A fortnight in Provence

Villefranche-sur-Mer FR

After a night of partying on a yacht in the harbor at Villefranche-sur-Mer, three young couples decided to come ashore for breakfast.

They tied their dinghy up to a small dock and chose a café on the promenade. They ordered espressos, croissants, and champagne.

On a dare, one of the young women ran to the end of the dock and dove into the harbor. Her companions cheered. Not to be outdone, her boyfriend followed suit.

As they clambered onto the dock, an employee of a harbor-cruise company informed them diving from the company’s dock and swimming in the harbor were not allowed.

The boyfriend resented being told what he couldn’t do. The two argued. Quickly, tempers flared.

The boyfriend shoved the cruise employee into the water. His mates pulled him out and confronted the partiers. A larger fight erupted between the two groups, as punches were thrown by both sides.

Saint Michael’s Church, Villefranche-sur-Mer FR
Saint Michael’s Church, Villefranche-sur-Mer

Breakfast brawl

More of the combatants were pushed into the water. Some were kicked as they tried to climb out. Bodies fell against café tables, knocking chairs into the street. Faces were bloodied.

The police arrived. The skirmish quieted, then re-erupted. Finally, the yacht partiers were perp-walked to their dinghy. They motored from the dock, hurling threats. Town residents watched in shock from their balconies.

Okay, some of this is conjecture on my part. I couldn’t understand the shouting, because it was in French. I have no idea who the participants were or what the fight was about—but the violence was real.

A few thousand years ago in a nearby harbor, another fight was broken up—this time by the Romans.

Several seaports along the Mediterranean coast, including Marseille, Antibes, and Nice (current names), were colonized by the Greeks between 600 and 400 BCE.

By the mid-100s BCE, the Greeks were trading with the Romans from these ports. When Marseille was attacked by Gallic tribes, the Greeks asked Rome for protection.

Villefranche-sur-Mer FR

The Romans took advantage of the invitation. With a foot in the door, Rome pushed it open, secured the seacoast against the Gauls, and extended its domain all the way to Spain and Portugal.

In 121 BCE, the southeastern region of what is now France became Rome’s first province beyond the Alps. The Romans named the region Provincia Romana.

Now, it is called Provence. It extends from the Rhône River in the west to France’s border with Italy in the east. The strip of land nearest to the coast is the French Riviera (also called the Côte d’Azur).

Following my tour of eastern France (Please see “A lot of Gaul.”), I relaxed for a couple of weeks in Provence.

Yacht rock

From Marseille, the train followed the sunny coastline of the Riviera, passing houses of pale orange, pink, and beige. In between, I glimpsed the Mediterranean, the color of the sky—azur, as they say. I was heading to Antibes.

Antibes FR

Over the centuries, Provence was largely ignored.

The region was isolated and poor. The inhabitants fished and grew olives.

That began to change in the 1800s when the British upper class realized that the sunny French coast provided a pleasant alternative to cold English winters.

Health resorts sprouted. Developers sensed opportunity and built a coastal railway, which eventually connected to Paris.

Chic hotels opened. Gambling was legalized in Monaco. Soon, European aristocrats, such as Queen Victoria and Tsar Alexander II, were visiting.

Ever since, the French Riviera has been a magnet for the wealthy. For proof, one need look no further than the marina at Antibes.

Throughout history, the old port in Antibes has harbored seagoing vessels from fishing boats to warships. Today, it is the largest marina in Europe with over two thousand berths. Many of them are allotted to multistory luxury yachts.

Fort Carré, Antibes FR
Fort Carré, Antibes

No standard for categorizing yachts by size exists. However, in rough figures, a regular yacht is between forty and eighty feet long.

A superyacht (sometimes called a megayacht) is between eighty and three hundred feet, and a gigayacht is longer than three hundred feet.

Currently, the largest yacht in the world is over six hundred feet in length. A 700-footer is set to launch in 2024.

Gigayachts may have tennis courts, swimming pools, drones, and helicopters on board. Antibes’s marina can accommodate up to twenty of them. I walked along the yacht dock Billionaire’s Row, passing billions of dollars of pleasure boats.

