I’ve been asking myself a simple question lately: What makes the Côte d’Azur so special?
I mean, the world has fallen head over heels with nearby Provence, thanks to Peter Mayle and his endless (and hilarious) tales about pigs, truffles and the five-hour lunch that rolls straight into dinner. Meanwhile, across the border in Tuscany, we’ve rebuilt an Italian villa – and a shattered life – with the celebrated Frances Mayes.
And yet the Côte d’Azur is hardly relegated to the shade alongside these destination superstars. Far from it. Already this summer at Bellevue, we’ve hosted visitors who have declared undying love for this place. Folks who have delayed their return flights. Others who have launched into song at her aura.
The world is drawn to this southeastern corner of France – as are the French who don’t already live here. On certain days, starting July 9 this year and focusing on the weekends, the Bison Futé, a French government website, has warned that the roads are “red.” The A8 and A9 motorways from Paris and along the southern coast are so plugged that you may as well turn around and go home – or stay on holiday. Today is one of those days.
What increases the intensity of this Côte d’Azur phenomenon is that the French pretty much take their holidays in unison. Starting around Bastille Day on July 14th and ending just before La Rentrée, the very beginning of September when schools start up and the rest of the working world gets back to their desks, the number of inhabitants surrounding Bellevue swells. It took Philippe and me a full hour and 40 minutes to drive 28 kilometers on Monday night. On Monday night!
Sure, weather is a draw in the CDA. We’ve barely seen a drop of rain in a couple months now. The sky is always sunny – and the forecast constantly expecting more of the same.
But you could say the same thing about the Sahara Desert. There’s obviously more going on here. A whole lot more. And every now and then, I’m fortunate to get a special insight to the Côte’s enduring appeal. I stumble on the perfect 10.
(Yes, sure, we’ve welcomed Bo Derek to lunch at Bellevue – see blogs dated June 9, 10 and 11, 2007 – but at the moment I’m talking about experience. Not curves.)
One of the most seducing things about the Côte d’Azur in summertime is its wealth of music festivals. Jazz à Juan, in our neighbouring Juan-les-Pins, is one of them.
This year was a first for Philippe and me. For the several years we’ve journeyed to this part of the world, we’ve never attended Jazz à Juan. Instead we’ve chosen to hightail it out of Holidayville while the roads were red. Jazz à Juan is a reason to stay.
One of this year’s featured artists was Diana Krall, so we learned in June, and the remaining tickets to see Vancouver’s jazz diva were basically on the climbing structure at the adjacent Pinède playground. Philippe typed a quick email to one of his connected, Vancouverite buddies.
The next morning he received an email from a kind man called Darrell: two complimentary tickets to see Diana would await us at the box office on the night. There were no references to the avenue that had connected Darrell and us – but if we should run into any problems, here was the Danish phone number for Diana’s Tour Manager and the Swedish one for her Production Assistant.
Voilà. Things don’t always happen so perfectly – I do realize this – but we’re living in the marvelous, magical Côte d’Azur during the balmy summertime. All things are possible.
But perfection in the CDA isn’t all about glam. I should point out that our perfect 10 evening also summoned the slower, more personal side of life that is evident in much of France – including its Riviera.
A few days before Diana’s concert, Philippe had lunched with his friend Jean-Louis, the head of Antibes’ Musée Picasso. Here he met Jean-Jacques, Jean-Louis’ forever friend and the new proprietor of La Brasserie, the Antibes restaurant where they dined.
(The French, I must explain, may take a while to create relationships, but once born, these connections endure. Jean-Louis’ description of his long friend Jean-Jacques reminded me of our friend Walid, whose conversations are splattered with friends’ restaurants that we must try (“We were in school together!”), or even their plumbing businesses that we must use.)
Philippe’s new acquaintance Jean-Jacques, as it happened, formerly managed the famed Hôtel Belles Rives in Juan-les-Pins. Now, in addition to La Brasserie, he’d begun a second restaurant, a beach restaurant smack between the Belles Rives and the Jazz à Juan concert venue. Why didn’t Philippe and I dine there before the Diana Krall concert?
