Thursday, 22 April 2010

Sampling the Monaco Lifestyle

While touring the south of France, Jules and I had planned to head over the border to visit one of the smallest countries in the world, Monaco. We were familiar with this place for two main reasons…the much-publicised marriage of Grace Kelly to Prince Rainier and the Monaco Grand Prix, which was annually telecast in Australia in the early hours of the morning. We were also aware that this place was regarded as the playground of the wealthy, who were understandably attracted to the region both for it’s climate and the fact that Monaco has no personal income taxes!

So on a wonderfully sunny day, we hopped on a train from Nice and within half an hour we were there. Emerging from the station we were immediately reminded that it was indeed Grand Prix time, with temporary stands being set up all around the major streets and foreshore. The big race was only one week away and there was plenty of activity to be observed. We immediately decided to walk the racetrack, something we were very familiar with from those telecasts, only to find that what television doesn’t quite convey is the steepness of the terrain. Our admiration of those drivers went up a notch when we saw first hand the narrowness of the streets and the tightness of the curves. We headed past the famed Casino Royale and down the hill toward the coastline and the familiar motorway tunnel that runs parallel. As is tradition at this time of the year in Monaco, they hold a Classic Car Grand Prix as a warm up event for the Formula One race so we were able to walk down toward the pits to watch the owner/drivers preparing for their weekend race. Unlike for the F1’s, the public are quite welcome and despite the fact that we are not at all ‘petrol heads’ we quite enjoyed inspecting their wonderfully expensive toys as if we knew something about racing.

Over at the marina it is similarly busy, with boats from all over the world taking up prime positions. Well, they were not really boats in the normal sense, more like floating mansions; often several stories high and complete with jacuzzi. Each seemed to have a large crew either polishing the brass or hosing down the deck, with many from Australia, judging by their accents. The owners and guests were easy to distinguish by their white trousers, suntans and lavish display of jewelry. This seemed to be quite a common look amongst the ‘beautiful people’ of Monaco and as we walked around, admiring the countless exotic cars, it all seemed disturbingly perfect. There just didn’t seem to be too many ‘everyday’ folk living here, everyone appeared to have either just stepped out of a glossy magazine or off the set of a James Bond movie!

For a broader vantage point, we again headed upward, following a rocky ridge to one of the highest spots in Monaco that provides the best view of the city and marina. Not surprisingly it was the location of the Royal Palace, which is not an overly grand building, but nonetheless had all the usual trappings, including large cannons and immaculately dressed guards complete with sky blue pith helmets. Here the main parade square was lined with traditionally styled colonial buildings that appeared to have been painstakingly restored. Upon closer inspection, there seemed to be a sense of ‘manufactured oldness’ about them that gave the scene an almost theme park quality. Much like many of the local residents, it all looked a little too perfect to be true. Although being quite beautiful in itself, we felt that the area surrounding the Palace didn’t look historically believable. Perhaps, the angles were simply too straight, the windows were too much in alignment or that there wasn’t a crack to be seen! Monaco had turned out to be pretty much what we thought it might be, a very beautiful and picturesque playground for the rich and famous! However, what had really surprised us was our reaction to it. Rather than being envious of their lifestyle, we felt distinctively out of step with it all. It was not just the obvious wealth, but rather the apparent superficial nature of life there. To us it had tended to lack much of the character we had found in many of the towns in France. While Monaco appeared to be perfect, the truth is that the rest of the world isn’t. We had realized that sometimes it is diversity, age and the imperfections of life that create the unfathomable characteristics that make a place unique. It's something that simply can’t be bought.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Time in Toulouse

The airlines are grounded due to the huge volcanic eruption in Iceland, but that won’t affect us, as we are off to Toulouse by train. Toulouse, or to be more specific the nearby town of Albi, is the birth place of the artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec who has been the topic of many a history lesson in my art classes. Leaving Montparnasse station it only takes us a few hours to arrive at the ‘pink city’ as Toulouse is often referred, due to the frequent use of pale red terracotta brickwork on most of it’s early buildings. One of the most prominent buildings is La Basilique Saint Sernin, which is conveniently opposite our hotel and provides a spectacular view particularly at night when it is lit up like a Christmas tree, which just happens to be similar to it’s shape. There are many other wonderful buildings here that date back to the eleventh and twelfth century. The city itself is a lovely place to wander the narrow lanes that lead to a wide flowing river. There you can see structures such as Pont Neuf and Dome De La Grave, which are very reminiscent of Italy…great for drawing. There is also Foundation Bemburg, which is a fabulous private eclectic collection of art, housed in a beautifully restored residence. Our aim is to eventually get to visit the town of Albi but although we have dodged the plane disruptions we can’t avoid a typically French phenomenon…the train strike! This, compounded with me catching a heavy cold, sees us restricted just to Toulouse, but that is fine as it’s a nice place to just sit in the plaza (or place) and watch the world go by.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Stepping into Cezanne’s studio

Arriving in Aix en Provence, Jules and I are immediately struck by the beauty of this southern French township. It has all of the things you imagine a French provincial village might have …classic architecture, stately fountains and quaint cobblestone laneways. In short, it’s a pretty nice place to live! With that in mind, it is not totally surprising that the great Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cezanne (who was born here in 1839) chose to live and work here throughout his life. The building that housed his original studio can be found in the centre of town, although little evidence remains except a small plaque on the wall. However, his final studio still remains and can be viewed pretty much in its original state. The studio was built 1901, once his status as an important Modernist had been established. Cezanne chose a nice patch of land, high on a hillside overlooking the little township, while also catching the distant view of Mont Sainte Victoire (the subject of many his paintings). After a short walk out of town and up the hill, we found it hidden away amongst the suburbs, which have long since engulfed the area. This is so different to the early photos that we later view, when Cezanne’s studio stood very much alone amongst olive fields. As we enter the gates we are suddenly transformed back to Cezanne’s time, stepping into his rambling garden, which was very much loved by the artist. The studio stands as it did in his day and is a relatively modest two storey stone building. Following Cezanne’s death, it was locked away for many years and so today remains very much as it was toward the end of his life. We make our way up the stairs to the studio itself and notice Cezanne’s bowler hat and coat still hanging in the same place the master artist had left them over a hundred years ago. Large north facing studio windows allow natural light to flood into the room, which is filled with familiar objects, so often seen in Cezanne’s later still-life paintings. Today, the masterpieces are gone…tucked away safely in national galleries around the world. While the studio itself, now quite sparse and humble in appearance, still remains a significant place as it was witness to the birth of many great works. It is also a room that attracted many famous visitors. Some of them prominent artists of the day such as Matisse and Picasso, but also in later years less anticipated figures such as the likes of Marilyn Monroe. Even today and despite the many thousands of visitors, the studio has a particularly calm and tranquil feel and on a warm summers day it is not to difficult to imagine how Cezanne became so inspired. The colours and the clear air remain, as does the special charm of southern France and in particular, Aix en Provence.