Overlooking the harbor is the star-shaped Fort Carré. Built upon Roman ruins in the 1500s, the fort briefly jailed Napoleon Bonaparte during the French Revolution. Fort Carré served as the hideaway for Maximillian Largo, the bad guy, in the 1983 Bond movie Never Say Never Again.

Church of the Immaculate Conception, Antibes FR
Church of the Immaculate Conception, Antibes

All that jazz

In the 1920s, wealthy American Frank-Jay Gould developed several flamboyant hotels and casinos in the French Riviera, including those in Juan-les-Pins, a community one mile from the center of Antibes.

Numerous celebrities were drawn to the resort, including Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino, Marlene Dietrich, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. They were attracted to the climate, the scenery, and the lifestyle.

And by lifestyle, I mean parties. Americans Gerald and Sara Murphy threw lavish, all-night raves for the celebrities who flocked to the coast.

Fitzgerald wrote, “One could get away with more on the summer Riviera, and whatever happened seemed to have something to do with art.”

The Murphys, friends with Cole Porter, were afficionados of jazz music, which had been introduced to the French by African-American soldiers during World War I. Jazz was the soundtrack of the Roaring Riviera.

The Murphys were immortalized by Fitzgerald in Tender is the Night, written while he stayed with them on Cap d’Antibes.

Antibes FR

In the novel, the main character, based on Murphy, says, “I want to give a party where there’s a brawl and seductions and people going home with their feelings hurt and women passing out in the cabinette de toilette.


When the Greeks founded Antibes in the 400s BCE, they selected a rocky hilltop to build their fortress. Later, the Romans commandeered it and proceeded to construct numerous monuments in the town, including theaters, an aqueduct, and baths. Antibes grew into the largest town in Provence.

In the late 1300s a castle was built by the powerful Grimaldi family on the foundations of the forts. (A branch of the Grimaldi family, headed by Prince Albert II, currently rules Monaco.) The city of Antibes acquired it in the 1900s and converted it into a museum.

After World War II, Pablo Picasso was offered the use of the Grimaldi Museum as a studio. He and numerous artists, including Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Renoir, Matisse, Braque, Monet, and Munch, found the region of Provence inspirational.

In 1946, Picasso moved into the castle, along with his painting supplies and a mattress. Due to the shortage of materials, Picasso worked with boat paint from the harbor and house-painting brushes.


Although he spent only a few months in the castle, Picasso was prodigious, creating hundreds of works. When he departed Antibes, he left twenty-three paintings and forty-four sketches to the museum. They reflected his playful mindset at the time, with images of centaurs, fauns, and nymphs.

Later, more pieces were donated by his mistress (and eventual wife) Jacqueline Roque. When Picasso met her at the Madoura Pottery near Antibes, he was seventy-two and she was twenty-six. He painted her portrait over four hundred times.

I visited the Grimaldi Museum, which now houses one of the world’s largest Picasso collections, including the ceramics he produced at Madoura. The paintings and drawings are exhibited in the same space in which they were created.

Corner of Dark and Main

From Antibes, I day-tripped by train along the coast to Nice, Monaco, and Villefranche-sur-Mer.

Saint Peter’s Chapel, Villefranche-sur-Mer

Villefranche is picture-perfect (except for when the street fight, described earlier, was in full swing). Its population is only five thousand.

Colorful facades hug the natural harbor, one of the deepest in the Mediterranean. The old village is the most visited cruise-ship port in France. In town, narrow streets stair-step up the side of the mountain.

One of the artists drawn to the village was Jean Cocteau, a French poet, filmmaker, playwright, novelist, and artist.

Cocteau’s close friends were a who’s who of the times—Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, Marcel Proust, and Edith Piaf. He was influentual in multiple art movements, including cubism, surrealism, and Dadaism.

In the mid-1950s, toward the end of his career, he volunteered to paint a church in Villefranche.

Saint Peter’s Chapel dates to the 1500s. Later in the millennium, fisherman used it as a meeting hall and a storage shed for their nets and tackle. After obtaining their permission, Cocteau set about painting the run-down building.

Rue Obscure, Villefranche-sur-Mer FR
Rue Obscure, Villefranche-sur-Mer

When I stepped inside of the tiny chapel, I entered what appeared to be the pages of a giant religious-themed coloring book.

