Potted history of Monaco

While researching my previous posts on the Casino and Hotel Hermitage, I realised that I didn’t know enough about Monaco’s history. It’s the world’s second smallest country, preceded by only the Vatican. Ruled by the (in)famous Grimaldi family. As a harbour town, Monaco has enjoyed a colourful past, but in more recent years has settled as a secure tax-haven for the rich and famous. Let’s have a closer look at its provenance.

The Rock of Monaco was a shelter for primitive populations. Traces of their occupation were discovered in a cave in the Saint-Martin Gardens. The first sedentary inhabitants of the region, the Ligures, are described as a mountain people, accustomed to hard work and an exemplary frugality. The coast and the port of Monaco most probably provided sea access for the interior Ligurian population, the Oratelli of Peille.

The origin of the nameMonaco has been subject to several hypotheses. For some, the name comes from the Ligurian tribe, the Monoïkos, who inhabited the Rock in 6th century B.C. For others, it’s Greek in origin. Indeed, the port of Monaco was allegedly named after Herakles (Hercules).

Initially inhabited by the Greeks in 6 BC, who named it Monoikos, Hercules allegedly visited and a temple was built in his honour. At the end of 12th century B.C., the Romans occupied the region and Monaco became part of the Province of the Maritime Alps. During their occupation, the Romans erected the Trophy of Augustus at La Turbie which celebrates the triumph of their military campaigns.

During this same period, Phoenecian and Carthaginian sailors brought prosperity to the region. After the fall of the Roman Empire (5th century A.D.), the region was regularly sacked by different barbarian populations. It was only at the end of the 10th century, after the expulsion of the Sarrasins by the Count of Provence, that the coast slowly became repopulated. In 1191, Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI granted sovereignty over the area to the city of Genoa, the native home of the Ligurians.

On 10 June 1215, a detachment of Genoese Ghibellines led by Fulco del Cassello began the construction of a fortress atop the Rock of Monaco. As the Ghibellines intended their fortress to be a strategic military stronghold and centre of control for the area, they set about creating a settlement around the base of the Rock to support the garrison; in an attempt to lure residents from Genoa and the surrounding cities, they offered land grants and tax exemption to new settlers.

Monaco then became the object of the ongoing struggle between the two parties disputing power in the Republic of Genoa, the Ghibellines, partisans of the Emperor and the Guelfs, faithful followers of the Pope. In 1269 The Guelfs and their allies, the Grimaldis, were expelled from Genoa.

The Grimaldis, descended from Otto Canella and taking their name from his son Grimaldo, were an ancient and prominent Genoese family. Disguised as a franciscan monk, Francesco Grimaldi seized the Rock of Monaco in 1297, starting the Grimaldi dynasty, under the sovereignty of the Republic of Genoa.

The Grimaldis acquired Menton in 1346 and Roquebrune in 1355, thereby enlarging their possessions. In 1338 Monegasque ships under the command of Carlo Grimaldi participated, along with those of France and Genoa, in the English Channel naval campaign. Plunder from the sack of Southampton was brought back to Monaco, contributing to the principality’s prosperity.

Honoré II, Prince of Monaco secured recognition of his independent sovereignty from Spain in 1633, and then from Louis XIII of France by the Treaty of Péronne (1641). Since then the area has remained under the control of the Grimaldi family to the present day, except when under French control during the French revolution from 1793 to May 1814, as part of the département of Alpes-Maritimes.

The principality was re-established in 1814, only to be designated a protectorate of the Kingdom of Sardinia by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Monaco remained in this position until 1860, when by the Treaty of Turin, Sardinia ceded to France the surrounding county of Nice.

With the protectorate, that lasted nearly half a century, Italian was the official language of Monaco. The Monégasque dialect, like that of the Niçois, is closer to Italian than French, but influenced by both.

During this time there was unrest in the towns of Menton and Roquebrune, which declared independence, hoping for annexation by Sardinia and participation in the Italian Risorgimento. The unrest continued until the ruling prince gave up his claim to the two towns (some 95% of the country), and they were ceded to France in return for four million francs which helped to fund Monaco’s regeneration. This transfer and Monaco’s sovereignty was recognised by the Franco-Monegasque Treaty of 1861.

The Prince of Monaco was an absolute ruler until the Monegasque Revolution of 1910 forced him to proclaim a constitution in 1911.

In July 1918, a treaty was signed providing for limited French protection over Monaco. The treaty, written into the Treaty of Versailles, established that Monegasque policy would be aligned with French political, military, and economic interests. One of the motivations for the treaty was the upcoming Monaco Succession Crisis of 1918.

