Chasing Matisse: The Book
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July 12, 2003
Upon leaving Cassis-the name even sounds like a bijou, a rich and brilliant stone-we drove along the little road to Bandol, which is well known for its wine. Even in France, the bottles are fairly pricey. We stopped and lunched in an out-of-the-way bay by the sea. Then on to Toulon where I'd wanted to spend an afternoon. This is the last place Liane de Pougy accidentally ran into her long-time friend and lover, Nathalie Barney. Their eyes met, but they didn't speak. Liane escaped with relief and never saw her once-so-dear Flossie again.
It's funny how that happens sometimes in life. A friend who once was your most trusted confidante becomes the person you least want to see in the world. Internal growth or lack of it, a betrayal or lie, or one takes a path toward self-destruction that the other cannot or will not go down. One often revokes his or her enabling, tired of endless carousing-escaping oneself in some way-with no substance, no basis for an intellectually or spiritually fulfilling existence from which there can be no final result except emptiness. In the end, feelings are hurt. Decisions are made. Whether actual words have been said between companions or not, someday the bash will be bashed. The final confrontation lies within oneself, and that is the most fearful of all. Liane chose a path to attempt to heal and fulfill herself over emptiness, pain, and regret which she had had enough of.
We drove through Toulon, where Liane also once visited a drugged-out Jean Cocteau in a squalid room with a smarmy boy hanging around. Toulon was a wild town, at least in those days. But we were headed to Nice which is overflowing with Matisse and had no time to raffle through Liane's interior.
The traffic on the renowned Promenade des Anglais was bumper- to-bumper, and Nice's famous bay sparkled its allure that ensnares even the most skeptical. Unbelievably, we drove almost straight to our home for the next 10 days, the stylish boutique hotel Le Grimaldi. Our room was big and lush, the bathroom was beautifully done and designed with dreamy products galore. French doors opened onto a balcony, where we could enjoy the pale-yellow light and blue skies, a huge palm tree that reminded us of Matisse and his love for this city that whirls people into its vortex of sun, sand, and the glamorous Mediterranean. Le Grimaldi's staff is well-trained, professional, and personable, and there was so much Matisse-mania to encounter, that we depended on their efficient service delivered with smiling grace to make our exploits go ever so more smoothly. In other words, we felt spoiled. Not bad for two homeless people.
Nice is metropolitan, and it takes some time to feel your way into it. Plus, this whole area of the Côte d'Azur is loaded with one beautiful place after another, art, vistas, and lapis sea. Once M. Matisse found it, he never let it go. I hadn't been here in 30 years, and I admit I had been a naysayer thinking it was spoiled by the unwieldy crowds, development, and tourism. I say here: I was wrong. It is nothing less than spectacular, although I'd still rather be here off-season to avoid the worst throngs.
That first night we wandered down to the pedestrian street to find a simple, casual dinner. A crush of people of all cultures-men and women, old and young, some dressed-up and chic while others clearly needed help with their ensembles-ambled along this touristy of streets, craning their necks from side to side like rubber-neckers anywhere. Like us, some were trying to choose a café or restaurant. Others wanted to see what they could see in this exotic milieu. African men in swoopy shirts and pants hawked knock-off Hermés, Gucci, Dior, and other brands of purses, sunglasses, and such portable items. Bret's birthday was coming up, and I was tempted to make a purchase but turned my head and walked on. Artists were selling paintings-good and bad-while one man offered caricatures in three minutes. Personally, I would prefer more time to be taken, so as not to come out like the red-headed woodpecker to which Jim often likens me.
We strolled further and into old Nice, where we saw the magnificent Opera house for the first time. Patrons were leaving a performance, and I wished we had been included with the viewers of this spectacle. You see lots of flyers and brochures in France for "spectacles," shows or entertainments of all kinds. So many English words began as French. Once you realize this, it's possible to discern many meanings without exact vocabulary knowledge. But the French often have words or phrases that are more specific than ours in the intended meaning. When I said something was "funny" one time (and as I used it above), our dear friends Alice Mellor and Anne Humbert asked me what I meant by that. As I recall, my usage was in the realm of strange or weird. The French wouldn't use "funny" for this implication.
It was a thrill to round a corner and find a plaque on the Beau Rivage (residential building) where Matisse had spent several years. To top off our evening and remind us of the city's relationship to nearby Italy, we ordered a delicious Lemoncella. Yum. This Italian after-dinner delight is seductive, flaunting its crisp coldness and tart but sugary flavor. In Venice a few years ago, we discovered what became a favorite restaurant/café in an out-of-the-way square (aren't they all?) called Acqua Pazza. Their homemade Lemoncella lured us back over and over again until our heads hurt, and we swore off it. All in all, it was a good beginning.
The next morning breakfast was considerable. The cozy lobby/bar/breakfast room offered prosciutto, eggs, saucisson, breads, cereals, fruit, and more. We indulged ourselves in this groaning board which is what our entire 10 days in Nice became-so many dishes to try, so many tastes to acquire-like I needed any. That night we performed our usual promenade to spot just the right restaurant to experience the mood and food we felt like on the colorful and packed Cours Saleya. We sampled an assiette (plate) of Nicoise specialties-peppers, salad, courgette beignets (zucchini fritters), squid, anchovies, and more. Jim ordered a traditional and flavorful ravioli with beef daube which is a rich wine-laden stew. I first thought it sounded odd, but I was wrong again. What a combo!
After dinner, we strolled down to the end of the Cours which, in the morning, is a bustling flower market. A magnificent golden structure with handsome bas relief caught my eye, and I was drawn like a bee to lavender. Jim admired it too, and when we arrived at its classical façade, Jim realized this was one of Matisse's homes in Nice. He will reveal more in the book. I will say now it is a stunning address, and even without this association with the masterful painter, this golden image is my favorite building in Nice. What a vision M. Matisse woke up to every morning-the crystal blue Mediterranean and the life of the city and its people in the Cours Saleya.
Perhaps he may have come across Liane wandering through. Liane was famous in her time as was Matisse. In a way they were of two different worlds, but they must have shared some of the same acquaintances or friends. Did they know each other? Did their eyes meet? Did they speak, or did they turn away and hurry on?
posted by Beth on July 12, 2003 | View All Diary Entries
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