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Travel review: Following in the footsteps of the French impressionists

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Famously home to the Impressionists, Adam Jacot de Boinod follows in the footsteps of Matisse and finds a corner of France which is as pretty as a picture.

the great artist Henri Matisse declared: “Impressionism is the newspaper of the soul”. The Côte d’Azur, or if you prefer the French Riviera, is where so many of the Impressionists and their descendants came and plied their trade and nowhere (not even in Italy) are there as many collections, museums, houses or studios devoted to individual artists.

The Matisse Museum in Nice.

The Matisse Museum in Nice.

To escape the Second World War and the bombing of Nice, Matisse took himself up to Vence, my first port-of-call, and what a special experience it was to pop in on his creation, the Matisse Chapel. Between 1947 and 1951, ageing and unwell, he struck up a strong rapport with his nurse from the neighbouring Dominican nunnery and offered to convert the garage into a chapel especially for her.

It was, he considered, “despite all its imperfections my masterpiece”. It’s sublime and heavenly using outside light to influence the inside ambience and consists of only three colours: green, to represent nature, blue, the sky, and yellow for the presence of God. The blue reflects through the stained glass into purple and the green into a paler and more tranquil version, with only the yellow symbolically retaining its ethereal constancy.

The chapel has stayed ahead of its time as a wonderfully modern conception. It is steeped in further symbolism. Both the altar raised upon only one step, made of local stone the colour of Eucharist bread and carrying a simple sinuous metal cross on which Christ hangs, and the simple wooden lectern are set on a daring diagonal to address both congregations (one in the transept the other the nave).

The confessional is reduced to a simple radiator and cushion-free wooden chair for the priest and an arabesque door. His belief was that ‘a work of art should be a site of exchange and communication”. And I sensed strongly the stillness and light and the clarity and simplicity giving the chapel a joyful and inspiring feel.

The pretty hilltop village of  Cimiez.

The pretty hilltop village of Cimiez.

Down to La Colle sur Loup I drove for lunch at Alain Llorca’s eponymous restaurant (alainllorca.com). He certainly pushes the boat out.

Then lower down the valley, to Cagnes-sur-Mer, to where Renoir had his house. It’s been kept intact as a refreshing reminder of a former age complete with selected works as well as his easel and wheelchair. In the grounds and preserved amongst a less inspiring town below are old sloping orchards of fabulously knotted olive trees.

Up I went to the old town of Mougins to dine at L’Amandier (amandier.fr), a choice restaurant, full of character and authenticity. Picasso discovered the town in 1936 but it was in his last 12 years, ending in 1973, that he lived close to a chapel and amongst birdsong at le Mas Notre-Dame de Vie. I stayed close by at the Le Manoir de l’Etang (manoir-de-letang.com). It’s a tasteful, homely farmhouse, designed by Maurice Gridaine and converted into an hotel the 1950s. All is serene and calming. The shutters afford views of the municipal park where the evergreens are enhanced by the clear blue sky and belie the winter season.

From every level the view is wonderful. It’s set in four hectares of land where five horses roam near to the pond where lily pads from Tokyo turn fuschia-coloured in the summer. I ate that night outside nearby at Les Rosées (lesrosees.com). I felt very much at home in this hidden treasure of a restaurant.

The Picasso Museum  is set impressively in prime position right beside the sea.

The Picasso Museum is set impressively in prime position right beside the sea.

The next morning I drove down to Antibes to have lunch at La Closerie (patisserie-cottard-antibes.fr), a family-run patisserie cum restaurant. And onto the Picasso Museum, which is set impressively in prime position right beside the sea and with snow-capped mountains of the Maritime Alps behind. It is housed in the Chateau Grimaldi, a magnificent seaside bastion.

I then visited the Bonnard Museum at nearby Le Cannet, the bustling suburb of Cannes, to enjoy a small selection of his works that reflected his years living in the village, painting in his joyous and rich palette of colours.

That night I drove back down to Antibes to eat at Le Figuier de Saint-Esprit (restaurant-figuier-saint-esprit.com), the family-run gourmet restaurant on the coast alongside the Picasso museum.

Into Nice and the smart hilltop neighbourhood of Cimiez, to my last exploration, the Matisse Museum where I learnt about his time in, and influence from, the Algerian town of Biskra, before covering the familiar ‘Jazz’ cut outs of his later period. To my surprise, the final room showed his plans for the chapel in Vence. The paintings and collages showed how he put it all together and my walking into the room acted as the classic top and tail to my visit.

I didn’t have time for the Chagall museum in Nice or the Musée National Fernand Léger in Biot, the Musée Fragonard in Grasse or, further afield, the town of Arles, where van Gogh lived or sadly Aix-en-Provence the location of Cézanne’s studio.

As Matisse said of Nice “Most people come here for the light and the picturesque scenery. Me, I’m from the North. What fixed me on this place were the reflections of coloured light in January and the radiance of the day”.

One day perhaps the glory days may come back to the Riviera, in style and comfort and off-season.

Classic Collection Holidays (0800 047 1064, classic-collection.co.uk) offers three nights at Hotel Hermitage Monte-Carlo from £795 to £1,530 per person, depending on season. Prices based on two adults sharing on a bed & breakfast basis and include return flights from London Gatwick (flights available from a further 12 UK airports) to Nice and private transfers.