While this her first foray to the continent, I have been to France for extended trips on many occasions, so it was an interesting exercise to look at it all through her eyes and think about her impressions as someone who has never been abroad before.
It’s very easy to feel you have stepped back in time with the markets and little shops in the tiny lane-ways of old town Nice – this one sells specialty salt, peppers and spices beautifully presented in classic old jars.
I wanted to check out the Casino just to get a sense of the place as a location my character might visit. Architecturally it’s over the top theatrical, having been built in the mid-1850s but inside it’s the same story as most other casinos – not that interesting apart from the setting.
The first salon is full of video gaming machines but the second has traditional gaming tables but these are the only two rooms accessible by the public. This is a temple built by the rich for the rich and, as it is everywhere, high-rollers don’t have to rub shoulders with the riff-raff.
During my last visit Monte Carlo seemed like a magical little town (Princess Grace was still alive then) but time hasn’t treated it well. There are huge blocks of ugly flats and a racetrack of winding roads that makes it difficult to walk anywhere without risk of being flattened by a Porsche SVU. Every second woman had an animal pelt on her back, lynx, mink and more. Not a good vibe.
Although it was helpful to see inside the casino, my last visit was probably a better indication of what it would have been like in the 1950s. No photos are allowed inside, as you can see from this shot I had to hide behind a column!
I took the train from Paris to Antibes in order to follow in the footsteps of my character and, given a choice, I would prefer to travel by train than any other method. It’s relatively simple (once you establish you are, in fact, on the correct train) and there’s a timelessness about being able to relax and watch the countryside slide past your window.
Train has been king on the Riveria for over 150 years. In the early days, aristocracy and royalty traveled by train, often in their own private carriages or even private trains. As a result the rail has the prime spot and chuffs along right beside the Mediterranean for much of the journey from Marseille to the Italian border.
I also love railway stations. I took the above shot in Monte Carlo station (which initially looked fairly unprepossessing and is extremely difficult to escape from) and the one below in Bordeaux.
Both have a lovely symmetry and there’s something alluring about the tracks disappearing into the distance – drawing you into the journey
Finally found the hotel location I was looking for – the Negresco Hotel in Nice.
It’s absolutely splendid and luxurious although in 1956 it was probably a little down at heel as a result of the occupation of France during the war – but it nevertheless personifies old Riviera glamour.
Even today the doormen’s uniforms are in the style of ’18th-century elite bourgeois households’ – very theatrical for a uniform.
My friend and I had a drink in the beautifully timbered bar enjoying the cheapest thing on the menu. Yes, folks that’s a 19€ glass of rosé.
Staff were a little surly (the French do an enviable line in ‘stink-eye’) but, as we were leaving, this handsome doorman (below) gave us such a dazzling smile we practically needed defibrillation and tumbled out into the street all breathless and giggly.
Nice itself is a beautiful old city, I’ve been there a number of times over the years and love it more every time.
I was keen to see inside the beautiful and very famous Carlton Hotel in Cannes, which was the location for one of my favourite movies ‘To Catch a Thief’ with Grace Kelly and Cary Grant, and I have used as a location in my book.
During the season, when the place is heaving with celebs, I imagine they’re pretty hot on security, but it was very quiet the day of my visit. I did gussy myself up a little so I wasn’t mistaken for a bag-lady and could flounce through the front doors without question and enjoy the full experience.
I partook of some petite dejeuner in the lounge area and wandered around generally soaking up the ambiance, imagining Grace Kelly delicately picking her way down the stairs – and sneaking a few pix when I had the chance.
Yesterday I explored three of the most beautiful medieval villages close to the Riviera in the Alpes-Maritimes region; Saint-Paul de Vence, Gourdon and Valbonne, all set in the mountains above the Riviera.
Each village has a spectacular view and it was perfect weather to explore, cold and crisp with almost no other visitors. I can imagine that in summer tourists plough shoulder-to-shoulder down the tiny lane ways.
Looking at these locations, I’m always trying to picture them back in the 1950s which was such an interesting time creatively for this region. For example, back then, Marc Chagall would have lived in Saint-Paul de Vance where he would have enjoyed regular visits from Picasso.
These days mainly it’s cashed up expats and rock stars who can afford to live in these quaint villages without the complication of having to work.
Had a real find today. A villa that is occasionally open to the public with several rooms that were exactly as I had imagined in my novel. I have already described a sun room very similar to this one, so it was wonderful to find myself on the ‘set’ of my story and soak up the feel of these rooms.
While the layout of the building is something I would create to suit my purposes, it’s also good to find similar spaces to see how the rooms relate to one another and to examine the details such as the flooring and decoration that could have existed in an imaginary house of a particular location and period.
For example, although it’s not as though you’re going to actually reference the flooring but it does relate to how sound carries in the house – which may be an element of interest.
