June 11, 2009

Beauty and the Beach

They tell you that it is ruined, and they're right. They tell you that it is solid concrete from St.-Tropez to Monte Carlo, and that's nearly right. They tell you that it is a wild mixture of Blackpool and Atlantic City, and they aren't far off. They also tell you that the people who throng the artificial beaches (the sand is brought down every winter from distant quarries and never gets near the cleans­ing of a tide-there is no tide in the Mediterra­nean) are grim: I find it hard to fault them for saying that. The glamorous people, under the onslaught of coach tours from every­where in Europe and beyond, have long since relinquished their places in the sun and hur­ried off to start another life in the Caribbean.

A blue haze of petrol hangs all along the coast. The pervading smells are of French fries and hamburgers, melting tar, and the paraffin that pours from the jets screaming down on Nice Airport.

All this is so. It cannot be denied. I have known the Riviera for more than fifty years and lived on its fringes for nearly forty. Certainly, the place is a ruin now: there is a sea of concrete; there are ribbons of autoroute. Hideous little villas scab what was once sweet and gentle land with ancient farms and noble pinewoods, and the people who go there, by and large, aren't much good. You won't care much for the cast even if you still quite like the scenery.

But-and this is a big but-the magic is still there as it always has been. Still there if you really want to see it and if you manage to keep away from the more obvious bits of desecration and greed. Still there for you to catch and to hold, to leave you breathless when you find the little corners that Progress has not yet managed to "improve." Try the view of the Esterel and the Baie des Anges from the top step of the terrace of the Hotel du Cap. If that doesn't leave you breathless, you don't deserve to breathe anyway.

Whatever happens, the contours remain.

The hills covered with tacky little villas still melt into the purple dusk, and the villas are drowned in deep color so that all one can see is the hard outline of the hills against the sky. The hills don't change.

THE RIVIERA WAS INVENTED IN 1925, so the legend has it, by a very rich, erudite, glamorous, and civilized young American couple named Sara and Gerald Murphy. They arrived one day from Paris and fell in love with the little walled town of Antibes, which then sat in a quilt of rose and carnation farms, jasmine fields, and canebrakes, its ramparts caressed by an as yet unpolluted sea. Enraptured, they rented a small house in a pinewood just above the empty beach known as La Garoupe. Patriotically, they renamed the house Villa America and invited their host of American friends from Paris, who would arrive on the night train in the golden dawn, fall under the spell, and linger on and on. In time they all became a little too much. People had to be fed and wined. The picnics on La Garoupe had to be devised and catered. Sara's cast list was mostly very distinguished and demanding, as holiday guests so often are.

The Fitzgeralds, Picasso and his monu­mental Mamma dressed, as always, in deep­est black plus high hat, Hemingway and who­ever he brought with him, and a list of others all equally brilliant, glowing, and glamorous: writers, painters, musicians, and players. The Murphys asked the owners of the local hotel along the beach to stay open one sum­mer to accommodate their guests. Normally the winter season finished at about the end of April, for no one wanted the heat and the blazing summer sunlight. The hotels would close until the cooler weather returned in September or October. The owners were somewhat astonished by the Murphys' suggestion, not believing that they would be filled, but they agreed to remain open for "just one summer." The trains brought, and continued to bring, the glittering crowds from Paris, the Hotel du Cap remained open ever afterward, and thus was "the Riviera" born.

BY THE TIME MY FAMILY HIT THE RIVIERA, in 1948, it was a going concern of the greatest elegance and beauty-a mixture of extreme sophistication and the simplest peasant existence. Rolls-Royces inched politely past meandering hay carts pulled by oxen. The air was sweet and calm. No one hurried. And there was not a sodium lamp for miles. Cicadas sawed in every rough-barked tree in the heat of the afternoon, and down at Vallauris, Picasso worked away at a rich seam of clay that he found suited his new bowls, plates, and jugs, while Chagall mixed his colors up at St.-Paul, where the village weaver made his rugs and shawls on an olivewood 100m. Life was easier, simple, ordered. The rough­-and-tumble of tourism had not yet fully struck, and the land lay serenely unaware of impending disaster. Magical.

Magic has its components, and the most important of them here is the Light. With­out the Light it is fair to say that the Riviera would not exist. In spite of the ruin and the greed along the coastal strip, the Light (and it deserves its capital letter) has not altered. The petrol haze on the seafront has merely dimmed it slightly. It still glows down, sparkling in sequined dis­array upon the deceptively clear sea; still scorches the pale bodies unwisely ignoring its power along the artificial beaches. It exagger­ates light and shade (shadows here are blacker than pitch) and enhances color ­fierce, harsh almost, brilliantly exploding color that one never suspected could exist in nature, so that pink is suddenly carmine, the soft green of the maritime pines is viridi­an, tiled roofs burst with orange fire, and the dust under one's feet is a rich copper. This, of course, is why Bonnard and Braque, Monet and Renoir, and all the others came here, determined to capture the Light and set it for all time on canvas. My own father was driven to desperation as a painter trying to catch the elusive color of the olive trees. Was it green or was it silver? Was it blue or a mixture of the three? No two painters ever agreed, and my father, alas, never caught it at all. Forever his olive trees were the sorry product of the sodden skies of his native Germany. They never lost the boiled startlingly cleansed of dust and haze. So sharp, so outlined, so pristine and clear does it appear that it's almost too much for the eye to take in.

