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.
Strolling through Old Town’s beguiling cobblestone lanes eventually had Matthew and I paging through the real estate flyers and contemplating purchasing a condo here as part of our retirement plan.
With all the pastel-plastered buildings and stone walls covered with bougainvillea and grapevines, you might think you’ve taken a detour to Italy. In fact, Antibes was once a holding of Genoa’s Grimaldi family, who eventually became the ruling dynasty of Monaco. But more about that later….
Imagine strolling down a deserted alley and coming face-to-face with two stalking cheetahs. They’re the works of David Rivalta, placed for the summer of 2017 around unexpected corners. We also ran into a life-sized rhino at the Plage de Gravette beach, then stumbled upon a bear standing sentry along the backside of the Picasso Museum. Later we confronted a pack of wolves atop the rampart walkway. Such a cool art installation — wish it would be permanent!
Old Town isn’t all quiet alleyways. Many streets are chocablock with fantastic restaurants that rub shoulders with adorable stores featuring fine goods as well as the usual tourist fare.
Check out the 1833 La Tourraque Fountain that spouts potable water. Just push the button to activate the pump. Perfect on a hot day.
I’m a little obsessed with these old “lavoirs” (washing stations). Practically every small village in southern France has at least one. Most were built from around the 1600s up through the beginning of the 20th century. How’d they work? The women of the house would soak their laundry in soapy hot water at home, then cart the sudsy pile to the public lavoir where they’d beat it against the stone sides and rinse it in the flowing spring water. Once the noisy social hub of the village, these lavoirs are incredibly peaceful, evocative spaces today.
One day, Matthew and I happened upon this gorgeous little church, Chapelle Saint Bernardin, tucked in a narrow alley. The Brotherhood of the White Penitents of St. Bernardin built it in the 16th century. Early on, penitents practiced self-flagellation, fasting, the wearing of hair shirts, and other forms of atonement. Charity work eventually took the place of self abuse, with penitents funding the care of the sick, the burial of paupers, and the dowries of girls from poor families.
You’d never know from the church’s rather sedate exterior that its interior is a riot of color and pattern. Frescoes from the 16th and 19th centuries blanket every available square inch of wall space. Check out the gorgeous 18th-century Baroque altar with twisting Solomonic columns.
Place Nationale is the core of the Old Town community. In summer, you can catch musicians performing beneath the bandstand canopy. You can also grab a glass of rosé on a hot day at any of many lovely restaurants that set up tables and umbrellas for al fresco dining, or you can browse antique dealer’s stalls during the weekend Marchés à la Brocante (flea markets).
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….
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.
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.
Some of the most well preserved and distinctive Roman ruins you’ll find all over France are aqueducts for bringing fresh water into the city. The network was extensive — and especially important along the coast, where a more desert-like climate prevails. Two aqueducts, the Fontvieille and the Bouillide, fed fresh water to Antibes.
Antibes played an important role in maritime trade for both the Greeks and the Romans. Goods like olive oil, wine, and fermented fish sauce (yep, it was big back then) were transported in amphorae nestled in the hulls of ships, as portrayed here. Underwater excavations have uncovered several ancient shipwrecks that allow archaeologists to learn more about ancient sea lanes and transportation methods.
Ancient Greeks from the city of Phocaea along the Ionian Sea first established their large colony of Massalia (Marseilles), then their smaller outposts of Antipolis (Antibes) and Nikaia (Nice). The Phocaean Greeks were also one of the first cultures to mint coins.
No it’s not a pornographic ashtray giving the middle-finger salute. It’s a mortar and pestle used to grind mineral pigments into powdered makeup — not so different from today’s products, right? The featured exhibition during our visit to the Museum of History and Archaeology highlighted the ancient art of personal grooming.
The art of making perfume hails way back, as these ancient perfume bottles reveal. Southern France is renowned for its abundance of fragrant flower species that grow along the region’s mountain flanks and high fields.
A Roman water jug features a drawing of the lady of the household checking out her reflection in a mirror. A servant plays the tambourine and offers her a box of toiletries so that she can put on her makeup for the day.
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.”
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.)
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.
