Sunday, August 9, 2009

Halte à Hyères

The following morning we left Bandol after breakfast and returned inland, in the direction of Aubagne, birthplace of Marcel Pagnol and headquarters of the French Foreign Legion. However, our destination was in the hills behind Aubagne, past the medieval town of Roquevaire, to the provençal village of Lascours, all in hills and narrow streets, where the inhabitants did not have running water in their houses until 1955 and, as the town's web site states: "The arrival of automobiles in 1960 revolutionized the lives of the inhabitants of Lascours." On the other hand, the streets did not adapt whatsover to the arrival of the automobile so navigating around the village was a challenge to say the least. As we sat in the shade of the town square, the chant of the cicadas provided an appropriate musical backdrop.

After Lascours, we returned towards the coast and Hyères, originally known as Hyères-les-Palmiers. In 1867 Hyères with its micro climate was the palm tree capital of Europe and at the height of the palm tree vogue in the 1920's over 1,250,000 palm trees were grown in Hyères to be shipped to Belgium, Germany and the rest of Europe (since northern Europe is not known for its palm trees, I wonder how these fared in cooler climes).

Archaeological excavations have revealed that four centuries before the present era, Greek sailors from Massalia (Marseilles) set up a trading post in the area. Although the medieval portions of Hyères date primarily to the late 15th, early 16th centuries, Hyères was the site where in 1254 Saint Louis and his retinue landed on their return from one of the crusades.

The vestiges of the chateau visible today high on the hills above the town date from the 13th to the 15th centuries. These vestiges share the landscape with one of the most important constructions of the Modernist architectural mouvement in France: Villa Noailles.

In February 1923, Charles vicomte de Noailles maries Marie-Laure Bischoffsheim, a wealthy banking heiress. In December of that year they begin consulting with architects in order to build "a little house, interesting to live in, to take advantage of the sun" in the hills above Hyères. They consult such architects as Mies Van der Rohe and Le Corbusier and finally settle on Robert Mallet-Stevens, architect and designer, who was up to then primarily known for his film decors and furniture designs.

In 1924 construction on the villa began under the supervision of local architect Léon David. The same year, Mallet-Stevens designed the avant-garde sets of "L'Inhumaine" by Marcel L'Herbier. Marie-Laure de Noailles and her husband Charles were important patrons of the arts and, in particular, of the Surrealists. Beneficiaires of her patronage included Salvador Dali, Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, Balthus and Luis Buñuel.

Following the influential Exposition des Arts Décoratifs in Paris in 1925, Mallet-Stevens carefully chose the decorators for the interiors of the villa. Georges Djo-Bourgeois designed the furniture for the dining room, some of which was incorporated into the architecture... and to think that the inhabitants of Lascours had to wait until 1955 to have running water in their houses!

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