IT'S PICTURE PERFECT! Idyllic: St-Paul-De-Vence, Home to Matisse's Famous Chapel

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FOR SOME of us, the lure of the Big Five lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino just isn't enough. So, what about the Big Five of the art world, for instance? Less thrilling than stalking an elephant, but just as stimulating.

So I devised an art safari that would bring me face-to-face with the lions of modern painting. It would take me to the south of France, not the Serengeti, and to the Cote d'Azur, not Tanzania, but the excitement and exhaustion would be the same.

Paris apart, Nice and its immediate surroundings has the largest number of art galleries of any city in France.

Here, where so many 20thcentury greats chose to settle, I could bag the big five in just four days: Chagall and Matisse in Nice, Picasso in Antibes, and in Vence, in the hills above Nice, the Rosary Chapel designed by Matisse and the Maeght Foundation nearby, a space devoted to contemporary art.

Some of the latter's treasures are on loan until January to the Royal Academy and seeing so many masterpieces by Braque and Giacometti in London made me impatient. I couldn't wait to catch sight of the rest of the collection. So it was that, as temperatures hit 23c every day, I found myself on the French Riviera with a pile of art history books I needed to swot up for the cultural odyssey ahead.

Base camp on arrival was the Chateau Saint-Martin in Vence, 20 minutes by taxi from Nice airport. This swanky hotel, high in the mountains, is on the site of a former Knights Templar castle.

Their 12th-century fortifications and drawbridge still exist, around which a 21st-century hotel, spa and swimming pool have grown up. The views across the Alpes- Maritimes and to the sea, 20 km away, are mesmerising.

From the hotel, the Rosary Chapel is five minutes by cab or a half-hour stroll down the hill.

Matisse, having fallen in love with the intense colours of the south, settled there.

'When I understood that every day, I would see the same light, I could not believe my luck,' he once said.

In his 70s, Matisse was diagnosed with cancer and advertised in the local paper for a nurse, stipulating that she should be 'pretty and young'. He could not know that Monique Bourgeois, the successful candidate, longed to be a nun. When she later joined the Dominican order, Matisse befriended the sisters, creating the most luminous space for the convent as a symbol of his devotion.

Today the chapel, with its famous stained-glass windows in blue, green and yellow, is one of the world's great religious buildings. AFAITH such as Matisse's also built the Maeght Foundation outside the nearby village of St-Paulde-Vence. During the war, Aime and Marguerite Maeght ran a shop in Cannes that sold radios and hardware.

One day, Marguerite put a painting by an unknown local artist, Pierre Bonnard, in the window, sold it for a huge sum and struck a lasting friendship with Bonnard and his circle.

By the Fifties, they were wealthy art dealers. …