The walls are covered to the vault with drawings of biblical figures, fish, fishermen, fishwives, children, doves, angels—even a gypsy-jazz guitarist.

Cocteau defined his two-dimensional cartoon-like images with simple, black outlines. He colored inside the lines with pastels. The simplicity of his design is intriguing.

Afterward, I searched for the Rue Obscure, the Dark Street. This underground street, a tunnel really, was formed when a new fortification wall was built outside of the city’s original wall in 1260, thus creating an in-between walkway. Soldiers patrolled the path between the walls.

Eventually, dwellings were attached to the walls and roofs extended to cover the walkway. Now, Rue Obscure is an eerie underground passage through the city. It has served as a wine cellar, a goat pen, and a movie set.

Nice FR

Further up the hillside, a hidden mansion called Nellcôte overlooks the sea. In the early 1970s, the members of the Rolling Stones and their friends lived, worked, and partied there.

Villefranche translates to free port, a haven from taxes.

Coincidentally, the Stones were in France to avoid paying taxes in England. As exiles, they recorded the album Exile on Main St. in Nellcôte’s basement.

“It’s got a raw sound quality,” said Mick Taylor, former Stones’s guitarist, “and the reason for that is that the basement was very dingy and very damp.”

And hot. “. . . down there,” said Keith Richards, “it was Dante’s Inferno.”

True colors

In the weeks following the Nazi invasion of France in 1940, thousands of refugees, many of them Jews, fled to the Riviera to avoid capture.

Among the fugitives were prominent artists, including Marc Chagall. Trapped behind enemy lines, he and his wife were arrested in Marseille.


Chagall was born in a region of Russia that is now the country of Belarus. He spent most of his life in France.

His creations feature images from Jewish folk culture portrayed in vibrant colors. Picasso said of him, “When Henri Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is.”

During the war, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City added Chagall’s name to a list of prominent artists whose lives were at risk.

A network of volunteers led by Varian Fry, an American journalist, and Hiram Bingham IV, an Americal diplomat, ran an unofficial operation to rescue artists and writers from occupied Europe.

Fry managed to have Chagall released from jail and Bingham provided him with a forged visa. He and his paintings made it safely to the United States. Following the war, he returned to the Riviera to work.

Chagall’s stained glass windows appear in cathedrals, synagogues, and museums all over the world.

Chagall Museum, Nice FR
Chagall Museum, Nice

I visited some of his work at the Chagall Museum in Nice. The museum’s exhibits were installed during the artist’s lifetime and under his direction. Most interpret stories of the Old Testament.

Chagall continued to donate art to the museum in the country he once fled until his death in 1985 at the age of ninety-seven.

House rules

Disney World is known for its cleaning protocols. Every night, the Haunted Mansion is dusted, Splash Mountain is drained, and Main Street USA is power-washed. Not a speck of trash survives.

Although Monaco is not one of the countries featured at Epcot’s World Showcase, the principality would fit right in. It is squeaky-clean.

I have never detrained at a more immaculate stop than the Monaco-Monte-Carlo railway station. Above ground, the streets are free of litter; the walls unblemished by graffiti.

Statue of Apollo, Place Masséna, Nice FR
Statue of Apollo, Nice

Possibly, the city, I mean country, is easy to keep clean because of its size. Monaco is the second smallest city-state in the world after Vatican City. At three-quarters of a square mile, it is smaller than Central Park in New York City.

Forty-thousand people live in the principality, many of them to avoid paying taxes. On a per-person basis, Monaco is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Over thirty percent of its residents are millionaires.

Monaco is also one of the most expensive places in the world. Police are omnipresent, presumably guarding all of that wealth. There is one cop for every seventy-three people.

According to Greek myth, Heracles (Hercules to the Romans) constructed the road along the coast between Italy and Spain.

Over the centuries, Monaco passed between iterations of Italy, Spain, France, and Germany. After World War II, it became independent. Sort of. France provides all of its utility services, as well as its military defense. (Monaco is embedded within the borders of France.)

The single temple in the area was dedicated to him. Monoikos, meaning single house, evolved to Monaco. The principality’s deepwater harbor is called Port Hercules.

