Engrossing, mind, how perceptions change, through to a more cerebral 1957 Picasso pigeon picture borrowed from Barcelona – and Dufy’s 1952, all-crammed-together Public Garden in Hyères. (Using it as a guide, you’d never find the entrance.) Chagall’s Le Soleil Jaune pulsates with the artist’s apparently naive energy. When Hyères offers me my pick of the exhibition, this is the one I’ll take home.
And so, 90 minutes later, you emerge into the museum garden – a fine spread of the Med’s greatest horti-hits, garrigue through exotica – your cue, perhaps, to head out into the real thing. Who knows, you might prefer the opinion on the town and its surrounds of Robert Louis Stevenson, once a temporary resident, over Leo Tolstoy’s.
“I was only happy once,” wrote Stevenson, “that was at Hyères.” I’ve been happy in lots of places, but Hyères is right up there.
Exploring Hyères and its environs
The old town: a mixed-up marvel
Start with a steep hike up through the old town. At the top, the huge Villa Noailles gets a lot of attention, not least for its architecture. Its white hyper-rational 1920s combination of cubes, and other straight lines excites many but looks to me like a minor naval station. Within, contemporary exhibitions recall a heyday when the villa hosted pretty much every artist making a noise in the 1920s and 1930s: Miro, Klee, Braque, Cocteau and Man Ray, among them. At the villa, and with the help of Dali, Luis Buñuel wrote his film L’Age-d’Or, banned for decades as both subversive and blasphemous.
While up here, have a look at the medieval château – there’s not much left, but the views are grand – and at the Castel Sainte Claire, a former convent where Edith Wharton lived, and tended extraordinary hillside gardens, from 1920 to 1937. She’d just won the Pulitzer prize for The Age Of Innocence. Great writers were thick on the ground in Hyères. Kipling, Conrad and Aldous Huxley showed up and, somewhat down the hill, on Rue Victor Basch, stands the modest Villa Solitude – a chalet, really – where Mr and Mrs Robert Louis Stevenson lived from 1883 to 1884 on the proceeds of Treasure Island.