Monday, August 26, 2013

Nice, August 17 - 24

The train ride from Paris to Nice took more than the promised four-and-a-half hours. The country views were brilliant--open blue skies, ochre rolling fields--and seeing the Mediterranean for the first time as the train hugged the coastline was very special, but next time we will take a plane instead. We left the crowded train station, picked up our apartment keys from a hotel nearby, and walked through the city, rolling our bags behind us. We were struck by how Italian the city looked. The first settlement was founded by the Greeks of Marseilles around 360 BCE. It came under the dominion of Savoy, then France, then Piedmont-Sardinia, and then back to France in 1860. After we had settled into the apartment on Rue de Suede, we took a walk along the famous Bay of Angels, by the Mediterranean.

Nice, Bay of Angels
The next day, the plan was to hit Coco Beach, some way out of the city, but we found an outdoors market when we walked about Vieille Ville, or Old Town. The Sunday market was a display of brilliant colors and enticing smells: olives, breads, nuts, fruits, cheeses, flowers, vegetables, handmade soaps, even fish. We decided to come back to the market after we had climbed Castile Hill. Standing on the old fortification gave breathaking views of the city and of the leisurely and magnificent sweep of the bay. I began to understand why painters like Matisse are drawn to Nice, and then stay. The light was very intense but also very soft. The city presented flat planes of solid red, yellow and brown. We were hungry after the climb. We bought food from the market and GH prepared a delicious lunch of fresh figs, olives, goat cheese and baguette back in the apartment. The rest of the afternoon was spent lounging on Castel Plage, the gayish part of the bay, near to the castle. The beach was made up of rounded stones, not sand. I winced my way to the sea but the cool water made up for the pain. In the evening, we walked along the bay in the other direction, on the famous Promenade des Anglais, and saw the palace-hotels The West-End, Le Royal, The Westminister, Le Negresco tart up in lights.

Altar of La Chapelle du Rosaire
The bus station was very close to where we live. We took Bus 400 the next day to St. Paul de Vence in the hills. St. Paul was a very well preserved medieval fortified village. It had been taken over, however, by art galleries and boutique shops and waves of tourists flooded its narrow streets. I was not too unhappy to leave, on the bus again, for Vence. We had lunch in its main square. I did not go inside the old church on the piazza and so missed seeing Chagall's mosaic there. But that left my eyes clear for Matisse's chapel, the real reason we were in Vence. La Chapelle du Rosaire, or The Chapel of the Rosary, was a marvel, unspoiled even by the harsh tone of the guide explaining in French its design. The front stained glass window showed the Tree of Life in bold yellow, blue and green. The colors--yellow sunlight, green cactus and blue sea--are repeated but in different shapes in the side windows. The three murals are painted in simple strokes in black on white ceramic tiles. By the side of the altar was Saint Dominic, the patron saint of the chapel, imposing in his frontal directness. The other side mural was a Virgin and Child surrounded by forms that could be bushes or clouds. The Christ Child stood up with arms outstretched. He could be on a cross or he could be learning to balance on his mother's lap. At the back of the chapel was The Stations of the Cross. Instead of separate stations, the mural was done as a continous flow, from the judgment of Pilates to the burial of Jesus, with the crucifixion taking appropriately the center of the wall. When I was there, the light through the windows washed the floor and the bottom edge of the murals in color. I guessed the light must illuminate the whole of the murals at some season of the year. Matisse had spent a year observing the light in the chapel before finalizing his design.

Antibes
The next day was another travel day, this time to Antibes. Due to traffic, the bus journey took an agonizingly long time, nearly three hours instead of one-and-a-quarter. The day before, a man who did not wash sat behind us on the bus. GH called him The Stinky Man. For the rest of our time in Nice, anything that went wrong was given the same name. Antibes had less beach than Nice. It perched close to the sea, on a rocky coastline. That gave the city a sense of drama that was in strange consonance with the sailboats gaily waving in the distance. Antibes, for me, was Picasso City. The painter was invited by the then Grimaldi Museum to stay and paint in its rooms. Picasso stayed for six months and then donated some works to the museum such as "The Goat" and "La Joie de Vivre." The museum renamed itself Picasso Museum and received more donations from the painter and his family. Built on the foundations of the ancient Greek city of Antipolis, the Château Grimaldi was an imposing stronghold for Picasso's art. I especially admired his large canvas "Ulysses and the Sirens." There was also a big display of his ceramic plates with drawings of goats, fish and women. There were many still-lifes of sea urchins, eels and fish. The artist was very happy during his time at Antibes. He gave up the minotaur for the faun. After walking about the town for a while, we decided to take the train back, instead of the bus. The train ride took us only 20 minutes.

