Henri Matisse: celebrated in his home town

Henri Matisse: celebrated in his home town

Musee Matisse

The Musee Matisse in Le Cateau-Cambresis

Late in the afternoon of the first day of my trip to WW1 sites in Flanders and the Somme, I was in the little village of Ors where Wilfred Owen is buried and where his platoon spent their final hours before being mown down by German machine gun fire.  The nearest town is Le Cateau-Cambresis and, since it is the place where Matisse was born, and since it has a museum devoted to Matisse, I had to go.

I hadn’t expected much of a museum in a small provincial town.  But I was wrong. Housed in a former archbishop’s palace that in Matisse’s day had been transformed into a cotton mill, the museum is excellent.  In ten beautifully-presented rooms, key episodes from the the life and work of the town’s most famous son are illustrated through an astonishing collection of Matisse’s work.  I quickly learn the reason for this: the museum was established by Matisse himself in November 1952, and he also defined the way his works should be arranged.  The museum owns more than 170 works by Matisse, and now has the third largest collection of his work in France.

The collection has grown from initial donations by the Matisse family, enhanced and by later purchases. It now includes 28 paintings and paper cut-outs, 21 sculptures and a superb collection of sketches and prints.  In each room the museum has displayed work by other modern artists that reflect the influence that Matisse had on 20th century art. So, for example, to illustrate the summer of 1905 that opened Matisse’s eyes to the light and colour of the south- a summer spent with Andre Derain in Collioure on the Mediterranean coast – Derain’s painting ‘Port de Collioure: Le Cheval Blanc’ hangs alongside some of those made by Matisse on the same trip.  Most astonishingly, in the room that presents examples of Matisse’s preparatory work for the chapel at Vence, there hangs a Rothko – ‘Light Red Over Black’ from 1957, its shimmering tones there to complement the vibrant colours of Matisse’s most spiritual work.

Matisse was born in the house on the left (demolished in 1918)

Matisse was born in the house on the left (demolished in 1918)

Le Cateau-Cambresis is a small town situated at the edge of the high plains that stretch from the valley of the Somme some twenty miles to the west.  It lies at the foot of wooded hills that rise to meet the Belgian border.  Matisse was born here in his grandfather’s cottage on  31 December 1869. Hilary Spurling brings it to life in the opening volume of her Life of Henri Matisse:

Matisse was rooted in northeastern France, on the edge of the great Flanders plain where his ancestors had lived for centuries before the convulsive social and industrial upheavals of the nineteenth century slowly prised them loose. His father’s family were weavers. Henri Emile Benoît Matisse was born in a tiny, tumbledown weaver’s cottage on the rue du Chêne Arnaud in the textile town of Le Cateau-Cambrésis at eight o’clock in the evening on the last night of the year, 31 December 1869. The house had two rooms, a beaten earth floor and a leaky roof. Matisse said long afterwards that rain fell through a hole above the bed in which he was born.

Matisse’s ancestors had lived in the area for centuries. His father, a grain merchant who sold grain for cattle feed, came from a family of weavers – one of the traditional occupations of the region – while his mother was the daughter of a long line of well-to-do tanners. Matisse grew up in nearby Bohain-en-Vermandois which, like Le Cateau, had in the 19th century become a centre for the industrial manufacturing of textiles.  Hilary Spurling describes the sort of place Bohain was when Matisse was young:

Henri Matisse was born just as the accelerating juggernaut of industrialisation and deforestation reached top speed in his native region. When his family settled on the rue du Château, Bohain was already halfway through its transformation from a sleepy weavers’ village deep in the ancient forest of the Arrouaise to a modern manufacturing centre with ten thousand clanking looms installed in the town itself and the villages round about. The population, which had taken forty years to grow from two to four thousand before the large-scale installation of steam machinery in the 1860s, would very nearly double again in the twenty years before Matisse finally left home for Paris.

The town’s principal product was textiles but sugar-beet output also doubled in the first ten years of his life. Energetic clearance meant that the last pockets of surrounding woodland were cut down to make way for beet plants in 1869, the year of Matisse’s birth. The windmills and belfries that traditionally dotted the rolling flatlands of the Vermandois were far outnumbered in his childhood by the smoking chimneys of sugar refineries and textile mills. The streams on these chalky downs–Bohain stood high in the centre of a triangle marking the sources of the Somme, the Selle and the Escaut–ran with dye and chemical refuse on leaving the towns. The streets of Bohain were slippery with beet pulp in autumn, and the air was rank all winter with the stench of rotting and fermenting beets. Visitors from the outside world in the 1870s and 1880s were shocked by the drabness of the town itself, and by the stark, treeless outlines of the newly denuded land round about. “Where I come from, if there is a tree in the way, they root it out because it puts four beets in the shade,” Matisse said sombrely.

The family home of Henri Matissein BohainLa Maison familiale d'Henri Matisse, au 26 rue du Château à Bohain

Then and now: the family home of Henri Matisse, at 26 rue du Château, Bohain

There’s a reminder in Hilary Spurling’s book that Matisse experienced the invasion of his country three times in his lifetime, the first occasion when he was two years old:

In his own childhood, the invaders were Prussian. German soldiers (who occupied Bohain three times in Matisse’s lifetime) marched past the seed-shop on the rue du Château for the first time on New Year’s Day, 1871, the day after his first birthday. The whole region had been waiting for them in a state of increasing tension since the Emperor’s catastrophic defeat at Sedan four months earlier. Prussian troops had already bombarded and captured the local market town of St-Quentin sixteen miles away. After a brief flurry of sniper fire, Bohain responded, as the town always had done to foreign occupation, with grim resignation. The population retreated behind sealed doors and windows for nearly three uneasy weeks while French and German forces massed for the battle, which took place on 19 January in the snow just outside St-Quentin. The citizens stood on their town walls all day, watching the heavily outnumbered French army suffer yet another decisive defeat, and barricaded themselves in their cellars as the survivors withdrew in silence through the streets that night. A few hours later, when the fleeing French soldiers stumbled into Bohain–filthy, famished and exhausted–they found the inhabitants waiting for them in the snow with food and lanterns to light their way.

Bohain pattern book

Bohain textile designs:  catalogue published in 1883

The first room in the Musee Matisse evokes his early years in the north. There’s a hat and a violin that once belonged to the young Matisse, and there are samples of the textile patterns woven in Bohain, which Matisse would have seen as a child growing up in a textile town.  These were luxury cloths, sent to Paris for followers of high fashion.  The patterns made a deep impression on the young boy, and turn up in many of Matisse’s later paintings, their memory even perhaps influencing the cut-outs of his final years.

Matisse, The Breton Weaver, 1895

Henri Matisse, ‘The Breton Weaver’, 1895

Again, Hilary Spurling provides a vivid account of life in Bohain in these early years, and the impression made on the young Matisse:

Long after the neighbouring towns had switched to mechanisation, a high proportion of the men of Bohain kept their handlooms, working either at home or in back-street workshops crammed with anything from three or four to twenty times as many looms. There were half a dozen of these weavers’ and embroiderers’ workshops in and around the rue Peu d’Aise. “My cradle was rocked to the clicking rhythms of running shuttles. . . . Clickety-clack! . . . Clickety-clack!” wrote Emile Flamant, another painter born in Bohain in 1896. Matisse himself was just old enough to remember the vogue for Kashmir shawls which had brought Bohain its first taste of prosperity in the 1850s. “In the old days they used to make woven Indian shawls. It was a time when people still wore shawls on their backs, as in old Flemish paintings, decorated with palmettes and fringed edges,” Matisse said, describing a simple weaver’s dwelling like the one where he was born. “A peasant’s house consisted of a single big room with a bed, a table in the middle and a loom in the corner, a Jacquard loom.”

It was Parisian high fashion that lay behind Bohain’s astonishing economic turnaround after the defeat of 1871. By the time Henri was ten, all but a handful of the town’s forty-two textile workshops had switched to furnishing or dress materials, working directly for the big Paris fashion houses that supplied modern department stores like the Cour Batave. This was the basis of the town’s booming economy during Henri’s childhood and adolescence, when the luxury textile trade exploded “like fireworks” in an unprecedented display of creativity and invention. Throughout the time he lived there, the weavers of Bohain were famous for the richness of their colours, for their imaginative daring and willingness to experiment. They worked to order for the top end of the market, supplying handwoven velvets, watered and figured silks, merinos, grenadines, featherlight cashmeres and fancy French tweeds (cheviottes fantaisies) for winter and, for summer, sheer silk gauzes, diaphanous tulles, voiles and foulades in a fantastic profusion of decorative patterns, weaves and finishes.

Descended from and surrounded by these weavers, Matisse grew up familiar from infancy with the sound of clacking shuttles and the sight of his neighbours loading and plying coloured bobbins, hunched over the loom like a painter at his easel day in, day out, from dawn to dusk. Textiles remained ever afterwards essential to him as an artist. He loved their physical presence, surrounding himself with scraps and snippets of the most beautiful stuffs he could afford from his days as a poor art student in Paris. He painted them all his life as wall hangings, on screens, in cushions, carpets, curtains and the covers of the divans on which he posed his models of the 1930s in their flimsy harem pants, their silk sashes and jackets, their ruffled or embroidered blouses, sometimes in haute couture dresses made by Parisian designers from the sort of luxury materials still produced in those days for Chanel in Bohain.

Throughout the single most critical phase of his career, in the decade before the First World War when he and others struggled to rescue painting from the dead hand of a debased classical tradition, textiles served him as a strategic ally. Flowered, spotted, striped or plain, billowing across the canvas or pinned flat to the picture plane, they became in Matisse’s hands between 1905 and 1917 an increasingly disruptive force mobilised to subvert and destabilise the old oppressive laws of three-dimensional illusion. On a purely practical level, he resorted as a painter to old weavers’ tricks like pinning a paper pattern to a half-finished canvas, or trying out a whole composition in different colourways. He stoutly defended the decorative, non-naturalistic element in painting, and he made luxury–in the old democratic weavers’ definition, “something more precious than wealth, within everybody’s reach”–a key concept in his personal system of aesthetics. In this, as in his unbudgeable determination, Matisse remained a true son of the weavers of Bohain, whose fabrics astonished contemporaries by their glowing colours, their sensuous refinement, their phenomenal lightness and lustre.

Matisse The Reader (1895)

Henri Matisse, ‘The Reader’, 1895

In 1887 Matisse went to Paris to study law, returning to Le Cateau-Cambrésis to work as a court administrator after gaining his qualification.  His discovery of his true vocation came about in 1889 as he was convalescing after an attack of appendicitis and his mother had bought him a paintbox to while away the hours. He said later, ‘From the moment I held the box of colours in my hands, I knew this was my life. I threw myself into it like a beast that plunges towards the thing it loves’.  Two years later, he returned to Paris to study art at the Academy, but left after a year, frustrated by the academic and perfectionist approach of the tutors.

Influenced by Cezanne, from 1892 to 1897 Matisse trained with Gustave Moreau, an artist who nurtured more progressive leanings.  The second room focuses on this period and includes his ‘First Still Life: Orange’, painted in 1898 during his honeymoon on Corsica: the first sign of a developing passion for colour and of the impact of the Mediterranean light.

Matisse First orange still life (1898-1899)

Henri Matisse, ‘First Still Life: Orange’, 1898

But there are paintings here from 1902-1903, one of the darkest periods in Matisse’s life when he was forced to return to Bohain and nearby Lesquielles St. Germain.  His wife, Amélie, had a gift for designing, making, and modelling hats for fashionable clients, and ran her own shop in Paris, its income supporting Matisse as he embarked on his career as a painter. In 1902, however, disaster struck when Amélie’s parents were disgraced and financially ruined in a spectacular scandal, as the unsuspecting employees of a woman whose financial empire was based on fraud.

