I’ve just spent another week in the Provence, one of my favourite parts of Europe. Steeped in the good life, for centuries now it has attracted the artistic, the wealthy, and the artistically-minded. Our road trip took us from the hilltop villages of the inland Luberon massif to the sea side villas of Saint Tropez on the Côte d’Azur. It was also a fascinating journey from the cultured bourgeois code of hiding your riches, to the flash Riviera culture of flaunting them.
The Luberon is an Unesco-protected natural park to the North of Aix-en-Provence. On its hilltops are the ‘golden triangle’ villages, each with its distinctly different twist to a theme – being nestled around a medieval church or castle on the top of a hill, and having narrow streets full of cafes, restaurants, shops and galleries, all in impeccable Parisian style. These places are mostly run by urbanites who chose the good life and helped preserve the villages, which like most in France were facing desertion. They mixed the best of urban and rural, catering to the tastes of French and foreign owners of second homes.
And the Luberon is brimming with culture. In Bonnieux (see picture left), Louise Bourgeois has recreated a chapel. In Lacoste, on the next hilltop, Pierre Cardin hosts an annual arts festival in Marquis de Sade’s old castle, while American art students spend the summer drawing the village. In Ménerbes, on the next hilltop, Picasso bought a house for his mistress Dora Maar. Each year a writer is invited to spend the summer. Next door, American painter Jane Eakin retired after her busy Parisian life.
In Ménerbes (see picture left) we went to see one of the region’s many classical concerts, bringing together musicians on their summer breaks with their decamped urban audiences. This time, the concert in the little kitsch baroque chapel was a little disappointing. ‘Bach dans l’intimité’ lasted two hours, at least half of which we had to spend listening to a certain musicologist with a white shawl draped loosely over his black suit, for exquisite effect. Indulging in the worst of French oratory, he spoke heftily about endless details of Bach’s personal life. The distinguished St-Germain-des-Ménerbes audience gave a standing ovation even though the singer and harpsichordist repeatedly lost the plot.
But on the whole the cultured bourgeois code of hiding your riches contrasts favourably with the glitzy culture of flaunting it in the Riviera. In Saint Tropez, the cult of the super rich and their admirers is in full swing. In the port, super yachts are moored on the quay and its jet set owners gazed at from the swanky terraces on the quay. Riviera Radio advises the local English on property management, Monaco royalty and tax rules. On the local market, the seeing and being seen game is perfectly executed, although most players are not so well-preserved. It’s a bit of a sad affair to see ageing Brigitte Bardot lookalikes, kept going by botox and baring more than most people would care for. Only a handful of girls are truly beautiful, and they tend to trail their older husbands on high heeled and diamond studded sandals, chihuahua in handbag. Again, the common people stare and dream from their swanky terraces. I overheard a 30 minute conversation by a group of Belgian men about the difference between a yacht and a super yacht. They clearly couldn’t afford either.
It makes for a hilarious viewing though, and despite the massive construction spurs, the Côte still hasn’t lost its original splendour. The sea is deep blue, the sunshine effortless, and the flowers abundant among palm trees. Yet I prefer the Luberon and will spend September there writing. If you’re keen to visit, let me know!