For a taste of Southern French culture before you travel, we recommend you load a half-dozen titles on your iPad or Kindle. You’ll be spoiled for choice. More has been written about this fabulous region that almost anywhere else in the world.
No book better captures the coastline’s glamorous history that Inventing the French Riviera, by Mary Bloom. Lucid backgrounds to the seaside’s most famous cities include High Season in Nice, by Robert Kanigel, and The Rise and Rise of the Côte d'Azur, by Jim Ring. The feather boas and masked balls of yesteryear are also conjured up in Queen Victoria and the Discovery of the Riviera, by Michael Nelson. For a beguiling literary history of coast, look no further than The French Riviera: A Literary Guide for Travellers, edited by Ted Jones. In a similar genre The Riviera Set: From Queen Victoria to Princess Grace, by Lita-Rose Betcherman (Kindle only) charts coastal fashions and passions by way of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Brigitte Bardot. Chasing Matisse, by James Morgan, follows the in the footsteps Riviera’s greatest painter from St Tropez to Corsica to Nice.
Provence’s more earthy culture requires a different reading list. The pleasures, and pitfalls, of living in the bucolic countryside are catalogued with charm and candor in The Olive Farm, by Carol Drinkwater, and A Year in Provence, by Peter Mayle. The latter author also penned the wickedly illuminating Provence A-Z: A Francophile's Essentials Handbook. Pig in Provence, by Georgeanne Brennan, offers culinary adventures in the Provençal heartland. The region’s cuisine is best indulged by At Home in Provence, by Patricia Wells, an American chef who also runs a cooking school in the area.
A wealth of novels elucidates the South of France myth. On the French Riviera, Tender is the Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, describes his only crazy, drunken sojourn in Juan-les-Pins, with interludes at the Hotel du Cap and Hotel Belles-Rives. Garden of Eden, a novel unfinished by Ernest Hemingway at the time of his passing, is set in the same time, same place. Super-Cannes, by J.G. Ballard, describes a similar hedonistic scene eight decades on.
The olive groves, lavender fields, and rolling hills of Provence are deftly described in The Man Who Planted Trees, by Jean Giono, a childrens’ book with an adult theme. Jean de Florette, by Marcel Pagnol, describes the same magnificent countryside, as does The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas, albeit with a brief incarceration on Marseille’s Chateau d’If, a former prison island now on many visitors’ itineraries. Marseille’s rough and ready underworld is highlighted in Total Chaos, by Jean-Clause Izzo, along with several other locally set novels. Cavaillon detective Inspector Daniel Jacquot, a fictional creation by Martin O’Brien, solves crimes in the countryside in The Dying Minutes, and other books.
The world’s first filmmakers were Provence-born brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière. One of their first works, “The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station” in 1895, made an entire movie theater jump from their seats lest they by run down by the locomotive on the screen. Later, Charles Pathé and Léon Gaumont, both of whom had deep roots in the region, were the first to exploit filmmaking on a grand scale.
By the mid-1950s, French filmmaking ushered in the era of enormous budgets and the creation of such frothy potboilers as director Roger Vadim’s “And God Created Woman,” which helped make Brigitte Bardot a celebrity around the world, contributing greatly to the image in America of France as a kingdom of sexual liberation. Alfred Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief” in 1955 placed Cary Grant in the driving seat in a Riviera romp from Cannes to Monaco. In a similar vein, Frank Oz’s “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” shows the humorously undignified underbelly of the French Riviera. John Frankenheimer’s “Ronin” starring Robert De Niro and Jean Reno, is far more serious, as they battle criminals through Nice, Eze, and Arles.
As French’s second city, Marseille has formed the backdrop for several hit movies. Gérard Pirès’s “Taxi” in 1998 is a blazing road movie written by Luc Besson. The 2002 locally-filmed action flick “The Transporter,” starring musclebound Englishman Jason Statham was also penned by Besson.
Provence was custom-made to be captured on celluloid. From Marcel Pagnol’s “La Femme du Boulanger” to Claude Berri’s “Manon des Sources,” it’s one long bucolic playground. Foreign-funded movies sum up the region in similar grand style. Lawrence Kasdan’s “French Kiss” pairs uptight American Meg Ryan with devious Frenchie Kevin Kline. The Lubéron’s natural charms are showcased in Ridley Scott’s “A Good Year,” starring Russell Crowe and Marion Cotillard.
The big French movie of 2014 was a Woody Allen number, “Magic in the Moonlight.” This romantic comedy stars Colin Firth and Emma Stone against the sun-kissed backdrop of the French Riviera. Also in 2014, “Grace of Monaco” starring Nicole Kidman, shone a light on the marriage of American actress Grace Kelly into Monaco’s Grimaldi family.
Music has long been synonymous with the South of France. Troubadours with their ballads traveled all over Provence in the Middle Ages. Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle (1760–1836) immortalized the region in 1792 when he wrote La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, which was sung by troops marching north from Marseille.
Rising regional wealth in the mid-1800s, coupled with the arrival tens of thousands of idyll tourists from abroad, brought grand performances to France’s southern coast. Opera houses in Marseille, Nice, and Monaco are a legacy of this rococo period. All offer a fine way to while away an evening today.
Alas, music heard along the coast today—be it rap, reggae, contemporary, or classical—owes its heart to the conservatoires and colleges of Paris. That said, Nice-local Yves Klein (1928–62) shook up the capital’s stuffy music scene in 1960. His “The Monotone Symphony” using three naked models, became a notorious performance. For 20 minutes, he conducted an orchestra on one note.
Artists with immigrant backgrounds are often the major names in the modern Southern French music scene, with influences from French Africa, the French Caribbean, and the Middle East. Along with rap and hip-hop, these sounds rule the nights in the boîtes of the region’s biggest cities. Khaled (b. 1960), from Algeria, has become known as the “King of Raï.” The most influential French rapper today is MC Solaar (b. 1969); born in Senegal, he explores racism and ethnic identity in his wordplays.
Music festivals celebrating sounds from across the globe remain ever popular in the South of France. Given the heady climate and liberal local populace, this is perhaps to be expected. The most famous festivals are Nice’s weeklong jazz extravaganza and Avignon’s 3-week summer festival , both in July. More offbeat shows include October’s Fiesta des Suds urban rock jam in Marseille and the region-wide Fête de la Musique street party on June 21.
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