Ancient Antibes

Like most French cities, Antibes has a charming Vieille Ville (Old Town) made up of cobblestone streets that wend their way around picture-postcard houses dating mostly from the Middle Ages through the 17th century. Meandering lazily down any path will take you past timeworn fountains and churches, through sunny plazas hosting quaint shops and restaurants, and along shady lanes where you can peek into private courtyards for a glimpse of what it would be like to live there. Sounds good, right? But wait, there’s more….click on the gallery photos for captions.

Old Town perches atop the Rock of Antibes, which has also played host to a Greek acropolis and a Roman castrum (camp). Many of the city’s stone towers, ramparts, and homes are built from Greek and Roman remnants.

Sure, you might find similar sights in most any French small town, but several things make Antibes particularly photo worthy. Its Greek and Roman roots are easily accessible; it contains the unusual Safranier Free Commune; it has a daily Provençal farmers’ market that can’t be beat; it boasts its own Picasso Museum housed inside a 14th-century Château; and it’s surrounded by walkable 10th-century ramparts that afford stunning views out over a harbor full of super-yachts. Whew, that’s a lot to cover, so let’s take each of these topics one at at time….

Fort Carré d’Antibes has the distinction of having once held Napoleon Bonaparte prisoner for ten days during the French Revolution (long before he became Emperor). The place reads a little like a nesting doll: a 16th-century star-shaped fort surrounds a smaller square fort that encompasses an old Roman chapel and fortifications.

A Classical City
Antibes has an ancient past, dating to the end of the 4th century B.C., when the Greeks established a small trading post where today’s Old Town sits. The name Antibes (pronounced Ahn-TEEB) comes from the Greek’s appellation for their outpost —  Antipolis, meaning “the city opposite” because it faced their much larger colony of Nikaia (Nice) across the bay.

On the right is the Church of the Immaculate Conception, whose Chapel of the Holy Spirit houses the vestiges of a Greek temple. The bell tower on the left dates to around 1050 and is made from stones pillaged from the town’s Roman ruins.

The Romans took over in the 2nd century A.D., and the end result is that there’s a lot of cool archaeological remnants left over from the Classical Age. To get a taste of both cultures, you can visit Fort Carré for a peek at the Roman ruins it was founded upon, then step into the Church of the Immaculate Conception to view the fragments of a Greek pagan temple. Or you can go the gallery route by checking out the Museum of History and Archaeology for themed exhibits featuring the latest finds. Below is a smattering of goodies we viewed during our visit to the museum. Click through the gallery for more details.

One of the things that spurred the formation of Safranier as a Free Commune was the preservation of poet-writer Nikos Kazantzaki’s home. While living here, he published “Zorba the Greek” and wrote “The Last Temptation of Christ.”

The Commune Libre du Safranier
Around 135 tiny districts in France hold the special designation of “Free Communes,” and Safranier is one. Don’t worry, communes aren’t hippy, dippy, trippy places. They’re organizations dedicated to preserving historic lifeways. Each commune elects an honorary mayor, but the title is cultural, not political. A mayor’s role is “to perpetuate the habits and customs of the neighborhood; to protect and highlight the local traditions; to preserve and teach the local patois (dialects) so that no word dies; and to celebrate the memory of people and things.” 

The barista and owner of La Torref de Fersen, our favorite Safranier coffee shop / roastery, holds up a flyer promoting the “Contest of the Square Balls” on Bastille Day.

Sounds like an easy job, right? (JK) So exactly how does one go about achieving such lofty goals? Well, there’s the usual:  by running a Folk Museum highlighting local customs, by protecting the area’s architectural character via historical preservation channels, and by offering community classes in history and language. But the mayor also organizes an impressive number of neighborhood celebrations.

While these are designed to strengthen ties between residents, really anyone can attend. If you’re thinking of visiting, check out Safranier’s website for their calendar of events, which includes block parties like the Chestnut Festival, the Fete of the Yule Log, and the Contest of Square Balls. (I know it sounds like an oxymoron, but the contest is super fun even if you’re not a player. Learn more about it in my next post.)

No one seemed to mind when we plopped our behinds on their doorstep to soak in the laid-back vibe of the community.

But even without the festivities, Safranier is worth the visit just for its peaceful ambience. Matthew and I spent hours roaming the streets, cataloging new discoveries on our iPhones, and trying to capture all the little details illuminated by shifting sunlight. Sometimes we just sat on ancient doorsteps listening ….