Thanks to his early years in a lawyer’s office, Matisse was able to assist in organizing his father-in-law’s defence. But the ordeal took its toll, and his doctors ordered Matisse to go to Bohain and take two months’ complete rest. Amélie had lost both her hat shop and their Paris apartment. Henri, Amélie and their three children returned to Bohain, having nowhere else to go. Hilary Spurling believes that memories of their public disgrace nurtured a ‘suspicion of the outside world’ that would always mark the Matisse family. From that point on,the Matisse family formed a kind of hermetic unit which revolved around the artist’s work and profession.

Matisse L'Allee a la Riviere

Henri Matisse, ‘L’Allee a la Riviere’, 1903

Matisse, Lesquielles St Germain, 1903

Henri Matisse, ‘Lesquielles St Germain’, 1903

Matisse, Countryside, Lesquielles St Germain, 1903

Henri Matisse, ‘Countryside, Lesquielles St Germain’, 1903

Matisse, Banks of the canal, Lesquielles St Germain, 1903

 Henri Matisse, ‘Banks of the canal, Lesquielles St Germain’, 1903

The next room brings together paintings made between 1905 and 1914, the Fauve period of ‘the revelation of light in nature’.
In the summer of 1905, together with Andre Derain, he goes to Collioure and paints freely – paintings of pure colour. ‘Rue du Soleil in Collioure’, painted that summer, breaks free from the constraints of drawing and realism.  Next to it is Derain’s ‘Port de Collioure, le Cheval Blanc’, painted in the same summer.

Henri Matisse Collioure rue du soleil 1905

 Henri Matisse, ‘Collioure: Rue du Soleil’, 1905

Andre Derain, Port de Collioure, le cheval blanc, 1905

Andre Derain, ‘Port de Collioure, le Cheval Blanc’, 1905

There are two portraits of his daughter Marguerite, one painted in 1906 is expressionist, while in a large painting of 1914,Marguerite is portrayed in a fur hat painted in washes of transparent and light blue.

Henri Matisse, Marguerite, 1906

Henri Matisse, Marguerite, 1906

In December 1917, Matisse left Paris for Nice and this significant moment marks the opening of the period covered by the next room, ‘1918-1939, Nice and Tahiti: the light of the tropics’.  In Nice his principal subject remained the female figure or an odalisque dressed in oriental costume or in various stages of undress, depicted as standing, seated, or reclining in a luxurious, exotic interior of Matisse’s own creation. These paintings are infused with southern light, bright colours, and a profusion of decorative patterns, evocative of the Bohain pattern-books of his childhood. There is a self-portrait painted in 1918, soon after his arrival in Nice.  

Matisse, self-portrait,1918

Henri Matisse, ‘Self-portrait’, 1918

On his trip to Tahiti in 1930 he discovered the golden light of the tropics. On his return, he painted ‘Window in Tahiti’, a large gouache, striking in its pure colours.  ‘The light of the Pacific, of the Islands’, he wrote, ‘is a deep golden goblet into which one peers’. This special light led him to experiment with the sensation of confusion between the spaces of sky and sea, as illustrated in the later compositions from 1946-1947, ‘Océanie, le Ciel’ and ‘Océanie, la Mer’ (which appears in a later room)  in which fish, coral and birds mingle.

Window at Tahiti, 1936

Window at Tahiti, 1936

Another room is dedicated to the 1940s when Matisse took refuge in Vence, the start of a particularly productive period of drawings and paintings. Three striking paintings here are ‘Interior with Bars of Sunlight’, completed in 1942, a geometrical arrangement of coloured bars and rectangles, ‘Pink Nude, Red Interior’ from 1947, with a sumptuous red background and array of richly patterned fabrics, and ‘Two Young Women, Yellow Dress and Tartan Dress’.

Henri Matisse, Interior with Bars of Sunlight, 1942

Henri Matisse, ‘Interior with Bars of Sunlight’, 1942

Matisse, Pink Nude, Red Interior, c.1947

 Henri Matisse, ‘Pink Nude, Red Interior’, c.1947

Matisse, Deux jeunes filles, 1941

Henri Matisse, ‘Two Young Women, Yellow Dress and Tartan Dress’, 1941

In the next room, ‘The sculptor of light’, the display overlaps with the exhibition at Tate Modern that I have booked to see on as I pass through London on my way back home.  Here are examples of work completed by Matisse during the last ten years of his life: maquettes and models for the Vence Chapel, examples of  his monumental paper cut-outs.

Musee Matisse Vigne

Musee Matisse: ‘Vine’, 1953, with examples of gouched paper cut-outs from the same period

‘Vine’ (1953) is a cut-out design for a stained-glass window in blue, pink, yellow and green gouache. Oceania, the sky, Oceania, the sea given by the descendants of the painter. These white forms on a beige background are the first monumental achievements made ​​with the technique of paper cutouts and were born in 1946 memories of the trip Matisse in Tahiti.

Musee Matisse Oceania - Le Ciel

Musee Matisse: ‘Oceania – Le Ciel’, 1946

And here is the paper cut-out original of ‘Oceania: The Sky’ from 1946, donated to the museum by Matisse in 1952. In it, Matisse recalls the lagoons and colours of ‘the other hemisphere’ he discovered in 1930 on his voyage to Tahiti, from which he returned with photographs, drawings, and memories that would nourish his work to the end.  Matisse finished composing the two panels ‘Oceania, the Sky’ and ‘Oceania, the Sea’ on two walls of his bedroom in his Paris apartment in autumn 1946. Forms from the marine world that he had seen swimming in the lagoons of the Pacific islands are cut out in white paper and dance against a beige abstract background. Matisse once said of these works:

These successive flights of doves, their orbits, their curves glide in me as if in a great interior space. You cannot imagine to what degree, in this period of paper cut-outs, the sensation of flight that comes over me helps me to better adjust my hand as it guides the path of my scissors.

Musee Matisse Back I-IV

As I moved on from one room to the next in this small museum, I was continually amazed by the importance of the works on display. My next encounter was with the original plaster casts of the four monumental sculptures of a woman’s back which Matisse worked on from 1909 to 1930, and which are now considered to be one of the great achievements in 20th century sculpture.

Probably influenced by Cezanne, Back I, 1909; Back II, 1913; The Back III, 1916; and Back IV, 1930 reflect Mattise’s quest to capture the essence of the human form. With each subsequent stage in the Back series, Matisse became bolder in reducing the form of a woman’s back to essential shapes, until he arrived at the radical simplicity of Back III and IV, in which he has reduced the figure to just a long tail of hair connected to the vertical spine, the curve of the hip, and an arm gesture.  In an article for the Guardian, Matisse’s biographer Hilary Spurling wrote:

These four monolithic female figures, made at intervals between 1909 and 1930, remained virtually invisible almost to the end of the artist’s long life. He showed Back I at the two notorious exhibitions that first made modern art a sensation before the first world war: the second Post Impressionist show in London, and the Armory show in New York. Otherwise, none of the Backs was seen again in public until after the second world war (by which time Back II had gone missing, resurfacing only after its creator’s death in 1954). Their secret history is as hard to explain as their strange, powerful, mesmeric presence.

I remember seeing the bronzes at Tate Modern, one of the few museums that possesses a complete set.

Henri Matisse Engraving, 1900–03

Henri Matisse, Self portrait, 1900

As if this wasn’t enough, on another floor is the Drawings Cabinet, a darkened room in which the museum displays the only set of drawings and prints personally chosen by Matisse to reflect each period in his career. It is must be one of the most impressive rooms of Matisse’s work that you could find anywhere.  There’s a self portrait from 1900, and many other drawings and etchings from other periods.

Matisse, Nadia au Regard Serieux. Aquatint, 1948

Henri Matisse, Nadia with Serious Expression, 1948

Henri Matisse, Katia Large Head, c. 1950

Henri Matisse, Katia Large Head, c. 1950

Amongst the latest works are several aquatints, executed in thick black brush strokes, from the late 1940s and early 1950s. Facial features are conveyed with just a few strokes of a broad brush against the white of the paper. Each face is carefully composed within a space determined by the sheet of paper. A model – Katia or Nadia – is portrayed, sometimes with a frown or a smile, sometimes serious or distant, viewed in profile or head on.

Matisse drawing cabinet

Musee Matisse: part of the drawing cabinet display

And there’s still more.  In 1950, Matisse was visited by his three grandchildren, Gerard, Jacqueline and Claude. As they watched, he drew their portraits on the ceiling of his studio, using charcoal tied to a fishing rod 2 metres long. The ceiling was offered to the museum by the Matisse family.  Alongside is a photograph by Helene Adant of the work in situ.

These are my grandchildren. I try to represent them and if I succeed, I feel better. Also, I designed the ceiling to have on the eyes, especially at night.So, I feel less alone.

Musee Matisse ceiling portrait of three grandchildren

Musee Matisse: the ceiling portrait of the three grandchildren

Another striking recreation is a reconstruction of a corner of the dining room from the Tériade villa in St Jean Cap-Ferrat, which was decorated in 1952 by Matisse with ‘Tree’, a work of painted ceramic tiles.  It was donated by Alice Tériade, the wife of Efstrathios Elefheriades (aka Tériade), the art editor, publisher of Jazz, and founder of Verve, the magazine for which Matisse contributed many designs.  In the years when ‘Tree’ adorned the wall of the villa in St Jean Cap-Ferrat, the Tériades allowed only a few close friends and artists see it.

Reconstruction of the dining Tériade villa S-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, decorated by Henri Matisse, Tree 1952

Musee Matisse: Reconstruction of the dining room in the Tériade villa (‘Tree’, 1952)

So, finally, to a room that contains Matisse’s preparatory work for what was probably the crowning achievement of his career – his designs for the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence.  From 1948 to 1951, Matisse worked on the chapel for the Dominican Sisters. ‘This chapel is for me the culmination of a lifetime of work and flowering of a huge, sincere and hard effort,’ he said in 1951. ‘I would like all who enter feel relieved of their burdens. I created a spiritual space’. The museum display includes studies for this major work, including the designs in white and gold for the priest’s robes, a study for the head of Saint Dominique, and two models of the chapel, including the first version which utilised the ‘The Bees’ (Les Abeilles) for the design of the stained-glass window to the side.

Musee Matisse Vence chapel maquette Les Abeilles

Musee Matisse: Vence chapel maquette, first version, ‘Les Abeilles’

Musee Matisse Vence chapel maquette

Musee Matisse: Vence chapel maquette, final version

Alongside the maquettes are displayed photographs  by Helene Adant of the work in Matisse’s studio, and of the interior of the completed chapel at Vence.

Henri Matisse’s chasuble designs for the Vence chapel by Helene Adant

Henri Matisse’s chasuble designs for the Vence chapel by Helene Adant

Chapel of the Rosary Vence by Helene Adant

Chapel of the Rosary Vence by Helene Adant

There was one last thing I hoped to see in Le Cateau-Cambresis, though I wasn’t sure whether it was possible.  The ‘Bees’ design for the first version of the Vence didn’t go to waste, but was eventually realised in 1952 as a stained-glass window in the nursery school in the town which bears Matisse’s name.  On enquiring at the museum, I was told that the window (only rarely opened to public view inside the school) was visible from the street, so I went to take a look.

Matisse nursery school Les Abeilles 2

The Henri Matisse nursery school in Le Cateau-Cambresis: stained-glass window, ‘Les Abeilles’ (‘The Bees’)

And there it was.  This was a great moment for me, even if the full impact of the stained-glass could not be experienced from the street.  It really should be seen from inside,with sunlight pouring through from outside.  But you must be a toddler of Le Cateau to have that privilege.  To the right of the window is a bust of Matisse mounted on a concrete plinth bearing simply his dates: 1869-1954.

Matisse nursery school Les Abeilles Matisse nursery school head

The Henri Matisse nursery school in Le Cateau-Cambresis

There would be a neat symmetry to the WW1 trip I had embarked on.  I had ended the first day, here at the Musee Matisse in the artist’s birthplace. I would end my trip back in London at Tate Modern, seeing The Cut-Outs exhibition.  More of that to come.


