The South of France

Place, idea, ideal

In the beginning—before the South of France was born as a romantic idea—there was just the Midi (Midday), the southern third of the country, where the sun was imagined as forever hot as noon, even though much of the area was mountainous and as cold in winter as Scotland. The people of the Midi were different from northerners. They were short and dark, of Iberian and Ligurian stock. They spoke Catalan, Languedoc, Rhodanien, and Provençal, and they inhabited a patchwork of wild upland and fertile valleys that was only partly French. Avignon and the western part of the Vaucluse, for example, belonged to the Papacy until the Revolution; Nice and Menton were part of the Duchy of Savoy until 70 years later; and the area from the marshes of the Camargue to Perpignan, once ruled by Catalan counts and the kings of Majorca, remained Spanish in all but name.

The Midi, then, was remote, half-assimilated: a place of poor villages, fortified towns, ruined castles, full of memories of the past—of obstinate heresies and marauding armies, of the Greeks who'd planted the first vines and olives along the coast, and of the Romans who had established in the same place their first colony outside Italy, with its capital at Narbonne. A few early travelers did come down to see its sights: the Papal Palace in Avignon, the Pont du Gard, the Theatre of Antiquity in Orange. Thomas Jefferson gazed on the Roman Maison Carrée in Nîmes "like a lover upon his mistress."

But most came—if they came at all—for the air. Montpellier, with its ancient university and famous medical school, was "a fine winter residence for people with weak lungs," the American novelist Henry James wrote; and as early as the last quarter of the 17th century the English philosopher John Locke spent four years there for his health's sake, before braving the journey back to his native land. Béziers was another place popular with consumptive Britons; Menton, on the Italian border, and Pau, on the Spanish, close to the Pyrénées, were others.

But the time it took to get to these enclaves—not to mention the highwaymen and the appalling conditions along the way—was enough to put off all but the most determined. For even 100 years after Locke's stay the trip from Calais to Avignon still took 10 and a half days by carriage, and the rewards, if you traveled onwards, were by common consent few. In 1785—according to one visitor—Monte Carlo consisted of "two or three streets and eight hundred witches dying of hunger." And a few years earlier the English novelist Tobias Smollett said of Nice that he'd departed from it without regretting anything he was leaving—except, of course, the air.

Within 125 years of Smollett's visit, though, everything had changed—and changed forever. For Nice—with its scattering of resident English families, who'd built the Promenade des Anglais—had suddenly become the fastest-growing city in Europe. Monte Carlo had been transformed into a glamorous destination, complete with a casino and an opera house; and the little fishing village of Cannes, discovered almost by accident by an English milord in 1834—now had real-estate agencies, dozens of sumptuous private villas, and more than 45 hotels. Eucalyptus, palm trees, and mimosa had been imported to the coast; and everywhere exclusive new resorts were springing up, at places like Cap Martin, Beaulieu, and St.-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, to accommodate the European crowned heads, Russian grand dukes, industrialists, millionaires, their entourages, and their grandes cocottes, all of whom were now flocking southward for the winter.

Cézanne, meanwhile, had settled at L'Estaque, to the north; Renoir had set up house in Cagnes-sur-Mer, soon to be followed by Signac in St.-Tropez; and the whole coastline between Hyères and Menton, which by now had acquired brothels, had been repackaged, quite successfully, as the Côte d'Azur. (The name Côte d'Azur was taken from the title of a book, which was published in 1887, by a writer who had inherited by marriage a Cannes villa.)

Peasant farmers and townworkers in the hinterlands—their livelihoods destroyed in the 1870s and '80s by the collapse of the silkworm industry and the destruction of olives and vines by frost and phylloxera—had also begun to join the flow south in search of new jobs, leaving farmhouses, even whole villages, abandoned.

The South of France, in other words, had been born with a bang, a bang created by a new form of transport: the steam engine. It had shrunk Europe, and it made possible a new kind of travel: not for education or health or spiritual uplift, as before, but for comfort, climate, and leisure. It created the off-season and the grand-resort hotel; it laid the foundations for what we today call tourism.

The idea of the South of France may have shifted northward toward the arrière pays (or hinterlands), such as the Vaucluse. For all that, it's managed to retain its 19th-century allure and glamour. From Orange to Marseille, from Menton to Perpignan, the region still inhabits a unique psychogeography. Made of history and sunlight, color and water, hillside and fashion, it's a countryside of the mind; and this has allowed it, for all its real and (since the '70s largely regrettable) physical changes over the last 100 years, to keep on reinventing and rediscovering itself.