An extra bonus was the stunning art deco outdoor furniture.
The Picasso Museum in Antibes is really something special. Picasso lived in the area for part of the year in 1946 and was offered space in this beautiful building to produce the larger works he aspired to.
The building, which looks out across the bay, was originally built as a Roman fort and later housed the Grimladi family before becoming a museum.
Picasso, who when he died left behind some 70,000 works, was incredibly productive during his two month period here – gifting the museum 23 paintings and 44 drawings to show his appreciation.
An early adopter of sharing his creative process, Picasso allowed several photographers to record him at work and the scenes are very evocative of that time. It was so inspiring to be in this space where this creative powerhouse actually worked and imagine the comings and goings in this villa.
You can find more images HERE.
I’ve been wandering around soaking up the vibe of the area at different times of the day and, because it doesn’t get light until around 8am and gets dark around 4pm, it seems that the brightest sunlight is mid-morning.
The old town of Antibes has beautiful old street lights on every building that cast dramatic shadows.
But, step outside the old town, and it’s very difficult to imagine my character here in the 1950s with Cannes harbour now packed with mammoth super yachts owned by rich Russians and an overlay of excessive affluence that is not at all appealing to me.
There are still some lovely old hotels here and on my next visit I plan visit the Carlton Hotel which was the location for the fabulous movie ‘To Catch and Thief’ with Grace Kelly and Cary Grant.
My research trip to South of France would not be possible without the help of my wonderful friend, Su Mariani. We’ve been buddies for 30 years and she is like my Italian sister/mother/friend all rolled into one. She cooks fabulous meals, she reads drafts and even gives shoulder rubs – just the most generous, kind, loving person.
I rented a small apartment in Antibes which is not far from where Su lives with her lovely husband, Joe and daughter, Stella (my character Joe in ‘The Olive Sisters’ was named in his honour). Even though as a writer you need and enjoy time alone, to be in an apartment on my own for a month knowing not a soul would be very testing.
When I arrived, Su set me up with a care package and announced there would be a place for me at her table every night. Every writer needs a friend like this. Every human being needs a friend like this. I count myself very lucky.
Grasse has been the perfume capital of the world for two hundred years but came to the attention of literature lovers (as opposed to perfume aficionados) in the mid-1980s as the setting for Patrick Süskind’s ‘Perfume – The Story of a Murderer’.
It’s a fascinating town to wander around, buildings tumble over steep hills with spectacular views all the way to the coast. I’ve been wandering around early in the morning, the streets are quite deserted and you could easily imagine you’re back in medieval times. The twisting laneways can be a little spooky. It’s easy to imagine Grenouille, Süskind’s black-hearted killer, slinking about looking for fresh maidens to murder. Fortunately I no longer qualify.
Today I wanted to go to the village of Cabris to see the terrain outside Grasse and how the town looks from a distance. Grasse is situated on a massive steep hill and the bus station is at the bottom, so it was an hour of walking down and asking directions and another hour sorting out where the bus left from and waiting for it etc – all for a ten minute bus trip! On the return trip, I discovered the bus also stops at the top of the hill – glad I figured that one out in time before I walked all the way back up.
Although my novel is essentially about Iris’s journey, I need to understand as much as possible about perfume. I find this sort of research really fascinating and for my previous novel ‘The Olive Sisters’ learned an amazing amount about olives and olive oil. Perfume is much more complex so it’s like trying to do a crash-course in the art of wine-making.
I had booked a session to create a perfume that would give me a hands-on (although superficial) idea of the process. This was nearly a disaster as the place wasn’t located where I thought but three (hilly!) kilometres away and by the time I realised my mistake I had five minutes to get there. I managed to find a taxi but no driver. Eventually managed to locate the driver in a nearby bar and he somewhat reluctantly got me there only a few minutes late.
Next problem was that as soon as I was asked to smell the first fragrances I realised my nose is very stuffed up from all the interior heating which I’m not used to. So it was a bit like trying to do an exam without reading glasses – a major struggle!
Anyway, the session was really interesting. The perfumer initially gave me base notes to choose from, which are the foundation of the fragrance, then heart notes and finally the top notes – each of which is smelled individually and together and then added and mixed in a layering process.
The full perfume won’t be ready to use for two weeks – at which point my nose should be back in action and I’ll probably discover I’ve created something with all the ambiance of flyspray. Although the perfumer described my creation as very floral and romantic.
Old Antibes is quaint and charming. Very quiet in February which suits my purpose, it would be hard for me to imagine Iris and her friend, Alexander, walking these lanes deep in discussion if it was packed with tourists. I would have liked to stop a while and do some sketches but it was too cold to consider taking my gloves off.
Went on a long walk around the terrain this morning. Antibes and Juan-les Pins share a promontory on the Mediterranean and you can easily walk from one to the other. The coastal landscape is famously spectacular.
