Tag Archive: Antibes


We’ve done so much over the holidays that I feel compelled to tidy events into trios. This is the first.

New specs & fresh petite croissants.

My mother, aunt, and husband arrived on the afternoon of the 23rd December, and we started their visit with a lovely dinner at a local (THE local) restaurant, Les Esclapieres. My mother tried foie gras and loved it, I accidentally ordered two bottles of wine rather than two carafes, a translation error resulted in Dani ordering kidneys (which he enjoyed,) and we confirmed that though portion sizes might be smaller in Europe, the overwhelming use of cream in French cooking leaves one feeling very, very full.

The following day we continued in the gastronomic vein by enjoying fresh pastries from the boulangerie before heading out to a drive along the coast of Nice, a walk along the rocky shore, and a very late lunch in Antibes, near the Picasso Museum.

The markets that had been bustling when I went with Caitlin, Emma, and Valerie, were almost nonexistent, answering my question about whether the markets are busy on Christmas eve and day. I guess that’s a no, then.

However, an unexpected highlight was a rather noisy drive-through rally of Vespas! The local Vespa Club had gathered, dressed in Santa hats, and was driving around Antibes, beeping their horns and handing out candy. It was adorable. I must look up London-based Vespa groups.

Aunt Robin & me in Antibes. Note waiter in background with Santa hat.

There was a stressful incident where we parked in the port and had to pay our ticket before exiting, but no one seemed to know where to pay (including other people wandering around with unpaid-for tickets)…Attempting to put my bank card into the machine at the exit made the machine swallow our parking ticket, my bank card, and made the actual screen on the machine crash. Fortunately, a ‘help’ button yielded a real person answering (to my shock, so late on Christmas Eve,) and they returned both my bank card & the ticket, and the barrier miraculously opened. Dani hesitated as if we should still figure out how to pay, and I yelled, ‘Go, just GO!’ We went.

Dani, mom & Robin in the church. Let's play 'spot the skeptic...'

It was already Christmas Eve!

Dani humoured us by joining us for the 11pm ‘Messe’ (Mass) and my mom & aunt were able to experience the local church. It was a rather unusual evening: children were dressed up in Nativity outfits, but there was no Nativity play (unless we’d missed it, but it didn’t seem so: the kids just sat in their usual places in the benches to the right of the altar, tugging at their rope-belted robes and scratching at the metallic cloth wrapped in turbans around their heads,) – and I didn’t recognise too many of the attendees, so perhaps ‘the usuals’ go on Sunday at 10am.

Marius & Rene really  had to run the show; Gabrielle, who was filling in for Verity, was on holiday, so there was no one to play piano. All of the music was on CD and people didn’t seem to know when to sing along, or what words to say.

It was definitely a rockier ‘performance’ in all, but I’m still glad we went. The highlight was that one of the ladies (or perhaps the only lady) who sings for weddings there performed two solo, a cappella songs, including the Ave Maria, and that was truly glorious. She has an amazing voice and the acoustics of the domed church make it ring.

The church creche with local santon ('little saint') figures.

The church had a big lovely santon creche set up, too – all the churches have them, as well as many shops, and it’s nice to look at all of the local Provencal characters. They usually have running water features like a mill or stream, and often have little lights, too. We got to say hi to Ilona, who has a charming way of speaking at length in French no matter whether the people she’s speaking to know French or not, so I did my best to translate.

All of this in the two days before Christmas, and so much more to come…

I didn’t know the sky was blue

Looking out from Antibes: photo by C.W.

‘I didn’t know the sky was blue until I came here,’ said Valerie.

She used to live in Paris. Pregnant with their second child, Valerie had the option to take a break from her career (in PR/marketing) for up to three years with the guarantee that she could return to her job. Such is the French support of new mothers. (Amazing.) She and her husband Raymond, a journalist, decided to move to the Riviera. Valerie became a teacher, and now, ten years later, they wouldn’t dream of going back. They’ve discovered the sky is blue.

Ouvrez les yeux. Les ciel est bleu.

Evidently it even inspires me to write bad rhyming poetry in French. (That phrase worked its way into my head on the way to the post office this morning.)

Colours here have arrested my attention. Today, in fact, the sky is not blue, but grey. I was just taking in the laundry as a few raindrops began to fall. Yet it is a bright grey, unlike that of the northern skies. Grey, blue, and green here all become a silver, like the leaves of the olive trees. Colours are rich, but muted.The oranges and peaches of the buildings compliment the lavender for sale in the markets, and the lavender-coloured shutters on old stone buildings.

Antibes. Photo: C.W.

There is a fecundity here, a bountiful ripeness, that inspires a gluttony of the senses – yes, the food, of course; but also bringing those same scents – lavender, honey, olive oil, milk – into the toilette, with shampoos, lotions, bath salts and body oils. Everything is delicious. I want to absorb this landscape with my pores as well as my mouth, nose, eyes, fingertips.