While Prince Louis II’s sympathies were strongly pro-French, he tried to keep Monaco neutral during World War II but supported the Vichy French government of his old army colleague, Marshal Philippe Pétain.

Nonetheless, his tiny principality was tormented by domestic conflict partly as a result of Louis’s indecisiveness, and also because the majority of the population was of Italian descent; many of them supported the fascist regime of Italy’s Benito Mussolini.

In November 1942, the Italian Army invaded and occupied Monaco. Soon after in September 1943, following Mussolini’s fall in Italy, the German Army occupied Monaco and began the deportation of the Jewish population.

Under Prince Louis’s secret orders, the Monaco police, often at great risk to themselves, warned in advance those people whom the Gestapo planned to arrest. The country was liberated, as German troops retreated, on 3 September 1944.

The revised Constitution of Monaco, proclaimed in 1962, abolished capital punishment, provided for female suffrage, established a Supreme Court to guarantee fundamental liberties and made it well nigh impossible for a French national to transfer his or her residence there.

In 2002, a new treaty between France and Monaco clarified that if there were no heirs to carry on the dynasty, the Principality would remain an independent nation, rather than be annexed by France. Monaco’s military defense, however, is still the responsibility of France.

The current ruler, Prince Albert II, succeeded his father Prince Rainier III in 2005. Prince Rainier, in turn, had acceded to the throne following the death of his grandfather, Prince Louis II, in 1949. But, let’s leave the Grimaldi’s for another post.

A trip to the Casino de Monte Carlo

Before we start, I should add that I have never stepped foot inside the Casino in Monte Carlo, (cameras are strictly forbidden inside the casino’s gilded rooms). I’m not a woman who gambles, I leave that to my two younger sisters. No, my visit was purely to admire the building’s glorious exterior, albeit somewhat hampered as there are some more renovations currently taking place.

The Casino is owned and operated by the Société des bains de mer de Monaco (SBM), a public company largely owned by the Monaco government and the ruling royal family. This company also owns the principal hotels, sports clubs, restaurants and nightclubs in the Principality.

In most people’s minds this building, the world’s grandest and most famous Casino, is closely associated with James Bond. Its Beaux Arts architecture supposedly inspired novelist Ian Fleming’s casino in his first Bond novel, “Casino Royale” and it features in the Bond films “Never Say Never Again” and “GoldenEye.” Without a doubt, it is the most iconic building in the principality.

Immediately to the left of the Casino complex is the Café de Paris, a popular spot for a drink and people-watching. To the right is the recently refurbished Hôtel de Paris, an ornate hotel that opened around the same time as the Casino, and is considered to be one of Monaco’s finest. But it’s the Casino that’s the place to see and be seen. Once it opens its doors at 2 pm, valets can be seen zipping in and out of all manner of impossibly expensive cars.

Inaugurated in 1863, Prince Florestan constructed this Belle Epoque–era paradise to save the House of Grimaldi from bankruptcy. It was an effort to address his nation’s debt, an effort to entice the English elite (and their wealth) to Monaco. The principality raised money for its development – including the construction of the casino –  by selling 80% of its area to France, including the then villages of Roquebrune and Menton for four million francs plus the promise that France would build a road and rail-line from Nice to Monaco.

After a bit of a rocky start, businessman François Blanc who’d successfully run a casino in Germany (since closed) took over the Casino and it went from strength to strength, particularly once the steam train arrived in 1868. The following year, the Casino welcomed some 170,000 visitors, including Alexandre Dumas, Baron de Rothschild, Baron Haussmann, Jacques Offenbach and Prince Napoleon. As a consequence of the profits rolling in from the Casino, the prince abolished the taxes paid by his subjects.

By 1873, the Casino was the only one operating in Europe. In order to preserve its air of exclusion and luxury, the Casino was renovated in 1878 by Charles Garnier, he of Paris Opera fame, and architect Dutrou. The Casino was subsequently further expanded with the addition of more gaming rooms, gardens, restaurants, bars and a theatre for opera and ballet. These have been renovated on a regular basis to maintain their munificence, including the harmonisation of its expanded façade.

Here’s a sneak peek at its splendid interior. By far the safest best way to enjoy it!





Trip to the Hôtel Hermitage, Monte Carlo

My beloved and I are dedicated brunchers and we were keen to again try out brunch at the Hôtel Hermitage which we’d firstly enjoyed just before Christmas. That one had been consumed in the hotel’s splendid Belle-Epoque ballroom whereas this time we were housed in the delightful Winter Garden. I’m pleased to report that the brunch was simply splendid and, once again, the staff were generous with the unlimited champagne.