Place Masséna, Nice FR
Place Masséna, Nice

I walked up the steep ramp to Palace Square for the view over the harbor. Guards dressed in white strutted in front of the Prince’s Palace.

Nearby, I visited Saint Nicholas Cathedral, where Prince Rainier and Princess Grace were married in 1956. They are both buried inside.

The royal couple’s son, Prince Albert II, helps govern Monaco along with a prime minister (appointed by him) and an elected national council.

Touring Monaco doesn’t take long. In a few minutes, I walked from one end of town to the other, from the palace to the casino. On the way, I passed luxury condos, luxury hotels, luxury botiques, and banks.

The hill to the casino is narrow and steep. Once a year it serves as a section of the racetrack for the Monte Carlo Grand Prix. In front of the casino, however, Rolls-Royces are preferred to Formula One race cars.

I stepped inside the casino to check out the glitz. The atrium is as far as lowly tourists can go.

Port Hercules, Monaco
Port Hercules, Monaco

The opening of the casino and the railway station in the 1800s kick-started Monaco’s economy. Since then, the principality has become a theme park for the wealthy. The venues where they play—the casino, hotels, restaurants, and night clubs—are all majority-owned by the royal family and the government.

The house always wins.

Blue fountains

After their conquest of Gaul, the Romans expanded several Gallic settlements, including Orange, Vaison-la-Romaine, and Aix-en-Provence (current names).

Aix was founded around hot springs as Aquae Sextiaein 123 BCE.

It was the capital of Provence during the Middle Ages.

Prince’s Palace, Monaco MN
Prince’s Palace, Monaco

A broad avenue, Cours Mirabeau, lined on both sides with sycamore trees, divides the city. Once located on the avenue was the Deux Garçons brasserie, frequented by Paul Cézanne, Émile Zola, and Ernest Hemingway. Picasso owned a nearby villa, where he and his second wife Jacqueline Roque are buried.

Cézanne loved Aix-en-Provence and its surrounding landscape. He was born there and is buried there.

Aix is sometimes referred to as the city of a thousand fountains. (Actually, there are twenty-seven in the old part of town.)

Jean Cocteau wrote:

Aix, a blind man would think it was raining,
But if he could see without his cane,
He’d see a hundred blue fountains
Singing the praises of Cézanne.

Theater districts

As far back as the Bronze Age, a Gallic tribe populated the river valley near today’s town of Vaison-la-Romaine. Under the direction of their conquerors, the Gallo-Romans built aqueducts, a courthouse, temples, and thermal baths.

Castle of the Counts of Toulouse, Vaison-la-Romaine FR,
Castle of the Counts of Toulouse, Vaison-la-Romaine

Several expansive villas and a theater have been excavated, although much more remains buried beneath Vaison’s modern streets.

Conflict during the 1500s and 1600s drove the citizens to the safety of the more defensible hill across the river.

There, they refortified an ancient fortress, built in the 1100s.

Today, the old castle on top of the hill is a shell. On the side of the hill is a maze of narrow lanes and a colony of artists, writers, and actors.

Connecting the two sides of the town, the old and the newish, is a Roman bridge, built in the first century CE. In 1992, it survived a devastating flash flood that killed forty people and destroyed newer bridges.

I stayed in a creaky hotel clinging to the side of the rampart beneath the old fortress. From there, I day-tripped to Orange, another Roman city. Orange’s theaterwas built around 25 BCE. It is considered the best preserved in Europe.

Vaison-la-Romaine FR

Roman authorities used theater to indoctrinate citizens into their culture and distract them from politics. Sort of like NFL football.

Studio in the south

On the train to Arles I sat next to a young Russian woman. She is a manager of a graphic-design studio in Moscow. Perhaps, with her artist’s eye for color, she noticed Ukraine’s blue-and-yellow flag flying from city halls throughout France. I didn’t bring it up.

Vincent Van Gogh was intrigued by Arles. He lived there for part of 1888 and 1889 in the hope of starting an artists’ colony with Paul Gauguin. Meanwhile, he produced over three hundred paintings and drawings, including many of his most well-known.

I visited the settings of a few of his images. The house in The Yellow House is gone (hit by a bomb in 1944), but the building behind it looks the same. The bridge in Starry Night over the Rhône has been replaced, but the river still shimmers.

