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Traveling In Style : The Ghost Who Shimmers In The Valley Of Gold

October 18, 1987|William A. Krauss

'Picasso dead! Listen to me--here in Vallauris, Pablo Picasso is dead like Sharespeare is dead at Stratford. He walks in every street, he winks at our young women, he drinks our wine, he honors the clay of our region. I know people who whisper they've seen him as recently as yesterday . . .'

He died 14 years ago, on a Sunday morning--April 8, 1973--in his unpretentious hillside house above the French Mediterranean, four miles inland from Cannes. It was (as I so well remember) on a typical Riviera springtime Sunday of wild bright wind and cobalt skies that our cook raced breathlessly upstairs to tell us her radio had intoned, "Pablo Picasso died in the night." Nobody could accept or quite believe it. I got the car out and Margaret, my wife, and Gina, our Italian cook, and I drove down to early Mass at Mougins village. We then walked along the narrow roadway to the locked gate of Picasso's property to peer up the slope of garden toward the ivy-covered walls of the house the way you might look at a religious painting in a country chapel.

Nothing stirred at the house--nothing that you could see. The great good genius of a man had died only hours ago, but all the hillside lay tranquil in the sun. A few birds chirped; nothing more. Picasso's chauffeur did not appear; no automobile either came or went. So after a while we walked back to our car and headed home to Plascassier, a 15-minute drive inland toward the high mountains; and there Gina, looking stunned, saying little, served a simple lunch on the sheltered terrace.

They took him to be buried a few days later near Aix-en-Provence, 100 miles to the west. But if today his ghost walks anywhere--as I am convinced it does--it walks not at Aix, not at Mougins, maybe sometimes on the slope of Montmartre in Paris, but most often (this is my personal opinion) in little Vallauris (population 21,200 or so). It was the place that Pablo Picasso loved so much because he'd worked so tranquilly there, because he had been so happy in the eminently civilized, sunlit village that paid him respectful, understanding homage but mostly let him alone.

Picasso ! At Vallauris you sense his presence in the air, in each narrow street, in every pottery shop. A few weeks ago Margaret and I went back to Vallauris, as a sentimental journey--first time in 10 years or so--to see what had changed; and though nothing had changed very much, everything had changed somewhat. More people, more automobiles, fewer horses, more cafes, far less parking space along the Avenue de Grasse, potters' shops overflowing onto main-street walkways, with wares that were more or less lurid imitations of the Picasso ceramic styles, the designs he called to life at the pottery called Madoura when he lived in the town during the '40s and '50s. Still very much a heaving crush of humanity and dogs is the open-air market in the central square, fronting on the Picasso Museum and surrounding the master's bronze statue of Man and Sheep. (Since there are more people these days, of course there are more dogs.) If I were urgently determined to see the ghost walking, it's here in the marketplace on a Saturday morning that I would look for him.

Longtime friends in Mougins had told us that a new and quite good little restaurant had opened its doors recently not far from town center. So we hailed a gendarme on duty at the market and said, "We've been away a dozen years or so, officer, and now it's lunchtime and we're hungry. Tell us, please, where do we find the restaurant Gousse d'Ail , and what's your opinion of it?"

"It's good," the policeman said. "Best in town. Just turn up the avenue here; it's not far. Ask the chef about his rognons de veau sauce Madere , if you like kidneys. By no means miss his babas au rhum ; he has a special genius with babas , that fellow. Bon appetit ."

Perhaps not quite everybody is familiar with babas au rhum, named ages ago to honor Ali Baba of "A Thousand and One Nights." They're unleavened-dough cakes soaked in a heavenly rum-flavored sugar syrup--not for the very young. Well, at the Gousse d'Ail (which translates to clove of garlic), the kidneys were available and savory; we backed them up with a modest bottle of Bandol rouge , exactly right. The chef's touted babas were as flavorful as an Oriental bazaar. Then Margaret said, "Let's go see the 'War and Peace' again."

Two blocks down the hill we spotted our gendarme. "We had the babas ," we said, and he grinned. (He was a very nice policeman.) "And now we're off to the museum; we haven't been there since Picasso died."

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