Aside from a family with a young child, we probably lowered the average age of its brunch clientele. The young French family were mortified when their little girl started to grizzle rather loudly. My skills as a child whisperer were swiftly deployed and in no time at all the little poppet was sound asleep in her pushchair much to the amazement of her grateful parents. I could see they were weighing up making me a job offer but wisely decided I might not be available, at any price.

My beloved and I were much enjoying our splendid surroundings and I resolved to look into the hotel’s provenance, convinced the stained glass cupola above out heads was most likely the work of Gustav Eiffel.

While everyone knows of the Hôtel de Paris Monte Carlo, situated on the Place du Casino and the historic jewel in the crown of the Société des Bains de Mer (SBM). A few metres away, somewhat sheltered from the bustling heart of Monaco, another palatial hotel has enchanted its guests for 120 years: the Hôtel Hermitage Monte Carlo. I would argue that the Hermitage is the most charming and intimate of the Principality’s deluxe hotels.

Overlooking the Port d’Hercule, the hotel is renowned for its Belle-Epoque palatial design including a stunning facade with Italian style loggia and frescoes. I learned that it started life as a small inn and then a restaurant in the late 1800s surrounded by olive and orange trees growing in the shadows of the Hôtel de Paris. It was only in 1900 that the modest establishment was turned into a luxury hotel.

Bought in 1898 by an Englishman Vincent Benoist, then manager of the Princes restaurant in London, the property was totally rebuilt by Monégasque architect Nicolas Marquet whose brief was to create a luxurious residence. In 1928 the hotel became part of the SBM stable.

The facade of the hotel was inspired by the Prince of Monaco’s Palace. France’s finest architects and designers were commissioned to create the hotel’s stunning neo-classical design including the Belle-Epoque room, designed by Gabriel Ferrier, winner of the Rome prize and gold medallist at the 1889 Exposition Universelle, and Gustav Eiffel’s stained-glass cupola in the Winter Garden. The Princes’ Gallery which links the restaurant to the hotel was a 1906 addition.

Of all the renovations carried out by SBM, the most extensive remains that undertaken in the 1970s. This included renovation of the hotel’s signature trompe-l’oeil effects, the blue and gold shades, the woodwork, the frescoes, all of which was undertaken in order to preserve the hotel’s romantic ambience.

The Vistamar restaurant which opened in 1999, flows out onto a beautiful terrace overlooking Monte Carlo. The banqueting hall/Ballroom, the Belle-Epoque was re-designed by André Levasseur. Its ambience is now reminiscent of the Grand Trianon in Louis XIV’s Versailles with a ceiling adorned with frescoes complimented by columns of pink marble and crystal chandeliers.  The sumptuous Winter Garden, where we enjoyed brunch, features soft pastel tones, impressive lighting, a fountain and a large central carpet specially commissioned for the hotel.

Following that renovation the hotel was classified as a listed building and awarded the Renaissance trophy for the most elegant decor by the Gaullt & Millau Guide, whose committee included among its stellar cast the Duchess of Bedford, Paloma Picasso, Karl Lagerfeld, Helmut Newton, Baroness Edmund de Rothschild and Ruggiero Raimondo. It’s safe to say that the hotel is one of the jewels in the SBM crown.

You don’t have to take my word for it, have a look around for yourself.

While the Hermitage is proud of its status as a historic monument, it didn’t prevent the hotel from making additional renovations in the beginning of the 21st century, increasing its bedroom and meeting room capacity.

As far as we’re concerned, it’s a very welcome addition to the brunch scene.

Another trip to Aix-en-Provence

A few weeks ago my beloved met one of his business contacts in Aix-en-Provence, a well known favourite of ours which we’ve previously visited many times. I went along for the ride as I love wandering around its honey-hued, cobbled streets. This time I thought I’d take a closer look at its many fountains, not for nothing is it known as the City of a Thousand Fountains.

The Romans – those boys were everywhere – called Aix, Aquae Sextiae (The Waters of Sextius) once they discovered its natural thermal water source and installed their Roman baths.

After the demise of the Roman empire, Aix was known as a city of many fountains though I doubt that there are indeed 1,000 of them. The fountains come in all shapes and sizes and, historically, the locals had many uses for them.

Wandering around I realised that pretty much every street or junction has a fountain of sorts. But, don’t worry, I’m not proposing to cover all of Aix’s fountains, just the main ones starting with the most iconic.

Fontaine de la Rotonde

The most well-known of Aix’s fountains and certainly the most imposing is the Rotunde fountain in the centre of the town. The fountain’s construction in 1860 marked a turning point because not only were its dimensions exceptional but it was also the first with a cast iron basin.

