posted 22 February 2005

One of our first Sunday outings was to Cagne, on the other side of Nice and across the Var River. Its two main attractions are a well-known Renoir museum set in beautiful gardens and Haute de Cagne—the old city—perched, like Eze, on a mountain top.

Our map ended at the valley of the Var, but we set off confidently along the Basse Corniche, only to be diverted, willy nilly, onto the Moyenne Corniche by construction around Nice airport, just as we ran off the edge of the map. Oh, well, we just put ourselves in the hands of the road-sign people, which is mostly how you have to navigate in France even when you have good maps. Here, where all the roads were well established long before the idea of a rectilinear grid arose, and especially along the Riviera, where two roads that look on the map like they're right next to each other are actually separated by 100 m of altitude and where some of the intersections look on the map like those Escher drawings where an object starts with two square legs and ends with three round ones, you just have to trust the road signs, even when they seem to point in completely unintuitive directions. Route numbers? We don't need no stinkin' route numbers, either. (Well, they exist and are sometimes marked on maps, but the French don't usually put them on road signs.) My favorite is the ubiquitous "Toutes Directions" sign, which means--quite seriously--"no matter where you're going, go this way." Strangely, they're usually right. Even when you come to a simple four-square intersection, and can see your destination looming straight ahead, if "Toutes Directions" says turn left, you'd better, because if you turn right or go straight, you will, despite appearances, somehow find yourself lost in a maze of one-way streets that don't go where you want to. The hard part is guessing, when you start out, what destination the road-sign people will choose to put on the sign--unless your destination is a major city, you have to look beyond it on the map and guess which major city to head for. Many's the time, I've done that only to find, on reaching the first complicated intersection, that my choice isn't on any of the signs and that I have to make a quick mental note of five city names and locate them on my map (if they aren't off the edge) and figure out which one is likely to take us toward our destination. All while David choses a turn at random because he can't just stop in the middle.

In this case, the signs got us to downtown (modern) Cagne, where we picked up "Renoir museum" signs and followed them faithfully up several winding little roads, right to the gate, which was padlocked, despite assurances in the Michelin guide and on the large signboard next to the gate that it should be open. A small, hand-lettered sign on the gate itself explained that the place was closed for renovation until 1 May. So much for that.

Back down the mountain and off across modern Cagne, looking for the way up to Haute de Cagne. We spotted the sign too late, missed a turn, tried to go around a block (another Escher-like maneuvre, given the local terrain) and wound up going the wrong way up a (fortunately very short) one-way street, but managed to regain the sign-posted route. We suspected the old town would be very short of ground flat enough for parking, but near the entrance were two signs: free parking one way and pay parking the other. We opted for free, followed the road for half a mile or so until it ended in a T intersection, unsignposted. After exploring a mile or two in each direction without seeing anything that resembled parking, free or otherwise, we gave up. Maybe "free parking" is a local joke.

Back at the signposts, we chose "pay parking" and shortly came to the entrance of an underground parking garage. We pulled up to the gate, but the little machine dispensed no ticket. Reluctant to push the "call attendant" button and try to understand French over one of those garbly little speakers, I got out and walked up to the attendant's booth. The guy there assured me that everything was perfect, just as it should be. He opened the gate by remote control, handed me a ticket, and waved to David to pulled up to the entrance, a sort of car-sized glass airlock that looked like the entrance to an automatic car-wash, with channels for the tires and blocks to stop you at the right place. Meanwhile, I was scratching my head over the sign saying everyone except the driver had to get out of the car before it entered the airlock. In the entranceway, David was studying the instructions posted there: "Fold in your mirrors, lower your antenna, everyone get out, take your belongings, lock the car, leave the room." Still puzzled, we did all of the above, expecting the attendant to come valet-park for us. Instead, the inner doors of the airlock opened, and a giant fork-lift arm loomed out of the dark, picked up the car, and disappeared back through the doors! Yikes! But the attendant wished us a nice day and disappeared back into his book, and we clearly were in possession of a valid claim check, so we set off to explore Haute de Cagne.

The tour didn't start until 2 p.m., but David had done his homework on local restaurants, so we walked all over town (it wasn't large) to read the menus of the various choices (all French restaurants post their menus outside—I think it's required by law), and settled on "Fleur de Sel," a modest but well-reviewed establishment, where we lunched on excellent snails with asparagus, then grilled lamb with outstanding roasted potatoes, then wonderful lemon crême brulée.

When the time came for the tour, we were the only ones who showed up, and the guide (a local professor of art history who guides tours on the side as a labor of love) was delighted to have an attentive audience with no knowledge of local lore but good comprehension of French—she spoke very clearly, so we could follow every word. We therefore got the super deluxe tour, with side trips and extra info. We started in the castle at the very top. It was built by a branch of the Grimaldi family (cousins of the ones who run Monaco), around 1200, I think, and provides a panoramic view up and down the coast—we could see from Italy to Cap d'Antibes. Several rooms now house museums of this or that, but we had time on the tour for only two. The first was a ball room with a wonderful trompe-l'oeil painting of the death of Phaeton (a demi-god shot out of the sky, chariot, horses, and all, by a thunderbold from Zeus) on the ceiling. The guide showed us all sorts of technical detail about how trompe-l'oeil is constructed, where to stand for the illusion to be perfect (on the threshold where you enter the room), and where to stand to see how odd the perspective had to be made for it to look right from the threshold. The second museum was a collection of 42 portraits of Suzy Solidor—an early20th century singing star—by 42 different famous artists. She collected portraits of herself, and was fond of Cagne, so she bequeathed the cream of the collection (she had some hundreds) to the museum.

After the castle, we spiraled down the hill, as the guide showed us points of interest, and ended with a half hour in the little church of Notre Dame de la Protection. It's ordinarily locked, but the guide had the key. She gave us a really interesting lecture on how the authorities figured out who painted the frescoes in the apse, then on the frescoes' good and bad features (the artist always placed his figures' eyebrows too high, so they all look permanently surprised, and he never gave them enough "corporeal presence"; on the other hand, he had an excellent grasp of composition, and his story-telling had wonderfully naive vigor). The church was built to commemorate the occasion on which the Cagne Grimaldis talked the Monaco Grimaldis into leaving the protection of Spain to come under that of France—a good decision in view of which country has ended up surrounding them. At the time, it wasn't clear who would; even though Cagne is proud to have been part of france for about 750 years now, the area around Nice didn't join until about 1860, well after Monaco had come under French protection. Unfortunately, the solid-stone church is on the shady side of the hill, and it was at least 10 degrees colder inside than out. As soon as we walked in, we could feel the cold of the stone floor right through the soles of our shoes, and by the time the tour was over, it had sucked all the heat right out of our feet and most of the way up our ankles. Ouch! We therefore bid reluctant farewell to our guide (I wish we could hire her to tour everywhere with us; she knew everything!) and set off for the parking garage.

Once there, we handed in our claim check and then watched on a video monitor as the giant forklift arm sank several stories into a deep, cylindrical pit, past stacks of other cars, before rotating to the right angle and plucking our Clio out of one of six or eight radial slots in the wall, then rising back to our level. According to the claim check, our car spent the day in "box 58." It was deposited (now facing the other way) in the exit airlock. Cagne is apparently so short of parking that they've installed this deep, cylindrical filing cabinet to keep their cars in! (I can hear the phone calls now, "Honey, I'll be late for dinner; the parking lot has broken down.")

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