Lunch in Aix-en-Provence
We rested well and the next morning saw us on the train again, this time to Aix-en-Provence. It was lunch time by the time the train pulled in. Cours Mirabeau, the main drag, was grand but also packed with tourists. GH found a delightful bistro in one of the many sidestreets. He decided to do some drawing while I was seeing the "Grand atelier du Midi" show at the Musée Granet. There were some interesting Cezanne landscapes in the show, but I don't remember much else. We were, I think, more tired by our constant movement than we thought. The spa Thermes Sextius was supposed to be the highlight of the day, but GH did not think very much of its reception area. We decided not to splurge, but had a long coffee in a quiet street before returning to the train station. In the evening, we took the tram to the gay bars, overshot the right stop, and then had a nice dinner at Place Garibaldi. We discovered afterwards that the bars were just around the corner, but they were more restaurants than bars at that hour, and so we left.

Matisse, The Swimming Pool
GH wanted to look at some modern buildings in Nice, and so I went by myself on the bus to Cimiez, where the Matisse Museum was located. Inside the Genoese mansion, I wandered in bliss through room after room of Matisse. There were a few paintings, but drawings, sculptures and cutouts dominated. The standouts for me were les gouaches découpées "Danseuse créole"1951 and "Fleurs et fruits" 1952-1953. Then, in a wonderful climax, I wandered into the room of the most recent donation. Matisse's grandson Paul Duthuit had the artist's cutout "The Swimming Pool" done in ceramic tiles. The work swam, dove and tumbled around the walls of the room in a joyous spirit of refreshment. It was an amazing work from a master who was very close to death. I carried it like a splash of cold water in my head, on the bus down the hill, through lunch in a cheap neighborhood bistro, and into the Mediterranean, where the outside finally met the cool inside.

We were unsure if we were up to traveling to Marseilles the next day, but fortunately we decided that we could not miss this possible chance-in-a-lifetime, and went. We were so glad that we did. The second biggest city in France, Marseilles proved to be a relief from all the picturesque French Riviera and Provencal towns that we had been visiting. It was big, bossy and bustling. Walking towards the sortie of the Metro, we could already smell fish. Unlike in Nice, where the old port was separated from the promenade by Castle Hill, the main drag in Marseilles emerged directly out of the old port. Marseilles was less a French city than a Mediterranean one. It bore a relationship to its country in an odd analogy to the one that New Orleans bears to the United States. A place that refuses to be circumscribed by the national narrative.

Villa Méditerranée
Declared the European Capital of Culture in 2013, Marseilles wore its pride on its sleeve. Shining like the reflective mirror that it was, on the promenade around the old port, was Foster and Partners' Ombrière. Yet, just steps away from the touristy brasseries was a neighborhood joint cooking up an authentic Berber couscous served in plates and bowls of colorful fired clay. The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations had an eye-popping new extension. The cube-like building was clad with an organic pattern of pre-cast concrete. Next to it was the new Villa Méditerranée, by Boeri Studio, an international center for dialogue and exchanges about the Mediterranean and its peoples. Instead of rising to the sky, it projected itself in its high-tech look over the ancient green waters of the sea. When we were there, we saw half-naked teenage boys jumping off the high embankment into the water, just as they, and their fathers, had always done.

Cité radieuse
There was something else that we had come to Marseilles to see. Inspired by the Le Corbusier exhibition at the MoMA, we wanted to see his Cité radieuse (Radiant City), built on his modernst principle of the Unité d'Habitation. The building combined residential, commercial and office spaces, including a school for children. Its massive and colorful geometry underlined its artistic aspirations, as did the sculptural concrete forms on its roof. The rooftop also afforded a wading pool, sunbathing bays, a pantry and social room, a concert stage, an art school for children and viewing decks for the appreciation of the mountains on one side of the building, and the sea on the other. The third floor housed a restaurant and shops, the fourth floor offices. It was the most inspiring building that I had ever seen. GH was in heaven and could not stop clicking his camera.

I really liked Marseilles and wished that we had more time to see it. Of all the places that we visited in the south, we would return to Nice and Marseilles. Much as we enjoyed the old and the picturesque, our hearts are really with the modern and the vibrant. The latter qualities seem to require a certain size. The next day, we took the train back to Paris, then the Metro and the RER to the airport, then the plane to New York, and finally the subway back home. It was a long, long day of travel but still it did not afford enough time to detach ourselves from the dream of France.

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