The three statues atop the fountain reference the town’s main pursuits of justice, agriculture and fine arts.  At the time of its construction, the fountain was a symbol at the entrance to the modern town, which had neither ramparts nor gates and was open to the world. Indeed, the town has grown up around the fountain.

The Rotonde features heavily in the town’s activities. The regular markets start here before winding their way up the town’s main boulevard, Le Cours Mirabeau which, thanks to its many bars and restaurants, is always a hive of activity.

Fontaine Moussue

Moving my way up the Cours Mirabeau, I come to this moss fountain, the first one built in the Cours in 1667. Its water source is natural (from the Bagniers spring), so the water is warm. Its unique vegetation has built up over decades and botanists are attracted by the diversity of mosses and plants which cover it.

Fontaine Sanglier

The modern Boar Fountain (1980) is on a small square just off from where the daily produce market takes place, outside restaurant Le Pain Quotidien. It’s similar to the marble Renaissance one in Florence, reinterpreted in bronze. The boar’s snout is the water canon and the fountains’s base is decorated with snakes, turtles and snails.

Fontaine des Cardeurs

A few steps away from the Boar Fountain, youll find this one. Not dissimilar to that mossy one in the Cours Mirabeau, though a more modern iteration (1980) from local sculptor Amado which is made from basalt. Aside from its decorative attractions, the fountain facilitates the diffusion of air into the underground parking area below.

Fontaine des Trois Ormeaux

In 1524 Constable Bourbon, leading the troops of Charles V, arrived to take over the town. But when Bourbon’s procession was acclaimed by the crowd, one Provençal peasant refused and was hung on one of three elms shading a small well.

The Three Elms Fountain, built over the well in 1632, is surrounded by three tall trees which protect the square from the sun and keep the water cool. It’s likely that the trees in question were initially elms however, a disease destroyed those trees in the 19th century, and they were replaced first by plane trees and then by maples.

Fontaine des Augustins

Built in 1620, the fountain on Place des Augustins was converted into a public wash-house in 1786. It was completely rebuilt in 1820 and been classed as a historic monument since 1949. In days gone by, the water from the basin was used to supply the steam locomotives in the nearby train station.

Fontaine de la Lumiere

Despite looking quite modern, this one was built during the so-called Enlightenment Century (XVIII). Again, the fountain’s source is the warm water of Bagniers. On the other side, it’s decorated with a spiked star, inspired by the one adorning the previous Fontain des Augustins.

Fontaine des Prêcheurs

The main law court, in Place des Prêcheurs, was formerly the heart of public life before the Cours Mirabeau. Its fountain was built by Jean-Pancrace Chastel in 1757 and its water used to come from the Pinchinats spring. It was destroyed in 1793 and then rebuilt in 1833, thanks in part to American sponsorship.

Fontaine de l’Hôtel de Ville

In 1737, Georges Vallon was appointed to rebuild Aix’s city centre. He built bourgeois houses to the east and the Corn Exchange to the south, in the centre there’s a fountain, designed by Esprit Brun. The Avignon artist Jean Chastel was chosen to decorate the fountain. In the centre of the circular pond is a cube-shaped pedestal adorned with garlands and flowers at each corner, as well as gargoyles representing water gods and goddesses, from which the water flows.

Fontaine des Quatre Dauphins

The Square of the Four Dolphins is a must-see on any tourist itinerary. It was built by Jean-Claude Rambot in 1667. This was apparently the first free-standing fountain in Aix. It’s in the Mazarin district; the beautiful, leafy residential heart of Aix. It’s near the Mignet, the school attended by the painter Paul Cézanne.

Fontaine d’Albertas

The Albertas family arrived from Alba in Italy in 18th century to take possession of a house they had inherited. Several members of the family made dramatic successive renovations, including building an ornate Baroque square. In 1862, a fountain, in keeping with the style of its surroundings, was added and, in 2000, the square became a national monument.

Fontaine des Bagniers

Placed at the intersection of two streets (rue des Chapeliers and rue des Bagniers), the Bagniers fountain, supplied hot water to its working-class residents. Increased traffic meant the fountain was moved from the road in 1759 and installed against a wall. This deprived the fountain of its supply of hot water which now flowed to the Mossy Fountain on Cours des Mirabeau.

In 1926, noticing that the entire top inner part of the fountain was an unused space, Ambroise Vollard, the art dealer and friend of Paul Cézanne, asked for permission to pay tribute to the famous painter by installing a medallion there with his portrait surrounded by a wreath of flowers and fruit. Permission was granted and a drawing by Renoir was used as a model for the portrait. The fountain is nicknamed the “Cézanne Fountain”.

