Ylva French spends the festive period visiting more than a dozen museums in the south of France

Escaping the frenzy of Christmas on a cultural tour of the Cote d’Azur seemed a good idea. Looking back it certainly lived up to expectations – blue skies over an azure Mediterranean, drinks on the terrace in Nice in lively company – and some 17 cultural visits in seven days!

The most amazing discovery was that they were all open, no obligatory shut-down here, which enabled our full programme to continue right through the three days of Christmas. Only on Christmas Eve did we come a cropper when the Musee National Fernand Leger at Biot decided to close early although we had a pre-booked 3.30 pm. All the staff were lined up in the foyer ready to go home. We rushed round, hounded from gallery to gallery as they turned off the lights and banged the doors shut to get us out of there by 3.50 pm. Fortunately I had been before but it was a disappointing experience.

Museums in the South of France have an uncomfortable relationship not just with customer care but also with commercialism. There may be a shop, which may or may not be open, with a selection of postcards and books. If there is a café it’s usually in an outside pavilion in the garden or park, and frequently closed. So it was a delight on Christmas Day to visit two outstanding museums which proved just the opposite.

These were the absolute highlights of the trip: Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild at St Jean Cap Ferrat and Foundation Maeght at St Paul de Vence. They couldn’t be more different. The first housed in a Rennaissance style villa set in formal gardens, showing the furniture and art collection of Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild [an art collector and socialite from the Rothschild banking family]. The other is a modern structure with stupendous works of sculpture on terraces and in the wooded garden. What they shared was a commitment to their customers, the Villa had an informative audio guide in English, a lovely Salon de The with views over the garden and the musical fountain, and good food plus table service to match, as well as a lovely, innovative shop.The Foundation Maeght challenged the visitor with works by Picasso, Hepworth, Miro and Gioacometti outside and in the large, white gallery spaces. The café in the garden was closed – but the shop had a lively choice. Neither closed for lunch – a common feature at many of the other museums!

When a home becomes a museum

Many of the museums we visited were dedicated to one artist, either the person’s former home, or a gallery covering a specific period of their life or a themed work. At the Musee Picasso in Antibes in the picturesque Chateau Grimaldi is a museum where the great man spent time in 1946 to paint a series of wall panels full of joie de vivre. There are photographs showing him at work and drawings and sketches as well as ceramics from his Vallauris period, which we also visited nearby. Likewise the Chagall Museum in Nice is where Marc Chagall’s masterpieces of the Creation and Exodus are displayed in a purpose built setting in a peaceful garden. The spiritual experience of seeing these imaginative paintings surpassed my first visit many years ago. Now visitors are allowed to take photographs, children are welcome, and the café in the garden opened in time for a coffee in the sun!

Along the coast on the waterfront at Menton is a most impressive new museum (2011) dedicated to the work of Jean Cocteau. The Musee Jean Cocteau Collection Severin Wunderman – a square, one storey building with tapering white columns interspersed with dark glass walls – tells his story. And it has a lively shop, a café inside, and does not close for lunch. Not every artist has two museums dedicated to his works but Cocteau can also be found in Le Bastion – a cleverly converted stone structure overlooking the harbour.

Musee Jean Cocteau

Among the many delightful places we visited was another new museum, the small but perfect Musee Bonnard at Le Cannet dedicated to Pierre Bonnard’s life. This opened in 2011 and while it could do with an English audioguide and captions in view of the popularity of his work, a visit is well worthwhile, telling the story of his life through his paintings, drawings and sketches. He lived nearby with his wife Marthe. However, at the Maison et Jardin Renoir virtually all traces of the painter’s life in this, his last home seemed to have been eradicated in the restoration of 2013. While at the Villa Ephrussi a breakfast tray was waiting beside Beatrice’s bed and her hat and parasol were lying ready on the sofa, here the studio which once evoked the great painter’s messy working space, now shows an empty easel, a clean palette and just his old chair. Black and white photographs from the past have been placed to recreate the appearance of the rooms. Disappointing despite the beautiful garden setting.

At the Matisse Museum in Nice there were attempts at bringing the painter to life – he lived for years nearby and it is close to the cemetery where he lies beneath a huge stone slab. But it didn’t quite come off. His armchair stood forlornly at the top of the staircase and there were display cases with his collection of ceramics and glass. In other ways it was a “memorial” museum” with few of his great works but plenty of his sketches, drawings, sculptures and minor works. Often, by the time these museums were created the best of the works were already in private ownership or in the great museums of Paris, London, New York and Washington. The 17th century building in its own park was extended with a modern wing in 1993. Perhaps that was the opportunity to recreate one of Matisse’s studios, bringing the great painter to life, closing the cultural divide between the curators and the exhibition designers and pleasing the public.