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Artists and writers and the French Riviera

Everybody comments on it: there’s something about the light on the Côte d’Azur. Either that or there’s something in the water, because artists and writers have flocked to the French Riviera to work since the late 1700s.  

Even the term Côte d’Azur was coined by a writer, Stephen Liégeard, who called his 1887 travel book on the Riviera La Côte d’Azur. Liégeard, who described the area as a ‘coast of light, of warm breezes, and mysterious balmy forests’, published the work during the Riviera’s golden era, when improved accessibility and news of the favourable local climate turned a relatively obscure piece of coastline into one of the most fashionable places in Europe. Since then, famous (and infamous) names have settled there to work, imbuing the area with the kind of creative credibility rarely found outside the world’s largest cultural capitals.

Almost every conurbation along the coast has a writer attached to it. They came here to flee everything from Prohibition in America (F. Scott Fitzgerald spent much of the 1920s there with his wife, Zelda) to bad marriages (Somerset Maugham and H. G. Wells both escaped failing relationships there). British censors drove D. H. Lawrence and James Joyce out of the UK, and Berthold Brecht and Vladimir Nabokov had run from more despotic regimes.

As a result, parts of the Riviera are now immortalised in literature. Artists were also inspired, and captured the magic of the area in landscapes or echoed its colour palette throughout much of their wider work. From the Impressionists up to the present day, many of the biggest names in art painted in the South of France.

Claude Monet lived and painted in Antibes-depicting the village from many angles-and Auguste Renoir had his home and studio in Cagnes sur Mer, which is now a museum dedicated to his work. Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse also spent extended periods on the Côte d’Azur. Picasso, in particular, enjoyed an extremely productive year in Antibes, before moving to Cannes, Mougins and Vallauris (which now houses a museum devoted to his ‘War and Peace’ panels).

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Some places acquired a special reputation, which then attracted literary and artistic names. Near the border with Italy, Menton’s pretty stone houses, clustered on a steep slope rising from the sea, turn the colour of honey at the end of the afternoon. In the past, the town was famed for curing ill-health and drew many ailing artists and writers. Its mild climate was a magnet for some of the biggest names of the 19th century, including Robert Louis Stevenson, who was troubled with a bad chest, and fleeing his mother, and Aubrey Beardsley, who spent the final two years of his very short life in Menton, dying of tuberculosis at just 25.

Nearby Monaco, by contrast, drew a fast gambling crowd. Between the granting of the casino franchise in 1863 and the opening of the railway in 1868, accessibility improved but a severe shortage of space had already ensured exclusivity. A total area of only two square kilometres (about two-thirds of a mile) meant that both buildings and property prices soared. Anthony Burgess called the principality a mini-Manhattan, but not many writers could stay long there-it was simply too expensive.

Instead, writers often settled in the more affordable Cap d’Antibes. Jules Verne moored his yacht there and wrote the scenario for Around the World in 80 Days and Fitz-gerald worked on Tender is The Night. But the cultural heart of the Côte d’Azur is Nice, and the city’s charming jumble of Baroque and Belle Epoque streets has the plaques to prove it.

Guillaume Apollinaire, Friedrich Nietzsche, Raoul Dufy, Henri Matisse and Anton Chekhov all stayed here-the latter saying that, after Yalta, Nice’s weather and terrain made it look like Heaven. Another visitor was Louisa May Alcott, whose description of the Promenade des Anglais-the city’s elegant beachfront avenue-in Little Women still holds true today: ‘The wide walk, bordered with palms, flowers and tropical shrubs, is bounded on one side by the sea and on the other by the grand drive, lined with hotels and villas, while beyond lie orange orchards and the hills. Many nations are represented, many languages spoken, many costumes worn, and on a sunny day the spectacle is as gay and brilliant as a carnival.’

In particular, the Promenade’s lavish Negresco hotel is synonymous with literary stardust. Writers such as Hemingway, Fitz-gerald and H. G. Wells all stayed there, and the hotel’s reputation continues to attract a roll call of glamourous guests. Matisse, by contrast, preferred the Hotel Regina, in the quiet suburb of Cimiez, where he lived intermittently between 1938 and his death in 1954. Today, Cimiez houses a museum devoted to Matisse, which, together with the nearby Chagall Museum, is testament to the appeal Nice exerted on artists.

But any serious lover of modern art must at some point abandon the coast and make the pilgrimage to the historic fortified village of Saint Paul de Vence, situated half an hour’s drive inland. Saint Paul’s reputation far outweighs its size. Its sleepy, winding streets and the stone farmhouses in the surrounding hills, which look down to Cap d’Antibes in the distance, are a huge draw for people wishing to escape the hectic glamour of the coastline.

The village is home to the Fondation Maeght, one of the most impressive modern-art collections in the world, and the Hotel La Colombe d’Or, whose owner agreed to let struggling artists (including Picasso) eat at his restaurant in exchange for artworks, which still hang there today.

Ninety years after La Colombe d’Or opened its doors, St Paul de Vence continues to attract French and international artists, who have their studios in and around the village. Its thriving artistic community is evidence that the creative allure of the Côte d’Azur refuses to diminish. However, today’s artistic and literary crowds are rather different from those of the past: where once fledgling writers and artists arrived in the Riviera searching for freedom and to establish their reputations, now the area attracts an annual influx of established names who spend the summer months in the villas on the hills behind Cap Ferrat and moor their yachts in Saint-Tropez for the Cannes Film Festival.

With so much interest in the area, the Côte d’Azur’s property market makes its own rules. Although the recession softened values, the best houses with the smartest addresses, especially those with sea views, command a premium even in these testing times. Monaco in particular is a market unto itself-one of the most expensive in the world-but even in villages such as St Paul de Vence and Antibes, prices regularly reach more than €10,000 per square metre.

On the Croisette in Cannes, close to the famous Carlton hotel, they can now hit as much as €56,000 per square metre. Then again, few other places have inspired so many literary and artistic masterpieces not to mention that, beyond the personalities, the glamour and the cultural history, the Côte d’Azur is still undeniably one of the most beautiful parts of the world.

This article first appeared in Country Life International Summer 2011, out today with Country Life magazine.

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