As I discovered, wherever you look, there are fountains all over Aix, often providing much-needed cooling water to a town that can be dry and very hot in the summer months.

Trip to Valbonne

A few weekends ago, we decided to head to the old village of Valbonne, one of the many charming ones on the Côte d’Azur. It’s a village we regularly cycle through, particularly during the winter. Situated in a basin along the Braque River, its name means ‘good valley’ in French.

Valbonne’s old village originally consisted of ten grids, planned by the Abbot of Lerins, following the layout of Roman cities. It has long since expanded, making Valbonne rather different from other villages in the South of France. It’s one of the places I always recommend to visitors.

Its 16th century central square, la Place des Arcades, is now surrounded on all four sides by picturesque arcades – added a century later –  café terraces and little shops. The arcade at the Hotel Les Armoiries is engraved with a date “1628”. It’s a very colourful spot; the wonderful Sardinian red, dark orchre or pale yellow façades of the village houses serve as a wonderful backdrop to the bougainvillea, plumbago and jasmine plants that scramble over old brick walls and arches adding a distinct fragrance to an already charming village.

Purely by chance, we’d chosen to go during one of the village’s many festivals. This one was not only celebrating its 500th anniversary but also that of Saint Blaise (local grapes and products, a sort of mini-EKKA). As we were wandering round, I’d noticed that there were lots of old black and white photographs of folks on the front of many of the older houses. I stopped to chat with some locals who kindly explained their significance.

From 1895 to around 1920, some 30 families left their village of Marti Montopoli in Tuscany, fleeing the tyranny of Fascism, taking around six weeks to travel over 400kms to make their homes in Valbonne. I was fortunate to be talking to one of the descendants of those original families whose photos were adorning the buildings. She also told me all about the local Servan grapes which had been grown near the village since 1995 and which we could sample in the main square.

While I was chatting, my beloved wandered off and, largely thanks to the crowds, I couldn’t see him anywhere. I returned to the central square and was about to ask the mc for the award ceremony for all the wonderful local products if he could put out a call for him, when he reappeared. It was one of those rare occasions when he didn’t have his mobile with him. He’d wandered off to check out restaurants for lunch.

The village has plenty of small local restaurants and individual shops but I was unimpressed with my beloved’s suggestions. We ate lunch at a restaurant of my choosing which was excellent. You’d think that after all those years married to me that he would have gotten better at picking them!

The Fête de la St Blaise (there’s 12th century Eglise Saint Blaise at the base of the village) which was taking place over the entire weekend included trips to visit various local establishments, parades, a blessing, a local Servan wine tasting and cookery demonstrations from a number of notable local chefs. But my beloved, having been fed and watered, was ready to return home. As we walked back to the car, we passed an antiques shop where I had spotted a globe that I thought would please my beloved. It did and it’s now gracing the lounge.

When we returned home, I thought I’d look up the festival’s origins as many of our local villages have similarly named festivals which are held throughout the year. I discovered that Saint Blaise was born in what is now Turkey circa 300 and was apparently the patron saint of those suffering from sore throats! I assume this was because while in captivity, prior to being beheaded for his Christian beliefs, he miraculously cured a boy from fatally choking.

Subsequent legends, notably the apocryphal Acts of St. Blaise, claim that, before Blaise was made bishop, he was a physician possessed of wonderful healing powers. Numerous miracles were attributed to him, including the cure of diseased beasts during his refuge, thus accounting for his also being the patron saint of wild animals. He was venerated and, as his cult spread throughout Christendom from the 8th century, many churches, such as the one in Valbonne were dedicated to him. The French clearly have repurposed him and decided that he’s the patron saint of agricultural shows. I’m sure he doesn’t mind.

Potted history of Saint-Paul de Vence

When we first moved to the Nice area, we regularly walked around Saint-Paul de Vence’s narrow cobbled streets and bastioned fortifications which hug the contours of the rocky spur on which the village stands, affording fabulous views of the surrounding countryside. In addition, the village plays host to many art galleries and high-end gift shops, along with a number of sites of historic interest which are all fun to browse.

In the past few years, we’ve more regularly cycled past it watching the tourist hordes making their way up the hill from the coach car park to the town’s entrance. It’s pretty much a “must stop” on any coach tour. I’ve lost count of the number of Japanese tourists who have taken my photograph while I’ve laboured up that hill on my bike.

In January, while many of the shops, galleries and restaurants are closed, it’s a pleasure to wander around its beautifully cobbled streets just soaking up the history contained within its ramparts – declared a Listed Historical Monument in 1945 – today, they are the jewel in the village’s historical crown. And what a history!

