8 July 2008

The Missing Chateau

Well it’s been a few days since my last Blog and this is due to having guests at the house. Steve, his partner Debbie and Debbie’s daughter Megan popped down from Oldham for a long weekend. Thankfully the weather was quite good for them but typically, the day they return home the scorching (as opposed to merely hot) weather returns. Still I’m sure they were missing the rains of north west England !

Steve and I worked together for several years, brought together by a forward-thinking BT manager who was convinced our complimentary skills would fit perfectly – and he was right. We worked extremely well together on strategic contracts for 6 years until BT made me the proverbial offer I couldn’t refuse (to retire) and I left Steve to his own devices.

It was great to see him once more but now easyJet have returned them to Manchester the house is once again quiet and still. No long outdoor lunches on the terrace or pre-dinner aperitifs, no activity in the pool, no watching the finals of Wimbledon together and as I said, it is unbearably hot – too hot to do anything remotely active so today I decided to take in some of the culture of the area and at the same time try and stay cool.

This morning I was reading of a restored chateau which is in the next village and despite having visited that village dozens of times I had never seen this bit of French heritage. So off I set on my 102cc Honda scooter – the love of my life which gives me so much freedom. I dismiss those who say my lawn mower has a bigger engine (it’s true) and those who mock me in my crash helmet (it looks stupid). I retaliate by pointing out that it costs a princely sum of €6 to fill the tank and that generally lasts me for a whole month ! I can pass road blocks and traffic jams and park basically where I like and the wind rushing past at a stately 50km per hour keeps me amazingly cool.

St Jeannet (see picture) is one of the many perched villages in the area but unlike many of the others it has a magnificent view of the coast. It is also situated directly below a rather imposing mountain outcrop (Baou) which looks as though it’s about to topple at any time and wipe the village off the face of the earth. Despite its beauty and view to die for I’m afraid I would not be able to sleep at night for thinking about the Baou of St Jeannet looming above my bedroom. A potential disaster which obviously did not unduly worry the guy who restored the chateau for the newspaper described the location as ‘at the foot of the Baou’. Well I went up alleyways, down passages and covered every street in the village without seeing any mention or any sign of the chateau – but then again from a previous blog you’ll know that Frenchmen like to keep their houses away from prying eyes however, as this chateau is being set up as a conference venue I was a bit bewildered. Even asking some locals about its location brought smiles and shakes of the head – but then again that might have been their view of me on my Honda !

OK – failed on that one but I had a back-up plan. This whole Provence area was once home to many of the world’s greatest painters. Monet, Picasso, Matisse – they all gathered here for the fabulous light conditions which occur every now and again and which make the countryside look completely different both in colour and perspective. In St Paul De Vence there is a famous hotel/restaurant (the Colombe d’Or) where the artists would gather in the evening having spent the day painting in the local village. Unable to pay for their supper they would leave their afternoon’s work as a sort of barter arrangement or they would sketch on the walls (this was art not vandalism) and today you can still view the drawings of Picasso, Chagale and their compatriots adorning the walls of the restaurant.

In Vence, my nearest town, the artist Matisse became ill and was cared for by a nun from the local Dominican order. She became his confidant and inspiration and when he asked what he could do in return for the years she had spent looking after him she replied that he could 'decorate' one of the rooms in the nunnery. Matisse however went further and spent a total of four years designing and painting the whole of the Chapel, describing his work thus, ‘this work required me 4 years of an exclusive and entiring effort and it is the fruit of my whole working life. In spite of all its imperfections I consider it as my masterpiece’. Now that’s quite a statement from an artist who produced some of the world’s finest paintings.

I’ve passed the Chapel hundreds of times but today on my scooter I was able to park virtually outside (the tourists usually have all the parking places), paid my €3 and went in. It is simple yet stunning with the contemporary looking stained glass windows a riot of colour – not anything you would associate with something as quiet and reflective as a nun’s chapel and of course the brilliant sunshine streams through his windows throwing multi-coloured light rays in all directions. Even the clothes of the order were designed by Matisse and true to form are decorated with brilliant blues, yellows and greens.

So that was my afternoon of culture, a missing chateau and the Matisse Chapel. Tonight I’ll be forced to watch more ‘culture’ – on TV this time – America’s Next Top Model !!


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