We spectated as Safranier’s neighbors hung out their windows and chatted across the alley to one another. The neighborhood became a Free Commune in the 1960s, adopting Nikos Kazantzakis’s motto “I fear nothing, I hope for nothing, I am free.” The place bills itself as a community of people who love life and like to have a good time. I can definitely get behind that philosophy.
By the way, the name Safranier comes from the word “saffron,” because the district was once the residence of the spice merchants. Check out this tiny merchant’s maison. It may only be a few feet wide, but what it lacks in space it more than makes up for in charm.
Gorgeous doorways abound here. I took so many photos that I could have created my own “The Doors of Safranier” poster.
…And then there are the flowers. Safranier’s residents tuck pots of plants in every available niche. Antibes has a dry Mediterranean climate, so you’ll find lots of flowering cactus and other drought-tolerant species here.
Hey, if you don’t have a balcony for an al fresco feast, set up in the alley. Looks like we just missed dinner.
Another gorgeous charmer. Many of the buildings in Safranier were constructed in the Middle Ages using stones robbed from nearby Roman ruins. Most all the homes are immaculately cared for and heart-achingly beautiful. A few can even be rented as AirBnBs, although these were beyond our budget.
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 MarchéProvençal (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.
The Marché Provençal market is still hoppin’ at night. There’s always someone putting on a show, and you can grab a full meal or just a glass of wine to watch. Or, you can browse the evening market full of paintings, sculptures, and jewelry by local talent.
My current thing is funky woven market baskets and purses — how can you pick just one? They’re like puppies at the pet store, you don’t want to leave any orphans behind.
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….
See what I mean about the variety? Just the row of tomatoes is longer than any produce aisle in the U.S.
Who knew there were so many varieties of eggplants? It’s usually best to tell the vendor what you want rather than pick up the veggies yourself. Vendors always check to find the ripest in the bunch, and they’ll often include a little extra in your bag for free.
The spice stalls teased my nostrils and made want to taste every single offering. And yes, vendors almost always offer tastings of anything you’re interested in.
Pictured are sausages made with boar and coated in spices and ashes. Unbelievably good, and perfect for packing as picnic fare.
Just a small sampling of the many baguette-style breads available in one of the more permanent stalls that line the market’s perimeter. The vendor here (one of our faves) also had rows of round breads, croissants, and pastries on display. To. Die. For.
And of course you have to have a little cheese to go with your baguette. I think we ended up trying almost everything in this case. My favorite was the “Figue Fermiere,” which has an actual ripe fig in the middle, with goat cheese molded around it in the shape of a fig. Yum!
A local specialty is “socca,” a flat pancake made of chickpea meal, olive oil, and spices. Super delish and not to be missed! The Marché Provençal has a regular vendor who sets up camp in the southeast corner with a portable furnace / pizza oven. The pancake is then baked via a wood fire and served off the metal pan you see here.
Check out the variety of olives available — different mixes, different marinades, etc. Sampling is encouraged by vendors, but haggling isn’t.
I had to buy one of each of these jellies to take home. Where else can you get jams made from rose, jasmin, violet, and lavender?
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.
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.
In the painting “Joie de Vivre (Antipolis),” fauns, satyrs, and a big-breasted woman (Picasso’s nubile girlfriend, French artist Françoise Gilot) cavort nude in nature. Some art critics say the painting represents not only Antibes’s classical roots, but also Picasso’s ebullience after WWII. Others say he intended to mock a painting of the same name created by his rival Matisse, who’d expressed the bourgeois attitude that art should be pure, serene, and “devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter.”
“Ulysses and the Sirens” blends both Picasso’s exploration of Greek mythology and his obsession with depicting sea life, particularly sea urchins, during his stay in Antibes. (Look closely, and you’ll see that the moon-faced Ulysses in the center has a sea urchin for a mouth.)
Pictured is “Satyr, Faun, and Centaur with Trident.” Picasso himself said, “Whenever I come to Antibes, I’m always attacked by the itch of Antiquity. It is strange, in Paris I never draw fauns, centaurs, or mythical heroes … they always seem to live in these parts.” Due to a lack of materials available after the war, Picasso painted this piece and many more of his large mythological scenes on asbestos-reinforced cement board using industrial boat paint. His original goal was to paint the images as frescoes directly onto the Château’s walls, which ultimately proved too damp.