Roman bridge, Vaison-la-Romaine

A café in the location of Café Terrace at Night leverages its association with Van Gogh. It glows yellow in Place du Forum, once the site of a Roman forum.

Near Arles, Van Gogh roamed the countryside in search of subjects, painting olive orchards, vineyards, and wheat fields in vivid colors. He painted sunflowers to decorate his room.

When Paul Gauguin visited, Van Gogh’s mental health was deteriorating. He suffered depression, drank heavily, and neglected his physical health. In a rage at Gauguin, he mutilated his own ear with a razor.

The police checked him into a hospital, Hôtel-Dieu of Arles (now Espace Van Gogh Cultural Center). In its center I found the setting for The Courtyard of the Hospital in Arles, still landscaped with flowers and a fountain.

At the request of Arles’s residents, Van Gogh left town and was admitted into the Saint-Paul asylum in nearby Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.

Within in two years of leaving Arles, Van Gogh committed suicide. Despite his vision and his talent, he died a pauper at the age of thirty-seven. Shortly before his death, his work was included in an exhibit in Paris. Claude Monet said it was the best in the show.

Roman theater, Orange FR
Roman theater, Orange

From the deep

Modern Arles has a population of fifty thousand, but Roman Arles was twice as big. The Romans took over the town in 123 BC and developed it into a major waypoint between Italy and Spain.

They dug a canal to the nearby Mediterranean Sea and built the first bridge over the River Rhône. As was their custom, the Romans beefed up the town’s infrastructure with an amphitheater, theater, circus, triumphal arch, forum, mill, baths, and defensive walls.

Remains of these monuments are scattered all around town.

Arles Ancient History Museum holds more than seventeen thousand locally-excavated items, including Greek and Roman sculptures.

The museum’s prize exhibit, though, is Arles Rhône 3, a nearly intact Roman barge discovered on the bottom of the River Rhône.

Location of Van Gogh’s “Café Terrace at Night,” Arles

In the 100s CE, the flat-bottomed boat was a trading vessel, carrying goods up and down the Rhône. Near the wreck, divers recovered tools, amorphae, ceramics, coins, and metal ingots, much of it well-preserved.

The goods are proof of the robust trade between Arles, northern Europe, and the rest of the Mediterranean during the Roman era.

In 2011, the one-hundred-foot wooden barge was raised to the surface. Two years later, after a painstaking preservation process, it was put on display.

Near the entrance to the museum, a circus was unearthed in the 1980s. Built in the 100s CE, the huge oval track is big enough to enclose more than eight football fields.

The facility could seat twenty-thousand spectators, thrilling to (and gambling on) the violent action of horse-drawn chariot racing.

Roman amphitheater, Arles FR
Roman amphitheater, Arles

Traditions in transition

The B&B where I lodged was owned by Edward, a British expat. His place is just a couple of blocks from the Roman theater and amphitheater.

While the theater presented plays to highbrows, the amphitheater featured the Roman version of cage fighting—gladiator versus gladiator, gladiator versus wild animal, and wild animal versus wild animal. Built in 90 CE, it seats twenty thousand.

Van Gogh portrayed the Arles arena. In his painting, called Les Arènes, the spectators seem to be paying more attention to each other than the bullfight. The matador and bull are barely visible in the background.

With the fall of the Roman Empire in the 400s, the amphitheater became a walled neighborhood for the population. The structure encircled more than two hundred homes, a public square, and two churches. In the 1700s the medieval houses were razed and the amphitheater restored. Currently, it draws crowds for concerts and bullfighting.

Arles FR

Bullfighting? In France?

While most of France frowns upon bullfighting, the cruel spectacle is allowed in a few areas where it has been a long-standing cultural tradition. Arles is one of the leading venues for French bullfighting.

While I toured, the city was prepping for the weekend’s corridas to be held in the same arena where the Romans enjoyed bloody spectacles. In two thousand years, little has changed.

Or has it?

When I returned from dinner, Edward, the B&B owner, broke the news that Queen Elizabeth II had died. Though an English expat, he seemed shaken by her death.

“She was queen my whole life,” he said.

2 thoughts on “A fortnight in Provence

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