Saturday afternoons

posted 15 February 2005

After we shop and clean on Saturday mornings, we have a cheese, pâté, and bread lunch at home, then set off to see some close-to-home attraction. On one of our first Saturdays, we visited the 16th-century citadel of Villefranche--a massive stone fortress on the edge of the bay between our place and the lab. The walls are meters thick, and on the outside it's a model of military regularit, presenting the usual star shape and sheer walls to ships attacking from the sea (medieval fortresses tend to be start shaped both because the angled walls give less purchase to incoming cannonballs and because they give the occupants better firing angles). The land it's built on is steep and irregular, though, so inside it's a maze of small, oddly shaped, sometimes sloping courtyards and stone chambers, tunnels, and niches. Today its various sections house the Villefranche city hall, five free museums, and apparently a few private homes. When we were there, a large party tent was set up in the couryard in preparation for Sunday afternoon's charity bingo tourament.

Cartier stone man, VillefrancheThe Goetz-Boumeester Museum houses art by Henri Goetz and and his wife, Christine Boumeeter. He started off odd, but occasionally attractive, then went progressively more abstract until he was painting exactly the kind of thing that makes people like me wonder why it's genius when he does it but not when a two-year-old does. She started off making the most exquisite pencil drawings and portraits then married him and went abstract--producing works more attractive than his but just as incomprehensible. I wish we'd had the tour guide from the following week in Cagne with us; maybe she could have explained what we were supposed to see in the abstracts. Personally, I'd like to smack Goetz for his influence on Boumeester.

The Volti museum presents dozens of sculptures by that artist, who sculpted women and virtually nothing else (not even clothes on the women). He was much influenced by Malliol, whose work we rather like, and who also specialized in full, rounded, female forms sculpted in dark stone.

One entire room was dedicated to memorabilia of the regiment of "chasseurs alpin" (WWI ski-mounted mountain troops) from Villefranche. The fifth musuem, the Roux collection of china figurines, was closed for renovation; we'll have to go back.

My favorite, though, was this life-size rock-'n-rebar guy in one of the small courtyards. I've caught him at an unfortunately angle--his pose and proportions are better than the photo shows. There's a similar one near the Nice airport.

After hiking all over the citadel, we strolled down the quai a short ways to tour the Chapelle St.-Pierre, the interior of which was decorated in 1957 by Jean Cocteau. Now that's art! The interior is covered with "simple" drawings depicting the life of St. Peter (patron saint of fishermen), plus some more secular scenes, like an homage to the young women of Villefranche and an homage to the local gypsies (the figure playing the guitar is apparently a portrait of Django Reinhardt). The more you look at them, though, the more lifelike and expressive the drawings seem, and you begin to notice the subtle washes of color and the clever story-telling. Magnificent seems an odd word for such a small space and such understated decoration, but it really is. Mass is still celebrated in the chapel once a year, on St. Peter's day in July.

SundialAnother Saturday, we walked into Beaulieu to tour the Villa Kérylos. It was built in 1902 by financier Théodore Reinach, who had fallen in love with all things classically Greek and was not just a faddist, but a serious scholar on the subject, so the house is--to the best of his ability--a classical Greek mansion modified only as necessary for more modern ideas of comfort. For example, Mrs. Reinach's suite included a magnificent shower room, with a three-way adjustable antique shower head about a foot across. (The day we were there, though, was during the cold snap; the house is almost entirely built of marble, and they don't bother to heat it for the tourists. Brr.) "Kérylos" means "Halcyon," a mythical sea bird (and now a genus of kingfishers). The house is beautifully situated on the point of land between the Baie des Fourmis (Ant Bay), across from Cap Ferrat, and the bay surrounded by Beaulieu. This photo shows the sundial on the wall above the central courtyard.

Each room in the house is named (in Greek of course), the central courtyard features murals and reliefs of tales from Greek history and mythology, and all sorts of details follow Greek traditions--for example, most of the tables in the house are three-legged, because ancient tiled floors were seldom perfectly flat, and a three-legged table never teeters, even on an uneven surface.

Kerylos chickensThis mosaic of chickens forms the "welcome mat" in the entryway, and the two crustaceans are among a couple of dozen sea creatures portrayed in the dining-room floor. The house is now owned and managed by the Institute of France (of which the Academy Française is a branch), and its official website (at includes many more photos.

Kerylos crabKerylos decapod previous entry     List of Entries     next entry