Saturday, June 28, 2014

France 2014: Road Trip to Saint-Paul-de-Vence and Vence

Our original plan was to tour Saint Paul-de-Vence early on in our trip before the touristy village became too busy.  We wanted to have lunch at the famous Columbe d'Or restaurant, which is renowned for its extensive modern art collection.  Unfortunately there is apparently no low season in this village and the restaurant was booked up for weeks in advance.  We secured a reservation for mid June and anxiously awaited our visit.  Saint Paul-de-Vence is one of the oldest medieval villages in the French Riveria and was fortified in the 13th century.  Major portions of this fortification are still intact including the Porte (door) to the old town, still guarded by a cannon, and long stretches of ramparts that overlook the countryside. 

Walking along the ramparts to the south end of the village leads you to the cemetery, which is the final resting place of Russian painter Marc Chagall (1887-1985) and his second wife Vava (1905-1993).  Visitors pay their respects to the grave by leaving small stones, which is both a Jewish and a Russian tradition. I still marvel at the beautiful settings for the cemeteries in this area, with the rolling hills in the background.
There is quite the collection of contemporary sculptures scattered throughout Saint Paul-de-Vence.  It seems like everywhere you turn, there's another one to admire.  The green metal sculpture called "Le Chat" by Guilano Mancini looked more like a bird than a cat to me.  It stands adjacent a quaint little stone chapel that has been converted into a restaurant.  The most dramatically positioned sculpture stands at edge of one of the rampart walls–a human form poised to dive into the valley below.
There is also no shortage of touristy shops and art galleries lining the cobblestone streets.  It was fun peering through the windows and doorways of the galleries and looking at all the various art pieces,  which again had a high concentration of sculptures.  One place had works by Tolla Inbar, whose bronze sculptures of figures climbing ladders or coils of thick rope are also on display at the Distillery District in Toronto and have always been a favourite of mine.
In one shop, we found more Picasso-inspired salt and pepper shakers.  This time, they were modeled after figures from Picasso's masterpiece Guernica–specifically, the bull and just below it, the woman with her mouth open and head tilted back.  It felt a bit decadent and redundant to be buying a second set of salt and pepper shakers after we already bought ones of different patterns in Biot.  However the cool factor of having Guernica salt and pepper shakers won us over.

The major art museum in Saint Paul-de-Vence is called Fondation Maeght, which houses modern art by major 20th century artists.  The building was designed by Spanish architect Josep Lluís Sert, who also created Joan Miró's museum in Barcelona.  Financed by Marguerite and Aimé Maeght and opened in 1964, the foundation is a result of collaboration by the architect Sert, and a group of artists who created art specifically for the site.  There is the Alberto Giacometti courtyard and sculptures, a mosaic wall mural by Chagall, a fish-designed mosaic pool and chapel stained glass windows by George Braque, as well as a garden labyrinth by Miró which features many of his sculptures, murals and mosaics.

The Fondation Maeght charges a photography fee of 5 Euros which I gladly paid for the opportunity to take photos of the beautiful art in the museum and grounds.  We were quite taken with the two sculptural ponds situated in front of the entrance to the museum.  One featured plastic lime-green men with water spurting out from their heads to create a modern "fountain", while the other was the picture of peace and serenity with a ceramic chair surrounded by a pool of water lilies.  Inside there were more works by Miró, Braque, Chagall, Fernand Léger, Alexander Calder and even Germaine Richier, whose sculpture we saw atop the Picasso Museum terrace walls in Antibes.   Through our tour of French art museums, we are starting to recognize the works of artists that we were not aware of prior to our trip.

After spending the morning at the Fondation Maeght, we were finally ready for our lunch at the Columbe D'Or, a restaurant and inn open since the 1920s and a frequent stopping place for artists who traded works of art for a meal or overnight lodgings.  Part of the reason that it took so long to get a reservation was that we wanted to sit out in the garden area, and was it ever worth the wait.  Our table was nestled in between some greenery, with a scenic view overlooking the hills.  Directly in front of us was the commissioned Fernand Léger ceramic in vibrant colours, that was based on the monochrome one that we saw at his museum in Biot.

Being a very touristy restaurant, we knew that the food would be quite expensive and on this count, it was as expected.  We had decided beforehand that we would only eat an appetizer and main course but forego the dessert since we could pick up a gelato in the town for much less.  Rich started with the classic combination of cantaloupe and prosciutto, which he also ate in the village of Bargeme but at a fraction of the cost.  For his main, he had the filet of sea bass with a mousseline sauce, which is hollandaise sauce mixed with whipped cream.  For my appetizer and main, I ordered white asparagus served with the same mousseline sauce, and a lobster salad.  The white asparagus was very sweet and went well with the sauce, which was lighter in texture than regular hollandaise.

After lunch, we took a stroll through the inside dining room and hotel area to see more of the art.  We weren't sure that we were actually allowed in these areas since we were not guests of the hotel, but figured after the price that we paid for lunch, we were entitled. If caught, we had the ready-made excuse that we were looking for the washrooms.  We saw photos of and works by Picasso, a Calder sculpture, and many other paintings by artists that we did not recognize.

Before leaving the area, we stopped by the neighbouring town of Vence, about 10 minutes north of Saint Paul-de-Vence.  We went there for the sole purpose of visiting the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence, which was designed by and decorated with the art of Henri Matisse.  Built around 1950, it included three murals depicting Saint Dominic, the Virgin and Child amongst flowers, and the 14 stations of the Cross.  Matisse also designed the bronze crucifix, candle sticks, tabernacle and the three beautiful stained glass windows.  One room displayed robes worn by the priests in the chapel, again designed by Matisse.  It is not surprising that this chapel is also known as the "Matisse Chapel".  Given how little there was to see in the chapel, the admission of 6 Euros was quite expensive and probably not worth it.  To make it worse, photos were not allowed, but luckily there were many on the internet.

Our trek home from Vence became quite the unexpected adventure.  We planned to follow a similar route home as the one we took going to Saint Paul-de-Vence, which was the southern path that passed near Cannes.  But our GPS had us going in circles when trying to get out of Vence, by requesting us to make a U-Turn regardless of which direction of the road we tried to take.  Finally in frustration, we decided to ignore the GPS completely and arbitrarily take a road out of town, before re-engaging with it to try to get home.  So accidentally, we stumbled upon the northern route that passed through villages like Tourettes-sur-Loop (which is nowhere near Tourettes by the way), Gourdon, Gréolières, Andon and Séranon, which presented us with some impressive alpine terrain.

Imagine our surprise when we were expecting the beach-like views of Cannes but instead, found ourselves in mountainous territory.  It is amazing that depending on which direction you head out of Vence, you get such varied scenery.  As Rich was whipping around hairpin turns and heading higher and higher into the mountains, I was trying to take photos out of the front window.  I was gleefully shouting "Look at the gorge .. gorge ... gorge .. BUS!!!"  Yet again, we had found ourselves on the upward slope of a narrow, windy, road and encountered a bus careening towards us that took up both lanes.  So once more, Rich's driving skills were put to the test as he had to drive backwards down the steep, twisty road.  As this is about the fourth time that this has happened to us, I must be getting used to this.  This time I had the wherewithal to take a photo of the bus.  The previous times, I was too busy screaming and closing my eyes.

It was a bit scary not knowing where we were or where the GPS was taking us, but the breathtaking views made the extra-long drive home worth it.  We were getting our first tastes of what it would be like to drive to the Gorge du Verdon, which would be the destination of our next road trip.

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