Matisse in Nice: through an open window

Matisse in Nice: through an open window

Matisse, The Bay of Nice, 1918

The Bay of Nice, 1918

We arrived in Nice for a long weekend to celebrate my birthday just as a summer-long tribute to Matisse was drawing to a close.  Nice 2013: A Summer for Matisse brought together many of the city museums to celebrate the artist who chose to live in Nice for more than thirty years.  2013 also marked the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Musee Matisse in Nice.

Next door to our b&b on the Promenade was the Hotel Beau Rivage, the place where, on Christmas Day in 1917, Matisse first took a room in Nice and where he made the first of the countless paintings he produced during the forty-odd years he lived in Nice (with only a short period in nearby Vence during the war to escape the threat of bombing) until his death in 1954 at his last home, the Hotel Regina on the heights of Cimiez.

The view from our terrace was almost identical to that of The Bay of Nice, 1918 (above), so that set me off in search of the views that Matisse painted while in Nice, and particularly those he made while living on the Promenade.  Many such paintings in these years share something with works from all periods of his career: they depict a view through an open window.

The Open Window, 1918

The Open Window, 1918

Matisse had been drawn to Nice – like countless other artists – by the beauty and light of the Cote d’Azur:

When I realised that I would see this light every morning, I couldn’t believe my luck. … The sea is blue, but bluer than any one has ever painted it, a colour entirely fantastic and incredible. It is the blue of sapphires, of the peacock’s wing, of an Alpine glacier, and the kingfisher melted together; and yet it is like none of these, for it shines with the unearthly radiance of Neptune’s kingdom; it is like nothing but itself, its colour is so rich and deep you would think it opaque, and yet it gleams, it is translucent, it shines as if it were lit up from below.

Matisse first came to Nice in December 1917 at the age of 48 to recuperate from bronchitis he had caught whilst visiting his eldest son Jean who had been posted as an aeroplane mechanic to the airfield at Istres on windswept salt marshes thirty miles west of Marseilles.  After organising food and clothes parcels for Jean, Matisse decided to journey along the coast to the sheltered Bay of Nice where he felt he could cure his illness with a few days rest and clement weather. He arrived on Christmas Day and took a room overlooking the sea front in the Hotel du Beau Rivage, then a modest hotel, located on Quai du Midi (now Quai des Etats-Unis).

Hotel Beau Rivage 2

Hotel Beau Rivage today

However, the weather in Nice was as dreadful as it had been at Istres: biting cold, high winds and driving rain. Matisse was sorely tempted to pack his bags and return home: ‘It’s freezing in this pig of a place’, he wrote to his wife Amelie. The cold made it difficult for Matisse to paint; his chilled hands could hardly hold a paintbrush and, on his infrequent painting sessions outdoors, he resorted to wearing sheepskin foot-warmers to stave off the cold. When it snowed on his birthday, 31 December, he bought a new canvas and stayed indoors, painting his room at the Beau Rivage in sunshine reflected off snow and sea.  To Amelie again he wrote:

From my open window you can see the top of a palm tree – white lace curtains – coat-rack on the left – armchair with white lace cover on the back – on the right a red table with my suitcase on it – sky and sea blue – blue – blue.

My Room at the Beau-Rivage was the result:

My Room at the Beau-Rivage 1918

My Room at the Beau-Rivage, 1918

Soon after his arrival in Nice that winter, Matisse painted The Violinist at the Window, effectively a self portrait of the artist alone in a room while his wife and three children remain in Paris. The painting displays two elements that Matisse returned to repeatedly: the motif of the window and the theme of music.  Music was dear to Matisse: he played the violin every day, and it’s in this respect that The Violinist at the Window can be interpreted as a self-portrait, with the artist  playing before a window which for him represented painting.

Violinist at the Window 1918

Violinist at the Window, 1918

After a month of downpours, Matisse had made up his mind to leave Nice and return to Paris. But the next morning the weather was magnificent: clear, silvery and soft in spite of its amazing brilliance. The north wind had driven the clouds away and brought with it such luminosity of light that Matisse was captivated. He was overjoyed and resolved to stay in Nice.  Long afterwards he recalled that fateful decision:

Me, I’m from the North.  What made me stay was the great coloured reflection of January, the luminosity of the days.

Hotel Beau Rivage 1

Matisse and Chekhov are remembered as residents of Hotel Beau Rivage

Matisse’s room at the Hotel Beau Rivage was so long and narrow that there was room for only a shabby armchair between the bed and the window. But, though small, the room at the Hotel Beau Rivage was flooded with the Nice light, being dominated by a floor-to-ceiling window through which sunlight poured.

Matisse settled down to a daily routine. He rose early, walked to his studio and worked throughout the morning, either painting or drawing in his studio with the light streaming though the window. A short break for a frugal lunch was followed by more work, a session playing his violin in the hotel room, or a perhaps a visit to Renoir in Cagnes-sur-Mer with a roll of canvas under his arm.  A simple supper and an early bedtime ended his working day.

Interior with a Violin (Room at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage)

Interior with a Violin (Room at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage)

Matisse always had a penchant for producing paintings in series, and at Beau Rivage he attempted to capture the essence of a light-filled room in a series of canvases painted in the winter and spring of 1917-18 that included Interior at Nice (Room at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage), The Open Window (Room at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage), and Interior with a Violin (Room at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage).  The predominant use of black and grey in the latter he felt enhanced ‘the silver clarity of the light in Nice.’ Matisse considered it to be a particularly important work and later commented that in this canvas he had used black to paint light.

Painter in the Olive Grove, 1922

The Painter in the Olive Grove, 1922

In April, Matisse was forced to find accommodation elsewhere when the hotel was requisitioned by the American army. He moved into a rented apartment in a villa on Mont Boron, the pine-shaded parkland created in 1860 on the Chateau promontary between the Old Town and the Port. His rooms faced west with panoramic views along the coast to Cagnes-sur-Mer and across the old town to the Estérel mountains beyond.  Here he painted Les Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus trees), Mont Alban landscape, La Villa bleue (Blue Villa), and Plage à Nice vue du Château (The beach at Nice seen from the Chateau).

Blue Villa, Nice, 1917

Blue Villa, Nice, 1917

Mont Alban landscape 1918

Mont Alban Landscape 1918

Eucalyptus, Mont Alban, 1918

Eucalyptus, Mont Alban, 1918

This was a peaceful interlude for Matisse as he painted the wild roses, cypress trees, umbrella pines and Eucalyptus trees that grew in abundance on the hillside. But his stay at the villa was short-lived. Anguished by the German advance that threatened Paris, he returned to the capital at the end of June to be close to his family.

Self portrait 1918

Self Portrait, 1918

On 11 November 1918, the night the armistice was signed, Matisse, among those rejoicing in a cafe in Paris, brought out his violin and played a wild fandango on a cafe table.  The following spring Matisse returned to Nice and took a room at Hotel de la Méditerranée at 25 Promenade des Anglais,not far from the Hotel Beau Rivage. The hotel is longer there – it was demolished in the 1930s.

At the Hotel de la Mediterranee, Matisse again had a view of the bay and the promenade. His room was small, but had large windows overlooking the Baie des Anges. It was decorated in a nineteenth-century Italian style, there was a pretty wrought iron balcony, long curtains, and wooden shutters to filter out the light. Once more he was facing the sea, in a room flooded with silvery light; once more he pared his life down to nothing but painting: ‘I’m the hermit of the Promenade des Anglais,’ he wrote to Amelie.

Young Woman Playing the Violin, 1923

Young Woman Playing the Violin, 1923

Interior with a Violin Case, 1919

Interior with a Violin Case, 1919

Interior in Nice, 1919

Interior at Nice, 1919

Interior at Nice is representative of the paintings in which Matisse used the hotel as a backdrop. In these works, all done in the naturalistic style to which he had returned around this time, Matisse often included the figure of a young woman. Often, as in this painting, Matisse – the supreme colourist – would evoke the warmth and shimmering light of an afternoon in Nice with a warm, silvery palette and loose, fluid brush strokes.


Interior with Black Notebook, 1918

Matisse would spend each winter at the Hotel Mediterranee – from October to May – for the next five years, producing a steady stream of noteworthy paintings and drawings. On 2 January 1919 a freak storm broke over Nice which would generate one of Matisse’s most iconic Nice paintings.  In her biography, Matisse The Master, Hilary Spurling writes:

Seas pounded up onto the front, pouring across the promenade and turning the street into a rushing grey river.  Winds tore off the hotel shutters, smashed the windows and shattered a big mirror in the entrance hall.  ‘It’s so extraordinary that I haven’t enough eyes to take it all in, ‘ Matisse wrote to his wife next day, painting the scene from his window with hands that still shook from elation and shock.  The luminous rain-washed atmosphere after a storm always exhilarated him.  The main reason he gave afterwards for coming to Nice was the Mediterranean sunlight: clear, silvery and soft in spite of its phenomenal brilliance.  He said he couldn’t believe his luck when he first realised he would open his eyes every morning on the same light.

Tempête à Nice, 1919

Tempête à Nice, 1919

Hilary Spurling notes something else that drew Matisse to Nice – its sense of ‘being somehow insulated from the rest of Europe’:

To a Parisian, the town was the an outpost at the back of beyond. … Nice – culturally isolated, physically intact, geographically cut off from both France and Italy by mountains and sea – seemed to have slept through the war.  ‘Nice is so utterly Nicois‘, Matisse told his son Jean.  ‘I feel myself a complete foreigner here’.

Interior at Nice (Room at the Hôtel Méditerranée) 1919

Interior at Nice (Room at the Hôtel Méditerranée), 1919

Vase of Flowers in front of the Window, 1924

Vase of Flowers in front of the Window, 1924

Spurling adds that, for Matisse, his sense of unreality was heightened by the old-fashioned decor of his hotel room:

Pink-tiled floor, rococo plaster-work and an Italianate ceiling lit from below by sun reflected off water, intensified and directed through shutters like stage lighting.  Its artificiality (‘Everything was fake, absurd, amazing, delicious.’) served his purpose as much as its anonymity.

Woman on a Sofa 1920-22

Woman on a Sofa, 1920-22

Nude seated at window 1919

Nude seated at Window, 1919

Matisse’s model at the Hotel Mediterranee was Antoinette Arnoud, 19 years old, pale, slender and supple.  Over the next two years she would feature in a steady stream of paintings, dressed or undressed, reading or lounging, sometimes with a vase of anemones or carnations, or with the oval dressing-table mirror reflecting the sea and sky beyond the window.  Hilary Spurling writes that in one series of paintings:

He posed Arnoud on an upright chair in the open door of the balcony wearing a fashionably short, loose tunic, with a green umbrella, mauve stockings and big, dark bows on her chunky high heels.  In the most extreme of this sequence, Woman with a Green Parasol on a Balcony, light spills and splashes in streaks of muted grey, blue and black paint, enveloping an almost geometric composition – the highly-stylised woman, the doorway, the balustrade, vertical strips of the beach and the sea beyond – in an austere, self-sufficient space of its own.

Woman with a Green Parasol on a Balcony, 1920

Woman with a Green Parasol on a Balcony, 1920

Another important painting from the Hotel Mediterranee years is French Window at Nice, which shows Arnoud against blue shutters, flanked by tied-back curtains and the room suffused with a soft light.

French Window at Nice

French Window at Nice, 1921

Woman Reading at a Dressing Table (Interieur, Nice) 1919

Woman Reading at a Dressing Table (Interior, Nice) 1919

Young Girl in a Green Dress 1921

Young Girl in a Green Dress, 1921

In 1921, perhaps tired of hotel rooms and frustrated by the restrictions imposed by hoteliers (every day he played the violin lengthily and loudly), Matisse rented a two-room flat on the third floor of a house on Place Charles Félix. The building is still there, at the top end of the Cours Saleya, the marketplace between the Promenade and the Old Town.

