Friday 26 February 2016

Queen Victoria tours the French Riviera, by CAROL DRINKWATER

I won’t pretend otherwise. This February is proving to be a very bittersweet month. As I mentioned in last month’s blog, my new novel THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER was published on 11th February with a few nice events lined up by Michael Joseph/Penguin to launch it. A special and exciting moment for me as this new novel has been a while in the writing and I am very proud of it.

Unfortunately, my wonderful Irish mother, Phyllis, – a best friend and big sister to me – died in my arms totally unexpectedly on 4th February. It was a gift for her that her passage between life and after-life was so swift and painless but a terrible shock and heartbreak for me. Obviously, the show goes on and THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER was published. It has - I am writing this just a couple of days beyond its publication - been receiving some wonderful five-star reviews and seems to be selling very healthily.

So, because I am locked in pre-funeral arrangements, I am going to cheat this month and post here the text I wrote for an article published in the Mail on Sunday Travel section on 14th February. It tells a little about my patch of Provence.

"Provence is a large region of southern France. Officially, it is Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, PACA. My corner is the geographically stunning tip that stretches to the borders of Monaco and Italy to the east, the Alps to the north, Hyères to the west and the sparkling Mediterranean to the south. The French Riviera or Blue Coast. Its reputation is so celebrated with tales of wealth, resplendence, decadence and all-night jazz hotspots that you expect it to disappoint, yet it never does.


"Queen Victoria loved the French Riviera. She visited on nine occasions and did a great deal to bring this wintering resort its international reputation. Her first trip in 1882 delivered her from a damp Windsor by carriage, train, crossing the channel on her yacht, Victoria and Albert, descending by train to Menton, the last hilltop stop before Italy, appreciated today for its Val Rahmeh Botanical Gardens and its exuberant Lemon Festival. Victoria was entranced by the palm and citrus vegetation, the sweeping views and the benign microclimate. She made expeditions along the coast, eulogising the landscape, which she later described in her diary as ‘a paradise of nature’. The local shepherds, she wrote, were ‘very handsome’ in their breeches and ‘large, black felt hats’ that protected from the sun.

"The widowed, ageing Queen returned regularly for the balmy climate. Her stays grew longer. One outing took her to the perfume town of Grasse, to Alice de Rothschild’s Villa Victoria. Alice had purchased 135 hectares of olive groves to construct her chateau. Spending millions, she laid out magnificent grounds and employed eighty full-time gardeners. Each year, she imported literally tons of violets to bed in the olive groves, giving vibrancy to the silvery fields while her forests of yolk-yellow mimosas perfumed the air.

"According to gossip, our doughty Queen stepped clumsily and crushed several plants underfoot. Alice, infuriated, told her royal visitor in no uncertain terms to ‘get out’. Other versions of the tale suggest that Victoria planted a tree as was the tradition, digging it in herself, to commemorate her stay, or perhaps to offer her apologies? Baroness Alice, who suffered from rheumatic fever, spent six months of every year in Grasse returning to Buckinghamshire for the summers. 

                                Statue of Queen Victoria in Cimiez district of Nice where stayed.

"By the beginning of the twentieth century, Cannes and the coastal strip that winds its rocky way to Monaco was the winter resort for the rich, the royals and a few well-heeled writers and artists such as the Impressionist Auguste Renoir who in 1907 settled in Cagnes-sur-Mer where he hoped to cure the rheumatism that had crippled his hands. Renoir’s home is now a museum dedicated to the artist. A must see.

"Around the turn of the century, two other members of the Rothschild banking dynasty constructed sumptuous properties along this coastline. The Villa Rothschild in Cannes was purchased by the local council and transformed into a media library while the Villa Ephrussi on Cap d’Antibes encircled by nine gardens with breath-taking views is open to the public and well worth a visit. If you are a budding painter, look out for Painters’ Day. In June, the villa opens its blossom-filled gardens to artists, offering them the inspiration and tranquillity required to create. In August, Ephrussi’s covered patio hosts a small, intimate opera festival.

"Although much construction has taken place around Grasse destroying many of the jasmine, rose and lavender hills that serviced the perfumeries, a visit to the traditional houses, Galimard, Molinard, Fragonard, with their old copper vats on display is de riguer. Or drop by Le Jardin de la Bastide, a paradisical garden, where Michelle Cavalier is producing organic rosewater products.

"Alice’s Villa Victoria is now Palais Provençal, an apartment block.

