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CHATEAU DE LA NAPOULE, FRENCH RIVIERA

A short drive by car but centuries by history, the Chateau de La Napoule near Cannes is a little known castle and art foundation with magical gardens, right on the Mediterranean shore. Andrew L. Urban was privileged to be a guest and stayed in the Tower Room.

For 12 days, my residential address had been The Tower, Chateau de La Napoule, Mandelieu, French Riviera. The 40 narrow stone steps of the spiral stairway that led to the room barely accommodated my suitcase, but the wrought iron four poster bed easily accommodated me.

From the east window I could see as far as Cannes, a few kilometres away, across the miniature fishing port of La Napoule. To the west, the hills that run down to the Mediterranean, decorated with another chateau, the much smaller Chateau Mineurs, which looks decorative on the hillside, but has no accommodation.

Beneath the south-western windows in the middle, with their heavy carved timber shutters, lay the lapping sea, splashing onto ancient rocks, caressing one minute, thumping the next.

The Tower room boasts an en-suite bathroom; it is pleasantly old fashioned, spacious, fully functional with a large bath (the hot water takes a while to reach the tower, but it is hot) and has a breathtaking view from twin windows to the north.

Far from feeling isolated up there in the tower, the overriding feeling is one of serenity. It is not, after all, the Tower of London, and heads have not rolled - except perhaps ones made of marble or stone, sculptures created by the late Henry Clews, who must have been quite a character, judging by his strange and fanciful work.

American artist Clews and his wife Marie bought this ancient ruin in 1918, presumably for a song. Locals say it had been a fortress started by the Romans some 2000 years before, besieged, wrecked and rebuilt at least eight times since.

Henry was a sculptor, Marie was an architect; a perfect team to reconstruct - and embellish - this fabulously positioned estate, with its absolute waterfrontage, its extensive grounds and gardens, its imposing turrets. Of course, Cannes had not yet made a name for itself as the cinematic altar and playground of the region, but the geography of the coast must have appealed to this unusual couple. It appeals to us all. There are few contrasting experiences greater than the whirlwind film festival in Cannes and the silent stone creatures at the Chateau.

Magical, leering beasts, surreal birds and rotund fish began to appear from beneath Henry's hands, the stones rose and a bizarrely decorated but beautiful chateau emerged, in the style of a 13th century castle. From the water, it looks like a fantasy castle where history can be written.

The initials of both Marie and Henry, sometimes intertwined with the C for Clews, has been formed out of stone in several places, often above arches.

The aroma of fresh coffee wafts up the spiral stairs to the Tower room in the mornings, and fresh croissants and baguettes lure me down to the expansive dining room. French doors made of leaded stained glass open onto a small terrace, where a large circular stone table overlooks the Mediterranean between fir trees and hedges.

Breakfast decisions are tough: sit amidst the sculptures and giant oil paintings, enjoying the echo of crunchy bread on the stone floors and high ceilings - or catch the morning sun beneath the clinging vine of the Tower.

Or climb out on one of the extensive terraces up high, above the pebbled courtyard ... or just stay in the Tower.

But of course, this is no hotel: there is no phone or tv in the Tower (there is a communal tv set incongruous by the giant stone fireplace, and a phone in the passageway by the kitchen) and there is no room service.

(Liza, the resident chef during my stay, came for a month and stayed for years; that she is a young Glaswegian is as incongruous as the tv set; but like everything else at Chateau La Napoule, the surprise element is part of the charm. She has since departed I hear.)

There are daily guided tours for small groups of visitors, as the Chateau is primarily an art foundation these days, established as such in 1951 by Marie Clews, some years after Henry's death.

Funded by a mix of state and private beneficiaries (including the French Ministry of Culture and the American National Endowment for the Arts), the chateau provides residence for artists from countries as far away as Norway and Senegal, Russia and Hong Kong, Mali, Togo and Great Britain.

Writers, composers, painters and sculptors come to work in traditional as well as experimental residential activities. Occasionally, the chateau is taken over for a seminar or conference, and with accomodation for almost 40 people, it is a unique setting for any group events.

The managers manage to keep the chateau and its grounds - including the Clews' graves - attractively kept all year round. The graves, in a mausoleum garden setting adjacent to the main building, face the sea. Behind them is the Villa Marguerite, which provides further accommodation and its own grounds, but is part of the estate.

Across the winding street, the ever-changing main thoroughfare that threads together the communities all along this part of the Riviera, Mandelieu-La Napoule boasts some fine restaurants and several decent hotels. The biggest and most noticeable is the Casino Palace, just a few hundred metres from the chateau.

In the still of the summer night, the only lights visible are those of the casino, the blinking lights along the hillside road across the bay to the south west, and the subtle, atmospheric lighting of the Chateau La Napoule.

On late evenings, I would be guided by the outline of the turrets and the lights on "my own tower", ambling down the side street past the imposing main gate, and in through a private side entrance that leads to the gardens at the front, up pebbled paths through hedges and flower beds, past vine-covered walls to the main courtyard, and into the dining room entrance.

There is something mythical about going home at night to a tower room in a 13th century Mediterranean chateau, alone but for the ghosts of 2000 years past, and the remarkable Mr and Mrs Clews, who carved into stone above the entrance door, the apt inscription, "Once Upon A Time..."

Published May 5, 2016

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Visitors from the past: Gregory Peck and wife Veronique







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