Caitlin said it was appropriate that I was writing Venus Heart here because the landscape is ‘sexy.’ She described it as ‘rolling and curved; sharp, too, with angles.’ I laughed. It’s hard for me to think of ‘sexy’ when I think of most of the village as consisting of retired people. ‘Not sexy, but sensual,’ I insisted.

Sensual. Curving and rolling, with the bounty of the natural harvests & feasts. It’s delightfully Pagan, rustic; The Esterel, The Riveria, are providing me with opportunities to experience new things, gather a new language, and take the time to closely consider what I encounter – all things that are difficult to do in the city. Though, I must admit I have wanted to write about the sensory abundance of Borough Market in London just as much as I want to write about the sensory abundance of the Market in Old Town Nice. Such wonderful contrasts and comparisons.

Markets, Santons & un Hibou

A narrow building in the narrow old streets of Old Town Nice.

My friend Caitlin (who is currently writing her PhD in Cambridge,) a self-proclaimed ‘glad-bag,’ just headed off on the bus from Frejus to Nice this morning. Now she’s on the plane back to London, then she’ll take the train to Cambridge. But this morning started off with an even more exciting form of transportation: the Vespa! Yes, Caitlin was a brave & excited (& slightly nervous) passenger with me over the weekend, and it was a 20-mph (chilly) blast. We had an extraordinarily busy & fun weekend, countered with laid-back lounging around which was equally fun.

Caitlin’s visit started off with a late-night arrival on the bus to Les Adrets. She’s spent the whole day travelling, and the poor thing gamely got herself practically to my doorstep – but once she decided she was ok on the Vespa, we agreed to get her to Frejus so her bus trip wouldn’t be quite so ridiculously long on the journey back.

Valerie and I had made plans to go to Nice & Antibes the next day, and she picked us up on Saturday morning, her 15-year-old daughter Emma along for the ride. It was a delightful ‘girl’s day out,’ with Valerie acting as guide. She took us all over the Old Town in Nice, through the regular market that is there every single morning, through the Christmas Markets, through tiny winding cobblestone streets; past cathedrals and churches, scooters and locals, bars and cafes…The markets were a dream, and excerpts from two poems kept coming to mind which are the only way to describe the bounty:

First, Keats, from ‘The Eve of St Agnes’

Lavender

While he from forth the closet brought a heap
Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd
With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;
Manna and dates, in argosy transferr’d
From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one,
From silken Samarcand to cedar’d Lebanon.

These delicates he heap’d with glowing hand
On golden dishes and in baskets bright
Of wreathed silver: sumptuous they stand
In the retired quiet of the night,

    Filling the chilly room with perfume light.
*
*
Next, Rossetti, from ‘Goblin Market,’ though these markets had none of the evil undertones of C.R.’s poem – only the lush ripeness:

Auer chocolaterie, depuis 1820.

Come buy our orchard fruits,

Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpecked cherries-
Melons and raspberries,
Bloom-down-cheeked peaches,
Swart-headed mulberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Crab-apples, dewberries,
Pine-apples, blackberries,
Apricots, strawberries–
All ripe together
In summer weather–
Morns that pass by,
Fair eves that fly;
Come buy, come buy;
Our grapes fresh from the vine,
Pomegranates full and fine,
Dates and sharp bullaces,
Rare pears and greengages,
Damsons and bilberries,

Champignons of all shapes and sizes.

Taste them and try:

Currants and gooseberries,
Bright-fire-like barberries,
Figs to fill your mouth,
Citrons from the South,
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye,
Come buy, come buy.
*
This is exactly what the markets are like now – imagine what they would be like in the spring and summertime. One Provencal treat we tried were Calissons: gently diamond-shaped, or rather almond-shaped, candies that are like little soft biscuits of almond and orange meringue. They use orange flower as well as orange peel, lots of super-fine sugar, eggs, ground almond, and apparently, at least in this recipe, a liquor. They are as delicious as they sound, and I bought some dusted with gold powder for Christmas.
*
Valerie took us up to the very top of the Modern Art Museum where there is a rooftop walkway and garden, with spectacular views over Nice. Then, with the top down on her little convertible, we drove to Antibes.
*
There were more Christmas Markets, with their hundreds of ‘santons‘ or little saint tableaux for sale. It’s a tradition in Provence, and I can only guess that it’s the kind of thing where you buy one each year and add to it, or these santons get passed down in the family, because they would become very expensive to buy a whole set. Each little ceramic figurine costs from about €3.50 to €15, depending on what they are. You can buy unpainted ones and paint them yourself (Valerie says that’s what she does, and her children paint them,) or you can buy painted ones, all of which have a unique style depending on the artist.
*

Caitlin, Valerie (in the middle) and Emma outside the Picasso Museum in Antibes.