1 Place Charles-Felix 2

1 Place Charles Felix at the top end of Cours Saleya

The house, known as Caïs de Pierlas Palace, had been built at the end of the 17th century and originally housed the Ancien Senat, a meeting place for the courts, before being acquired in the 18th century by the Caïs de Pierlas family, who decorated its façade with bas-reliefs (seen in the photo below). Matisse rented an apartment on the third floor in 1921, and then leased the entire fourth floor in 1926.  1 Place Charles Felix was Matisse’s home until 1938, with the third-floor apartment serving as his art studio. The high ceilinged rooms were spacious and lined with pretty white false mosaic tiles. His studio looked out through a vast picture window, with a panoramic view of the sea, the city, and the busy marketplace in the plaza below.

1 Place Charles-Felix 1

1 Place Charles Felix

In Matisse The Master, Hilary Spurling conjures a vivid picture of Nice during  the time that Matisse lived on Place Charles Felix:

For the better part of the next two decades Matisse’s existence outside the studio would be largely confined to an area roughly a mile square, bounded to the east by the rocky outcrop of the castle hill, to the south by the beach with fishing boats drawn up on the stones, and to the north bythe art school on the far side of the river Paillon, where washerwomen still worked along the banks. He walked a daily beat between his lodgings in what had once been the senate house, a shabby but imposing eighteenth century building with plaster mouldings lime-washed in soft ochre, through the market on the Cours Saleya to the Cafe Pomel under the pink arcades of the Place Massena.

It was like another country after the late-nineteenth-century new town he had left behind on the promenade des Anglais. As the postwar tide of fashion receded from Nice, its imperial winter pleasure grounds stood , empty, its sumptuous palaces, like the Villa Liserb at Cimiez, went on sale, and its seafront hotels began shutting off wings or closing down altogether. ‘It feels to them as if the end of the world has come,’ Matisse said of the staff at the Hotel Mediterranee. He encountered the new breed of gamblers, profiteers and speculators only on rare forays to the Casino, where he went to write letters after dinner within earshot of croupiers calling 10,000 francs a throw (‘It’s shameful considering the way things are going this year,’ wrote Matisse, revolted by the ostentation of the women’s jewels in the harsh climate after the war). He felt far more at home, as he always had done, among people whose idea of riches was 100 sous a day ( five francs, or roughly twenty cents in American money). The melancholy stagnation of the visitors’ quarter contrasted sharply with the noise and activity on the steep twisting lanes behind his new flat, where the native Nicois lived jammed together in tall old houses with no piped water, sanitation, gas lighting or heating. There were cages of canaries and bedding hung out to air at the windows. Shopkeepers sold chickens, wine, olives and groceries in dark, narrow, windowless hutches opening off the sunlit street like an Arab soukh. Painting was a job like any other to the flower-sellers, fishmongers and cafe waiters who were Matisse’s neighbours  on the market place.

Woman at a Window, 1921

Woman at a Window, 1921

Seated Woman, Back Turned to the Open Window 1922

Seated Woman, Back Turned to the Open Window, 1922

Henri Matisse, Flowers in Front of a Window, 1922

Flowers in Front of a Window, 1922

Matisse painting at his third floor studio window, Place Charles Felix

Matisse painting at his third floor studio window, Place Charles Felix

It was at Place Charles Felix that Matisse embarked on the controversial series of odalisques, or imaginary harem views in which the viewer’s attention is deliberately scattered across patterns of fabric and décor that prevent the eye from settling in any one place.  The odalisques were painted against deliberately theatrical backgrounds of screens and fabric hangings.

Odalisque with a Tambourine

Odalisque with a Tambourine, 1926

Henri Matisse in his apartment at the Place Charles-Felix, 1934.

Henri Matisse in his apartment at the Place Charles-Felix, 1934

In the photograph above, Matisse relaxes in his studio in 1934, beneath his painting Interior with Dog, made that year.  I came across this witty poem by Michael Salcman that comments on the painting, and, obliquely, the business of the odalisques:

The Dog Speaks

Interior with Dog by Matisse, 1934

I’m only half~asleep so I know you’re standing there
wondering if I’m asleep. Nope.
It’s not easy to rest under this table –
for one thing, there’s a strong downward slope
and gravity’s got me half tipped out of my basket
like an apple by Cezanne.
Talk about a flat world!
For another, I can’t get away from these colours,
the red floor tiles, orange table leg
and pink wall burning on my lids like the sun.
Then again I’m never alone; the kids think a grey dog is cute
and l am the only dog in the room. I was bribed
(that’s my excuse) with a bone
and a bowl of fresh water. Really.
I wish you wouldn’t stare – it’s extra hard to to be an icon
when you’re not an odalisque and have no hair.
Here’s the inside dope. He wore a vest when he painted them
but saved his housecoat for me.  I liked sitting for him
he was never rude and spared me his violin
I think I look very dignified, not naked, just nude.

Interior with Dog, 1934

Interior with Dog, 1934

While we were in Nice recently, we went to an exhibition at the Palais Lascaris in the Old Town that went under the title, Matisse: The Jazz Years.  It presented selections from his book Jazz, and placed it in the context of Matisse’s love of the rhythmic and improvisational elements of jazz.  At Place Charles-Felix, in the evenings, he would listen to jazz on the radio or on his phonograph – which provides a context for Interior with Phonograph:

Interior with Phonograph 1924

Interior with Phonograph, 1924

Interior, Flowers and Parakeets, 1924

Interior, Flowers and Parakeets, 1924

It was at Place Charles-Felix in 1935 that Matisse made a painting that marked a significant step in a journey towards simplification and abstraction he would as he approached his final years – and which featured a new muse, his studio assistant and, ultimately, lifetime carer.  Lydia Delectorskaya, the Siberian blonde who, orphaned at a young age, had fled Russia in the  tumultuous post-Revolution years, made her appearance in Pink Nude, in which the Intricate patterns and naturalistic figures of a decade earlier are discarded in favour of plain forms and stylised surfaces.

Pink Nude,1935

Pink Nude,1935

In the autumn of 1938, Matisse moved to the Hotel Regina in Cimiez, the Nice suburb on the heights overlooking the city.  He took possession of a huge, high-ceiling studio, thirty feet square, made by knocking together two reception rooms.  His suite included an aviary containing nearly 300 birds, tended by a birdman who came in daily. There was a handsome dining room with a patterned marble floor which Matisse had designed himself, and another room with a view north to the Provencal mountains.

Matisse's studio and apartment at the Hotel Regina

Matisse’s studio and apartment at the Hotel Regina

Matisse at the Hotel Reginaby Henri Cartier-Bresson

Matisse in his bird room at the Hotel Regina by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Interior with an Etruscan Vase,1940

Interior with an Etruscan Vase,1940

Still life with sleeping woman

Still Life with Sleeping Woman, 1940

A year later, another world war brought soldiers to Nice.  A company of Morrocan soldiers were stationed in the Hotel Regina, sleeping in the colonnaded hall, washing clothes in the gutters, and hanging them out to dry on the wrought-iron balustrades. Another year on, in August 1940, the people of Nice gloomily expected Italian Fascist forces to occupy the town, so Matisse set about dispersing his pictures, putting his record collection in storage, and starting to sell off his birds.

Hilary Spurling records that, alongside the fears of war and the threat to Jews from the Vichy government, Matisse felt he was ageing, drastically:

‘I watch myself changing rapidly, hair and beard growing whiter, features more gaunt, neck scrawnier’ [he wrote].  A permanent haze of collective foreboding polluted the air in Nice.  He had reduced his life to eating, sleeping and working, completing that autumn a beautiful, spare, meditative painting in a stripped-down style.  … The Dream is built around a sleeping girl, whose image had accompanied Matisse in his mind’s eye throughout … twelve months and forty sessions.

The Dream,1940

The Dream,1940

In 1943, following air raid on Cimiez, Matisse left the Hotel Regina for Villa ‘La Rêve’ at Vence, which would remain his main residence until 1949.  He returned to his old studio in Nice in January 1949, the start of his 80th year.  He needed a larger space in which to work on the full-size designs for the stained-glass windows for the Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence.

Matisse outside Hotel Regina, 1949

Matisse outside Hotel Regina, 1949

Matisse draws a head for the Chapelle du Rosaire in his studio Hotel Regina, Cimiez, 1950.

Matisse draws a head for the Chapelle du Rosaire in his studio Hotel Regina, Cimiez, 1950

In his last years, Matisse worked mainly from his bed, placed in the studio (described by one visitor as ‘a gigantic white bedroom like no other on earth’).  He was suffering from cardiac fatigue, insomnia, breathing difficulties and a severe deterioration in his eyesight.  Yet these were years of great productivity, in which Matisse started work on the immense cut-paper compositions, larger in scale than any canvas he had ever painted, that define his closing years.  Typical of these works is The Creole Dancer, created in 1950, a copy of which for a long time now has hung in pride of place in our home.

The Creole Dancer, 1950

The Creole Dancer, 1950

The summer of 1952 was particularly hot in Nice, and Matisse set about creating an aquatic world to refresh himself mentally: he decorated the walls of his studio with a large fresco in gouached cut-out paper: La Piscine, which depicts swimmers basking in the waves.  In the Musee Matisse a couple of weeks ago we saw the stunningly beautiful ceramic version of the cut-out, recently donated to the Museum.

The dining room at the hotel Regina, 1952

La Piscine decorates the dining room at the hotel Regina, 1952

Another large work on dispaly at the Musee Matisse, Fleurs et Fruits, created two years before his death, illustrates the new direction that Matisse was taking through its scale and creation of endless space:

As if I was going to produce a large-scale composition […]. As if I had my whole life before me…  at least a whole other life … in some paradise where I would create frescoes.

Fleurs et Fruits, 1952 at the Musee Matisse

Fleurs et Fruits, 1952 at the Musee Matisse

Matisse did not cease to pursue his artistic vision in his last years, producing masterpieces such as The Sorrows of the King, and the series of Blue Nudes.

In his final years, the bond between Lydia Delectorskaya and Matisse proved to be unbreakable. She stayed by his side until his last breath. Hilary Spurling describes their last tender moments together, as the artist made a final sketch of his muse and devoted carer:

Matisse died on November 3, 1954. He was 84. The day before, Lydia had come to his bedside with her newly washed hair wound in a towel turban, accentuating the classical severity and purity of the profile Matisse had so often drawn and painted. He sketched her with a ballpoint pen, holding the last drawing he ever made out at arm’s length to assess its quality before pronouncing gravely, ‘It will do.’

Matisse at work at his paper cut outs in his studio at Nice, 1952.

Matisse at work at his paper cut outs in his studio at Nice, 1952

Matisse is buried in the cemetery of the Franciscan monastery on the hilltop at Cimiez.  Today, not far from the Hotel Regina, the Musee Matisse one of the world’s largest collections of his works in the 17th century Villa des Arènes.

Musee Matisse with Hotel Regina behind

Musee Matisse with Hotel Regina beyond

A new state pensioner’s salade Nicoise

A new state pensioner’s salade Nicoise

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For my 65th birthday we flew to Nice for a long weekend.  Quite possibly, it’s my favourite city, relaxed and unpretentious, its face turned south to the Mediterranean and the broad sweep of the gorgeous Bay of Angels; a city with a beach and a promenade enlivened every hour of the day by a parade of strollers, rollerbladers, joggers, cyclists and bathers.

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Scenes along the Promenade

We had the great good fortune to be the guests of Maryse and Camille who provide bed and breakfast accommodation in their apartment on the third floor of a Belle-Epoque villa right on the Promenade.  Each morning we had breakfast on their terrace, the bay glistening in the early sun, as we ate croissants and savoured Maryse’s home-made jams. Each afternoon I’d don swimming trunks, cross the boulevard and go for a dip in the Mediterranean. When we left, Liverpool had been grey, chilly, autumnal; here, it was summer still, with cloudless skies and the temperature never less than 25C.