TWENTY YEARS AGO I WOULD GO INTO CANNES, MORNINGS, EAR­LY. Early like six o'clock, when the beach­es are still deserted save for a lone swimmer or two, when the streets are silent except for a shopkeeper sleepily washing down his section of the pavement, and for the fishermen down by the old port hosing down the cobbles under the tables of the fish restaurants that line the quay. This is when you will discover the old Riviera beneath the modem ruin.
Watch the big boxes of mussels, the tubs of oysters, pink prawns, and jumping gray shrimps as they are swung off the lorries from the station, straight off the night train from Dieppe and the colder seas of the north. Follow Rue Meynadier into the gigantic vaults of the Marche Forville, a tremendous con­crete cathedral of aisled trestles piled high with every sort of fruit and vegetable you can imagine, and many you cannot. Hens and rabbits, alive in small coops, cluck and rustle at one's feet among the cabbage stalks and fallen parsley.

It's not just fruit, vegetables, and livestock that you'll find in the marchi. Cheese, too: round and oblong, square and half-moon; some wrapped in vine leaves, others in the faded leaves of last autumn's Spanish chest­nut; some tied in ribbons, others black with charcoal. It is said that the French produce more than three hundred kinds of cheese. If that is so, you'll find them all here-plus a few others that have just been invented. And if you still don't fancy anything you see, go on back up Rue d' Antibes to a tiny shop on the right side where Madame Agnes has a few more for you to choose from.

Just beside the flower market is the fish-­slithery spills gleaming fresh from the boats, the scent of brine mixing very pleasantly with the neighboring roses and carnations. Not just with roses and carnations, but with the hum­ble marigold, lilies in armfuls, tuberoses, sweet William, mimosa, and, in the early days of spring, huge sprays of almond or early cherry. On the first of May there is lily of the valley-as pungent as cheap soap, as sim­ple, clean, and fresh as a mountain brook, yours only for a day or so before it crumples and fades. Overlaying all this is the pungency of roasting coffee, for the market has been open since 5 a.m., when the first trucks rumbled in and willing, gnarled, and chapped hands be­gan the setting up. By noon all this will have been swept away. Not much will remain to remind you that a market has taken place. For the rest of the day the Marche Forville is a car park for the ruined Riviera.

NATURALLY, A VISIT TO THE RIVIERA must include a beach, and there are plenty along the curve of the Croisette and away down the coast past La Bocca. If you select one of the private concessions, paying a bit for the privilege of clean mattresses and bright umbrellas, you'll doubtless enjoy yourself even though your pockets may be quite a bit lighter by the end of the day. After a time, beach life becomes wearing and expensive, and you need to look about for other diversions. If you go up to the hills, within thirty or forty minutes of the hubbub and racketing of the Riviera strip, you will find unbelievable peace and contentment· in the small villages that top the many craggy mountains overlooking the sea. Greenness and coolth, and, perhaps most important of all, silence broken only by the clonking of a distant sheep bell or the cry of a kite or buzzard wheeling high above you in idle swooping circles. This land is still the Rivi­era, though it bears so little resemblance to the gaudy cities of the plain below.

Up here, in the clean air, the villages have hardly altered since the days when they were used for safety against the invading Saracens and Moors. The narrow streets twist and loop for shade in the summer heat, for warmth in the cold of winter, and, above all, for securi­ty. The streets are dusty, you can walk bare­ foot in the powdery ruts or, better still, among the sheets of wild narcissi that cover the hillsides around Thorenc in the spring. Great white drifts look like the last lingering vestiges of winter's snow until the over­powering scent re­minds you that you are indeed treading through millions of flowers.

Farther along the valley to the west is the tiny village of Caille-a single village street here, for this is on the plain. The village just huddles around its church, under the tower­ing rock on which it stands, and the street trails out into fields surrounded by dense pinewoods. High among these woods there are secret fields that, like the ones at Thorenc, are sheeted with wildflowers, only here the sheets are not white but gold with cowslips.

IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO BELIEVE ONE IS so close to the gnarled mass on the coast; nothing seems to have altered up here for centuries. Apart from the satellite dishes on every tiled roof, nothing very much has. The people here are of the kindest and warmest. Curious about you, amused by you, but ready to direct you or help you understand their patois, for these are the true people of the mountains and, incidentally, of the Riviera.