And so that night, Jean-Jacques reserved a seaside table for two, draped in white linen and set with its own bottle of golden olive oil and two different balsamics, on the dock of his new Le Provençal Beach restaurant. As the sun began to set behind the bay, the proprietor organized two glasses of champagne. And while other concertgoers helped themselves to a luscious buffet, Jean-Jacques frequented our table and ensured we could order from his gastronomic menu – and still make the concert on-time.
(Which we could have, except that Philippe and I adore dessert. We chose to invoke French time, which is more elastic than in North America, where my relatives would arrive bewilderingly early to gatherings. Here if we turned up partway through the opening act to Diana’s concert, we reckoned, it’d be just like the French turning up to dinner parties a socially correct, 15-or-so minutes late.)
On our own time, Philippe and I ambled to the venue. Adding to our wonder on the perfect evening, two comp tickets actually showed up for us in the box office. And a couple “Krall After Show” passes to boot.
Our seats were at the very top of the center section, in the so-called Loge area, directly looking down onto the stage. We scooted to them during a pause in the warm-up band headed by the son of Clint Eastwood on bass, with trumpet, sax, keyboards and drums.
Eastwood was dressed all in black. His face filled two large, onstage screens. His hair was sandy blonde and tousled. The rest of the screen showed a young Clint.
The French, I soon observed, don’t keep Mediterranean time when it comes to concerts. All rows at this Jazz à Juan concert already were filled, except for our Loge section. Crowds stood like penned sheep at the right of the stage. Given the virtuosity of this ensemble – which was much more than a group of musicians riding on the glory of a famous father – we maybe should’ve skipped dessert.
The backdrop was equally enthralling: this glorious golf teeming with pleasure craft; Abramovich’s glitzy new, 377-foot Luna megayacht; and a virtual painter’s palate scattered in the Mediterranean sunset. Traffic hummed softly behind Philippe and my seats on the sultry evening, while an occasional, musical refrain from nearby beach restaurants tinkled into the arena during the quieter moments on stage. But the world buzzed superfluously to its own beat while the concert crowd tuned in perfectly to the stage.
As Eastwood and his crew shared the lead, I realized the seats in the Loge weren’t just top-notch; they were at the center of this musical world. A few spots over stood the production platform, housing the handful of backstage types who wielded an enormous spotlight, monitored the sound balance and laughed into headphones with crew members hidden elsewhere within the arena.
Between our seats and this platform was a small section three seats wide. In that section, one row back, was a female fan club for Eastwood and his gang. They bounced up and shrieked after every piece. They snapped forbidden photos – venue staff were guarding a tableful of confiscated cameras at the entry door – and then stuffed the cameras back into their handbags.
I whipped out my iPhone and snapped a couple shots myself. Here’s one of them:
Eastwood dedicated his second-to-last song to his fille – using this single, French word in an otherwise English discourse. His fille likes funk, he said.
The audience murmured. They seemed to say, “Nice try with the French, Eastwood. But fille?” Did he mean his daughter, as the French word indicated? Or did he refer to his girlfriend? (I later learned that audience interest probably related to the paparazzi-style debate about who, exactly, Eastwood is dating these days.)
Eastwood’s bass rocked as he punched out a jaunty tune. When he began to improvise, the woman next to me, seated in that narrow section of seats, came to life. She treaded her slender fingers against each other. Her left ring finger was stacked high with mod, silver rings. Her narrow shoulders hunched over as she fidgeted, as if she was trying to get closer to the music. Her feet tapped the offbeat.
The musician’s offbeat. While audiences tend to tap out beats 1 and 3 in a song, musicians encourage 2 and 4. It doesn’t drag the tempo. The slender woman next to me knew music. She was involved.
When Eastwood swapped his lead to the trumpet player, the woman’s fingers stopped moving. She pulsed a handheld fan in front of her face. The funk piece finished to grand applause, and the three women in the back row of that narrow section jumped up. They hooted louder than ever. The woman with the silver rings – and I now glimpsed more closely her angular face, her long, dark hair and her strappy, black dress painted with large flowers that showed the back of her black bra – this woman remained in her seat. She spun in my direction and said to the woman behind her, “Kyle and I were playing with this song in his front room, and I said you have to put it on your record.”
I peeked at our complimentary ticket stubs. Kyle was Eastwood Jr’s first name.
