It’s always nice when Fairfax media publishes my work in the ‘Traveller’ section of the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age. It means I can then release the full story on this blog…
The artists came to Saint-Paul-de-Vence because it was beautiful, quiet and cheap. The dealers moved in to hang out with the artists and buy their work. Their galleries attracted the tourists and smart restaurants replaced the artists’ smoky cafes and bars. The artists passed away or drifted away to find somewhere quieter and cheaper.
But Saint-Paul-de-Vence is still beautiful; mediaeval villages perched on hilltops aren’t easy to ruin, and this village has been regularly and tastefully restored to keep us tourists charmed. The high stone ramparts that once protected residents from marauding armies now keep out the cars and tour buses; visitors still have to enter on foot through the ancient arched gateway.
The work of artists Paul Signac, Marc Chagall and others built the village’s reputation. For writer James Baldwin and actors Yves Montand and Simone Signoret, Saint Paul was a hideaway from the glamour, beaches and parties of the nearby French Riviera. Josephine Baker sometimes dropped in around Nice Jazz Festival time.
Although these days many of the ateliers sell fridge magnets and all-too-pretty paintings of French provincial scenes, we can enjoy strolling the streets, apparently freshly cobbled with little sun symbols set into them. And we can fill our heads with romantic images of what it must have been like here in times past.
The warm light that attracted the artists still bounces off the pastel colours of the rough walls and spreads over the surrounding fields and vineyards. We may no longer be able to drink cheap wine with Picasso or play a lazy game of petanque with Yves Montand, but we can get a decent coffee and use a clean toilet.
Chagall rests in relative peace in the little cemetery. As we stop to pay our respects we’re shouldered aside by a loud Japanese tour guide, apparently telling his charges a hilarious Chagall anecdote. He’s probably not there every day.
Saint Paul does still have a superb legacy left by former residents– the Fondation Maeght. The name gives little away; even our French friends aren’t sure how to pronounce it. Many of the tourists happy-snapping in the village don’t bother to walk the steep kilometer up the hill to reach it. They miss the highlight of our day.
Art dealers and Saint Paul residents Marguerite and Aime Maeght formed the foundation, with the help of their artist friends. Those friends happened to include Joan Miro and Alberto Giacometti. Together they constructed a museum and sculpture garden, opened in 1964.
The result is a magnificent collection of modern art, some designed specifically for its hillside location, other works dotted on lush lawns under spreading trees and in the Giacometti Courtyard. Miro sited a number of large sculptures in a winding stone Labyrinth. Chagall contributed a mosaic, Georges Braque a stained glass window. Inside we find marvellous paintings by Pierre Bonnard and Fernand Leger, along with temporary exhibitions.
It has become a French institution to those in the know, but to our delight, as the sun sinks low in the late afternoon, we nearly have the place to ourselves.
Yves and Simone, James and Josephine would have loved it.
Getting there: Qantas flies from Sydney to Nice via Dubai from $2145 return.
Bus 400 from Nice takes an hour to get to Saint-Paul-de-Vence. EUR1.50 ($2) each way.
Further information: Entry to Fondation Maeght costs EUR15, plus EUR5 for photographic rights. If you have a camera you’ll certainly want to use it. See fondation-maeght.com.
First published: Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age 2014