When the 21st century traveller visits France, they generally go with a mind-set believing that the map of France has always been vaguely the same over the centuries as it is today. Nothing could be further from the truth. The map to the right (courtesy Wikipedia) suggests that towards the end of the 10th century, a little over two thirds of modern France was in place. Whilst true in some senses, the map of France as shown in this diagram was fought over again and again throughout the next 600 years as our journey up the west coast of France to Brittany and Normandy would reveal.
When visiting the area of Nice and, 28 kms further along the coast, Antibes, we were travelling in a part of the country that was only formally ceded to France in the 1860s during the negotiations between France and the Kingdom of Savoy as part of the negotiations for Italian unification. This was true of Nice itself, but Antibes was just over the border in France; it had become part of France back in 1482, thus explaining the presence of a border fort guarding the entrance to the Antibes port.
From our camping ground in La Colle sur Loup, we drove to Antibes and discovered that getting a park any where near the old centre of the town was going to be difficult. We eventually had to settle for a park outside a large shopping centre in the suburb of Rabiac and headed off in the rain down towards the port, named after Sebestien Vauban, a military engineer from the 17th century whose name we would become very familiar with on our travels in France. Bikes are a godsend in this travel situation as they got us quickly out of the rain and into a great café near the SNCF train station.
After rest and restoration at our first Antibes café, we headed directly down to Port Vauban and rode along the foreshore, admiring the millionaire yachts that filled the harbour.
After coming to the gates of the city wall we decided we would follow the trail of fellow visitors inside the walls of the town. Unlike other entrances to the old towns of France, at this entry way, our bags were checked by security personnel before we were allowed through the gate. Once through this inspection process, we found a spot to tie our bikes up and walk around the town. We had entered not far from the markets, Le Marche Provencal, so the lure of French market produce couldn’t be resisted. On the way in we passed a statue commemorating Jean-Étienne Championnet, one of Napoleon’s strangely effective generals during the revolutionary wars against Italy. Like many military paragons who crash or crash through, Championnet died young at age 37 in 1800.
Loaded with market purchases we headed off into the centre of Antibes, strolling down the narrow alley ways until we reached the centre of town, Antibes’ Place National. This was a lovely square, surrounded by aged four storey buildings with an ornate bandstand (gazebo?) and lots of market stalls. It is believed the square was built over a Roman forum; Antibes has an ancient history, having been first built by Greek colonists and eventually becoming the Roman town of Antipolis which lasted until the fifth century CE. There were two very interesting public art pieces/memorials in this square. One was the lovely statue of ‘Les Amoureux de Peynet’ (pictured here) outside a small museum dedicated to the Parisian born artist Raymond Peynet which opened in 1989. Peynet was very famous in France in the 1950s/1960s for his images of the ‘little poet’ and his lady friend. Charles Aznavour even performed a song celebrating these lovers.
The other public memorial was a marble column (It is next to the Gazebo in the image below) set up by the city fathers in 1818 in this square commemorating the town shutting the gate on Napoleon’s troops after his escape from the island of Elba. The inscription on the column starts with… “In August and September 1815 the town of Antibes was surrounded by foreign troops (troupes etrangeres).” These ‘etrangeres’ were 600 French soldiers who had joined Napoleon and escaped from the island of Elba by boat and disembarked in France at Gulf-Juan, a landing point just the other side of Juan Les Pins, a few kilometres walk from the walls of Antibes. Napoleon’s soldiers shelled Antibes but the gates remained closed to them. They then moved on to Paris and eventually were defeated at Waterloo. Provence as a region and Antibes in particular were fans of the Bourbon royal family. The newly returned King fled Paris before the arrival of Napoleon’s new army there and he was very grateful to hear the news of Antibes shutting the gate against the returning hero; Louis XVIII later donated 90000 francs of his own money to repair the damage to town resulting from the shelling of Napoleon’s troops. He also raised Antibes status to “Fidei servandae exemplum 1815“.
After escaping from Elba, Napoleon’s final campaign lasted one hundred days. His walk to Paris from Antibes has become a tourist trail called the Route Napoleon and it was inaugurated in 1932. It starts at Golfe-Juan and ends at Grenoble and the way is marked by plinths supporting golden eagles; this celebration of Napoleon probably made the early 19th century city fathers of Antibes roll in their graves!
Returning to our bikes, we rode back through the city gates (luckily they weren’t closed to us!) and rode back the way we came, along the edge of the harbour. We were now heading in the other direction from the roundabout where we had turned right earlier in the day to investigate ‘Vieil Antibes’, old Antibes. There was parkland running right along this area of foreshore and it was a lovely ride, passing sights like the beautiful statue of the flying athletes (See below right). Our destination was Fort Carre and we could see it on the horizon on the other side of the harbour and its mega yachts.
As we didn’t know the location of the entrance to the fort, we rode all the way around the fortifications, stopping to admire the large moored yacht on the sea side of our destination.
There was probably a chapel built on the site of Fort Carre back before it became part of France in the late 15th century. The first fort built on the site occurred in 1565 and it incorporated the chapel into its structure. Being on the border with the County of Nice, part of the Kingdom of Savoy, it is no wonder that Louis XIV wanted to upgrade the fort on his southern border.