I was scouting for settings for particular events, notably a party Iris attends at a spectacular house on the sea, with a swimming pool. I can see that this would have to be set further past Juan-les-Pins as the landscape around Antibes does not allow for the type of luxurious 1930s villa I have in mind.
Sadly today I said goodbye to my little garret and dear friends in Antibes after five weeks – which has flown – and landed in rainy London where I will continue my research for the early parts of my story.
One of the many memorable landmarks in Antibes is this sculpture which is located right on the headland looking out to sea. Created by Spanish sculptor, Jaume Plensa and entitled Nomade, it’s eight metres high and also known as the ‘man of letters’.
Jaume Plensa: “Telles des briques, les lettres ont une potentialité de construction, elles nous permettent de construire une pensée”: ‘Like bricks, these letters have construction potential, they allow us to build a thought.’
Hopefully I will be inspired to find the right letters to construct and convey my thoughts!
My interest in the perfume business was initially sparked by my friend of 35 years, Catherine Hersom, whose parents were perfumers. They had a small laboratory/factory in Kingston-on-Thames, London. Catherine and her two sisters were brought up in an apartment above the laboratory, so she has strong memories of the world of the perfumer.
This is an ad in a South American newspaper for their products. Notice no phone number – to contact the company you send a telegram or cable to: Hersom, London. Simpler times.
Sadly, Mr & Mrs Hersom both died 40 years ago, so I never met them or saw the factory. However, today I had the pleasure of being able to interview their office manager/book-keeper, Mrs Lowe, now in her eighties. It was a small operation so she gave me all kinds of interesting insights into the day-to-day operation of the business – very helpful in understanding some of the background I need.
It all starts with a Reader Card which takes about 20 minutes to register online prior to your visit to receive a ‘pre-registration Reader Number’. Once in the library, there’s a queue to speak to the receptionist who checks your two forms of ID. She directs you to a computer terminal to complete the registration process, after which you sit in the waiting room until your number is called and you are beckoned to another desk where your ID is shown and registered. There you’re asked to read an A4 page stating what you can and can’t do. If you want to access anything more valuable than a newspaper, supporting evidence of your purpose is required.
Then it’s down to the basement to lock up all your belongings – apart from notebook, pencil (no pens) and laptop – in a locker. These few items are permitted in the reading room in a clear plastic bag provided and checked by security on entering and leaving Reading Room. It makes airport security seem lax.
After all that I had a pleasant few hours reading the 1956 editions of ‘The Times’ on microfiche. It’s a great way to get a sense of what was going on for people, the language and the mood of the times – particularly reading the Personal columns. The ads are always interesting and this was one of my favourites.
Had an amazing day visiting three perfume houses in London and talking to the experts.
First stop was the Salon de Parfums which is on the 6th floor of Harrods. Very exclusive, but on explaining my mission the Maitre de Consulation of Roja Dove perfumes, Benjamin Paul Mabbett, generously took me through the process of selecting a personal perfume. It was quite a revelation when – with his guidance – I could actually smell the different notes and layers.
Amazing perfumes, all made of authentic ingredients but sadly beyond the means of the average writer starting at around £375 – perhaps one day!
Still in the Harrod’s Salon de Parfums – next stop was the Guerlain salon where manager, Ange Skopatie, showed me the extraordinary and beautiful products favoured by clients from the Middle East (costing up to £38,000!) and told me some of the stories behind the fragrances.
The House of Guerlain is one of the oldest French fragrance houses and recently celebrated the 160th anniversary of their ‘bee bottle’ originally designed as a gilded bottle covered with Napoleonic bees for the emperor’s wife Eugénie in 1853.
A quick trip up to Mayfair to the flagship Floris shop which has been at 89 Jermyn Street since 1730 and is still owned by the same family. Perfumes were originally manufactured in the basement of this building – known as ‘The Mine’ -but this part of the operation has since moved to Devon.
Sales Assistant Pierre Bonvalot kindly showed me the consultation room in the back of the shop which has barely changed over the centuries. Floris was first awarded a Royal Warrant in 1821 and this is where the aristocracy of England, including royalty, still come today to have their bespoke perfume created.
This is where my character, Iris Turner, begins her journey in 1956 when she leaves the little house in London where she was born and sets off for an adventure in the South of France – where nothing is quite as it seems.
This is also where my wonderful research adventure in France and London ends and I set off home to Sydney where I will knuckle down and finish the first draft with all my new found knowledge.
What I love about researching a novel is that you set forth with no expectations, searching, observing, asking questions and mentally composting it all in the hope that it will seed new ideas. It can’t really be planned or forced, it’s just about focus but often new ideas come from the most unexpected sources.
I find it addictive to travel with purpose, engaging with people and experiencing other environments. I have a sense of being completely alive to the world. It’s been a blast!
Now the writing journey starts for me….