‘Saint-Tropez?’ said the French mother of a friend. ‘C’est un peu… “tacky”.’ She was distressed to think of our taking a house there — really, we were nearer Saint Paul de Vence, where they make artists, than San Trop, where they make tanning lotion — and suggested we stay with her in Provence. She promised lavender fields, cathedrals, boules in shady squares. ‘Vraiment civilisé.’
There are two souths of France. The tacky and the civilisé. Those who go to Aix (for Cézanne), Arles (Van Gogh) and Avignon (popes) think themselves a baskets–and-espadrilles cut above the Odabash girls and Vilebrequin boys of Cannes, Saint-Tropez and Cap d’Antibes hoping to be asked to a yacht. ‘Why don’t you own a place like this?’ cat burglar Cary Grant asks heiress Grace Kelly as they tour a villa in To Catch a Thief. ‘Palaces are for royalty,’ she replies. ‘We’re just common people with a bank account.’
The Riviera fantasy is Princess Grace and Françoise Sagan: fast cars with the hoods down, affairs with married men, midnight love-making, sleeping till noon, swimming in too blue seas, a grand hotel on the Croisette, drowsy bellboys. ‘I can see that there’s nothing will cheer you up but luxury and alcohol,’ says Luc to Dominique in Sagan’s Un certain sourire before seducing her out of her ‘quite schoolgirlish pajamas’ in a Cannes hotel suite.
Luxury. Alcohol. Common people with big bank accounts. Thank you, but I’d rather have Nîmes. See the Maison Carrée lit up at night, and drive out to the Pont du Gard for an aqueduct selfie (#nextMaryBeard). When Henry James saw the Pont he wrote that its monumental hugeness left him with ‘nothing to say’. Being Henry James, he spent the next 30 lines not saying it.
Walk the Cours Mirabeau in Aix then take a taxi up, up, up to the Bibémus quarry and Cézanne’s painting hut. Cézanne did the journey by donkey. Poor donkey. Who would be sunburnt on Nikki Beach when you could be here among the pines and stones and wild orchids?
Out of town in the other direction is the Vasarely Foundation, a little tired, a little forlorn (buckets to catch drips, tesserae falling off the mosaics), but bright and mad and dizzying under the tapestries, murals and tiles of the op artist Victor Vasarely. The foundation is fundraising for restorations. Do help them.
The canon’s cloister of Aix cathedral is locked, but if you loiter in the sacristy looking plaintive/menacing, the verger will rattle his keys and take you round the Romanesque columns of the arcade. Look for Balaam’s ass, David and Goliath, St Peter (more keys) and a sinuous, sinister basilisk carved into the capitals.
In August we are going back to Saint Paul de Vence to get lost in the Maeght Foundation’s Miró labyrinth and count our rosaries in the Matisse chapel. Ten years ago, my grandfather took us to dinner at La Colombe d’Or, with its collection of Picasso, Braque and Fernand Léger. Michael and Shakira Caine were at the table to our right, Richard and Judy to our left, and Joan Burstein of Browns behind. I can’t remember what we ate and have only the vaguest memory of a Calder mobile by the pool. Too busy star-goggling. Must go back.