The name Fort Carre means ‘square’ fort but after Vauban arrived in the 1680s to upgrade Antibes’ fortifications, it probably should have been renamed the ‘star’ fort. Vauban was a brilliant military engineer who was given the task by Louis XIV to upgrade the castles and forts of his expanding French empire. The problem for Vauban was that he was born at a time of massive technological change in warfare; canons had arrived and they were becoming increasingly effective in knocking down castle walls. He may have even predicted the time when the advancement of weaponry would make castle and fortress walls a useless hindrance to local citizens. Your enemies would one day blow your walls down having already fire-bombed the homes and inhabitants who huddled inside the walls, hoping against hope that they would be safe there. In the meantime, Vauban set about redesigning Antibes’ defences, with canons in mind. He did two things in particular. He made the exterior walls of a defence position no longer straight and flat but star-shaped in order to deflect canon balls. He also replaced stone walls with flat brick surfaces so when a cannon ball struck the walls, the amount of damaging stone debris thrown up would be lessened. To the right is the original design for Antibes’ protection with both the fort and the land side of the town protected by his star pointed walls.
Vauban’s modernised fortifications for Antibes probably gave its town and castle walls another hundred years or so of enhanced protection against artillery. Certainly it kept out Austrian and Sardinian troops 70 years later as well as the English attacking from the sea. However by the late 19th century, town walls didn’t stop determined enemies and were also a hindrance to trade and traffic. Antibes landward facing walls were pulled down in 1895. Perhaps the tourist trade ensured that the sea-front ramparts and Fort Carre survived into the twenty first century.
Our bike ride to Fort Carre took us all the way around the fort to the other side where we were finally forced to abandon our bikes and take the goat track up hill to the entrance of the fort. We were greeted with the sign on the right which on translation means. “Due to poor weather conditions, Le Fort Carre is exceptionally closed today” It was a lovely day in Antibes so we searched in vain for signs of the poor weather. It was sad that we could not get a good look around inside the fort but it was great to get close up and personal with Vauban’s pointy walls as well as admiring the prickly pears outside the Fort Gate that were growing ‘exceptionally’ as well. We returned to collect our bikes and ride the long kilometres to the shopping centre car-park where we had left our campervan. After purchasing supplies for dinner, we manoeuvred the complex freeways out of Antibes back to the hinterland to La Colle Sur Loup.
PACA (Provence, Alpes, Cote-d’Azur)
APPENDIX 1…The trouble with schoolboy French #1
When we arrived back at our campervan after our day out in Antibes, there was a van parked beside us with the above image on its side. I was immediately confused given the offensive depiction of ‘traitors’ as pigs and cows as well as being concerned about what they had in mind with their offer of ‘service’ to such traiteurs. Having schoolboy French makes life very challenging in France sometimes. Luckily my concerns were allayed when I discovered that a ‘traiteur’ was in fact a ‘caterer’, rather than an enemy of the people passing secrets onto enemy states!
APPENDIX 2… The trouble with schoolboy French #2
The advertisement on the left was one of those electronic signs on rotation with a series of other adverts promoting household products on a corner near our Antibes’ cafe. While sipping on my justly deserved morning coffee, I became concerned that the wealthy inhabitants of Antibes were being offered toilet bowls for their indoor dogs. I decided that the French had now gone too far with their pampered designer dogs, providing them with in-house toilet facilities, presumably next to the throne that its master would be using. What if both dog and human decided they needed to defecate in-house at the same time…that could get awkward?!
One of my companions suggested I use my modern phone to get a translation of the text of the advert. It read… “Teach him…or pick up! 68 euro fine”. Yet again I had to apologise for my less than respectful thoughts about modern French culture!
APPENDIX 3: JUAN LES PINS
Le Cap is a promontory that stretches out to sea between Antibes and Juan Les Pins. With plenty of time, Juan Les Pins is an obvious place to visit if you are visiting Antibes. Perhaps I could suggest, it would be more of a pilgrimage than a visit, particularly if you are a big fan of the fine arts. For example, if you are a Peter Sarstedt (1941-2017) fan, you would be able to sing all the words of his great 1969 hit, ‘Where do you go to My Lovely’. I certainly can, except when I come to the line in bold print below.
But where do you go to my lovely When you're alone in your bed Tell me the thoughts that surround you I want to look inside your head, yes I do I've seen all your qualifications You got from the Sorbonne And the painting you stole from Picasso Your loveliness goes on and on, yes it does When you go on your summer vacation You go to Juan-les-Pins With your carefully designed topless swimsuit You get an even suntan on your back and on your legs
For most of my life I have mumbled along with these words without being particularly concerned about my ignorance of where this holiday mecca was. Little did I know that Juan Les Pins was just over Le Cap peninsula from Antibes. The other thing that always concerned me about the song is the mysterious woman’s presumption that she could steal a Picasso painting with little impact on her conscience. How it made her loveliness ‘go on and on’ is beyond me, particularly if she heisted it from the Picasso Museum not far along the fortified wall of Antibes!
The other reason I didn’t know the location of Juan Le Pins is that I hadn’t read enough Scott Fitzgerald novels in my ill-spent youth. If I had, I would have read Tender is the Night and known that this semi-autobiographical novel of the problems of the rich and famous (particularly Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda!) was set in Juan Les Pins and Chapter 1 takes you swimming immediately at this famous beach. Tender is the Night is now on my kindle!
APPENDIX 4: Sebestien Vauban
If you are interested in the work of Louis XIV’s military architect, download the following good read on everything Vauban.
VAUBAN AND THE FRENCH MILITARY UNDER LOUIS XIV
An Illustrated History of Fortifications and Strategies
Jean-Denis G.G. Lapage