France brims with things to see and do beyond the confines of its capital. A rich and diverse country, it has so much to offer that it is hard not to want to come back and visit time and time again. A well-loved region of the South of France, the idyllic Provence, with its laid-back pace of life, beaches, lavender fields, rolling hills, blue skies, medieval hilltop villages and its unique light, the lumière du midi, has attracted a great many artists and writers over the centuries to this day from across the country but also across the world. Here is our pick of five top places with an arty history and inherent bohemian charm.
1. Picasso’s Mougins
Mougins Le Mas Candille Hotel © Nicolas Dubreuil
Under an hour northwards and inland from Cannes, the charming hilltop village of Mougins was home to Pablo Picasso in 1936. He later returned and lived out the last decade of his life there until 1973 when he passed away. As well as artists like Man Ray and Jean Cocteau the quintessentially Provençal village was also popular with political figures and Hollywood stars like Winston Churchill and Elizabeth Taylor. In homage to the Spanish painter, a small photography museum among the village’s winding streets showcases a multitude of photographs of Picasso’s life while in the area taken by his friend, and photographer André Villers.
Today, a number of local artists live and work within the village, keeping its soul alive. Art aside, Mougins also has some great restaurants and a wonderfully picturesque hotel, the five-star Mas de Candille located right at the very top of the village. Highlights include its scenic gardens, Michelin-star restaurant and Shiseido spa. Mougins also has a handful of excellent Provençal restaurants lining its cobbled streets including the upmarket and popular La Place des Mougins and L’Amandier. www.lemascandille.com
2. Chagall’s Saint-Paul-de-Vence
La Colombe d'Or restaurant, Saint Paul de Vence
A popular sanctuary for writers and artists alike since the 40s, the medieval hilltop village of Saint-Paul is among France’s most beautiful villages. In fact, the unique light of the ‘midi’ kept the painter Marc Chagall here for the last 30 years of his life – he is actually buried in the small cemetery here – and drew others in droves including Picasso, Braque and Miro as well as Hollywood actors like Roger Moore. Like in Mougins, many artists have established themselves here with a multitude of studios and galleries peppering the idyllic flower-lined stone streets.
One sight not to miss is Belgian artist Jean-Michel Folon’s chapel right in the heart of the village, which he transformed into a wash of heavenly pastels and mosaic, making it the perfect spot for gathering your thoughts. The most popular place to eat and sleep is the historical Colombe d’Or at the village entrance, which served as an inn for artists. From the surviving ramparts, take in the village’s unique atmosphere and sprawling views of the surrounding sun-drench hills. A 20-minute walk away, is the wonderful Fondation Maeght, which brims with well-curated in situ artworks by Giacometti to Miro, which comes very highly recommended. www.saint-pauldevence.com
3. Van Gogh’s Arles
Arles © Steffen Heilfort/Wikimedia Commons
An hour’s drive from Montpellier or Marseille, Arles is one of those under-appreciated towns of France that overflows with relics of the past and an authentic arty atmosphere. Once an outpost of the Roman Empire – its obelisks, forum remains and bullfighting arenas are witness to its centuries-old history – it is part of the picturesque Camargue region, not far from the eponymous national park. As well as its bullfighting history, the town is famous for being the home of the Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh during his most prolific year. It was in fact in a hospital here that he famously cut off his ear.
Honouring the artist, a new Van Gogh Foundation opened last year, where the exhibitions serve to explore the artist’s legacy within the work of contemporary artists. Arles is also the home of one of Europe’s most significant photography fairs, the Rencontres d’Arles, which was founded by the photographer Lucien Clergue, who as a young man of 20 was inspired by Picasso whom he met while the painter came to watch Arles’ bullfights. There are a handful of places to stay including the five-star Jules César Hotel, overhauled by Arlesian haute-couture designer Christian Lacroix, which reopened last year. www.arlestourisme.com
4. Renoir’s Cagnes-sur-mer
Cagnes sur Mer © Rdavout/Commons Wikimedia
Less than a 30-minute drive from Nice, Cagnes-sur-mer isn’t much to write about unless you’re a Renoir fan. Set along a built-up beach lined with a string of bulky concrete buildings, it’s not worth stopping by, however do head up into the old medieval village, the ‘Haut de Cagnes’, where the nineteenth-century pioneering Impressionist French artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir lived and worked in his later years from 1907 until he died in 1919. Les Colettes, the painter’s estate located in the centre of the picturesque village, is surrounded by olive trees and has been turned into an evocative museum of the artist’s life with several original works on show.
Other sites of note include the castle, the Chateau de Grimaldi, right at the very top of the village, also Cagnes’ main landmark. There aren’t many notable places to stay here, but the more scenic Saint-Paul-de-Vence, where there are a few recommended lodgings, is only a 10-minute drive away. www.cagnes-tourisme.com
5. Cézanne’s Aix-en-Provence
Pavillon Vendome © Guillaume Piolle
Although like most towns in France it has been extended, the Baroque style historic quarter of Aix-en-Provence still holds all the charm of its Middles Ages debut. A draw for a great many artists and writers, including Emile Zola and Ernest Hemingway, it is best known as the birthplace and home of the French Post-Impressionist nineteenth-century painter Paul Cézanne. The three men could usually be seen at the town’s most famous brasserie, Deux Garçons. There is a wealth of museums including the Musée Granet and its extensive collection of works by the likes of Rembrandt and Giacometti, the pretty seventeenth-century Pavillon de Vendome, which hosts regular exhibitions, and Cézanne’s studio, the Lauves, open for visits.
As well as his studio, sites like the Bastide du Jas de Bouffan, the Bibemus quarries and the nearby Sainte-Victoire mount all figure throughout Cézanne’s oeuvre; there is a special itinerary across town market with a ‘C’ that takes visitors to all notable sites where the artist’s soul still lurks. Art aside, Aix-en-Provence is also a beautiful and lively market town dotted with good restaurants serving local style cuisine, especially in the Cours de Mirabeau area, the beating heart of Aix. www.cezanne-en-provence.com