“She’s the fille!” I said to Philippe, as if I’d just solved some mystery. Suddenly I was filled with regret. Had the fille overheard my earlier comments? When, as Eastwood’s face filled the screen, I asked Philippe how old the musician would be? How I said that close-ups like that do no favours?
Smack at the end of the set, the fille in black jumped up and shot, presumably, backstage. Eastwood and his gang returned for an encore. The back row groupies snapped liberally with their cameras.
A security guard bounded toward the woman closest to us. He scolded her in French and then, presumably because she looked puzzled, he asked, “Est-ce que vous comprenez le français?” Do you understand French?
The woman stammered in English. Yes, she understood the rule, she said with a lilting Southern drawl, but what did this man think she was going to do with the photos anyway? “I’m his mother!” she declared.
Maggie Johnson, a former swimsuit model, was Clint Eastwood’s first wife, the one who lasted 25 years with him and bore two children. Kyle was the elder. His sister was Alison.
The guard held his dignity in the face of Clint Eastwood’s former wife by explaining that, okay, she wasn’t a problem, but if the rest of the audience saw her taking photos, they’d think it was okay for them to do so, too. (My hand floated to check that the iPhone was tucked well into my handbag.)
In the fluster, Maggie lost a lens from her glasses. I helped her scour the floor. She was beautiful, with gentle facial features and shoulder-length, snow-white hair clipped away from her face. She wore a shapely, white cotton shirt and a light pink skirt that would’ve twirled if she spun circles.
A woman two down from Maggie – another one of the groupies – found the lens. She thanked me and passed the lens to Maggie. “Here,” she said. “Just put the glasses away, Mom.”
Alison, Kyle’s sister, was a pretty blonde who wore a navy sundress that was more structured than the fille’s. Between Alison and her mother sat a teenage girl with a high, dark ponytail. “That was great!” was all I heard her say when she began climbing down the stands. But Philippe overheard more. The dark-haired girl was Maggie’s granddaughter. Kyle’s daughter from his first wife. Perhaps even the fille he had mentioned.
Maggie put her glasses in her purse. As she started down the staircase next to me, presumably to find her son, she turned to say with her gentle drawl, “Thanks for being so understanding.” A proper belle to the end.
Diana Krall’s concert – the headline act – was equally enthralling, if only for the right reasons. She came onstage at 10pm, when the Juan-les-Pins sky finally had darkened. Luna and her nautical neighbours sparkled in the bay. Just up the coastline, the green light of Port Gallice’s lighthouse flickered three times on each revolution.
Playing alongside a guitar, bass and drums, the celebrated jazz pianist and singer from Vancouver seemed to use 12 fingers to craft improvisations on a Steinway. Even more stunningly, her mellow, cabaret-style voice sang along to an entirely different rhythm.
Diana wasn’t one to tell stories into the mic, but her love of Canada was clear. She introduced one song saying that it reminded her of Vancouver – even while she bathed in the Riviera’s bliss. Philippe and I quietly praised the Vancouver connection who’d sourced our tickets.
At one point, Diana wove a fleeting phrase of “O Canada”, the national anthem, within a song whose repeated refrain was “Oh, you’re in my blood like holy wine / Tastes so bitter / Tastes so sweet.” It was as if the diva was singing directly to Philippe and me.
On reflection, I’m sure she wasn’t, but all things are possible in the Côte d’Azur.
The concert ended near midnight. Back at Bellevue, we realized that a five-year old doesn’t understand that her parents stayed out late the night before. It is for that reason alone that I still have the Krall After Show tickets on my desk, souvenirs of a perfect evening.
The night of Kyle’s and Diana’s concerts, preceded by a delicious new friendship in Jean-Jacques, shows why the French Riviera, sandwiched between Provence and Tuscany, is so enticing. At least it’s part of the answer. The Côte d’Azur offers both of these bewitching sides of France: a slower pace that’s personal and real – and a hive of activity where you can feel, if only for a moment, that you are at the center of the universe.
The only unfortunate factor in this love affair is that it’s hardly exclusive. The Côte d’Azur’s admiring flocks continue to stream in. The Bison Futé website is forecasting that tomorrow, August 1, will be the worst day of the year for France’s roads – mostly thanks to traffic between Paris and the south.
The government website pronounces that tomorrow’s roads will be “black.”