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Breakfast on the terrace

Next door was the Hotel Beau Rivage where, on Christmas Day 1917, Henri Matisse, then 48 years old, took a room and began his long association with Nice, drawn here – like countless other artists – by the beauty and light of the Cote d’Azur:

When I realised that Would see this light every morning, I couldn’t believe my luck. … The sea is blue, but bluer than any one has ever painted it, a colour entirely fantastic and incredible. It is the blue of sapphires, of the peacock’s wing, of an Alpine glacier, and the kingfisher melted together; and yet it is like none of these, for it shines with the unearthly radiance of Neptune’s kingdom; it is like nothing but itself, its colour is so rich and deep you would think it opaque, and yet it gleams, it is translucent, it shines as if it were lit up from below.

Ete pour Matisse

Because this coast has drawn so many artists – such as Renoir and Matisse, Chagall and Picasso – Nice, for me, is an intoxicating combination of sea and sun, elegant city streets and architecture, good food and wine – and terrific art galleries.  We arrived just as the city was coming to the end of a A Summer for Matisse, a summer-long tribute to Matisse with exhibitions in all the city’s main museums, so each day of our stay was enriched by superb exhibitions of his work. Then there were visits to the Chagall Museum and, along the coast at Antibes, to the Picasso Museum in the Chateau Grimaldi.

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The roofs and glazed-tiled domes of Vieille Ville

I love Nice, too, for its combination of elegant big-city boulevards and the deep, shady canyons of the Old Town’s narrow streets, with their restaurants, cafés, boutiques and Baroque churches.  In the evenings we’d wander these alleys looking for a place to eat or relishing one of the one hundred flavours of ice cream from Fenocchio’s on Place Rosetti.

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Fenocchio’s ice cream stand in Place Rossetti

On our first morning we wandered through the market in Cours Saleya, marvelling at the quality of life represented by the stalls of local fruit and vegetables and freshly-caught fish. This is truly the good life.

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The market in Cours Saleya

Then we climbed the steps from the Old Town up to Le Chateau, the pine-shaded promontory that separates Nice from its port. There’s no château there now: the hill is named after a 12th-century château that was razed by Louis XIV in 1706 and never rebuilt.  Today, there is a shady park where we found a group practising T’ai Chi and, later, sat under the trees drinking lemon granita from the buvette.

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Lemon granitas under the pines

From this hilltop park the views of the Baie des Anges and the spires and glazed-tiled domes of Vieux Nice are breathtaking.

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The view from up on the Chateau

Another aspect of Nice is revealed in the Belle-Epoque villas and old buildings with brightly painted wooden shutters and  façades painted in Sardinian red, dark ochre, or old rose. Best of all, to my mind, is the Place Massena: landscaped and pedestrianised with the arrival of the tram, it now has the all the grandeur of a Mediterranean square, with the added bonus of Jaume Plensa’s sculptures collectively entitled Seven Continents: Conversation in Nice, seven figures arranged on metal poles over 12 feet high that light up at night in random colours, symbolizing reciprocal links of trade, learning and culture between the seven continents.

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Place Massena

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Jaume Plensa’s Seven Continents: Conversation in Nice in Place Massena

When we were last here, five years ago, work was still ongoing on the square; this time, we found a grand project – to create a linear park that will snake through the city following the course of the now-culverted Paillon River – nearing completion.  Our accommodation was located on the Promenade at the point where the Paillon emerges from its culvert and enters the sea. What was once the delta of the river is now the Albert 1st Park, which forms the southern end of the new linear park.

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Bernar Venet’s steel sculpture now dominates the Promenade des Anglais

A few hundred yards in the other direction along the Promenade des Anglais we found something else new since our last visit: a huge, rusting steel sculpture, over 30 metres high, that erupts from the Promenade and which provoked mixed feelings on our part.  Nine twisting steel lines that meet high above passing promenaders, the sculpture is the work of the French artist Bernar Venet, and was installed in 2010 on the 150th anniversary of the annexation of the county of Nice by France. The rusting metal lines represent the nine river valleys of the county, but rather than evoking natural beauty, the sculpture, with its industrial appearance and outsize scale, feels more like an intrusion into the elegance of the Promenade.

I had a vague sense of the long history of Nice – founded around 350 BC by Greek seafarers who named the colony Nikaia, to commemorate a nearby victory (nike in Greek).  In 154 BC the Greeks were followed by the Romans, who settled further inland on the hills of what is now Cimiez, where there are Roman ruins in the park that adjoins the Matisse Museum.  I knew that in medieval times Nice was ruled by the Italian House of Savoy, and that the town didn’t become part of France until 1860, when, in the Treaty of Turin,  Napoleon III struck a deal with the House of Savoy. I was most familiar with the fact that, in the Victorian period, a sizeable English aristocratic community settled here to enjoy Nice’s mild winter climate. That’s obvious in the name of the Promenade des Anglais, and when you climb the hills of Cimiez where there are avenues named after British monarchs.

What I did not know is that, just above Nice Port, is the site of one of the first human settlements in Europe, dating back some 400,000 years.  We found the place by accident: it now lies beneath an apartment building where the discovery was made when the foundations were being excavated in the 1960s. The Prehistoric Museum of Terra Amata now displays the discovered remains: an elephant hunters’ camp located, when sea levels were higher, in huts on a stony beach. In the centre of each hut was a fireplace with ashes: the earliest evidence of the domestication of fire known in Europe.

Come Chez Moi

Come Chez Moi: great food

One place in Nice that I’ve wanted to go since I first read about it is Shapko’s Jazz Bar in the Old Town.  We went there on my 65th birthday, after a late afternoon swim and an amble through the streets of the old town where, serendipitously, we found Come Chez Moi, a tiny restaurant that serves excellent food, including superb vegetarian dishes.  We were really looking for the restaurant next door rated highly by locals – Acchiardo’s – but mistook Come Chez Moi’s entrance for theirs.

Shapko's Jazz

Shapko’s Jazz Bar

Afterwards we went round the corner to Shapko’s, where club owner Dimitri Shapko’s quartet were playing.  Dimitri grew up in Moscow where, by the age of ten, he had discovered jazz, listening secretly to Voice of America Radio, a risky action at the time, when jazz behind the Iron Curtain Country was an unwelcome art form. As a saxophonist, Shapko has built a strong reputation, having performed with his band at The Newport Jazz Festival, The North Sea Jazz Festival, Montreaux Jazz, and many others.  Now he runs this jazz bar in the Old Town.

Last Saturday, Dimitri was on stage with a quartet that turned out to be a quintet: Dimitri on sax, Kevin Tardevet on bass,Laurent Sarrien on drums and Fred D’Oelsnitz doubling up on trumpet and piano.  They were excellent, with a repertoire that leaned heavily on Bebop numbers made famous by the likes of Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

The Dimitri Shapko Quartet play ‘Bye Bye, Black Bird’ live at Shapko’s 21 September 2013

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Fruit and vegetables in the market on Cours Saleya

Sea and light, art and history; but when in Nice there’s no getting away from food. In the day we bought delicious street food from cafes and market stalls: pissaladerie and salade Nicoise, socca (a savoury pancake made with chickpea flour) from the Chez Theresa stall in the Cours Saleya market place, and pan bagnat, a sort of salade Nicoise in a bread roll.  In the evenings, we’d stroll around the Old Town, weighing up one menu after another; the choice we settled on was always good.

On our last evening our hostess Maryse treated us to an aperitif of her home-made tapenade and orange wine.  I mentioned that I’d had a salade Nicoise, but preferred one made with green beans, rather than the green pepper which this one had featured.  The look of outrage and incomprehension on the faces of our Nicoise hosts was something to be seen!  We laughed at our incongruities – even more so when I informed them that, in England, salade Nicoise is made with potatoes!

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Good memories. We would drink kir on the beach as the sun set across the bay, and, at night on the terrace, watch mesmerised as planes took off and landed, one after the other, from the airport across the bay, their landing lights like flares launched at sea, soaring swiftly skywards as a plane took off, and sinking languidly earthwards as a plane landed.

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I returned from Nice officially a state pensioner, but feeling a whole lot younger. That’s Nice for you: less work, more pleasure!

Nice Travail et joie
Henri Matisse: Nice Travail et Joie

See also

In search of the asphodel

In search of the asphodel

In a previous post I described returning to Nant and St Jean du Bruel, villages at either end of a verdant stretch of the valley of the Dourbie on the edge of the Cevennes.  Above the valley lies the contrasting landscape of the causse – the wild and rugged limestone plateau that has a beauty of its own.  For a few days last week we explored that landscape, discovering the abundance of wildflowers that grace the high plains, and searching for the asphodels that in spring – our guide in the St Jean tourist office had assured us – grow there in profusion.  After searching several locations we found them – but only on our last day.

The causses form a huge Jurassic limestone plateau over a thousand metres thick, deeply cut into dramatic gorges wherever a major river flows through it. This is a lean, spare land, sheep country,unspoilt, too harsh for intensive farming.  Pretty, picturesque it is not.  Yet there is in its boundless horizons something that makes the heart soar – soar like the spiralling griffon vultures, riding the afternoon thermals, circling on outstretched wings. Two decades ago these giant raptors were almost extinct in the Cevennes. Now, thanks to a successful reintroduction programme, they’re back again – nearly 100 pairs, apparantly, now breed in the national park.

On the causses, where the vultures search for carrion, life is hard – for humans and wild creatures.  The land is bone dry and scorched in the summers, frozen and snowswept in the winters.

the purple scalp of the earth
combed in autumn
   and in times of famine

the metal bones of the earth
   extracted by hand

the church above the earth
   arms of our clock crucified

all is taken

– ‘Earth’ by John Berger, from and our faces, my heart, brief as photos

With its drystone walls and grey stone barns there are echoes of the limestone landscape of the Yorkshire Pennines around Malham – but on a much grander scale. It’s the domain of sheep and small patches of cultivation where winter fodder for the flocks is grown.  The scarcity and preciousness of water is revealed in the clay-lined dewponds known as lavognes that are dotted about the causses.  Outside the fortified village of La Couvertoirade there’s an impressive example – this one stone-lined and designed to collect the water that pours from the village streets in winter rains or the occasional summer storm.

The Cevennes is one of the last places in Europe where transhumance still persists: the traditional practice of moving flocks of sheep, that have wintered in the valleys below, up onto the causses to graze on the high summer pastures.  Thinking about this made me think of the English novelist and art critic John Berger who, in the 1970s, moved to a rural community in the French Alps. Berger wanted to observe peasant society firsthand, join them in their work, and better understand their traditions and the challenges they face.

Transhumance photographed by Martin Castellan

Out of his experience came a trilogy, Into Their Labours (from the biblical text, ‘Others have laboured and ye are entered into their labours’).  The first volume was Pig Earth, published in 1979. It’s a description of the life of French peasants – in no way romanticised – written as their way of life was drawing to a close. The book is a typical Berger melange of short stories, journal entries and poetry, and concludes with an essay on the economic role of the peasant through history viewed from a Marxist perspective:

Inexhaustibly committed to wresting a life from the earth, bound to the present of endless work, the peasant nonetheless sees life as an interlude.  This is confirmed by his daily familiarity with the cycle of birth, life and death.  […] The peasant sees life as an interlude because of the dual contrary movement through time of his thoughts and feelings which in turn derives from the dual nature of the peasant economy. His dream is to return to a life that is not handicapped. His determination is to hand on the means of survival (if possible made more secure, compared to what he inherited) to his children. His ideals are located in the past; his obligations are to the future, which he himself will not live to see. After his death he will not be transported into the future – his notion of immortality is different: he will return to the past. […] His dream is not the usual dream of paradise.  Paradise, as we now understand it, was surely the invention of a relatively leisured class.  In the peasant’s dream, work is still necessary.  Work is the condition for equality. […]  The peasant ideal of equality recognizes a world of scarcity, and its promise is for mutual fraternal aid in struggling agaunst this scarcity and a just sharing of what the work produces.