Where does the South begin today? Where the mountains of the Massif Central start to ebb down into valleys; where the language changes; where olive trees appear. And wherever you place its beginnings, the predominant color of the South is blue: For the Mediterranean and the skies—kept cloudless by the mistral—but blue too for the fishing boats, the shutters painted blue to keep out the insects, and the carpets of thyme, lavender, iris, plumbago, and rosemary that streak the fields and hills inland. Add to these the rust-red wash of the Provençal farmhouse, green orchards of the Vallespir, golden cornfields of the Lauragais, pink flamingoes of the Camargue, and silver-gilt and vermilion of the Côte Vermeille near Perpignan and you have virtually every color of the rainbow, lit up and sharpened by the ever-present sun. It's the constancy of the sun in the South—Nice has some 300 days of sunshine a year—that makes its wines headier and for the most part higher in alcohol than those that are produced farther north; its vegetables more flavorful; and its herbs and flowers more pungent. And it is the sun—and the clear, sometimes dizzying light it gives off—that was responsible for the South's first major reinvention of itself: its transformation into a summer place.

In the old days, of course, the rich and royal men and women who filled palace hotels like the Negresco in Nice and The Carlton in Cannes came only for the winter. They weren't interested in sunbathing or swimming in the sea. A brown skin was for fieldworkers, and swimming for those who couldn't afford proper bathwater. So the coast, by and large, simply closed down between May and October, when the grand dukes, princes, and kings returned home for their courts' summer seasons. World War I, though, swept away forever their glittering, ordered world, with its high-necked formal clothing and comme-il-faut assumptions about breeding and decorum. And the vacuum left behind in the South was soon taken over by a new class, a new generation of artists and writers—some of them rich, many of them American. In the summer of 1922 the American couple Gerald and Sarah Murphy stayed at a villa rented by Cole Porter; the next year they came back on their own, to find Picasso and his family installed in the Hôtel du Cap at Cap d'Antibes. That same summer Coco Chanel, who before the war had been a modiste in Deauville, stepped proudly off her lover's yacht as brown as any peasant: She had invented the modern suntan.

Suddenly—almost instantly—the summer sun became chic, something to be embraced. It also heightened the senses and leveled class distinctions in a universal democracy of pleasure and art. F. Scott Fitzgerald later wrote: "One could get away with more on the summer Riviera, and whatever happened seemed to have something to do with art." And more and more people poured south to join in the new heady mix of avant-gardism, freedom, and leisure that somehow still managed to evoke the world of the ancient Greeks who'd founded Antinopolis (Antibes), Nikaia (Nice), and Heracles Monoikos (Monaco).

Painters settled up and down the coast, following in the footsteps of Cézanne and Renoir: Matisse returned south after World War I, having visited St.-Tropez in 1904, and lived in Nice until his death in 1954. The novelist Colette opened a beauty shop in the fishing village of St.-Tropez; Jean Cocteau discovered Villefranche, where he invented his "own personal mythology." And the idea of the South of France soon acquired new overtones—of hedonism and celebrity, and of a particular carefree style of its own, made up of fishermen's shirts, pyjamas and espadrilles, olive oil, bare legs, snapshots, and beach picnics.

Society writers and gossip columnists, as well as a new film industry centered in Nice, spread this perception—and it soon passed, like the Blue Train that carried passengers from Paris down to the Côte d'Azur, into legend. The Blue Train became a ballet by Diaghilev; it was the setting of a celebrated Agatha Christie novel. And its destination—painted by artists and described by writers as diverse as Ernest Hemingway, Somerset Maugham, and Marcel Pagnol—became a place of the imagination where the old and the new, the sophisticated, the classical, and the primitive could live together in harmony.

