Summer has finally come to the San Francisco Bay Area, bringing with it bone-warming, landscape-drenching sunshine. It's the kind of sunlight that always makes me think of southern France and particularly the Côte d'Azur, the same light that so enchanted Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, Leger and the other artists who worked there.
Happily, the Côte d'Azur displays and celebrates its artistic heritage in a number of exceptional museums: My two favorites are the intimate and illuminating Musee Matisse in Nice, and the extraordinary Fondation Maeght in St. Paul de Vence, which features a tree-shaded, grassy open-air sculpture exhibition area in addition to its interior exhibits.
A short walk from the Fondation Maeght is a museum of another kind, to which I always return in memory on these hot summer days. That "museum" is better known as the Colombe d'Or, a restaurant and inn that is located by a shaded bocce patch right at the entrance to the rocky artisan town of St. Paul de Vence.
La Colombe d'Or is one of my favorite places on earth -- especially the cobbled terrace, where you sit at tables covered with starched cloud-white tablecloths under spreading white umbrellas. Far below you, straw-colored, terra cotta-roofed residences sit tranquilly on green hills that slope gently down to the shimmering Mediterranean Sea. A gentle breeze carries the scent of garlic and herbs from the kitchen, and the faint perfume of flowers that frame the terrace. And all around you are priceless works of art given by the masters mentioned above early in their careers, when they were so impoverished they couldn't pay for their meals -- and so paid with their work instead.
There must be hundreds of literary celebrations of the Côte d'Azur and Provence -- Peter Mayle's robust and richly humored "A Year in Provence" and "Toujours Provence" and his new "Encore Provence" among them.
But for some reason the one that still stands out for me is F. Scott Fitzgerald's loving, gossamer creation of the area at the beginning of "Tender is the Night." This story of the enchanting and ultimately doomed Nicole and Dick Diver -- characters built loosely upon the real-life couple Sara and Gerald Murphy and their legendary Villa America at Antibes -- has its flaws as well as its wonders, but for a quintessential recreation of the magic of the coast itself, from Monte Carlo to Cannes, there's nothing like it.
This morning I've been sitting at a San Francisco cafi table in dappled sunlight, imagining I was in southern France. In just 25 pages Fitzgerald has brought an entire world to life for me.
Here is our first look at Gauss' hotel:
On the pleasant shore of the French Riviera, about half way between Marseilles and the Italian border, stands a large, proud, rose-colored hotel. Deferential palms cool its flushed fagade, and before it stretches a short dazzling beach ... The hotel and its bright tan prayer rug of a beach were one. In the early morning the distant image of Cannes, the pink and cream of old fortifications, the purple Alp that bounded Italy, were cast across the water and lay quavering in the ripples and rings sent up by sea-plants through the clear shallows.
Already I am back on the coast, among the pastels and palms, listening to the rippling of the waves, shielding my eyes against the sun reflecting off the sand.
Ten pages later another of the novel's main characters, Rosemary Hoyt, travels to Cannes and suddenly my cafi is transported:
With half an hour to wait for her train, Rosemary sat down in the Cafi des Allies on the Croissette, where the trees made a green twilight over the tables and an orchestra wooed an imaginary public of cosmopolites with the Nice Carnival Song and last year's American tune.
I can hear the music, feel the dull heat in the air outside the cooler canopy of trees above me. Green twilight! The energy of the day seems to be subsiding, the merchants going inside to rest until they can reopen in the cool of late afternoon -- or perhaps it is already the end of the market day and they are slowly packing their wares up, putting them inside, where they will wait behind shuttered windows and solid wooden doors until daybreak.
The following day Rosemary and her mother hire a car and driver to tour the Riviera, and Fitzgerald depicts the end of their day:
It was pleasant to drive back to the hotel in the late afternoon, above a sea as mysteriously colored as the agates and cornelians of childhood, green as green milk, blue as laundry water, wine dark. It was pleasant to pass people eating outside their doors, and to hear the fierce mechanical pianos behind the vines of country estaminets. When they turned off the
Corniche d'Or and down to Gauss's hotel through the darkening banks of trees, set one behind another in many greens, the moon already hovered over the ruins of the aqueducts.
I recall innumerable drives I have made myself, by ancient crumbling roadside walls, past hillsides of purple and green, on tiny winding cobbled roads that lead into sun-baked town squares bordered by the herb-seller and the fromagerie, the boulangerie and the patisserie. At the last you stop to buy bread and it is always brown and crusty and when you break it in half the smell of the earth fills your nostrils.
In some of the villages there are little cafes with round tables and wooden chairs set on the winding lanes. In some there are shops with woven baskets full of redolent herbs; in others there are stores selling bright ceramics and textiles, the blues and yellows and reds and greens of the world around. In the distance there are half-intact ruins and ever-higher hill towns and always the shimmering sea.
Now Nicole Diver is walking in the garden of her house:
Along the walls on the village side all was dusty, the wriggling vines, the lemon and eucalyptus trees, the casual wheelbarrow, left only a moment since, but already grown into the path, atrophied and faintly rotten ... Following a walk marked by an intangible mist of bloom that followed the white border stones she came to a space overlooking the sea where there were lanterns asleep in the fig trees and a big table and wicker chairs and a great market umbrella from Sienna, all gathered about an enormous pine ... She walked on, between kaleidoscopic peonies massed in pink clouds, black and brown tulips and fragile mauve-stemmed roses, transparent like sugar flowers in a confectioner's window -- until, as if the scherzo of color could reach no further intensity, it broke off suddenly in mid-air, and moist steps went down to a level five feet below.
With just a few prose-strokes, Fitzgerald creates an extraordinarily vivid tableau -- so that the birds in the park before me seem birds in the Divers' own backyard branches, and the faint whir of San Francisco traffic seems the distant wash and scrape of Mediterranean waves.
Tomorrow I will go to the open-air market in Nice, where the flowers and the vegetables spill off the tables in their bright and pungent abundance, and then I will drive to Vence to see the stained-glass chapel treasures created by Matisse. I must remember to wander the leafy lanes of Villefranche again, and stop for a cafi crhme at the harbor, where the colors shatter off the water like a living painting by Monet. The startling sunshine brings out the best in everything and then, later, smoothes everything in buttery light.
Twilight comes quickly, the hard sounds of day giving way to the muffled clink of glass and murmur of conversation, tiny lights dancing in the trees around the square, the soft swash of the cooling sea.
I sip a little wine and read and dream. The moon illumines a distant fortress wall, and laughter spills from a nearby table, soft and bright. The cobbles cool under clicking heels. And tender is the night.