Fresh sea urchins still make for a common meal in Antibes. I love how Picasso works to explore the basic geometries of a square, circle, and triangle that can be found in the animal’s spiny shell. And it’s clear that the sphincter-like nature of a sea urchin’s mouth became the inspiration for the mouths of human subjects he painted during this time. Because canvas was hard to come by after the war, all three of these pieces are supposedly painted on top of old works of art that Picasso found lying around in the Château.
I think pretty much everyone falls in love with “The Goat.” Why? Because we sense that Picasso loved her, too. With just a few simple lines and odd angles, he manages to tell you three things: it’s a goat, she’s pregnant, and she’s cherished.” In fact, the image is thought to be Esmeralda, one of two beloved pet goats that ran free in Picasso’s house in Cannes.
One whole wall in the museum is devoted to Picasso’s platters. You’ll see depictions of his pet owl, his girlfriend, and of course, bullfighters. To Picasso, the bullfight depicted the power struggle between men and women, with the bull being the man and the horse being the woman. Picasso was notorious for his poor treatment of women and allegations of domestic abuse. He once said that there were only two kinds of women “goddesses or doormats.” Clearly, the #MeToo movement would have been hard for him to accept.
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.
Pictured is Picasso with his young lover Françoise Gilot, and their two children Paloma and Claude. They never married, but he later left her for another woman, who became his second wife. When Françoise eventually wrote a book about her life with Picasso, he tried (unsuccesfully) to stop the publication. He then refused to see his son and daughter ever again.
The Grimaldi family received the city of Antibes as collateral on a loan they made to a pope. Yes, the nobility and the church were disgustingly cozy back then. The family later enlarged the existing 10th-century tower and fortress into a Château, where they lived from 1385 through 1608. Of course, it’s located right next door to the city’s cathedral. Gotta keep up those ties between church and state.
The interior of the castle is simple, somber, and strong; it’s the perfect foil for Picasso’s modern works. He donated 23 paintings and 44 drawings after his stay here and gave the museum its ceramic collection in 1948. In 1954, Picasso donated two sculptures of another of his mistresses, Marie-Thérèse Walter. It’s her prominent, patrician nose that you see portrayed in many of his most famous paintings of women.
The castle’s shadowy, barrel-vaulted rooms are made for highlighting modern works of art. The images you see here were painted by Norwegian Ann-Eva Bergman, an abstract expressionist painter, and her French-German husband, Hans Hartung. They bought a large estate in Antibes and spent the last years of their lives here. I told you Norwegians love the south of France 🙂
One room in the Château is devoted to the works of Nicolas de Staël, who’d I’d never heard of before but am now obsessed with. He’s known for thick smears of paint that create textured, abstract landscapes. Compare his moody depiction of Fort Carré d’Antibes seen here with my photo at the top of this blog post. Sadly, he committed suicide only a year after settling in Antibes to recover from depression, insomnia, and exhaustion.
The Château’s terrace has sculptures by artists who periodically lived and worked along the French Riviera. On the left is Joan Miró’s “Goddess of the Sea” with an almost owl-like head. On the right is Bernard Pagès’s “The Column of Antibes,” meant to evoke the Greek and Roman history of the city.
“La Grain” by Germaine Richter tops the ramparts of the Château and frames a majestic view of the sea.
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.
along the coastline to offer one of the most famous views of the French Riviera — that of Château Grimaldi and its “Saracen Tower.”
A sunset stroll atop the ramparts is not to be missed. The Ferris wheel in the background is set up for July 14th, France’s National Day.
Rambling along the ramparts gives you the opportunity to look down into Old Town and peruse the restaurant options before dinner.
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.
You can see the top of a super-yacht peeking up over the ramparts along Plage de Gravette.
You can’t actually get close to the super-yachts, but you can take a good gander from the top of the ramparts. Most of these babies only get taken out for a spin a few days a year. What a waste.
These are the “mama bear” boats — big enough to impress dignitaries, but not so large as to bankrupt entire countries. Note that the flags declare each boat is registered in a country or port known for tax dodgers.
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.
Behold, our fabulous appetizer of melon soup with red-pepper ciabatta.
My meal of zucchini stuffed with seafood, all floating in shellfish broth.
You can see our terrace-side seating and my excitement over my meal. Matthew’s having the bouillabaisse.
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.
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.