… to the song of a pet canary whose cage had been suspended on a clothesline so that it could enjoy the fresh air … to the sizzle of a pan on the stove and the clink of dishes as someone prepared dinner … to the murmur of voices and barks of laughter as families chatted over a meal. Sounds that made us feel safe, and sleepy, and somehow intimately connected to the community.

The super-saturated hues of weekend markets in Antibes make you feel like you’re living in a Technicolor movie from the Golden Age of Hollywood.

The Marché Provençal
Many French towns have their designated outdoor “market days.” The Romans set up the system millennia ago, and several villages still keep to the same days of the week as assigned back then. In Antibes, the Marché Provençal (a market selling goods from Provence) is held beneath a Victorian Erector-set confection of a canopy where you can shop for fresh, locally grown food daily until early afternoon. On summer weekends, the concept expands to include clothing and craft vendors. And in the evenings, artists, musicians, and restaurants take over the space. If Safranier is the heart of old Antibes, the Marché Provençal is its stomach.

Most French shop daily for whatever is in season and has just been picked, baked, caught, slaughtered, or prepared that day. I did the same this summer, stopping by the market for fresh ingredients each morning.

But back to the meal-making part of the story. For the French, food is their religion and farmers’ markets are their temples. I’ve waxed poetic before about these sacred spaces, but they simply outshine anything I’ve ever encountered in any other country. I’d rank Antibes’s Marché Provençal to be one of France’s best — and apparently CNN agrees, because they placed it on their list of the world’s top ten fresh markets.

One day while browsing the bins here, I did a quick tally and counted 16 different varieties of tomatoes, 5 varieties of eggplants, 8 varieties of squash, and 12 varieties of lettuce. Uh-maze-ing. The butcher’s meat hailed from nearby organic farms where animals were raised sustainably, and the fishmonger featured an array of fresh-caught fish and shellfish that would shame most any seafood restaurant. Don’t even get me started on the huge range of artisanal prepared foods for sale, like tapenades, sausages, cheeses, breads, pastries, jams and jellies, etc., etc., etc.

Want to know how the French eat so well and stay so thin? It’s markets like this one that provide a huge variety of fresh vegetables and meats to people who prefer real food, not packaged. Seriously, these havens of good health are my number one reason for retiring to France someday. Savin’ up those pennies, folks! And now for some food porn….

Built in the 14th century, the Château Grimaldi incorporates a 10th-century tower and fortress that were once the domain of lords and bishops. It became the town hall in the 17th century and was turned into the Grimaldi Museum in the 1920s, before becoming the world’s first Picasso Museum in 1966. (Now there are at least eight Picasso Museums.)

The Picasso Museum
Once a castle belonging to a branch of Monaco’s ruling family, Château Grimaldi now houses what is supposedly the original Picasso Museum. The 65-year-old artist set up a studio here for two months in the autumn of 1946 and completed more than 200 paintings during his stay — it’s considered one of the most prolific times in his life. World War II had just ended, he had a girlfriend 40 years his junior, and he’d been given a workshop in a Medieval fortress right on the French Riviera. So yeah, he had lots of energy and inspiration at hand.

A visit to the nearby town of Vallauris spurred Picasso in a new direction — ceramics. I love his ability to whittle down the essence of an animal to simple egg shapes, and yet you can still clearly tell which is a goat, a wading bird, an owl, and a bull.

The ancient history of Antibes intrigued Picasso, and many of his paintings reflect Classical themes, such as fauns, satyrs, and centaurs. Farm animals, wild animals, even his pets became subjects for his studies. And he also kept his brush busy capturing cubist views of his many fabulous seafood meals and the fishermen who provided them. But I think my most surprising discoveries were the incredible ceramics he experimented with during this time. They’re playful and modern and make me hanker to take up pottery-throwing again.

Michael Sima’s portrait of Picasso shows him with Ubu, an injured wood owl he nursed back to health. Ubu became the subject of many of Picasso’s paintings and ceramics. Picasso believed that finding Ubu was a fortuitous event, since the owl is the symbol of Athena, Roman goddess of wisdom, and Antibes has a Classical past.

