Follow the Painters’ Trail in the South of France

The moon is an escaped balloon, the town a violet jumble, and the woman licking an ice-cream has a blue tongue. As for the noseless man wielding a Neptune spear, he rightly belongs in a nightmare rather than a fishing boat.

Picasso’s Night Fishing at Antibes doesn’t resemble any fishing activity I’ve ever seen. But it’s fun seeing reproductions of art works displayed where they were painted. All along the French Riviera and into the Provencal back country of hill towns, vineyards and flower fields, I kept coming across spots on the region’s Painters’ Trail.

Provence’s bright hues and the clarity of the Mediterranean light enticed numerous celebrated artists. From market fabric stalls to pastel-shuttered houses draped in wisteria, everywhere is drenched in exuberant color.

One coastal stop on the art trail is the citadel town of Antibes. “How beautiful it is here,” wrote the 19th-century Impressionist, Claude Monet. “So clear and pure in its pinks and blues.”

Despite the Riviera’s concrete sprawl, the seascapes remain as mesmerizing as when Monet set up his easel. Perched on a bluff above shimmering waves, the Old Fort at Antibes looks no different today. And although it’s hard nowadays to imagine that neighboring Juan-les-Pins was once a fishing hamlet, you can still play spot the Monet pine trees.

A working port town as well as a summer resort, Antibes was founded by ancient Greeks. Highlights include a flower-bedecked old quarter, the harbor, and a popular boules park on the ramparts. Juan-les-Pins—a 40-minute walk across the Cap—is where to go for beaches and nightlife. Miles Davis and Ray Charles made their European debuts at its jazz festival, Jazz in Juan, now in its 52nd year.

Of course, this being the Riviera, you’re deep into million-dollar-plus villa territory. Even a 20-square-meter studio in the new part of Antibes costs around 120,000 euro ($147,500). For an apartment with 50 square meters of living space, the ballpark figure is nearer 200,000 euro ($246,000).

Nearby St Paul-de-Vence is a wildly pretty medieval hill village laden with galleries and artists’ workshops.

Its most notable resident was Marc Chagall who made it his home for almost 20 years. You can visit his tomb in the village graveyard, and seek out three of his works on the Painters’ Trail. As it’s only four miles from the coast, don’t expect property bargains. (You’ll pay 165,000 euro, about $200,000, for a 30-square-meter studio; more than $500,000 for a village house.)

However, prices drop a little in the larger town of Vence, five miles farther inland.

It has a modern part wrapped around its 12th-century core, so there’s not the same visual effect as on glimpsing St Paul-de-Vence. But it’s not short on charm, terraced cafes, an artistic past, and contemporary art and sculpture galleries. Plus there’s a wonderful Friday produce market when the countryside comes to town.

Accessed through flower-adorned archways, Vence’s medieval center has some unexpected gems including the remains of a Roman cobbled road and a column to Mars (pictured above), their god of war. The cathedral has a Chagall mosaic of Moses in the Bulrushes, and Henri Matisse spent four years of his life creating the Chapelle de Rosaire above the town—its stained glass windows flood the white interior with jewel-like yellows, greens and blues.

A 21-square-meter pied-a-terre is on the market in Vence for 95,000 euro ($117,400); a 38-square-meter studio apartment is 127,000 euro ($156,000). The latter would rent for around 600 euro ($740) a month.

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