This reputation, this myth, if you like, still endures even now, when the borders of the idea of the South of France have spread significantly northward—past Avignon and Aix, to Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and the Drôme. The lazy holiday in the sun, on the beach, is not as popular as it once was; and since the mid-1930s, in any case, the coast has had variable fortunes. The Great Depression hit it hard: It lost most of its international visitors; and it was only rescued in 1936, when the French Parliament passed into law the annual vacation, still taken en masse by the French in August. World War II killed off tourism altogether, and though the founding of the Cannes Film Festival in 1946 helped to revive it, it wasn't until the mid-1950s that the coast began to renew its allure. For the mid-1950s not only saw the international release of And God Created Woman, shot in St.-Tropez and starring Brigitte Bardot, and the heaven-sent Monaco marriage of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier; the decade also marked the moment when more passengers crossed the Atlantic by air rather than by sea. New money began to arrive now: high-rollers, film people, rich industrialists, and sheiks, increasingly by private plane. High-speed trains followed; and—as so often in the past—the southern littoral found itself a new repertoire of roles: as a provider for mass tourism.

This doesn't mean that the old core of the South has completely lost its charm. It still has fantastically beautiful enclaves like Cap Ferrat, extraordinary resort hotels such as the Hôtel du Cap-Eden Roc, and public spaces like the palm-lined promenade La Croisette, in Cannes, that recall an era of walking sticks and Hispano-Suizas.

But its focus in general has shifted from the eternal, paradisiacal present it once offered to a celebration of its past. The unspoiled nature that once drew people to it has now gone forever. But the Côte does have more than 100 museums, many filled with the paintings and sculptures of the artists who helped to create its myth. It has many of the best restaurants in the South; it boasts top-of-the-line fashion boutiques; and within a day's reach are the relics of a fantastically variegated history.

There is Roman Fréjus along the coast, with its fifth-century baptistry and Gothic cathedral; farther on there is the walled town of Aigues-Mortes, from which Louis IX sailed for the seventh and eighth crusades; and Carcassonne, the greatest of all of France's medieval fortresses. Above all, in another direction—to the north this time—there is the area that today has become the chief inheritor of the idea of the South of France: Provence.

In the late 19th century the Provençal interior was isolated, inadequately irrigated, and desperately poor. But the railways, little by little, brought a new prosperity to the area by opening up new markets for its produce: fruit and wine, olives and early vegetables. So when the northern part of Provence was "discovered" by the artists (as well as English families) who moved up from the coast before World War II—driven out by a combination of high prices and lollygagging tourists—they found a rural community with its crafts, distribution networks, and traditional industries still more or less intact.

There was the perfume industry, which was centered around Grasse; there were pottery workshops, in and around Nîmes; and jam-making and fruit-preserving, in Carpentras and Apt. There were working vineyards and orchards everywhere; there were farmers and craftsmen; and more to the point—because of the depression of the 1870s and '80s—there were also large numbers of abandoned houses that could be bought cheaply and renovated. Round about were Roman remains and medieval castles; dramatic landscapes; and in every town and village of any size, the weekly produce markets—selling asparagus, tomatoes, melons, eggplants, truffles, and artichokes—which seemed to have been there since time immemorial. The whole area, in other words, offered to its new immigrants a rural, inland correlative of what the Côte had once provided: a vision of the simple good life—of nature, climate, food, and history in harmony.

The first wave of painters and sculptors settled mostly in the Luberon—in Gordes, then in Oppède-le-Vieux, and later in the villages surrounding Apt—while the English came to rest farther south. They were soon followed, in the 1950s and '60s, not only by more artists and expatriates, but by professionals who longed to escape the rat race of cities for the romance of the countryside; who wanted to live off (and close to) the land, growing olives or vines or fruit trees while weaving or forging or making pottery from the local clay. What made their lives possible, of course, in the often remote areas they chose to settle in, was the availability—in cheap, mass-produced form now—of a relatively new kind of transport: the automobile. It opened up the interior of Provence and made it the heir to the idea of the South of France; and it was the car/plane combination that soon spread Provence's culture and look—its decorative style, architecture, food, and fabrics—all over the world. With more and more international arrivals in the hinterlands of Provence, in other words, the idea of the South reached a new kind of critical mass. Provence—the way it looked, the way it had been painted, particularly by Van Gogh, who'd lived in Arles and St.-Rémy in the 1880s—became the home of an ideal in which art, light, and nature conspired together to produce a lesson about lifestyle that could be copied and created elsewhere.

"I remember when I first visited it," states New York interior designer Bunny Williams, "I fell in love, just as the painters had done, with the constantly shifting light, and with the colors of the buildings, which—like the pigments that the painters used—seemed to come from the earth, to be rooted in the landscape. The whole atmosphere of the interior was much more relaxed and informal than that of the Côte d'Azur, whose mantle it came to inherit, albeit less sophisticated, less racy. Provence, with its high ceilings, bare floors, and stucco walls, was like a dream of rural existence—casual and simple—yet at the same time wonderfully elegant."