The buzzard circled
biding his everlasting time
as repeatedly
as the mountain

Out of the single night
came the day’s look,
the wary animal glance
on every side.

Once the animals flowed like their milk.

Now that they have gone
it is their endurance we miss.

– ‘They Are The Last’ by John Berger, from Why Look at Animals?

The poor schist and limestone soils of the causses have never been suitable for much else but grazing sheep (to produce, amongst other things, cheese – such as the famous Roquefort – from ewes’ milk or growing chestnuts – which explains why this is an unspoilt landscape, a rugged terrain of low population density, with cultivated land limited to the surroundings of the picturesque medieval villages.

It’s a land which the people of the region fight hard to protect.  When we first came here in the late 1970s there was a big campaign of resistance against the plan by the French government to massively extend the Larzac Military Camp which had served as a garrison and training centre since 1902. The expansion would have destroyed more than a hundred farms included within the new perimeter of the camp. Peasant farmers threatened with expropriation were joined by soixante huitards (‘sixty-eighters’) – assorted hippie idealists, leftist radicals and greens who had settled in the area in abandoned farms and in the dilapidated village of La Couvertoirade, trying to survive by living off the land, making things from wood or opening little boutiques and cafes.  A decade of campaigning finally achieved success in 1981 when François Mitterrand was elected as President and officially ended the expansion project.

Fracking protest in Nant

In the past two years a new ecological campaign has also achieved its goal: in spring 2010, the French government granted three licenses to search for shale gas in the region, employing the technique known as fracking.  Nant was the epicentre of this movement, led by the region’s Europe Écologie MEP Jose Bove, who first came to prominence in the campaign against the expansion of the military camp on the Larzac plateau in the seventies. As a result of that experience Bove became a sheep farmer, producing Roquefort cheese on the Larzac causse.

The event which gained Bové international attention was the trashing of a McDonalds that was under construction in Millau in 1999, a protest against American restrictions on the importation of Roquefort cheese and other products, which were harming peasants who gained their liveliehoods from these products. Bove also wanted to raise awareness about McDonald’s use of hormone-treated beef. Later, the European Union imposed restrictions on importing hormone-treated beef. However, the WTO (dominated by the USA) disallowed this restriction. After the EU refused to comply and remove the restrictions, the United States placed tariffs on the importation of certain European goods, including Roquefort cheese, as punishment.

The campaign against fracking was successful: in October 2011 Minister of the Environment confirmed that the licenses for Nant were revoked.

I can still recall our amazement, thirty-odd years ago, when the forbidding grey stone walls of La Couvertoirade rose up before us out of the desolate landscape of the Larzac causse.  The village was built in 1158 by the Knights Templar as a staging post for pilgrims travelling the old Roman road across the causse.  The walls and sentry towers were added in the 15th century by the Knights of Saint John.  In the late seventies the place had the air of an ancient ruin, with crmbling fortifications and derelict dwellings.

But new life was returning to the place: some buildings were being restored by artisans and hippies, some local but many from distant cities, seeking to tread the earth lightly and live sustainably off local resources.  By the time we returned with our daughter in the early nineties a huge amount of resoration had taken place: the cobbled streets were pristine, most buildings were spruced up and either inhabited or converted into cafes, restaurants or artisan shops.  You could walk around the entire village on the restored battlements.

On every door, it seemed, was nailed the iconic symbol of the Larzac: the Cardabelle.  Although its a member of the common thistle family, the Cardabelle is a protected species and cannot be cut.  So how, I wonder, do all these cardabelles get there?  Because it’s not just in La Couvertoirade that you see them: in towns and villages all across the region you encounter them nailed to front doors.  When we first visited La Couvertoirade cut specimens were on sale and we bought one that is still intact, nailed above our back door.

The Cardabelle is known on the causse as the ‘shepherd’s barometer’, because it has the special property of opening up when the sun shines and closing shortly before bad weather. This is why they are nailed to doors – not for good luck, but predict the weather.  At one time, every household kept a Cardabelle for this reason. But the Cardabelle had other practical uses too: it’s possible to eat the heart of the thistle (the plant is related to the artichoke), and use the outer ‘sun’s rays’ portion of its thorny centre to card wool.

This plant, with its history as ancient as the doorways it decorates, is also related to the daisy and the dandelion.  Its botanical name is La Carline a feuilles d’acanthe.  The generic carlina is a variant of cardina, derived from chardon or thistle.  It flowers from July to September, in the field or nailed to a door it retains the persistent yellow of its centre.

The Cardabelle is a popular subject for local artists, inspiring paintings and sculptures, and every newsagents will have postcards with titles like Esprit d’une terre and Soleil des Causses, bearing photographs of it.  (In the 21st century these have been joined by ubiquitous postcards of the Millau bridge).

The 20th century Occitan writer Max Rouquette who wrote everything in Occitan, the ancient language of the area, dedicated a poem to the Cardabelle.  In Occitan it reads:

Cardebela, rosa verda,
roda de prima endentelada,
erba solelh a ras de sou nascuda
das amors de la peira e dau solelh…

Translated into French:

Cardabelle, rose verte
Et roué dentelee
Herbe soleil au ras du sol venue
Des amours de la terre et du soleil…

While the more prosaic English translation goes:

Cardabelle, green rose,
and jagged wheel,
grass sun come from the ground
of the loves of the earth and the sun…

This reminds me that three decades ago, in a sign of the political disenchantment with Parisian government in this region, you would encounter freshly-painted slogans on walls in villages or along the road that proclaimed Oc! – support for the ancient language and culture of Occitania and for the Occitan Party that campaigns on local cultural and ecological issues and has elected councillors in a few townships.

The party’s members are active in struggles for the keeping of local jobs, against wholesale tourist commercialization, against the nuclear power industry, and for the preservation of Occitania’s natural environment. They also take part in the defence of the Occitan language and identity.

In the 1970s, our 2CV sported the famous ‘No to Nuclear’ sticker, and in France we’d see their equivalent ‘Non au Nucleaire’ badges.  On the causses, ocassionally we’d see the Occitan version (left).

The restoration work at La Couvertoirade continues: this time we noticed that an early seventeenth century windmill on a hill overlooking the village had been restored.  There is a sense of stepping back in time as you enter the village through the arched gateway overlooked by the towers of the ramparts, and then wander the cobbled streets with their little 17th century houses.  At the heart of the village stands the fortified 14th century church of St Christopher with its Templar graveyard.

We followed several paths through the causses during our short stay, always on the lookout for the elusive asphodels.  One warm, sunlit morning we walked out on the causses near the village of Campestre, before dropping down to Alzon for lunch. Skylarks sang above us, and every so often we heard the distant sound of a cuckoo.

The plateau here is particularly rich in megalithic monuments: there are dolmens, menhirs and several stone circles.  We came across these remains, in the scrub just off the path.

They turned out, on closer investigation, to be prehistoric burial chambers, probably from the later 5th millenium BC. They consisted of blocks of schist arranged in layers horizontally and gradually narrowing to create a roofed structure.  An antechamber led to a smaller funeral chamber. They reminded me of the neolithic structures built by the nuragic people that we saw a few years ago on Sardinia.

Campestre proved to be a hamlet, home to just 113 inhabitants, its church steeple visible for some distance across the causse.

Even a place as small as this has its own Mairie 0r town hall.  Here I found perhaps the two most important civic structures side by side.

A noticeboard give an idea of local excitements, including a wild-looking local cumbia outfit operating under the soubriquet Tortilla Flat.

In the centre of the hamlet, the inevitable memorial to the lost sons and fathers of the First World War.  Twenty-two souls lost from such a tiny place, amongst the peasant farmers the Marquess du Luc.


The village of Alzon is beautifully situated in a deep bowl surrounded by the high plateaux and revines of the causses.  There we found only one restaurant, and we were its only patrons.  But the attentive owner quickly rustled up a wonderful spread of steak and frites, and for me, the vegetarian, a superb omelette.

During the descent to Alzon a stunning view opens up of the Valcroze viaduct which once carried a railway that ran across the causse du Larzac, linking Millau with Le Vigan  to the east of Alzon.  This must have been a beautiful line to ride, but it survived for only 59 years.

The line was commissioned in 1896 and, after 11 years of gigantic works that included 37 tunnels, 14 viaducts and countless bridges all built of stone, it opened in 1907. Despite an upturn in traffic between the two wars, it was closed to passenger traffic in 1939. Until 1952, it remained open for freight traffic , and the rails were finally removed in 1955.  But, surprisingly, it’s not been converted into a long-distance footpath: which seems a shame, since it would provide a superb path through exceptional countryside.

For our last walk on the causses, we spread out the map and randomly pinpointed a walk along a stretch of Grand Randonnier 71D starting from the village of Cazejourdes.  There, in the middle of nowhere, we encountered the roaring noise of this fearsome monster: out of all the hundreds of square miles we had managed to find the place where the track was being gouged out in order to lay a pipeline.

Fortunately, we were soon able to leave the noise and dust behind, the peace of the causses restored.  It was here, among many other varieties of wild flowers that I found patches of last summer’s cardabelles, some with their bright yellow hearts still ablaze.

Take it with you!
The smallest green thing that has happened to you
can save your life some day
in the winter land

Just a blade of grass,
a single faded little blade
from last summer
frozen fast in the snowdrift,
can stop the avalanche’s
thousand deadly tons
from plunging down.

– ‘Memories’ by Hans Borli

This landscape is harsh, stony and dry yet still supports a rich diversity of plants and animals. Our friends are accomplished bird-watchers and they took enormous pleasure in drawing attention to the variety of birds here – the griffon vultures and eagles, and many more besides whose names I have now forgotten. The songs of skylarks and nightingales was our accompaniment everywhere on the causse.

Just as rich is the array of wild flowers to be seen, especially in the months of May and June, when the thin soils of the limestone grasslands come into bloom and display large numbers of Pasque flowers, rockroses, lilies and orchids. Though the thin turf barely covers the stony causse, wild flowers thrive in unbelievable profusion.  Sometimes, specific plants seemed to be concentrated in particular small areas: one part perhaps displaying masses of blue-purple Pasque Flowers, another with dwarf daffodils and irises, while a third might be awash with purple orchids.  And as far as the horizon, shrubby masses of wild box.

So here is a bouquet of flowers of the causses.  Some of them named, others that I hope to have identified soon.

Brilliant patches of the miniature Wild Tulip (Tulipa australis), possibly imported into France from Asia Minor or the Caucasus by the Romans.

Velvety, anenome-like Pulsatilla that bloom early in spring, giving rise to their common name of Pasque flower, referring to Easter.

We didn’t see many varieties of orchid: the blue and reddish specimens below we saw many times, yet this region is renowned for its  variety and abundance of orchids. A local photographer had presented the hotel where we stayed with an album of orchid photos in astonishing numbers.

Orchis mascula, Early purple orchid

We found many patches of these tiny daffodils and dwarf iris,  Iris danfordiae, (both purple and yellow varieties).

Star of Bethlehem

Helianthemum apenninum, White Rock Rose

Aphyllanthes monpeliensis

Saponaria ocymoides or Rock Soapwort

We finally found the asphodels when walking through the causses near Blandas.  We had come, first to one of the area’s most awe-inspiring sites: the Cirque de Navacelles.