If you’d like to learn more about Picasso’s private life or his process, a section of the museum is devoted to the images of Michael Sima, a Polish artist and photographer who documented Picasso’s time in the castle. Plus, you’ll find several galleries that feature works of other famous painters and sculptors who labored to depict the stunning views and joie de vivre of Antibes. But even if you’re not really an art lover, checking out the interior of a Medieval Château and taking a turn on its breathtaking seaside terrace is reason enough to stop.

How’s this for an atmospheric entryway into Old Town? Called “Portail de l’Orme” (Portal of the Elm) this 10th-century towered gate really sets the stage for a magical stroll around the city’s Medieval ramparts. It also hold the Tower Museum, Antibes’s folk museum.

Antibes’s Ramparts & Harbor
When the Western Roman Empire fell, Antibes took quite a beating from various “barbarian” tribes like the Ostrogoths and Visigoths. Eventually pirates like the Saracens moved in. Finally, Seigneur (meaning “Lord”) Rodoard managed to liberate Provence from this last group of invaders, and as a reward, the Count of Arles gave him a huge chunk of coastline. Rodoard made Antibes his capital and built extensive ramparts, towers, and a fortress using some of the old Greek and Roman foundations.

These structures have proven to be pretty much impregnable through centuries of war and still remain mostly intact today along the sea wall. A walk along the ramparts  can take at least a half hour or so — that’s if you don’t stop to gawk at all of gorgeousCôte d’Azur views, or get lured into Old Town, or decide to go for a swim at Plage de la Gravette.

A view of the Old Port at sunset shows the variety of fishing boats owned by regular folk, some of which are for rent or offer tours of the coastline.

Continue along the ramparts and eventually you’ll make your way to a fork in the road. Then it becomes the story of the three bears. In front of you is the Vieux Port (“Old Port”), home to the “baby bears” — small boats a typical fisherman would use.

If you walk ten minutes to your left, you’ll find Port Vauban and the “mamma bears” — substantial yachts you’d expect to be owned by wealthy shipping magnates. But if you walk ten minutes to your right, you’ll encounter Quai des Milliardaires, home to the “papa bears” — mega yachts owned by Saudi princes, Russian oligarchs, and God Himself. These things are beyond dreams of avarice — some are the size of cruise ships — and they all snuggle up together in Europe’s biggest yacht harbor.

Matthew and I pretty much made a nightly habit of strolling the ramparts just to take in the fresh sea air and peer into the windows of the abutting houses — yeah, we like to inspect the real estate offerings so we can decide which we’ll buy when we win the lotto. One evening, we stopped at Les Vieux Murs, a fabulous Provençal restaurant with a stone terrace looking out over the bay. If you want to have a romantic dinner in Antibes, this is the place.

Our first view of one of the really big papa bears. Doesn’t it look like a Chinese pagoda or lantern? At night, its underwater floodlights illuminate the sea all around it.

Anyway, as we sat there, one of the huge super-yachts caught our eye because it had so many decks that it resembled a Chinese pagoda. It drifted closer, and soon everyone at the nearby tables began loudly speculating on the owner. When a helicopter flew in to land on the boat’s helipad, Matthew and I decided to start the rumor that it was Kim and Kanye’s yacht, and that they were getting a pizza delivered.

The “Eclipse” cost 1.5 billion dollars, measures 62.5 metres (533 ft 2 in), and has five levels, two helipads, a missile detection system, two pools, several hot tubs, and a disco hall. Kinda funny that it also has several smaller boats tucked inside it, like a Russian nesting doll. Click here to see a video of the boat.

Finally a waiter filled us in. “It’s the Eclipse, the second largest personal yacht in the world, and it’s owned by the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. He just flew in the Chelsea soccer team, which he owns. You should know him, he’s a friend of Donald Trump.” Of course that launched our nearest neighbors, an Australian family and a British couple, into a tirade, but we eventually waded out of the fray with no limbs lost.

We did manage to glean a fun story from the Brits. They’d been to Antibes the previous year to visit a friend who captains one of the big yachts for a Saudi Arabian prince. Their friend took them on a tour of the boat, which had a crew of thirty.  Matthew and I asked if the couple could dish any dirt, and they said, “well, apparently the prince won’t ever wear the same pair of underwear.  He opens a new package each morning and throws the old pair away.”

And with that little gem, I’ll wrap up this post. Stay tuned for more about our Bastille Day adventures.

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