ONCE UPON A TIME WORLD: The Dark and Sparkling Story of the French Riviera, by Jonathan Miles
Reading this breathtaking account of the transformations of the French Riviera over the last two millenniums is like riding shotgun with a racecar driver in the Monaco Grand Prix.
With each loop through time, the bystanders change — from naturalists and monarchs to dancers, writers, composers, artists, philosophers, statesmen, Rolling Stones and tourists. The background shifts as they flit past, reflecting the dreams each grafted to the craggy landscape: chateaus, casinos, yachts.
In the town of La Turbie, the Trophy of the Alps, 35 meters high, went up in 6 B.C. commemorating Emperor Augustus’s victory over local peoples. (In the car chase in Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief,” Cary Grant and Grace Kelly whip through too fast to admire it.) Other monuments are less visible, and the British cultural historian Jonathan Miles tells their stories.
Once, the Riviera’s jagged terrain, piney cliffs, pure air and “wonderful jade-and-amethyst” waters (the description of the Lost Generation whisperer Gerald Murphy) were inaccessible to most outsiders. Until trains arrived on the Côte d’Azur in 1866, travelers had to arrive by sea, on foot or “on muleback" — and nobody undertook that arduous journey in search of a Saint-Tropez tan.
For one thing; sunbathing did not become fashionable until the 20th century, after Gerald and Sara Murphy and Coco Chanel launched the trend on the beaches of Antibes and Monte Carlo. For another, Saint-Tropez was only a humble fishing village until writers like Guy de Maupassant and Colette and painters — Matisse, Bonnard, Derain — magicked it into a mythic destination with pen and brush.
The early visitors came mostly for their health — although, according to Maupassant, a doctor’s recommendation that a patient take a cure in the south was “generally the first scene of the last act of the drama.”
But even in those early days — before there even was a Monte Carlo, let alone a casino — the area abounded with scoundrels poised to prey upon wealthy newcomers. In 1810, for example, the ailing Marchioness of Bute obtained permission to travel through the South of France. While her carriage ascended a path in the hills near Menton, a gang of bandits attacked and made off with her diamonds and a bottle of what they presumed to be fine liqueur. Glugging it down, they fell asleep by the roadside and were “quickly apprehended,” Miles writes. The bottle had contained an opium-laced sleeping potion.
Many of the highwaymen turned out to be connected to the noble families of Nice. Until they were caught, they had put local authorities off the scent by inviting them to opulent dinners following each crime spree.
A century and a half later, by which time the Riviera had ceased serving as an “outdoor hospital” and become a playground of the rich, another high-stakes theft took place at a hotel restaurant in Saint-Paul-de-Vence. Its owner was known to accept paintings in lieu of payment — “My kind of hotel,” Picasso joked. In 1960, burglars broke in and stole 21 canvases, including a Braque, a Léger, a Mirò and a Modigliani. (The Picasso didn’t fit in the car.)
Every episode Miles relays could inspire its own book — or play, symphony, movie or painting. Many already have. An international Who’s Who of tastes, talents, whims and ambitions ushered in the Riviera’s golden age. They were not merely vacationing; they were mining this “thin strip of Shangri-La” to create the culture that would define the ensuing centuries.
In so doing, they defined new heights of opulence. The influential Lord Brougham “discovered” Cannes in 1834, when a cholera epidemic interrupted his progress to Italy. Besotted by the Arcadian surroundings, he built a villa. Other foreign aristocrats followed suit, and 20 years later, Prosper Mérimée complained that “the English are established here as in a conquered land. They’ve built 50 villas or chateaus each more extraordinary than the last.”
As the belle epoque approached, similarly lavish villas and grand hotels multiplied east of Cannes, from Nice and Beaulieu to La Turbie and Cap Martin. When Queen Victoria arrived in Menton disguised as the “Countess of Balmoral” (her French bodyguard conceded that she “did not deceive a soul”), the Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia was already established there and the two royal influencers magnified the allure of the Côte d’Azur. Queen Victoria’s libertine son “Bertie,” the future King Edward VII, had preceded them, indulging in tennis, yachting, golf and baccarat in Cannes, and romping with courtesans in Monte Carlo.
After the First World War, invading Americans erected their own palaces. The millionaire artist Henry Clews concocted the fairy-tale “Château de la Napoule,” west of Cannes; the railway magnate Frank Jay Gould built half a dozen villas and hotels, including, in Nice, the Art Deco landmark the Palais de la Méditerranée. In Antibes, the lower-key Murphys attracted artists and writers to their Villa Americana. (In 1925, when Edith Wharton invited their guest F. Scott Fitzgerald for tea at her villa in Hyères, he arrived drunk and screamed, “You don’t know anything about life.”)
Even this accounting leaves out memorable visits from Berlioz, Gogol, Tolstoy, Nietzsche and Karl Marx — who wrote disgustedly to Friedrich Engels that Monte Carlo was “a lair of idleness and adventurers.” In short: “a hole.”
A wistful tone enters Miles’s Riviera tour as he winds up the glory days. By 1983, when the James Bond flick “Never Say Never Again” was filmed at Victorine Studios in Nice, Miles tells us, the once-fabled place was in disrepair, neglected by the infamously corrupt mayor Jacques Médecin, who looted the region’s wealth far more efficiently than any cat burglar as he remolded the town to court business and tourism. Graham Greene, who wintered at Antibes, was so outraged by the mayor’s excesses that he published a diatribe against him in 1982: “J’Accuse: The Dark Side of Nice.”
Miles is elegiac in recalling the passing of the “unexplored country remote from the world” that Maupassant found on his first visit to Saint-Tropez; in the off-season, he remarks, the landscape to this day remains “pristine and redolent of a less hectic time.”
Yet were other eras, in hindsight, that much less hectic than ours? The Riviera has shown remarkable resilience, Miles demonstrates, at riding out foreign invasions, epidemics, depressions and world wars.
But the crisis of overpopularity poses a subtler threat, he suggests. The “democratized, Technicolor coast” that Agnes Varda celebrated in her 1958 documentary “Du Côté de la Côte” portrays hordes of happy French citizens on their state-paid summer vacations, crowding beaches beneath the villas and promenades of the dreamers. “What are they all looking for?” the narrator asks.
Reading this book, you know the answer. They want to touch that “sea like quilted silk” that enraptured Katherine Mansfield; to see the “magical light” that transfixed Claude Monet; to lay out their own towel in paradise.
Liesl Schillinger is a critic and translator and teaches journalism at the New School in New York City.
ONCE UPON A TIME WORLD: The Dark and Sparkling Story of the French Riviera | By Jonathan Miles | Illustrated | 464 pp. | Pegasus | $29.95
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