It is not everyone who gets any pleasure from walking barefoot in the red dust of the village lanes or among a superfluity of wild­flowers, or who can lie in the whispering mountain grasses listening for the sheep bell. But all this is within the belt called the Riviera, and you can take your choice. Be­yond Cannes there are ravishing villages like Fayence, Auribeau, Bargemon, and Seillans, all with excellent restaurants or modest but extremely reasonable hotels. The French know the secrets of these lovely places and are wise to keep them to themselves.

IF I WRITE AT LENGTH ABOUT CANNES and its hill villages, it is only because I know this region better than anywhere else. For years I have had my hair cut here, been to the bank, gone to market, bought my plants, and visited my dentist. Inevita­bly it is closer to my heart than Antibes or Cagnes or even the old whore down the coast, Nice.

Nice nevertheless is, I suppose, the heart of the Riviera proper. Cannes has the air of the faded gentry, with the ghosts of the Russian court still lingering in an air of elegance and polite charm. Nice, on the other hand, is definitely raffish, vulgar, and, for some, more attrac­tive. A port city set on one of the most beauti­ful bays in the world, the Baie des Anges (Bay of the Angels), with a background of snowy mountains hemming her in from the cruel northern winter, she flourishes among her lemon and orange trees like some lascivi­ous slut, the skirts of her gown, so to speak, spread out around her in waves of ugly subur­bia, which flounce and trail over every hill and valley.

Never closed, noisy and squalid with, here and there, great elements of beauty and relics of the past that still can catch you unawares and force you to hold your breath with de­light. Stand in the very center of the great Promenade des Anglais, which curves around the enormous bay, and look to your left and right in wonder. The towering blocks of apart­ment buildings, the froufrou and nonsense of the remaining grands palais all stuck about with wrought-iron and lacy plasterwork, the immaculate gardens stiff with palms and flow­ering yuccas, the millions of colored lights that flash and change as the great ball of a copper sun slides into the sea as surely as a penny slips into a slot machine.

Darkness falls so quickly: there is almost no twilight here, and the whole promenade is suddenly lit by a tremendous necklace of dia­monds. The old whore, defiant of her hidden squalor, radiant, beguiling, brash, beckoning. It is very hard to resist her tattered charms.

IN THE HEAT OF THE MORNING SUN, wander into the old town. Here they have very wisely rid the place of cars and trucks and petrol fumes. The old houses lean toward one other, sometimes six or seven stories high. Balconies looped with washing, surrounded with little cages of singing birds, and stuffed with old pots and pans frothing with gerani­ums and petunias.
The streets are silent save for the cries of playing children or feet hurrying or the clatter and fluster of pigeons. You can wander into the bread shops to try a real pizza or eat fougasses, made with anchovies and olives blended together in a thick paste with sweet bready dough. It all looks, finally, like a piece of well toasted fretwork.

Both Nice and Cannes have their casinos, and you can lose your shirt or win a wardrobe in a short evening. If this is your kick, try it. You'll see the underbelly of both towns, the pale and anxious, the huddled rich, the Arab princes staking kingdoms, the resentful old women with raddled faces trying again and again to win. Some do, some don't. That's the Riviera. There is no sympathy, a great deal of envy, some disdain. But no one really gives a tinker's damn: it's all up to you.

Be warned. The Riviera is not cheap. A bottle of fizzy lemonade on the beach at Cannes or at Nice can set you back $15 or more; the mattress on the sands and the parasol against the sun could, added together for two weeks, buy you a small car, if you know what I mean.

But, on the other hand, you can always pull yourself up from the wincingly painful pebbles and drive into the mountains behind the town. There you can be high among the pine forests, the alpine flowers, the startled deer, and the clubby marmots. It's altogether a different world, but, as with Cannes, you can reach it in less than an hour, depending on your resistance to zigzag roads and sheer drops. In springtime you could swim in the mornings and ski in the afternoons.

AND THAT'S REALLY IT: EVERYTHING you need is there in that amazing stretch of land, from beauty and squalor to richness and poverty (of a kind-a gentle kind because poverty never seems quite so desperate in the warmth of the sun, or so I like to think).

For forty years I have said that each year would be the last: I'd never return. The place has become a ruin, the traffic impossible, the guests resistible, the beaches crowded and filthy, the prices beyond belief. Everything I knew years ago has become smothered in high-rise concrete and fast-lane tarmac; it's gone to hell.

But I've always come back. And I al­ways will. You see, it's the magic and the Light. They still, in some unaccount­able way, remain and pull one back, and whatever happens to the Riviera, as long as those two major attractions remain, it will always be, for all time, better than Rio, or Hong Kong, or Bermuda, or anywhere else in the world.

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Ms Edna said...

vous êtes ma déesse

SM blogger said...

wow, what a post-
qui êtes-vous Mona?

un blogger aussi said...

qui jamais vous êtes, vous êtes un enfer d'un blogger.

Charles said...

I knew the French would have a word for it.

a fan said...

you guys are too much

Mona said...

"Shall we stand in shallower water and discuss that"?

Ms Edna said...

today is TV D-Day are we missing anything?

Mona said...

not a thing

Anonymous said...

very well written post