The French Riviera: A Cultural History

The French Riviera: A Cultural History

The French Riviera: A Cultural History

The French Riviera: A Cultural History

Synopsis

The French Riviera conjures up images of yachts on an azure blue sea; the dark green of pines and swaying palms; sports cars on the Corniche roads; the Monte Carlo casino and the Cannes film festival. But as Julian Hale reveals in this fascinating volume, there is another Riviera. Above Monaco towers a ruined reminder of Roman power, the Emperor Augustus' Trophy of the Alps. Monuments to Napoleon and Maginot Line forts testify to turbulent times, while statues and gravestones recall the belle Epoque. Churches and chapels along the coast and in the inland villages contain pictorial and architectural treasures from the Brea family during the Renaissance to Picasso and Matisse in the twentieth century. If the Riviera has had its critics--Somerset Maugham famously called it "a sunny place for shady people"--it remains the epitome of glamour. Julian Hale reveals how a piece of rugged inaccessible coastline was transformed into a byword for luxury and hedonism--but always with a special beauty of its own.

Excerpt

Geologists can form a mental picture of a given area on a map on the basis of the data they have to hand. Most of us need to see with our eyes those topographical features to fix a vivid image in our minds. But in the case of the French Riviera these conjured-up pictures, either imagined or real, are likely to be overridden by photographs, illustrations and artists’ transpositions that are the stuff of school and guide books, posters, postcards and lushly painted landscapes. We are all too familiar—even without maps or visual experience—with the brilliant blue sea lapping the sand and rocks of the coastline; with those ribbons of densely populated areas just behind; with the browner, bumpier slopes further inland, speckled with clumps of green, rising quickly to white-topped peaks in the distance.

But, however familiar, the landscape from Hyères in the west to Menton in the east sends an immediately attractive message to all of us— casual observers, scientists and artists alike. the ancient mountains of the Maures and the Esterel are perhaps the most naturally beautiful areas: the former lower, full of valleys and ravines and covered in forests of pine, cork oak and chestnuts; the latter higher, more rugged and bare and above all made of bright, jagged terracotta-coloured rock. the newer, higher pre-Alp formations have a softer beauty, though in places cut through with spectacular and dizzying gorges. the flatter land between the hills and the sea is rarer but no less enticing, with its citrus and olive groves, fields of lavender, palms, agaves and succulents: what Tobias Smollett in the eighteenth century called the “plain… blowing in full glory, with such beauty, vigour, and perfume, as no flower in England ever exhibited.” and then there are the islands, from Porquerolles off Hyères to Ste.-Marguerite off Cannes, all with their own characters and history, glittering stone slivers chipped off the massive mainland.

It is hard to imagine the French Riviera, this earthly paradise, as inhospitable, harsh, even hostile. Yet that is how it was both imagined and experienced from time immemorial until pleasure-seekers swooped down from the north armed with bank balances and a vision of lotus-eating languor, spotting more potential here than the sardines and olives with which the old inhabitants had to be satisfied. Before modern roads and . . .

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