Vence en Provence en France, part deux

Okay, the key, take-home lesson to impart to anyone visiting Vence is that you canturn left when leaving the car park beneath the Place du Grand Jardin. Failure to understand this key point led to much unhappiness and tristesse and enforced navigation of the hired Renault Clio twice around incredibly tight and steep little streets and corners of an old Provencal town, feeling more and more like something out of an advert and wondering when I would bump into Nicole and Papa coming the other way.
Later, I would look down from our room in the Hotel La Victoire which was right above that particular junction and see that everyone was turning left, even though I had clearly seen a sign forbidding it. I mean, come on, I know this is France but even so, I thought that level of disregard for basic traffic regulation was unusual. So I went and took a closer look at the no-left-turn sign, and noticed the extra bit beneath it that said something about 13.5 tons.
Dommage. On with the holiday.
La Victoire: tres joli, on one corner of and overlooking the main square, run by a lovely couple; cheap and cheerful, like a bed and breakfast except that you have to order the breakfast. So, not so much B&B as just B. Discount arrangement with the car park so that it’s affordable to leave your car there. Room clean and comfy but at 6’.5” I was glad not to be spending more nights in the just-about double bed. Definitely a warm weather hotel, as the only communal area for sitting in is outside the front door where you can watch the world go by. This is fortuitously next to a very nice ice cream stand.
Wednesday, explored Vence, not just the Matisse museum but elsewhere. The core of the town is a walled off medieval pedestrian-only labyrinth, containing such things as the cathedral, which itself contains a mosaic by Chagall (a lot of artistic stuff in this vicinity) …

… and the first Madonna & Child I have ever seen that makes Mary look young and makes both mother and son look like they’re having fun. Suspiciously like a real mother and son, in fact.
The Chapelle des Penitents Blanc had an interesting art exhibition: the artist had taken a few hundred left profile photos, mirrored them so that the subjects seem to be looking themselves in the eyes, and artistically adorned them according to some internal standard known only to the artist. It said something – no idea what – but I enjoyed looking at them all, which probably means it’s proper art, or something.

May I also recommend the Restaurant Cote Jardin, where we dined simply for its amazing view across the valley. Actually eating out on the terrace would have been counter productive as you go down a few steps and therefore would have the view blocked by the trees; much better to stay up in the main building. We ate there twice, and the first time had the slightly surreal experience of being an English/Swedish couple in the south of France not being able to help eavesdropping on the party of Norwegians at the next table.
Thursday, off down the road to St Paul de Vence, a hilltop town that is even more bijou and medieval and labyrinthine, perched on top of a rocky crag, just begging to be the setting for a fantasy novel …

… and guarded at its main gate by a Transformer.
This is just one of the many arty tableaus and sculptures around the town. Can I be excused for thinking that this one, consisting many dead mobiles, remote controls etc, looks just a little like a very large Jedi training aid?
From here we also got our first glimpse of the Alps, which we had previously forgotten all about. You can see them very plainly from the plane, but for the outbound flight you need to be sitting on the left and we weren’t.

St Paul de Vance sadly knows exactly how alluring it is to tourists and while it may look the part, almost every building is a shop selling something touristy. Still, there are people who live there; there are people who can still call it home. Chagall is buried somewhere in the cemetery at the end, but we signally failed to find the grave, possibly because (having looked it up on Google images) it’s just like – well, a normal grave. How odd.
The road there is hair raising for a Brit accustomed to Oxfordshire, switchbacking along the side of steep hills. Doing a comfortably safe maximum of 50kph I could swear I was hearing men’s voices; then I looked in the mirror and saw we were being tailgated by a couple of racing bikes, with more behind, and what’s more we were obviously holding them up. Eventually they were able to overtake, and we repaid the compliment on the next uphill slope.
Friday, perhaps the biggest miracle of all – finding our way through Nice rush hour not only back to the airport but to the Europcar office within it.
And that is what we did on our holiday.

Sadly, we didn’t stay in a convent

Last year Best Beloved was watching a programme about Henri Matisse, learned of the existence of the Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence, and fell in love with it. At that point it became an intended holiday destination.
It’s attached to a convent of Dominican sisters, which takes visitors, so we did consider staying and I was rather looking forward to the conversation: “so where are you going on holiday, Ben?” / “Oh, I’m going to stay in a convent …”
But no, we went for a more conventional hotel and it was probably the right choice.
Vence is a half hour drive north of Nice. Nice is built on the one flat bit of the Alpes Maritimes, which as the name suggests is otherwise quite hilly. You don’t go far inland before awesomely steep hills and cliffs start arising all around you, verdant and with homes clinging to them until they get so steep people stop trying. Most of Vence is on the top of one of these, spilling down on either side, and to the north it looks across a valley dominated by the Baous – immense, imposing cliffy peaks. At night the valley rings with what at first I thought was a crowd of laryngitic cicadas but eventually realised – no jokes, please – must have been hundreds if not thousands of frogs. The chapel is on the north side of this valley, looking back at the main town.
No photos allowed inside, sadly, so I’ll have to describe it. It’s very simple, and elegant in its simplicity. Not large – a total seating capacity of maybe 50 or so. The floor is paved in white stone, the walls and ceiling are painted white, and even the Matisse drawings (of which more later) are done in simple black strokes on white tiles. The building is L-shaped with the congregation sitting in the longer part and the sisters in the bit around the corner. The altar sits on a dais at an angle to catch both wings of the chapel. You may roll your eyes when I say it reminded me a little of the TARDIS console, classic design, the focal point that quietly presides over the white space around it – but I mean that as praise, honest.
At the end of the chapel behind it, and also on the congregation’s left, tall, thin floor-to-ceiling windows are paned in regular patterns of blue and yellow – very Swedish – which cast a beautiful hue on the white floor and walls. They are exactly the right colours to splash around the cool interior: even when it’s well over 30 degrees outside, you feel cool just looking at the colours.
(An alternative design Matisse considered, of which a mock-up can be seen in the museum, had much more autumnal colours of orange and black and gold. It would have been effective but also incongruous when you knew that outside was actually a nicely sunny Provencal day. Maybe if the chapel had been further north in France.)
There are three large line drawings by Matisse in Good News Bible sort of style: a tall robed figure who is St Dominic to the right of the altar (Dominicans, remember), a Madonna and Child with arms outstretched to the right of the congregation, and the stations of the Cross on the rear wall.
It’s only open at certain times of day and you want to be there right at the opening. There were already about 30 people waiting when we turned up. A brief talk by one of the sisters and then you’re ushered out for the next lot. By the time we emerged, coaches had started pulling up outside.
And now I’ve said all that, it occurs to me there’s nothing to stop me scanning the postcards we bought. Top, looking towards the front; St Dominic and Madonna & Child on right. Bottom, towards the back with stations of the Cross.
More to follow.