Monday, February 01, 2010

Vence & Cagnes-sur-Mer

As part of my continuing efforts to get out of the house and actually take advantage of living in the French Riveria, a place I'm well aware is the stuff that dreams are made on for many people, I went to Vence last Wednesday and Cagnes-sur-Mer (10 points to anyone who knows how to pronounce that btw, 'cos I'm buggered if I do) on Saturday. And I am blogging them together because a) it makes my life easier, and b) they were pretty similar experiences, both featuring a medieval old town and a visit to an artistic spot.

So, Vence first. (By the by, Vence has a great website if anyone's interested in a virtual tour.) The medieval town centre is charming, still enclosed in its original (? well, if not original, then very old) wall and full of those fabulous terrace-style stone houses that almost meld into the walls. As my friend said when we visited Peille, there's basically just one house in the entire town, it's as if they've just been hewn out of the rock or something. And the wee little doorways, smaller than me, so cute! Many of the back alleys were deserted, and I could just about picture myself back in the Middle Ages. Coincidentally, I've been reading a book about life in a French medieval town recently, so that helps. One feature sure to bring on a coup de coeur as far as I'm concerned were the fountains dispensing 'famous' (possibly stretching the meaning of the word there, but oh well) local spring water so I could fill up my water bottle for free. Dunno about in summer, but eminently drinkable in the winter.

After wandering about in the town I set off a bit out of town to see a chapel entirely conceived by Matisse. Absolutely everything, down to the candelabra and the priests' chasubles, is to Matisse's designs, and all original. Matisse considered it his masterpiece. It is very bijou and very simple and I may have considered the 3.50 entry fee a bit steep, were it not for the lovely lady who, unsolicited, gave me my own private guided tour in French (I was the only person in there at the time, which is always lovely in itself). She gave me all the facts, pointed out every detail and iota of symbolism, answered my questions and quizzed me on the stations of the cross (there were 14 of them painted on the walls - aren't there usually only 12? This was a question I didn't dare pose lest I be thrown out). So that pleased me enough to justify the charge, and I must say, it was a peaceful, reflective place, and the care that Matisse put into every tiny detail and the meaning of it all was quite impressive.

So that was Vence. The old town in Cagnes was more or less the same, except it wasn't walled and was on the top of a big hill, crowned by a pretty impressive chunky castle once belonging to the Grimaldis (who used to control a pretty impressive swathe of land in what is now France and Italy, but now, of course, are only managing to hold on to Monaco by their fingertips). Annoyingly, the bus set me down absolutely miles away, not even in Cagnes proper. I had looked up the journey plan on the bus website, and it assured me that the Renoir museum (where I was going to go first) was pretty far out of town between these two bus stops. I managed to miss the first bus stop, but got off at the next about a minute up the road and reasoned that I should walk back towards the first and I would see a sign - nothing. Eventually I found an area map that revealed that the Renoir museum (and the town centre and the old town) were ages away and would be quite complicated to find. I walked for about 40 minutes into town (extra-annoyingly, along the bus route) before I decided that I would head towards the old town first, as it was getting on for lunchtime and I knew the Renoir museum was closed from 12-2. The old town also had the distinct advantage of being visible on the horizon (disadvantages: up that big hill by an unknown route). As luck would hae it, I managed eventually to stumble across the central bus hub where I had seen (on the way back from Vence) that there was a free shuttle bus up to the old city, so up I went for some wandering and very nice it was too.

After that (and after purchasing an américain from a guy who, it turned out, spent 3 months in NZ in 2002 as a waiter during the America's Cup), I walked to the Renoir museum, which was up some twisty turny roads out of town but thankfully signposted. The américain came back to haunt me cos it was absolutely massive and I didn't know what to do with it, so left it in its paper carrier bag on the ground at the gates of the museum, intending to collect it on the way out (didn't think clutching half a giant greasy sandwich stuffed with chicken and chips would be a great look for an art gallery) and when I emerged, someone had thrown it away. Which was fine, except I was very embarrassed that someone had had to clean up said greasy sandwich on my account.

Anyway, the museum consists of the house & grounds where Renoir spent his last years. Fabulous setting - lovely olive-grove style gardens with a view of the medieval hilltop city, and from inside the house there are some great sea-views. The sea was probably as far away as it is from my house, but whereas I have a fingernail's sliver on the horizon, this place had some proper sea. There were also (as is trumpeted in all the promotional literature) 8 original Renoir works, all (I think) painted in residence. Some of them were views of the gardens etc. which were nice to see in situ. It also holds practically all of Renoir's sculptures, although to be honest, I think one could quibble as to whether or not they are in fact "Renoir's" sculptures. By this stage, you see, his arthritis was too bad to sculpt, so he had an assistant who actually sculpted the things. Which begs the question, what was Renoir's contribution? This was never actually explained in detail. If he made the preparatory drawings and his helper did all the sculpting, then I say that they are sculptures 'after drawings by Renoir' and not sculptures by Renoir at all, but perhaps there's more to it... In any case, I thought they were quite ugly sculptures, especially the mouths which were all sort of unpleasantly open, not gaping, but forced into uncomfortable slits like the top of a piggy bank or something.

Anyway, there were also paintings by some of Renoir's mates who came and stayed with him (no-one I'd ever heard of, although some of them were not half bad at all), original furniture, and various artefacts from his life, such as his painting wheelchair in his reconstructed studio. It was small, but I quite enjoyed it. I spent some time sitting in the gardens, it being warm enough in this part of the world to do so (in a coat) in winter - in summer, I imagine, it would be even nicer, although probably I would not have had the luxury of being alone with the view.

Anyway, it was hometime after that, and anyone who's made it thus far is probably heaving a sigh of relief to hear it! Saturday night I had a lovely night out, including being asked for my number by some guy on the street (and not at drunk o'clock either, at about 8.30) which was gratifying to the old ego, although probably points should be deducted since it was an Italian doing the asking, and I believe they're widely considerd to be incorrigible...) Okay, I will shut up now, this has gotten far too long!


  1. Lord, can't be bothered editing, but really need to stop starting paragraphs with 'anyway'...

  2. Sounds gorgeous! Would love to see photos!


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