The idea is that it makes a nativity scene, but what is special beyond the familiar nativity is the cast of local Provencal characters: from lavender-sellers to fishermen to hunters to church-bell-ringers. There are local animals, including sanglier (wild boar) and geese, rabbits, and owls, as well as all possible farmyard animals. Donkeys, bulls, goats and horses. Caitlin and I came across an amazing santon market in Frejus this morning, and each artist’s style was very distinctive. I chose a sanglier as a special keepsake for my stay here.

*
In Antibes, Emma, Valerie, Caitlin and I went to the Picasso Museum, which I rather unexpectedly fell in love with. It’s perched on the tip of Antibes, in a castle, Château Grimaldi. I wasn’t very familiar with Picasso’s works, and I loved the colours, textures, and lines, the themes and movement, the angles and curves. Blue seemed to prevail, as well as a theme of an owl, or un hibou, also known as a chouette.  Of course the Provencal landscape and colours – the dusky blues and purples – influenced Picasso hugely. The museum is also sensitively done: a clean, white space showcasing these precious paintings, but with ancient stone and arched ceilings peeking out in the right places so one never forgets they are in an ancient, once-fortified castle. We walked out into the sculpture garden at sunset, which overlooks the sea, and enjoyed the sculptures of Miro as well as more of Picasso’s work.
*
The bounty from the sea is also evident throughout these markets: oysters & champagne are a Christmas specialty, and there are booths / market stalls as well as more permanent restaurant/cafes set up, catering to exactly that treat. Urchins are popular to eat, and we watched as a couple bought a bag full of sea urchins, which the purveyor cut open – as he cut out a circle from the bottom of the urchin, lots of water came out, and I can’t help thinking these taste like saltwater just like many other shellfish…though I admit I’m a huge fan of moules (mussels,) Saint Jacques (scallops) and various sizes of crevettes – shrimp, crayfish, prawns, etc.
*
We walked around the markets until dusk before returning home.
*

Caitlin posing on Vespa after lunch.

On Sunday, Caitlin wanted to join me for Messe (Mass,) to see all of these wonderful characters she’s been reading about. She bravely acted as passenger on my Vespa, and it went so well that after Mass (whereupon I introduced her to pretty much all of the people I’ve mentioned previously,) we rode across Lac St. Cassien, all the way up to Tourettes and Fayence, and back to Les Esclapiers for lunch. What a gorgeous day; what an amazing lunch! And I’m so very impressed that Vespa made it up the extremely steep hill to Tourettes with a passenger to boot. We had to go in first gear and went at about 5 miles per hour, but we made it.
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After lunch, we rode back to the house and I lit a log fire, and Caitlin kindly acted as my first ever reader for Venus Heart, the poetry play I’m writing whilst here. She gave me excellent feedback and I know exactly where I want to write more poems to complete the storyline. It’s going so well that I’m beginning to think about what I might work on after the excitement of Christmas and New Year, in that space of time when I’ll once more be by myself and be able to focus on writing. I’m hopeful and excited that I’ll have a full draft of VH before Christmas, and I rather wonder if my family will be up for being roped into a Victorian-style performed reading…hmm…
*

At the movies!

Quite possibly the most goofy and fun thing we did was to go to the movies last night. Les Adrets shows one film every Monday evening at 8:30pm, on a projector screen in a medium-sized room which has the feeling (and odd smell) of a high-school gymnasium. So, for €5 each, we bought tickets (amazed that they even gave out tickets,) and pulled up a folding chair to watch the latest Twighlight movie clacked out on a rackety projector in dubbed French. It was most certainly a unique experience, and we both loved it. It was only made better by this film being absolutely ridiculous, and me having refused to read any of the books or see any of the movies, whilst Caitlin has read all of the books and seen all of the movies. She talked me through it, but for the most part, it’s a simple & predictable enough plot that we didn’t have much trouble. Also, I have to admit that the ghastly scene where Bella has a Vampire-led c-section was right up there with my ‘Venus Heart’ material, but in an awful Hollywood way, so I really rather enjoyed it.

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Today (Tuesday morning) Caitlin and I strapped her bag to the luggage rack of my Vespa, rode to the boulangerie where we got fresh croissants (au aumonde for her, and an apple tarte for me,) before riding down the winding Roman Road to Frejus. We walked around the Cathedral and markets before having pots of tea, and then Caitlin caught her bus, and I waved her on her way.
*

Picasso's 'hibou' (one of many)

What a wonderful visit! Happy travels, Caitlin! Now, time to turn the house around (ah, domesticity: washing laundry, cleaning cat-boxes, changing bedsheets,) and to settle back to writing, before Noel.

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