Williams early on incorporated elements of Provence into her work: "dappling color onto plaster the way a painter in St.-Rémy did," for example, "in imitation of something that was absolutely real." She also made use of the hand-block-printed, handwoven fabrics that had originally been brought to Provence from India by 17th-century traders and revived in the 1930s by the Tarascon-based company Souleiado.

These fabrics, called Indiennes, were imported by Pierre Deux in New York; and Williams recalls the time when they suddenly became, in effect, public property—when they graduated from Picasso's shirts and Jeanne Moreau's dresses to the soft furnishings of the Kennedy White House. "It was well before the whole Provençal look had been accepted, and it was an adventurous, fun thing to have done," says Williams. "It showed everyone who cared to see how beautiful these fabrics could and did look with American furniture."

The rest—you might think—would be history as we know it: design fashion to cliché in a matter of years. But somehow Provence—its look, its food, and its feel—has remained buried deep in the Western imagination: a place of aspiration, where life is lived in the way we would like it to be. "Of course, Provençal style has become commercialized," laments Williams. "Shops now do knock-off copies of Provençal fabrics in bad colors and bad cotton. But people still want elements of it; it's become part of a universal language. Besides, Provence remains a wonderful place to visit, with magical landscapes and craftspeople who still have a very sophisticated design sense. There's much in Provence, though, we wouldn't want to buy; every country has to come to terms in its own way with mass tourism. But there are still exciting things to be found: potters and faïence-makers, basket weavers and designers of garden furniture. There's a strong tradition that's survived there for the artisanal, the handmade."

There are also—Williams might have added—chefs quietly mining the best produce in the world for new inspirations; and painters still coming to fresh terms with the light and color that so enthralled Van Gogh, Monet, Cézanne, and all the rest. For Provence, although it is certainly old and full of history, is still reinventing and rediscovering itself, with the help of new arrivals, as this part of the Midi has been doing for the past 150 years.

You still need a car, as the first artist­ immigrants did when they moved to the Luberon, to see this part of France properly. For only if you have a car can you see close up just how many cultures have been fused here in what Monet once called "the glaring festive light" of the southern sun. Start anywhere inside it, and within 30 or 40 miles not only will the landscape change, but also the language, the cuisine, and the local history. Within a day you can travel from Mont Ventoux in the north via Cézanne's piney red country around Aix-en-Provence, to the peach trees and melon beds of the lower Rhône Valley, and so on to the frog-croaking marshes of the Camargue. And you can pass from Roman Nîmes and Arles, through the country of the brutal massacres of the Cathar heretics in the 13th-century, to the Arab quarter of Perpignan, where aromatic spices, couscous, and paella are for sale. Then you can follow your nose up into the little villages and towns of Languedoc-Roussillon—with their fountains, shaded squares, austere churches, and cobbled alleys—which the French announce they're keeping (free of tourists) for themselves.

People say that you shouldn't travel in the South of France in summer. And it's true that in July, August, and September the highways become clogged with caravans, and the villages and smaller towns away from the highways—even those with precious little to offer—are all too frequently overrun with visitors. But the summer (and the beginning of autumn) is precisely when the South of France is most en fête. There are 500 festivals across the region, with more than 4,000 events. There is the apple festival in Peyruis; the wine festival in Gigondas; jazz festivals in Aix-en-Provence and Toulon; and the biggest drama festival in the world (which was founded by Gérard Philippe and Jean Vilar in 1947) in Avignon. There are concert performances all over the countryside: in Roman ruins, castles, and medieval abbeys. And over and above these, there are the celebrations that mark the ending of the harvest in almost every individual village—with donkey races and barbecues, fairs and accordion players, rock bands and gypsies, and long trestle tables set up in the open, wherever there's room. These things, one way or another, are an expression of joy and a demonstration of the connection between art, man, and the land—so it is churlish to be at pains to avoid them. For they're the continuation of the idea of the South, which these days makes many visitors to Provence want to take off their shoes and bury their feet in the earth, as if the land were the new beach. The idea is sunlight and fruitfulness and the freedom to give and take pleasure whenever, and wherever, we are able. Bon voyage.