Mixing the Art of Travel With the Art of the Cote d’Azur
Jackie DesForges is a lifelong dedicated travel lover and a Rail Europe Travel Consultant from our Chicago office. On her off time, Jackie goes on exciting travel adventures. We were lucky to have Jackie approach us to write about using our products in exchange for passes and city cards. We are thrilled to contribute to Jackie’s love of travel and to read about her experiences. In this blog series, Jackie used the Global Pass, 15 days in 2 months flexi, Barcelona Card, Lisbon Card, Malaga Hop On, Hop Off Sightseeing Tour and Sevilla Card. If you happen to call our contact center and get Jackie, make sure to mention that you read her blog series!
I began my research about the French Riviera when I was on the plane heading towards the French Riviera. My professor had assigned us some reading before the first day of class – an introduction to the region and the artists we’d be learning about for the next two months. This article described the Riviera as a playground for artists – a whimsical place to escape their illnesses, their dry spells, and their scandals. It was so exotic that it could inspire them to create art in a way that Paris, despite all its energy, could not. The sun and sand and ocean breeze were the opposite of the crowded streets, rainy mornings, and smoke-filled cafes that had come to define Paris as an artistic, cultural, sophisticated hub. Paris was the place the art of the modernist era began, but the Riviera was the place it went to play.
The art museums along the Cote d’Azur, as the region is also known, reflect this playfulness and encourage the sense of freedom that the artists must have felt when they arrived. Before this visit I hadn’t known what to expect, as I know that art from the Modern Era – the period known for Picasso’s Cubist paintings, Matisse’s Joie de Vivre, and the increasing tendency towards abstraction – tends to foster a reputation for being pretentious or inaccessible.
The pieces of art I saw in the museums along the coast, however, were all about fun, freedom, color, and beauty. No matter where I went, I think I always came across at least one painting in every museum that reflected the actual physical presence of the Riviera in some way. Whether it was a painting of the water, or the colors of the trees, or a scene from a window, all of these paintings made me feel like anyone could come to these museums and appreciate the paintings without necessarily knowing anything about art. You would only need to take one look out the museum’s window to completely understand why someone would feel the urge to paint a picture of it.
My favorite museum happened to be the first museum on our syllabus: the Matisse Museum in Nice. When people ask me why it was my favorite, one of the first things I say is that it resembled a giant cardboard cutout of what museums are supposed to look like. I had never really thought about museums in terms of their exterior design before; for me, the art inside the museum had always been the most important thing. The Matisse Museum is probably the museum whose interior I remember the least, but the bright red walls and golden window detailing on the façade comprise one of the most vivid memories I have of that summer.
My second favorite museum was housed in a giant castle along the coast of Antibes and was made famous by the fact that Picasso worked there for about a year. The owner of the building allowed him to rent out the top floor (smart choice), and then, perhaps as a form of gratitude, Picasso left behind all of the works he created during his time there, including his version of Joie de Vivre. My favorite part of the museum was searching for this painting – or at least it was for the first five minutes, and then I began to worry I’d missed it. Those who organized the museum did a wonderful job of building up suspense as you climb staircase after staircase, ducking into castle-esque corridors and catching a peek outside the stone windows every now and then, until you’ve almost forgotten about the painting and then you round a corner and suddenly, there it is. And it is a very large painting. When you round the corner and see it, it might take you a moment to realize that it isn’t the only painting in the room.
My third and final favorite museum along the coast goes back to Matisse. During a year in Nice, Matisse developed health issues, and he stayed on in the Riviera to recover. A small group of nuns took him into their care, and he developed an intimate friendship with them, one named Sister Jacques-Marie in particular. Once he had regained his strength, and as a favor to the nuns who had cared for him, Matisse began designs for a convent up in the hills of St. Paul du Vence. The convent is very simplistic and everything is designed in the loose, playful style for which Matisse has become famous. The chapel is open now for tours as much as it is for prayer, and I love it because it offers people the chance to see the work of a really famous artist taken into a completely different context than that of a museum’s blank white walls.
All of the museums I’ve mentioned are easily accessible by buses and regional trains. The train that runs along the coast from Cannes (near my summer lodging) to Nice runs very frequently and could double as an impromptu tour of the Riviera’s scenic coastline. If you’re heading to this region from Paris, or elsewhere in Northern France, I’d recommend a train to Nice, which would serve as a good home base for day trips to and from the little towns that house all of these art museums.
I love art, and I love France, but I know those two things aren’t for everyone. My favorite thing about this trip to the Riviera was that it put artwork in a context that I think people can truly appreciate even if art museums usually make them uncomfortable, or if they prefer the business and sophistication of Paris to lazy afternoons on a sunny beach. The scenery of the Riviera lends itself to playfulness, whimsy, and escape – which is why it might actually be a perfect new thing to try if art isn’t usually your thing when you travel. You might be visiting the Riviera for many of the same reasons the artists were, after all.