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Of French Impressions and American Courage : Europeans flock to Riviera beaches, but the culture-rich hill town of Vence draws 'explorers.'

February 14, 1993|JUDITH MORGAN

If the French hotelier Andree Brunet wrote a book about U.S. travelers, it would not feature "ugly" Americans, but brave ones. Her conclusions are drawn from personal observations during 25 years as managing director of the Chateau du Domaine St.-Martin in the Provencal hill town of Vence.

The courage and exuberant curiosity of Americans amazes her.

"They are such explorers," she said as we sat in the shade of a grape arbor in the chateau gardens last fall. "One Saturday in late September, we had fierce winds and torrents of rain that broke a window in the dining room and toppled trees. It hit about 9 p.m. and American guests--who had only arrived at 7--hopped into their cars and drove off in the rain and the dark to dine at the Moulin de Mougins. Of course, it is a wonderful restaurant, but it is south of Grasse, maybe 20 miles from here."

She shook her head.

"I would hire a driver if I didn't know the roads, but not the Americans," she said. "They are simply not afraid. They don't worry about getting lost. They always say, 'Where else can we go?' "

Her own favorite drive from Vence rambles west on the Route de Coursegoules, through the Loup River gorges on the back road to Grasse, the longtime capital of the perfume industry. But only by daylight, she insists: "So many curves on that little road. So much to see."

Like other ancient hill towns, Vence--at an elevation of 1,700 feet--is noticeably cooler than the beaches of Cannes, just 18 miles away. Autumn comes earlier and spring a little later. The proximity to the fashionable Riviera resorts (the Nice-Cote d'Azur International Airport is only a 20-minute drive) provides another conundrum for Mlle. Brunet.

"Americans come to the hill towns for culture, for art and museums," she said. "They don't seem to care so much about going to the beach. In fact, they don't even sit by the pool. For Californians, I guess that is understandable. The Europeans are different. They spend hours by the pool."

The mild climate and clear air of this Mediterranean landscape is what drew French Impressionists here at the end of the 19th CentuRy. Claude Monet lived in Antibes, as did Picasso. Nice is home to splendid museums devoted to Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall. Within an easy drive from Vence are the country homes and studios of many masters.

My favorite is Renoir's last residence--Les Collettes--a sunny, hillside farm at Cagnes sur Mer, where the worn palette of that crippled genius rests by an easel in a light-washed, two-story atelier. (He also had a small "winter" studio upstairs, which was easier to keep warm.) The dining room, with a herringbone wooden floor, is as it was when his large family lived here from 1907 to 1919: original china on the table, original paintings on the walls.

The house itself is a pile of rough white stone, as bold as bleached lava, encircled by enormous olive trees, some of them almost 1,000 years old. The rose garden, with its attendant drone of honeybees, includes a salmon beauty called the Rose Renoir, created by the artist's horticulturist.

On all sides, the place spills over with color: crimson roses, bitter orange trees, lemons and limes, golden lantana, pink trumpet vines, luminous blue-violet agapanthus, and the stormy green of linden trees.

As I stared at sepia photographs of the 73-year-old Renoir at work, a brush wedged in the crotch between the thumb and forefinger of his crippled, arthritic hand, I realized that this effort took great determination and courage--a lot more courage than driving off in the dark in search of three-star cuisine.

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