Here the Vis river has carved a deep ravine through the plateau and, in its meanderings, has created huge cliffs and caves.  The plateau is nearly 1000m above sea level and some of the cliffs are more than 300m high. We  walked through the flat, shrubby, stone-littered landscape of the plateau until suddenly we were standing at the edge of a precipitous gorge looking down at the Cirque which contains the little hamlet of Navacelles.  A noticeboard explains that, millenia ago, the river, ‘serpenting with nonchalence’  through the limestone plateau, formed an oxbow lake. The river later resumed its original course and the lake dried up, leaving this curious, horseshoe shaped bowl.

It was shortly after that we spotted our first asphodels by the side of the road.  We stopped the car and walked away from the road.  Soon we were walking through a meadow of asphodels that stretched as far as our eyes could see.  We had arrived a little too late: the flowers were past their best, just beginning to fade and brown.  A week or so earlier we would have been looking at a carpet of white.

The White Asphodel, Asphodelus albus, is a flower of ancient myth.  The Asphodel Meadows constituted the section of the Greek underworld where the souls of ordinary people who lived lives neither wholly good nor wholly evil rested after death (as opposed to the Elysian Fields, reserved for the Gods, the righteous and the heroic, and Tartarus, the abyss of torment and suffering where the evil suffered eternal punishment and damnation.

Homer is cited as the source for the poetic tradition of describing the meadows of Hades as being covered in asphodel. One translation of a passage from The Odyssey, Book XI reads, ‘the ghost of clean-heeled Achilles marched away with long steps over the meadow of asphodel’.

The University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archaeology website explains in more detail:

Largely a grey and shadowy place, the Underworld was divided into three parts. Most souls went to the “Plains of Asphodel,” an endless stretch of twilit fields covered with grey and ghostly asphodel flowers, which the dead ate. A very few chosen by the gods spent their afterlife in the Fields of Elysium, a happier place of breezy meadows. But if the deceased had committed a crime against society, his/her soul went to Tartarus to be punished by the vengeful Furies until his debt to society was paid, whereupon he/she was released to the Plains of Asphodel…. Souls of the dead were only a pale reflection of their former personality, often portrayed as twittering, bat-like ghosts, physically diaphanous and insubstantial.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
– ‘The Peace of Wild Things’ by Wendell Berry

Perambulations around St Jean du Bruel

Perambulations around St Jean du Bruel

During our recent short break in the Cevennes we were based in the village of St Jean du Bruel, about 7 kilometres east of Nant and marking the point where the valley  of the Dourbie narrows to a steep-sided gorge. The village is smaller than Nant (population 690), and also seems little changed from last time we were here.  The first sight that met our eyes as we stepped out from our hotel onto the main street was of a group of locals sitting outside a cafe with a goat.

We stayed at the Hotel du Midi Papillon, that has been managed by the Papillon family for 150 years. I would recommend the place highly: the Papillons raise their own chickens, make charcuterie from local pork and jams from the fruit in the hotel garden, and the cheeseboard is to die for.  In 2005, as The Observer noted, the hotel is one of ‘those individually owned and run hotels that offer the unique French values of bonhomie, good value and seriously good food’.

After we had checked in at the hotel we called at the tourist information bureau to enquire about local footpaths where an advisor recommended a walk that took about two hours on a path that led up from St Jean to Le Sentinel, a crag from which a statue of the Virgin overlooks the village (top).

It was a great start to the holiday, the path winding up through woodland and eventually emerging at the lookout point which provided great views of the village and the Dourbie gorge to the east.  The chap  in the tourist office also suggested that we go in search of the orchids and asphodels that flower in profusion on the nearby causses at this time of year – but more of that quest in the next post.

Saint Jean du Bruel gained its name during the Middle Ages but, I discovered, during the Revolution, they renamed the village La Sentinelle, after this lookout point which marked the borders of two old provinces.   The village name was restored under the First Empire.

In my previous post I compared Nant, the neighbouring village down the valley, to Arcadia.  But it was not always so: this now-peaceful valley was torn apart by the 16th century wars of religion, and the Camisard Rebellion of the late 17th century.

In 1560, the majority of the villagers of St Jean adopted the Calvinist Reformation, while neighbouring Nant remained Catholic. A bitter war broke out  between the two villages, War breaks out between the two towns, with reicprocal looting and massacres occurring until the Edict of Nantes in 1598 brought the wars of religion to a close.  However, the political freedoms the Edict granted to the Huguenots (seen by Catholic nationalists as ‘a state within the state’) became an increasing source of conflict during the 17th century. The decision by Louis XIV to revoke the Edict of Nantes and strip Huguenots of their freedom of worship led some Protestant families to convert to Catholicism and others to flee abroad. But when the persecution intensified and Catholicism was imposed on southwestern France, the Huguenots took to arms in the revolt known as the Camisard Rebellion. Hundreds of villages were destroyed by fire during ‘the great conflagration of the Cevennes’.

Nant was one of them.  At this time, the population of St Jean consisted largely of Protestant Huguenots and the village had become more prosperous than Nant thanks to the presence of the manor and its administration, and the quality and diversity of its crafts, fairs and markets. There was a bitter enmity between the two villages which culminated in the citizens of St Jean burning down the monastery in Nant and driving the villagers out.  It was only with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in  1789 that Protestants gained full security and equal rights as citizens.

Two bridges cross the Dourbie in St Jean, the Old Bridge of the thirteenth century and the Pont Neuf dating from the eighteenth century.  The Old Bridge (above), located in the oldest part of town, spans the Dourbie in a Roman single arch.

This old inn sign (above) is a reminder of St Jean’s former renown for its metalwork.  The Rue de la Coutellerie (below) was once the location of cutlery-makers.

Several industries developed in St Jean that depended upon the Dourbie as a resource or for water power. A pottery industry (manufacturing cheese moulds and glazed tiles) once existed, and from the new bridge you can see on the river bank a chimney (below) – all that now remains of the old pottery kilns.  To the right of the pottery chimney is the weir, built to regulate the flow of water to the 13th century mill which still stands on the other side of the bridge.

Other trades that developed in the past included woodworking (making use of chestnut trees which cover the hillsides around about), clog-making, weaving, hat-making, and watchmaking.  In 1800 the village had four times the number of inhabitants than today.  A sense of the former prosperity of the village can be inferred from these roofscapes.

Each morning I would stroll out of the village in one direction or another.  The mist would be rising from the valley as the day warmed up.  One morning I turned across the old bridge and walked along the valley in the direction of Nant.

Finally… the nightlife in St Jean: two photos taken around 10:15 outside the main cafe in the old market place.

The market place (Les Halles) dates in its present form from 1845, when it was rebuilt after being destroyed during the French Revolution. This where fairs, markets and meetings of the village council  would be held. The wooden beams which you can just see in my photo are made of chestnut.

Once there was a man who filmed his vacation.
He went flying down the river in his boat
with his video camera to his eye, making
a moving picture of the moving river
upon which his sleek boat moved swiftly
toward the end of his vacation. He showed
his vacation to his camera, which pictured it,
preserving it forever: the river, the trees,
the sky, the light, the bow of his rushing boat
behind which he stood with his camera
preserving his vacation even as he was living it
so that after he had had it he would still
have it. It would be there. With a flick
of a switch, there it would be. But he
would not be in it. He would never be in it.

– ‘The Vacation’, Wendell Berry

Migrations and homecomings

Migrations and homecomings

The swallows are back on the field, swooping and diving around me as I take the dog on her afternoon walk.  We’re back, too, after a short break, returning to old haunts in the Cevennes.

The return of the swallows and swifts (back, too, eternally on the wing above the gardens of our street) always fills me with pleasure.  After spending the winter in South Africa, these birds have followed the same path through western France as the Ryanair plane that brought us back from Nimes.

Once upon a time, decades ago, a couple wandered through France in their red 2CV and in the far south, in a valley lying deep between the limestone plateaux they call the causses, found Arcadia. For two successive summers they camped just outside the small town of Nant in the department of Aveyron, on the southwestern fringe of the Cevennes.  Twelve years later they returned with their young daughter.  Last week, and this time  with old friends, they went back again.

The beloved 2CV has long gone to the great scrapyard in the sky; times move on and what, in the 1970s, would have been an impossible proposition financially is now commonplace.  We flew to Nimes and drove up the old N9 (now the A75 motorway) towards Millau.  The climb from the Languedoc plain up onto the Causse du Larzac at the Pas de l’Escalette near le Caylar is still astonishing: in little more than 15 kilometres the road rises nearly 700 metres, today through heavily engineered curves and tunnels that have sliced through dramatic inclines and folds of limestone strata that were formed in the tertiary era on the bed of a warm, shallow sea and then twisted and broken by the formation of the Pyrenees. In the days of the old N9, this road was a straining cavalcade of lorries; now the drive is smooth and uncomplicated – but no less dramatic.  Several videos of the drive have been uploaded to YouTube; here’s one of them:

We turn off before the famous bridge at Millau (another bottleneck in the old N9 days) and head across the Causse du Larzac towards Nant, through the beautiful wild landscape of the limestone plateau.  Larzac is the largest, the most arid and uninhabited of the four Grands Causses of this region, with only the occasional medieval hamlet hunched on the horizon.

And then the descent towards Nant that I remember so well: situated where the valley of the Dourbie opens out into verdant meadows enfolded in a bowl of tree-clad hills, Nant is still the same picture of perfection: ‘those blue remembered hills …What spires, what farms are those? That is the land of lost content, I see it shining plain, The happy highways where I went’.  We drive down and, less than five hours after leaving Liverpool, are seated outside a cafe in the main square consuming assiettes of local cheeses and charcuteries in the warm sunshine.  Nant seems unchanged since we were last here in 1993.

Etymologically, Nant has no relationship with the northern city of Nantes.  The name is of Celtic origin and means a place where land and water meet.  In the 10th century, Benedictine monks drained the marshy soil of the Durzon valley where it joins the Dourbie, constructing a network of stone-lined canals which still run through the village.  The monks’ success in developing agriculture led to Nant being called ‘the garden of Aveyron’. In 926 they built a monastery here, which became an abbey in 1135. The economy prospered, and the village of Nant grew up around the abbey.

During the wars of religion the monastic buildings were destroyed, but Nant continued to prosper – its golden age came  in the second half of the 17th century when the town had 3000 inhabitants (today it’s around 800) and, after Millau, it ranked as the second most important town of the region. The abbey church of St Peter, dating from the 11th century, still stands at the centre of the village, its fortified belltower giving it the squat appearance of a medieval castle keep.

The monastic legacy can be traced, too, in several Romanesque churches that are scattered through the surrounding countryside.  We walked out of Nant (past the site where we camped all those years ago) to one of them –  the 12th century church of St Martin du Vican, now inaccessible on private land and being used as a barn.

The arches of the halles (market) date from the monastic times, too, and would once have hosted local fairs and a flourishing market.  Now two cafes set up their tables under the arches.  On one of the arches is a memorial to nine local members of the resistance movement, shot by the Nazis in August 1944.

We arrived the day after the second round of the French Presidential elections had resulted in a decisive victory for François Hollande, France’s first leftwing president in almost 20 years.  I photographed these election posters on the main street.

Curiously, we were here the last time a socialist president, Francois Mitterand, was elected in 1981 and the countryside was plastered with election posters that promised his ‘quiet strength’:

The next day there was a ceremony to mark the end of the Second World War outside the elegant Mairie that dates back to 1762.  Several market stalls had been set up, selling local fruit, vegetables and cheeses.

In Provence last spring, climbing roses were everywhere.  This year, in the valley towns, the signature plant was the wisteria.

On the last day of our short break we set off from Nant to walk through the meadows by the Dourbie towards Cantobre, the medieval village that perches on a clifftop a few kilometres further along the valley towards Millau. We crossed to the far bank of the Dourbie by the elegant 14th century La Prade bridge, another indicator of the town’s medieval prosperity.

Above us towered the Nantais Rock, a spur that juts from the causse to the north of the town.

