime, sampling the daily special at one of the local restaurants. My golden rule, “when in doubt, pick the (only) one with cloth tablecloths and napkins”. Of course, occasionally, none of the restaurants meet this criteria. In which case I plump for the busiest one.
This groundwork stood me in good stead when we had our first visitors. Either I knew where to show them around or I could, at least, point them in the right direction. Guide books are all very well but you can never beat current, local knowledge. Once I took up cycling, I visited these places on a regular basis. Many of them became focal points in my training plan. Now, pretty much everywhere is accessible. However, it’s foolhardy to cycle around the narrow cobbled, and often steep pathways, difficult to ascend the same in cleated shoes and well nigh impossible to browse the shops and markets with a bike in tow. As a consequence, I have decided to reinstate my days out. Each month, during my “rest week” I am planning to reaquaint myself with some of my favourite places. In the summer it’ll be the shops and markets, in the winter the museums and art galleries.
Last Wednesday, having cleared the administrative backlog, prepared everything for my trip to San Sebastian, made a batch of cakes for La Ronde and tidied the flat, I decided to visit St Paul de Vence and Vence. Two towns I regularly ride past or through but where I haven’t dallied for a while. However, the weather gods conspired against me and it poured down for most of the day. So, I decided to re-visit Foundation Maeght, a centre for contemporary art in St Paul.
The Foundation’s fairy godparents, Aimee and Marguerite Maeght, art dealers and friends of Matisse and Bonnard, built the centre near a chapel dedicated to St Bernard in memory of their son, of the same name, who tragically died of leukemia in 1953. The centre was designed by Catalan architect Jose-Luis Sert, a pupil of Le Corbusier and a friend of Joan Miro, as an ideal setting and environment to showcase contemporary art. In addition to its permanent and temporary collections, the whole place, including the grounds, is dotted with little gems from Fernand Leger’s mosaic, Braque’s stained glass window, a mosaic by Chagall, Giacometti’s sculptures and garden furniture in Miro’s labyrinth garden. It’s the sort of place where you can happily while away an entire day. It’s a little oasis of peace. It’s not unnaturally popular with tour parties but they rarely have enough time to appreciate the depth and breadth of the Foundation’s treasures, let alone its garden cafe and extensive art library.
By the time I’d finished browsing, the weather had cleared paving the way for an evening out at one of the free concerts in the next village.These concerts, which are held all around the region in July and August, are intended to tempt both locals and tourists. You need to arrive relatively promptly to secure a parking space and a seat. I like to grab one on the end, near the back. Then, if the concert’s not too my taste, I can slip away quietly without fear of giving offense. It’s also a good idea to bring your own refreshments. Sometimes there’s a bar close by but often times there’s not. No point in some enterprising soul pitching up with refreshments to sell, the French bring their own: much cheaper.