Way back in the mists of time, an oppidum was erected on the Plateau du Puy. In those days, steeper sites were reputed to be safer. Indeed, there is a whole chain of perched villages overlooking the littoral which I’ll cover in due course. Over the centuries, people set up house around the old church of Saint Michel du Puy and the château at the top of the hill. Thus evolved the “castrum” of Saint-Paul.

In the Middle Ages, the Counts of Provence administered the region and granted several privileges to Saint-Paul. In 14th century, the village became the county town of a bigger district. In 1388, the eastern border of Provence was redefined : Saint-Paul occupied a strategic position and became an important border stronghold the same year the County of Nice switched its allegiance from Provence to the County of Savoy. This modified the eastern border of Provence, henceforth marked by the River Var. Saint-Paul assumed a strategic position in this new political context, becoming a border stronghold of the utmost importance.

Ramparts were erected during the second half of 14th century. Two of the original towers can still be seen: the Porte de Vence, with machicolations (opening between the supporting corbels through which objects could be dropped on attackers) still intact; and the Tour de l’Esperon. In the 16th century, Charles V’s repeated attacks on Provence motivated François I to reinforce Saint-Paul’s defences.

Nonetheless, the armies of Charles V, King of Spain, occupied Saint-Paul in 1524 and besieged the town again in 1536, illustrating its strategic importance on Europe’s political chessboard. In June 1538, when François I came to sign a treaty in Nice, he visited Saint-Paul and decided to have bastioned ramparts erected. The cutting-edge fortifications were designed by Jean de Saint-Rémy, Commander of the Artillery and a fortifications expert, who worked under François I and subsequently Henri II. Four sturdy bastions with French spurs (or orillons) protected the two gates into the town, whilst powerful curtain walls protected the stronghold’s flanks.

Saint-Paul’s church was extended and embellished in 17th century thanks to the efforts of Antoine Godeau – a man of the cloth and a founding member of the Académie Française in 1634 – and donations from the noble families of Saint-Paul. Its sumptuous Saint Clement Chapel decorated with frescoes dates from this period, as does the altar to Saint Catherine of Alexandria with its painting attributed to Spanish painter Claudio Coello.

Influential families such as the Bernardis and the Alziarys had sumptuous mansions constructed in the town. Friezes of leaves and fruit unfurled along their fronts, and inside they were embellished with rococo frescoes, stucco work, and monumental fireplaces and stairways. Yet Saint-Paul continued to play its military role and Vauban came to inspect the ramparts in 1693 and 1700.

Artists first started frequenting Saint-Paul at the beginning of the 1920s. The trail blazers were Paul Signac, Raoul Dufy and Chaïm Soutine. Attracted by colours and light of incomparable richness and intensity, they set up their easels here. Their arrival was fostered by the inauguration of a tramway line between Cagnes-sur-Mer and Vence, via Saint-Paul, in 1911. This opened the village up to the outside world. It was also used to export agricultural produce to Nice, Antibes and Grasse.

The artists enjoyed the company of Paul Roux, a many facetted resident of Saint-Paul – a painter, an art collector and the owner of the Robinson (renamed the Colombe d’Or in 1932), whose walls are still adorned with their paintings even today. Many others followed in their footsteps, including Matisse and Picasso who would call in to see their “neighbours” in Saint-Paul – the former from Vence, the latter from Vallauris and Cannes.

Throughout 20th century, actors, artists and writers made Saint-Paul into a bubbling cultural centre. Some simply passed through, others decided to settle. Each in their own way marked the village indelibly. The 1950s and ’60s were the village’s Golden Age. Saint-Paul became an amazing film set, hosting French and foreign movie stars drawn to the French Riviera by the Victorine film studios in Nice and by the Cannes Film Festival.

For over a century now, Saint-Paul de Vence has been forging its identity as a hub of the arts and culture. Its reputation now extends well beyond the frontiers of the French Riviera, boosted by the famous Maeght Foundation inaugurated in 1964, and the chapel decorated by Jean-Michel Folon, which opened in 2008. I’m so lucky to live nearby.

Trip to Saint-Paul de Vence

Once again I have been unsuccessful in attempting to redress the balance in birthday celebrations. Obviously with mine so close to Christmas and my beloved’s at the end of April, he’s at a distinct advantage. This year I didn’t even get a trip away though we did at least eat in my favourite local restaurant which has fabulous views of the perched, walled village of Saint-Paul de Vence.

The perfectly perched, ancient village of Saint-Paul de Vence is arguably one of the best known on the Cote d’Azur – and even, let’s be honest, in the whole of France.

