Magazine article The Spectator

Notes On.The South of France

Magazine article The Spectator

Notes On.The South of France

Article excerpt

'Saint-Tropez?' said the French mother of a friend. 'C'est un peu... "tacky".' She was distressed to think of our taking a house there -- really, we were nearer Saint Paul de Vence, where they make artists, than San Trop, where they make tanning lotion -- and suggested we stay with her in Provence. She promised lavender fields, cathedrals, boules in shady squares. 'Vraiment civilisé.'

There are two souths of France. The tacky and the civilisé. Those who go to Aix (for Cézanne), Arles (Van Gogh) and Avignon (popes) think themselves a baskets-and-espadrilles cut above the Odabash girls and Vilebrequin boys of Cannes, Saint-Tropez and Cap d'Antibes hoping to be asked to a yacht. 'Why don't you own a place like this?' cat burglar Cary Grant asks heiress Grace Kelly as they tour a villa in To Catch a Thief. 'Palaces are for royalty,' she replies. 'We're just common people with a bank account.'

The Riviera fantasy is Princess Grace and Françoise Sagan: fast cars with the hoods down, affairs with married men, midnight love-making, sleeping till noon, swimming in too blue seas, a grand hotel on the Croisette, drowsy bellboys. 'I can see that there's nothing will cheer you up but luxury and alcohol,' says Luc to Dominique in Sagan's Un certain sourire before seducing her out of her 'quite schoolgirlish pajamas' in a Cannes hotel suite.

Luxury. Alcohol. Common people with big bank accounts. Thank you, but I'd rather have Nîmes. See the Maison Carrée lit up at night, and drive out to the Pont du Gard for an aqueduct selfie (#nextMaryBeard). When Henry James saw the Pont he wrote that its monumental hugeness left him with 'nothing to say'. …

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