In the footsteps of Jean Cocteau
One of the appeals of Menton on the French Riviera is the largest museum dedicated to the works of Jean Cocteau (1889-1963), a famous French artist who died fifty years ago. For all his adult life Cocteau kept strong links with the Riviera. Cocteau, the great poet, was into everything connected to art, being an illustrator and a designer, a filmmaker, a writer of novels and plays as well as creating wall frescoes and ceramics. He was a true renaissance man.
Poetry was the thin creative line that connected all his activities. As he said, ‘all artworks are poetry’. His close friends included people like Coco Chanel, Edith Piaf, the dancer Diaghilev, Pablo Picasso, Matisse, Yul Brynner, the composer Erik Satie and the actor Jean Marais, his long-time lover. He was twice the president of the jury of the Cannes’s Festival.
I was dying to visit the incredible Cocteau museum which has only been open eighteen months. I flew to Nice – the nearest international airport- to wander along the Riviera in the footsteps of Cocteau. This journey would take me to three main places, Villefranche -sur-Mer, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and Menton itself.
The peninsula of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat could be the most hyped place in the region. Nonetheless, the quiet atmosphere of Cocteau’s time has not changed. Hidden in the green landscapes of the cape are private villas and secluded properties of the wealthy who want to enjoy sunny holidays without being disturbed.
Among the accommodation jewels of the area you will find the Royal Riviera Hotel a 5 star hotel, located far away from noise and the crowds – a place where lying on the beach or sitting in the quiet, shaded gardens listening to the cicadas provides instant relaxation. Concentrating on a discreet and efficient service the cuisine follows the same path. The menu is totally seasonal, depending largely on products from local markets. The chef offers a cuisine that is simple and tasty. Why not try the ‘seabass with chickpea pancake, zucchini, tomato and tangy zabaglione’?
Why mention the Royal Riviera over other hotels? Obviously for the quality of its services, but also because the hotel offers a special Cocteau package that includes entrance to the Chapel of Villefranche and the Cocteau Museum in Menton as well as an opportunity – not available to many – to make a private visit to Cocteau’s secret place, the Villa Santo Sospir.
After his Villefranche’s period, in 1949 Cocteau met Francine Weisweiller a wealthy young woman who invited him to stay in her villa, Santo Sospir, which is by the sea. From 1950 until the end of his life Cocteau stayed frequently at the villa. Santo Sospir stimulated his creativity and he began to create frescoes on the walls and decorating the whole house with tapestry, ceramics and lamps. Visiting Santo Sospir is quite difficult as it is only possible to arrange a visit by appointment and the villa, itself, is not easy to find but is fascinating one you arrive. Inside nothing has changed since Cocteau’s last visit. Carole Weisweiller, Francine’s daughter, has kept it intact. Cocteau’s works are all over the house, and when you enter any room, you could be forgiven for expecting to find the master at work.
Although unconnected with Cocteau make time in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat to vist two more villas, the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild and the Villa Kerylos. The Ephrussi was built during the Belle Époque on top of the narrow peninsula overlooking the sea on both sides. With its splendid art collections and its nine exceptional gardens perched above the sea, its one of the jewels of the Riviera.
The Kerylos is easy to reach on foot from the Royal Riviera. It is at the end of the small beach. Also built during the Belle Époque, it’s a stunning and unique reconstruction of a luxurious palace dating from the Greek 2d century BC, totally refurbished and decorated with a modern but quite authentic vision of this period’s style.
Your next visit should be Villefranche-sur-Mer, which is just a stone’s throw from Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. It’s a pretty fishing village nestled in a spectacular circular bay, surely the largest one of the entire Mediterranean Sea. There is a massive citadel overlooking the harbour. The old town is entirely pedestrian but be warned, there are steep slopes and a lot of stairs. The colourful facades of the old houses from pink to all tones of ochre, the small fishermen’s boats slowly swinging in the harbour, a perfect blue sky, the best light you can imagine, will tempt you to stay longer. As it did with Cocteau.
He fell in love with Villefranche-sur-Mer and its inhabitants. For many years at least until 1935, he visited the town time-and-time again, often staying for months at a time. He used to rent a room at the ‘Hotel Welcome‘ that still stands there, belonging to the same family as in his time but having been recently completely renovated. This is a more affordable hotel and Cocteau’s aficionados mingle with holidaymakers who were looking for one of the best views over the bay.
It’s to be found on the fishermen’s quay, facing the sea and on the side of the main square. Ten yards from the ‘Hotel Welcome’, stands the tiny Saint Peter’s Chapel, the private property of the fishermen’s association. In 1957 Cocteau came back to Villefranche and, as a gift to the community, he completely restored and decorated it. The famous Cocteau’s murals alone are worth a visit.
Villefranche-sur-Mer has a lot more to offer to visitors. Don’t miss the maze of small streets and especially the Rue Obscure, the dark street from the middle ages which crawls under the houses. Visit the citadel and its museums. Walk through the dry moat of the citadel to the second small harbour that was once used by the galleys and their slaves.
You’ll need a full day in Villefranche-sur-Mer to do it justice. And to make the most of your visit, why not have dinner at the welcoming Mayssa Beach Restaurant to taste its fresh food and local cuisine, sitting on its terrace right over the sea, probably the best panorama of Cap Ferrat and Villefranche.
Menton is another place that needs a full day. Historically, the first work Cocteau did in Menton was quite late, 1957-1958, when he decorated the walls and ceiling of the wedding room at the Menton town hall as well as creating the famous frescoes ‘les fiancés’ or the ‘Eurydice’s death’. Somewhat oddly, this attracts dozens of Japanese couples every year who come here to renew their wedding wows.
A while later, Cocteau found an old deserted tower – the Bastion – and, in there, he decided to display some of his works in a small museum. Today, between the old market and the sea stands the white building of the new Cocteau museum, the Jean Cocteau Museum-Collection Severin Wunderman. This Rudi Ricciotti designed white jewellery box houses the private collection of Severin Wunderman. He gifted to Menton the world largest collection of Cocteau’s works – 990 pieces of work plus a huge number of artworks belonging to Cocteau’s friends and relatives. The challenge for Ricciotti was to use the fabulous natural light of the Riviera to highlight the world of Cocteau and in the same time to avoid any damage the light could do to the fragile drawings, paintings and pictures that are at the heart of the collection. With an unusual design, the white walls with their mysterious forms allow visitors to peacefully discover the extraordinary creativity of Jean Cocteau. To protect the artworks, a yearly turnover as been scheduled. A part of the museum is dedicated to temporary exhibitions and, says Celia Bernasconi the efficient young curator, many repeaters are expected among the visitors.
In Menton, restaurants are all over the town. Close by the museum and the old market, les Jardins d’Eléonore (www.saveurs-eleonore.fr) is a small restaurant where you can taste the local, traditional food while sitting on the outside terrace. Try the socca – a kind of salted pancake made of chickpea paste- and the homemade Assiette Mentonnaise with a glass of Rosé de Provence. Here you will also find olive oil, fruit jams, wine, honey, all from local producers and available to take back home.
There are frequent flights from many British and Irish airports to Nice on BA, easyJet and others. All three towns are within 25 miles of the airport and are served by taxis and a very inexpensive bus service.
For more information about the Riviera, click here.
Images © Frederic de Poligny