For a few kilometres east and west of Nant the valley is broad and verdant, but upstream above St Jean du Bruel and downstream beyond Cantobre the Dourbie burrows into a ravine of sheer rock walls, slicing a path between the Causse du Larzac to the south and the Causse Noir to the north.  Here, though, the path was broad and easy.

There’s a bridge at Vellas and here I crossed to the south bank again to follow the road back into Nant.  The view of Cantobre, perched on its narrow rocky ledge a little further on, was spectacular. From a distance the houses appear to be part of the cliff itself, and you can understand how the place acquired its name – from ‘quant obra’, ‘what a work’.  The village was abandoned after the Great War and remained in ruins until the late 1960s when it was gradually rebuilt.

On the return to Nant I passed the hamlet of les Cuns, little more than a couple of houses and one of those 12th century Romanesque churches mentioned earlier – only this time it was possible to go inside.

Romanesque churches were the first buildings since Roman times to use a stone vault instead of a wooden roof. Other characteristics of Romanesque architecture visible here include round arches, thick walls, small windows, and decorative details inside and out (see the little man carved into the base of an arch, below, which reminded me of the Kilpeck church carvings . When they were first built, Romanesque churches would have been bright with colour and imagery, with murals that served as a visual Bible to a mostly illiterate congregation.There’s nothing now but the bare stone.

On our second day, the afternoon turned dull with occasional rain.  We drove down the Dourbie towards Millau, stopping first to look around Cantobre. Most of the houses date from the 14th century when the fortified village of houses clustered around the church was developed by the Knights Templar.  It’s likely that the inhabitants were engaged in silver mining.

Towns and villages huddled behind defensive walls in the turbulent centuries that culminated with the religious wars and the Hundred Years War – built to protect the villagers from marauding soldiers, both French and British (Rouergue, the former provincial name for Aveyron, changed hands several times, even falling to British rule for 17 years after 1360).

A little further down the gorge is Moulin de Corp, a 15th century water mill and rather lovely humpback bridge.

On the far side of Millau is another bridge that takes your breath away with its daring engineering and elegant beauty.  Opened in December 2004 , it is the highest bridge in the world, standing 270 meters (890 feet) over the Tarn River. That makes it slightly taller than the Eiffel Tower and only a hundred feet shorter than the Empire State Building. It was designed by engineer Michel Virlogeux (working for the same company that built the Eiffel Tower) and British architect Norman Foster.

We parked at the Viaduct Information Centre at the base of the bridge on the RD 992 outside Millau.  It was dull and wet when I took the photo above; the official one below shows the structure to best effect. The Millau Viaduct was conceived as a way of alleviating the huge traffic jams that would form every summer as tourists made their way south, descending the valley into the town of Millau which became a notorious bottleneck on the A75 autoroute.

In its pure simplicity the bridge, consisting of a very thin slightly curved steel roadway supported by pylons and resting on seven very slender pillars, blends seamlessly into the grandeur of the surrounding landscape. The route selected, and the method of construction were chosen to minimise impact on the environment.  Construction took four years – from October 2001 to its opening in December 2005.  There’s a remarkable video in the Information Centre that shows how the bridge was built: after the concrete pylons had been erected, the roadway was slowly pushed out across the gorge from each side, eventually meeting (and crushing a bottle of champagne) in May 2004.

For the four night we were away we stayed at St Jean du Bruel, seven kilometres up the Dourbie from Nant where the valley narrows to a steep-sided gorge.  The village is smaller than Nant, and also seems little changed from last time we were here.  The first sight that met our eyes as we stepped out from our hotel onto the main street was of a group of locals sitting outside a cafe with a goat.

We stayed at the Hotel du Midi Papillon, that has been managed by the Papillon family for 150 years. I would recommend the place highly: though the rooms are small and fairly basic, ours had balconies overlooking the Dourbie and the rates are very reasonable.  But what really makes a stay here truly memorable are the breakfasts and evening meals in the restaurant.  The Papillons raise their own chickens, make charcuterie from local pork and jams from the fruit in the hotel garden, and the cheeseboard is to die for.

We had returned to our ‘land of lost content’. This valley, from Nant to St Jean, remains one of those places that seem most precious to those of us who live in cities.  It’s more than likely that, with our city ways and city needs, we couldn’t abide here for long.  Yet, to return here and linger awhile refreshes the spirit.  While away I was reading Oliver Twist, and there I encountered this heartfelt passage:

Who can tell how scenes of peace and quietude sink into the minds of pain-worn dwellers in close and noisy places, and carry their own freshness, deep into their jaded hearts! Men who have lived in crowded, pent-up streets, through lives of toil, and who have never wished for change; men, to whom custom has indeed been second nature, and who have come almost to love each brick and stone that formed the narrow boundaries of their daily walks; even they, with the hand of death upon them, have been known to yearn at last for one short glimpse of Nature’s face; and, carried far from the scenes of their old pains and pleasures, have seemed to pass at once into a new state of being. Crawling forth, from day to day, to some green sunny spot, they have had such memories wakened up within them by the sight of sky, and hill and plain, and glistening water, that the foretaste of heaven itself has soothed their quick decline, and they have sunk into their tombs, as peacefully as the sun whose setting they watched from their lonely chamber window but a few hours before, faded from their dim and feeble sight! The memories which peaceful country scenes call up, are not of this world, nor of its thoughts and hopes. Their gentle influence may teach us how to weave fresh garlands for the graves of those we loved: may purify our thoughts, and bear down before it old enmity and hatred; but beneath all this, there lingers, in the least reflective mind, a vague and half-formed consciousness of having held such feelings long before, in some remote and distant time, which calls upon solemn thoughts of distant times to come, and bends down pride and worldliness beneath it.

And then it was back to an unseasonably cold, wet and windswept Liverpool.  And a Europe in crisis, with attempts to form a government in Greece collapsing, the prospect of the breakup of the eurozone, and an economic hurricane heading our way.

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Something is profoundly wrong…

‘Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today.’  That is the opening sentence of Tony Judt’s book Ill Fares The Land that I’m reading at the moment.  There could be no more pertinent assessment of the present crisis. Yesterday, one commentator compared Europe’s current predicament to the phenomenon of approaching a black hole and reaching the event horizon – the point beyond which it is impossible to escape guaranteed annihilation. The fascinating thing, he said coolly, is you can cross this point of no return without realizing that your doom is certain.

This lunchtime, on The World at One, a commentator spoke of the ‘bond vigilantes’ who are now closing in on France, which is now suffering a full-blown run on its debt, with investors dumping French bonds to move their money to safer havens.  So the second largest economy in the eurozone could lose its triple-A credit status very soon, purely a victim of speculators.

Mulling over all this I feel a bit like the character in Bono’s lyric, ‘The End of the World’:

Last time we met was a low-lit room
We were as close together as a bride and groom
We ate the food, we drank the wine
Everybody having a good time
Except you
You were talking about the end of the world

Just possibly, there might be a positive aspect of the present situation.  In an article in today’s Guardian, John Harris considers whether 2011 will go down in history as one of those years that redefined global politics – such as 1968 or1989. Certainly there has been a mood of mass resistance sweeping around the globe – from the uprisings across the Arab world to the Occupy movement that has become global in short order.  The mood is best summed up in the words of  flyers that Harris found pasted to every available surface in the streets in Berkeley, California, where an Occupy camp has sprung up outside a branch of Bank of America:

Are you pissed [off] yet? You should be!
No taxation of the rich. Endless war.
Bankers not held responsible. Corrupt politicians.
Destruction of the planet due to politicians’ and corporations’ greed.
Can it get any worse than this?

As Harris notes, some elements in the Occupy movement are inspired by the legacy of 1969.  The editor of the Canada-based countercultural magazine Adbusters recently put it like this:

We are not just inspired by what happened in the Arab spring recently. We are students of the situationist movement. Those are the people who gave birth to what many people think was the first global revolution back in 1968 when some uprisings in Paris suddenly inspired uprisings all over the world.

Occupy Oakland poster

Back in August, Harris notes, in an article for the Financial Times, 2011: The Year of Global Indignation, Gideon Rachman wrote:

Many of the revolts of 2011 pit an internationally connected elite against ordinary citizens who feel excluded from the benefits of economic growth, and angered by corruption. … The creation of a global mood is a mysterious thing. In 1968, before the word ‘globalisation’ or the internet were even invented, there were student rebellions around the world. The year 1989 saw not just the fall of the Berlin Wall but the Tiananmen Square revolt in China. Perhaps 2011 will come to rank alongside 1968 and 1989 as a year of global revolt?

Basta! Enough! The Indignados of Spain

Back in August, Rachman observed that America was the one striking exception to this pattern, despite exhibiting many of the social and economic trends that had got people out on the streets in other countries: rising inequality, a threat to middle-class living standards, anger against the political and business elite.  That’s not the case now, with Occupy camps established in every major city and many smaller towns.

Police clear the Occupy Wall Street camp early yesterday

Is there anything that connects these events in the USA, Europe and the Arab world? In answer to this question,  John Harris argues that something BBC Newsnight’s Paul Mason wrote on his blog last February titled Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere, remains among the most incisive analyses of this year’s events.  Mason wrote:

At the heart of it all are young people, obviously: students; westernised; secularised … a new sociological type – the graduate with no future … With access to social media, they can express themselves in a variety of situations ranging from parliamentary democracy to tyranny … They are not prone to traditional and endemic ideologies … They all seem to know each other … I was astonished to find people I had interviewed inside the UCL occupation blogging from Tahrir Square … The common theme is the dissolution of centralised power and the demand for ‘autonomy’ and personal freedom.

Not only the young: 84 yr old activist pepper-sprayed in Occupy Seattle protest

Harris asked Mason to expand on this thought (he’s writing a book to be published in January). Mason’s feels the tumultuous events of 2011 are tangled up with newish means of communication, and a new sense of what it is to be politically organised.  Once you’re networked via social media, he says, you’re open to profound changes in ‘who you are and what your personal space is’. The idea of any seemingly arbitrary authority standing in the way of all that can easily become an affront – and at the same time, your means of communication offers you a method of opposition and resistance: online, in the real world, or both. As support for his case, he quotes the example of the hundreds of thousands of people who responded to the 2010 death of the young Egyptian Khaled Said by joining the massively influential We are all Khaled Said Facebook group, or this summer’s Direct Democracy Now! protests in Athens, organised almost entirely through social media.

Occupy St Paul's
Occupy St Paul's

For Mason, all this is epitomised in the year’s most iconic symbol: the tent communities springing up in the financial heart of the world’s major cities, home to ‘the flickering blue light of laptops and the incessant hubbub of intense conversation’. Mason says:

One thing that there has been in common between the Arab spring and the European and American events is this drive – which is almost pathological – to secure space, and live in it. In one sense, it’s a meme … and I think it does satisfy a desire … [for a] spontaneous, communal, utopian sort of existence

Occupy Wall Street poster

Interestingly, Paul Mason opts for an entirely different historical parallel: ‘a much more distant year, when abortive revolts spread across Europe at speed, and two fired-up German radicals wrote The Communist Manifesto‘:

I think it’s going to be seen more in terms of 1848.  1968 was a cultural thing: it only came to street-fighting in Czechoslovakia, the black ghettoes of the US and Paris. In 1989, apart from Romania, there was as much coming from above, through diplomacy, as there was from below. Only in 1848 have we had an explosion that goes from one country to another as fast the mode of communication of the time, and then doesn’t stop, and feeds off a zeitgeist that is about freedom, which crosses borders, and involves people identifying with each other from very different cultures.

The revolutions of 1848 were crushed, but left a longer-term legacy of political aspirations and ideas, as did 1968 which also looked in the short term as if it had been crushed by reaction. The organisational methods and symbolic actions of 2011 are new, but is there a programme here that will challenge the economic might and political power of the ‘1%’ in the long term?  With that in mind, I’ll carry on hopefully reading Tony Judt’s book.

Eviction notice on an Occupy tent outside St Paul's Cathedral - served this afternoon