Standing on the balcony I realised I was gazing into the Dufy painting of the Baie des Anges – same turquoise sea, same curve in the bay, same ardent palm trees, same Hotel Negresco that had ushered Marlene, Salvador, Grace and Satchmo through its opulent doors. Colour, colour, colour. My blanched, be-wintered spirit was stunned by such luminosity.
Graham had booked a birthday trip to Nice. From a grey concrete platform in Lille we’d boarded a train bound for the Mediterranean. It’s destinations – Avignon, St Raphael, Cannes – as good as tempting dishes announced from a restaurant menu.
In every cell I still carry the thrill of rattling train journeys through France in my twenties when I lived in Arles and later in Paris. Lille had been just a tedious night stop then on the way up to Calais. I thrilled all day, all the way through France.
He hadn’t known, he said, that our ochre painted hotel, built half in the cliff that shelters the old town to one side and the port to the other, was a pebble’s throw from the antiques quarter and the weekly antiques market on the Cours Saleya. The market was on Monday, so we had time to walk out along the Corniche to le Cap Ferrat, past the Ephrusi de Rothschild gardens, grazing at a Sunday brocante market along the way. I was taken by a watercolour of clustering Cote d’Azur houses, a church tower and Mediterranean beyond. But I didn’t buy it, thinking of my luggage quota. It stayed in my mind though. I looked up the artist later – he had built a pink villa looking out over the sea on the Cap Ferrat and called it Villa Sogno, Villa of Dreams, which, if you look at the property websites for that area, pretty well describes any of the achingly beautiful properties to be found on the Cap.
A double row of stalls with brightly striped awnings ran the length of the Cours Saleya, with cafés and restaurants lining both sides. At one end presides a fine sunshine yellow building where Matisse had lived and painted. My first impulse was, naturally, to be at the market at 6am. But given that we were flying home and my buying capacity was limited, I contented myself with wandering down at eight. Oh, the stalls were so appealing! Garden tables, ceramics, tapestries, mirrors, cupboards and chandeliers. I wanted to buy. I told a dealer who came every week from near St Tropez that I could easily have loaded up most of her stall. “Come and visit us next time,” she smiled, giving me her card, “we have no shop but we have a large barn that is very full.”
I spent a while pouring over a stall that sold pieces from cannibalised chandeliers. Small glass flowers, glass beads and crystal droplets cut to slice and refract light were set out in plastic containers. Next door I found tiny parcels of old stamps tied up with cotton, gilt metal coat hooks, enamel house numbers, door catches, ribbons, lace, post cards. Things small enough to find a corner in my suitcase.
Ah! And here was the man with the watercolour I had seen at the market yesterday. I picked it up again, and bought it.
Graham joined me at a café later on. In the bright sun the market was vibrant and enticing, and we watched the coiffed and the fragrant, in fur coats, bright cashmere sweaters, silk scarves and expensive sunglasses strolling by, little dogs tucked under an arm.