"Only after the Great War did the area became a summer venue. In 1921, the American composer Cole Porter with his heiress wife, Linda Lee Thomas, rented a house in the little-known fishing village of Juan-les-Pins. They invited fellow Americans Gerald and Sara Murphy, also both heirs to fortunes, to accompany them. So enchanted were the Murphys with this magical coastal playground that they persuaded the palatial Hotel du Cap in Antibes to stay open for the summer. Friends were beckoned south. Amongst the wide circle of prestigious guests were Picasso with his first wife, the Russian ballerina, Olga Khokhlova, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and the Hemingways.

                                    The Murphys with guests on the beach 1923 at La Garoupe

"In 1924, the Murphys purchased a ‘seaside chalet’ near Plage de la Garoupe and christened it Villa America. The summer season was here to stay. Taste that mythical Jazz Age by dropping in to the Art Deco piano bar at the Hotel Belles-Rives, once Villa Saint-Louis, the rented home of the Fitzgeralds and incarnated in his classic novel, Tender is the Night. Sip your cocktail and gaze out at the emerald sea bobbing with linen-white yachts while a photograph of Josephine Baker with her pet cheetah gazes down on you.

"In 1923, while in Monaco, Coco Chanel was introduced to the stupendously wealthy 2nd Duke of Westminster, known to friends as “Bendor”. The affair between designer and Bendor lasted a decade. While out sailing along the coast in the company of his couturier mistress, the Duke spotted a plot of land on a terraced hillside in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. It had been part of the private hunting grounds of Monaco’s royal family. Bendor bought it and gifted it to Coco. When she returned to Paris, Coco was seen in a backless dress and bronzed skin. Until this time, to sport a tan was judged vulgar. Only peasants were bronzed, but Chanel’s appearance in the city of fashion confirmed that sunbathing was the new mode. In 1928, Coco built the exquisite villa, La Pausa on the plot Bendor had given her. This hillside property with its lazy summer warmth remained her residence until 1953. 

                                          Bendor and Coco on his yacht, The Flying Cloud 
"If you are fortunate to have friends like Bendor to take you sailing, the passage between Menton and Cannes gives marvellous coastal sightings of many iron-gated, stone-walled Belle Epoque mansions clinging to the rocks. Otherwise, healthy walks along the littoral offer you glimpses into the mysteries of how the other half lives. Who knows you might cruise by Ecstasea, built for Roman Abramovich, or Zaca, anchored in Pont de Fontvielle. One time it was Errol Flynn’s and it is whispered his ghost walked it decks at twilight. His other yacht, Sirocco, is docked near St Tropez and has been rechristened, Karenita.

                                                                          Léon Blum

"In 1936, the Jewish socialist and three times Prime Minister, Léon Blum, revolutionised France by bringing in two weeks annual paid holiday for all employees. For the first time, the ordinary man could take a vacation. The luxurious Le Train Bleu, the Calais-Mediterranée Express which, apart from the Great War years, had been transporting the elite to the south since 1886, added second and third class sleeping carriages. Middle and working class families were off to the seaside and the Riviera was to change forever.

"During WWII, the Cote d’Azur as a holiday destination closed down, but once the Allies had liberated the coast in 1944, the French Riviera’s infrastructure grew rapidly. In 1946, the Cannes Film Festival was inaugurated. Cannes was glamorous and chic while the international airport of Nice opened up the region to mass tourism. And so it has remained.

"Provence-Côte d’Azur offers everything. Walking tours, camp sites, Greco-Roman history, vineyards, chic beaches, glitzy casinos, dozens of music or flower festivals, luxury villas, open-top cars, magnificent art galleries, Provençal markets. In winter, every Sunday coaches depart Nice airport at 9am delivering skiers one hour inland to the slopes, then back home in time for dinner. The spectrum is as broad as you wish and it’s all yours. Léon Blum would have been proud."

I hope, if you have enjoyed this little snippet of South of France history, you might be tempted by THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER. It is set on a vineyard set back from the French Riviera coast. A love story with family secrets at its heart.


Miranda Miller said...

I'm so sorry to hear your sad news, Carol. Good luck with your new book.

michelle lovric said...

Carol, how very sad about your mother. I hope that she had been able to read an advance copy of what sounds an incredible novel. How proud she must have been of you!

Your part of the world sounds irresistible.

Sue Purkiss said...

Very sorry to hear your sad news - but very happy to hear the good news about your novel! Will send for a copy and review it on my blog.

Leslie Wilson said...

So sorry to hear about your mother. Take care of yourself. I did enjoy this blog, though. I loved the anecdote about Alice de Rothschild and Queen Vic. We had an enchanting holiday in Cipieres about twelve years ago or more, and visited Grasse, and also Vence, which we liked very much. You're lucky to live in such a beautiful part of the world.