“I don’t see you as Cote d’Azur people,” remarked an acquaintance on hearing that we’d just returned from our third consecutive holiday there. True enough, we don’t chime with the popular image of the French Riviera as a hedonistic playground for the rich and famous. Yet we do like to rub shoulders with the famous, namely the artists who lived and worked in the area.
Our Riviera rambles have taken us from Antibes to the Italian border, from Matisse to Renoir, Picasso to Chagall. Today we are walking from Beaulieu-sur-Mer to Villefranche-sur-Mer in pursuit of Jean Cocteau. Our starting point is the Maurice Rouvier Promenade where the sea and the backdrop of mountains create breathtaking views.
We pause to indulge in a bit of people-watching. Dog walkers, joggers, roller-skaters and pushchairs pass by. An elderly lady on a mobility scooter appears to be talking animatedly to herself, but as she passes we notice the small dog on her lap. Was it our imagination or was the dog nodding back at her? We resume our walk. To our right, high walls shield luxury villas from prying eyes. We glance up and see a sturdily-built man patrolling the boundary. He looks like the heavy from a gangster movie. He is wearing a headset. Who is he protecting? A Russian oligarch? A pop megastar? My imagination goes into overdrive.
Our game of “who lives in a house like this?” continues as an exquisite pink villa comes into view. The question is answered as the path opens onto a small square: “Place David Niven”. We conjure up images of the film moguls and stars of the 1930s and 40s who might have been entertained at this villa when David Niven lived here. The villa’s high-walled gardens extend out into the sea and just the tops of trees are visible to us. We imagine terraces and arbours, sweet-scented shrubs, glamorous garden parties. I can almost hear the pop of champagne corks.
Turning away from the sea and the imagined partygoers, we wend our way along elegant roads where Belle Epoque villas hide behind grandiose gates. The Rolling Stones lived in one of these villas as tax exiles in the 1970s and recorded their ‘Exile on Main Street’ album in its basement studio. We are still speculating on the rock ‘n’ roll drugs scenes played out there when we find ourselves at the steps leading down to Villefranche.
Beyond the horseshoe bay, the painted houses of this ancient fishing village are tiered in a colourful array against the hillside. We walk along the seafront, past the beach, past rows of cafés and bars, past jetties and bobbing boats. The harbour is straight ahead. But where is Jean Cocteau?
Then we spot him. On a plinth is the sculpted bust of this writer, film-maker, painter and designer. His face is intense, his eyes hooded, his hair wild. He first came to Villefranche in 1925 and stayed at a hotel on the quayside while trying to kick his opium habit. But what of his work?
A stone’s throw from the bust is the tiny Romanesque chapel of Saint Pierre, patron saint of fishermen. Over the years the chapel fell into disrepair and was used to store the fishermen’s nets. Cocteau persuaded the local council to have the chapel restored and in 1957 he began decorating it. Painted in shades of pink, white and blue, his murals cover every surface. They depict scenes of Saint Peter’s life alongside scenes of local life – fishermen with their nets, and women with their bonnets and baskets of fish. The detail is extraordinary and mesmerising. We leave the chapel under the gaze of two enormous eyes painted on the door.
We close the door on this mystical masterpiece and re-enter the real world. The sun is still shining, the sun-worshippers are still on the beach.
“Perhaps next year we’ll join them,” my husband says, “soak up the sun, indulge in a little hedonism?”
“Not until we’ve been to the Salle des Mariages in Menton,” I say.
“The Registry Office!” husband splutters. “Sounds a tad dull.”
“It won’t be. Apparently Cocteau was given free rein in there – paintings, furnishings, the lot…”