Located on a rocky promontory 12km (7 1/2 miles) north-east of Nice and enjoying magnificent views along the Riviera, the village is hugely popular with visitors who flock to its meandering streets and shady squares in their millions every year. According to the Tourist Office, in the height of summer, up to seven thousand tourists visit Saint-Paul de Vence every day because of its rich and colourful history. This is abundantly apparent from every cobbled alleyway and fountain in this charming village which towers over the surrounding countryside at an altitude of 180 metres (590 feet).

We decided to take a gentle stroll around the village which harbours countless treasures within its ramparts, exploring its cobbled pedestrian streets and immersing ourselves in its history and heritage starting with its Place du Jeu de Boules beneath the ramparts, at the entrance to the village.

This legendary square is edged with century-old plane trees where the villagers and visitors alike gather. The Café de la Place stands on one side: its terrace is the perfect spot for enjoying the atmosphere. The famous Colombe d’Or is on the other: its regulars included some of the greatest artists of 20th century: Matisse, Chagall, Picasso, Braque, Léger, Folon, etc.

We follow the ramparts, climbing towards the village, and enter by the Porte de Vence, turning right onto Rue de la Tour and following the ramparts southwards to the Porte de Nice. We stop to take in the panorama of Saint-Paul’s countryside studded with vines and olive trees. We pass by the cemetery where centuries-old cypress trees shade the remains of artist Marc Chagall, who spent the final years of his life in Saint-Paul (1966 to 1985). He lies alongside his wife, Vava, and her brother, Michel.

Moving on we take Rue Grande which is choc full of typical village houses and traces of their past splendour – and lots of fabulous doors. Number 71 is a fine gabled 16th century house while, further on, number 92 is the former mansion of the Alziary family.

Now we pass by Place de la Grande Fontaine located at the heart of the village, the former market square before turning up Montée de la Castre. We continue to Place de l’Eglise, the highest spot in the village which is edged with monuments that are the jewels in Saint-Paul’s historical crown: the keep of the former château now the Mairie (town hall) of Saint-Paul, the Church of the Conversion of Saint-Paul constructed between the 14th and 16thcenturies, plus the Folon chapel.

From here we make our way back to the car pausing every so often to look in the window of a gallery or to take a photograph of yet another interesting door for Norm 2.0’s Thursday doors. Saint-Paul is fertile territory. It had been a lovely trip to celebrate my birthday.


Trip to Antibes: Part III

A vibrant and cultural Mediterranean seaside town with both a rich history and an active yachting community, Antibes has a lot to offer. With a range of festivities throughout the winter and summer seasons, this town is a bustling mixture of quaint cobbled old town and beach resort.

It’s on the beautiful Bay of Angels, and is an inviting place to wander around. Take your time to stroll along its narrow, winding cobblestone streets filled with charming bistros and little boutiques.

Start your stroll by the harbour, divided into the Old Port and the New Port Vauban, where the yachts of the rich and famous bob between the jetties. This is where Guy de Maupassant moored his boat in 1866 and allowed himself to be inspired by this unique part of Antibes. From here, streets take the most curious turns through an old arch towards the covered market. But first, turn left to walk along the ramparts on the Promenade Amiral de Grasse, where you can catch some magnificent views of the sea.

The town’s skyline is dominated by the picturesque Chateau Grimaldi. Originally the stronghold of the Grimaldi family, the chateau also served as the town hall of Antibes from 1702 until 1925. Today, it houses the Musée Picasso, a delightful museum with a small, but very important collection of paintings – well worth a visit.

Beside the museum, you’ll find the medieval Cathedrale Notre Dame de l’Immaculee Conception,  Antibes’ largest church which has a pleasing rose-colored façade that’s typical of Provencal Baroque architecture. The doors are a delight, sculpted by Jacques Dolle during 18th century and artwork inside includes pieces such as Louis Brea’s Vierge du Rosaire painting depicting Mary holding the Christ.

South of the cathedral, along the town’s ramparts, you will chance upon Place du Safranier, the heart of the independent commune of Safranier which was created in 1966. The square is popular for two reasons: as the place where Nikos Kazantzakis wrote the famous Zorba the Greek, and the fantastic bistro, La Taverne du Safranier. Various festivals and fetes take place here all year round.

If you’ve time, pop into Antibes’ Museum of Archaeology which covers 4,000 years of history relating to Antibes and the surrounding area. The museum’s excellent collection of archeological findings features pieces dating back to Antibes‘ origins as an ancient Greek settlement and then a city of the Roman Empire.

Of equal interest, and located in view of a battery that Napoleon himself actually had restored, the Naval and Napoleonic museum has a fine display of all things Napoleonic – including a rather vast, if obscure, display of his hats. There are also many different artifacts related to the Napoleon family which help piece together the interesting and adventure-filled life of the French emperor.

Close to the museum, you can wander through to the Bastion Shipyard from where the Calypso, Captain Cousteau’s famous ship, set out. The shipyard closed in 1985, and today the site features the impressive Nomade sculpture, depicting a man staring out at the sea, evoking a sense of adventure and mystery. After that stroll you deserve refreshment in one of the many bars or bistros in the town.

Trip to Antibes: Part II

In Part I of my trip to Antibes, I mentioned Monsieur Picasso. We’ve visited the Picasso museum in Paris, seen an exhibition of his blue and rose periods at the Musee d’Orsay, I’ve visited his ceramics museum in nearby Vallauris but until recently had never visited his museum in Antibes, housed in the former Grimaldi Chateau.

The chateau is on the ramparts of Antibes’ Old Town and was built on the former Greek Acropolis of Antipolis, which was then a Roman castrum and finally a Medieval bishopric. The castle was owned until 1608 by the Grimaldi family (of Monaco), hence its name. You may recall there’s also a Chateau Grimaldi in Le Hauts de Cagnes.

In 1925 the chateau was acquired by the City of Antibes. In 1946, Picasso, who was living nearby in Golfe-Juan with Françoise Gilot, accepted an offer from curator Dor de la Souchère’s to set up his studio in the Castle. Picasso worked from mid-September through mid-November of 1946, creating many works, sketches and paintings, including Les Clés d’Antibes (The Keys of Antibes), covering an entire wall surface. When the artist decided to move back to Paris, he left 23 paintings and 44 sketches in the Chateau’s custody.

Subsequently, apart from the 78 ceramic works created between 1947 and 1948 at the Madoura de Vallauris’ workshop, various donations and purchases spanning from 1952 until the present day, as well as the custody pieces conferred by Jacqueline Picasso en 1991, have significantly enriched the Picasso collection of the Museum.

But it’s not just about Picasso, Nicolas de Staël’s works presented at the Museum bear testimony to the artist’s stay in Antibes from September 1954 to March 1955. On 27 December 1966, the Grimaldi Chateau was turned into the « Picasso Museum ». The Modern Art collection, begun in 1951 by Dor de la Souchère, had grown thanks to exceptional gifts from artists whose works had been exhibited at the Museum and to equally exceptional acquisitions made over the years by the City of Antibes.

In 2001, a donation by the Hans Hartung and Anna-Eva Bergman Foundation provided for the opening of two new galleries on the ground floor of the museum. A permanent exhibition allows one to retrace the creative periods of each of these artists over several decades.

In addition, the terrace of the Picasso Museum is home to a permanent collection of remarkable sculptures by Germaine Richier. Other artists represented are: Joan Miró, Bernard Pagès, Anne and Patrick Poirier. It’s well worth a visit and I’m only sorry it took us so long!

Trip to Antibes: Part I

While I’d fondly imagined our trip to Portugal would provide me with fodder for plenty of New Year posts, I’m having to go local. Luckily, I live in a simply splendid part of the world and there’s never any shortage of lovely spots to visit.

I’m particularly fond of Antibes which is literally just up the road from where I live. It has an excellent Old Town and daily market, plus plenty of interesting shops, including several bookshops. The whole area is property porn heaven and don’t even get me started on the trillions of pounds just bobbing up and down in its harbour.

Antibes - Ladies travel poster

Beaches, Mediterranean climate, crystal clear waters, narrow cobbled streets and history. You can find all this and more in Antibes. It’s also well known for several of its annual festivals, such as Jazz at nearby Juan-les-Pins and the sailing regattas called Voiles d’Antibes. This pretty town is also packed with history, ancient buildings and, like many of the towns around here, it has an interesting provenance going back several millennia to its foundation in 5th century BC by the Greeks, when it became an important trading post.

Initially called ‘Antipolis’, the town became part of the Roman Empire in 2nd century BC which led to significant improvements in infrastructure including the building of roads and aqueducts. After the collapse of the Roman empire, Antibes suffered centuries of unrest and almost constant invasions by various barbarian hoards. It wasn’t until 15th century when Antibes came under French rule that the town settled down.

Around 1850, wealthy nobles became attracted to the natural beauty of Antibes and started building villas and large holiday residences. After the construction of its first luxury hotel in 1870, many of the world’s jet set, elite and rich continued to flock here and still today it remains an international destination for the wealthy.

Pablo Picasso came to the town in 1946 to visit his friend and fellow painter Gerald Murphy. During his six-month stay at Chateau Grimaldi, Picasso painted and drew as well as crafting ceramics and tapestries. When he departed Picasso left a number of his works to the municipality. The castle has since become the Picasso Museum.