Intérieur de la chapelle Cocteau à FréjusIntérieur de la chapelle Cocteau à Fréjus
©Intérieur de la chapelle Cocteau à Fréjus|Robin Hacquard/Office de Tourisme de Fréjus

In the footsteps of Jean Cocteau

On the Côte d’Azur

A poet, writer, painter and film director alike, Jean Cocteau has left a legacy of varied and poetic works, marked in particular by the themes of death and Greek mythology. The Côte d’Azur, where he stayed from the 1920s onwards and throughout the rest of his life, pays tribute to the moving world of this exceptional artist.

CircuitDuration3 days
Places visited
Cap d’Ail
Stage 1HyèresVilla Noailles

The Roaring Twenties. The very-wealthy patrons of the arts Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles surrounded themselves with the era’s avant-garde artists, entertaining them at Villa Noailles, on the heights of Hyères. They became close friends with poet and writer Jean Cocteau (1889-1963), already a familiar face in Paris’s bohemian and literary circles where he was considered a promising young talent. The Noailles man and wife team accompanied his career for 50 years and offered financial support. Moreover, they were the sponsors and producers of his first film, The Blood of a Poet (1930), in which the poet is propelled into a disturbing world after stepping through a mirror.

Stage 2FréjusNotre-Dame-de-Jérusalem chapel

Let’s head east to Fréjus. In 1961, Jean Cocteau was contacted by none other than the Vatican in relation to a chapel construction project to the north of the town centre. The artist responded favourably to the request, but died in 1963 before the project was finished. It was therefore his close friend and artistic heir, painter Edouard Dermit, who completed the chapel on the basis of Cocteau’s sketches and plans. Charcoal and oil crayon were used directly on the cement walls to recreate the themes of the Passion and the Resurrection of Christ, to which personal touches were added: in The Last Supper, one can recognize Coteau’s lover Jean Marais and friends Coco Chanel and Max Jacob. Notre-Dame-de-Jérusalem chapel, with its ensemble of dazzlingly colourful murals dominated by azure blue and pale yellow, is an absolute must-see.

Etape 3Villefranche-sur-MerWelcome Hôtel and Chapelle Saint-Pierre

In 1924, Jean Cocteau sojourned for the first time at the Welcome Hôtel in Villefranche-sur-Mer, a coastal resort gazing out over the Mediterranean Sea. The site offered him a genuine refuge after the sudden death of his lover Raymond Radiguet, in the midst of a battle with opium addiction. Cocteau stayed at the hotel several times. In 1925, he wrote the following to his mother: “Mama, darling, Villefranche is a marvel with its ships, its cannons, its hymns and its jazz. This excessive life overwhelms me and I watch it wisely from my bedroom as if from an opera box.” It was at the Hôtel Welcome that he met the Bourgoint family, whose members provided the inspiration for the characters of his book Les Enfants Terribles (1929). The establishment is often mentioned in his works, such as the essay The Difficulty of Being (1947). Opposite the hotel, a bronze bust today stands witness to the artist’s regular visits to the town. Villefranche-sur-Mer also owes the painted decor of Chapelle Saint-Pierre at the foot of the town to Cocteau, portraying the life of the patron saint of fishermen. A great place to visit with all the family.

Stage 4Saint-Jean-Cap-FerratVilla Santo Sospir

The villa’s white walls were visibly not to his liking… In 1950, Jean Cocteau was invited to Villa Santo Sospir, to the far south of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, by the Weisweillers. The couple, who only used the villa as a holiday home, had not taken the time to fine tune the decoration. With their blessing, Cocteau set about sketching the face of an Apollo in charcoal above the fireplace. From room to room and door to wall, 11 years later the site was literally covered with works by the artist – murals, mosaics and even a tapestry on the theme of Greek mythology. Every last inch of Villa Santo Sospir was impregnated with the world of Jean Cocteau, who later introduced the site to Picasso, Chaplin and Marais.

Currently closed to the public for restoration work, Villa Sospir can usually be visited by appointment.

Stage 5Cap d'AilJean Cocteau's open-air theatre

A chapel, a seaside villa and now… A theatre. Jean Cocteau’s oeuvre on the Côte d’Azur is resolutely faithful to the artist’s image: surprising. In 1957, he attended a play at the “Centre méditerranéen d’études françaises”, created to reinforce post-war Franco-German cultural ties. Captivated by the site, he offered to design an outdoor theatre there, dedicated to summer performances. He imagined a tiered construction, inspired by Antiquity. Completed in 1962, the theatre, nestling amid Aleppo pines, stands against a sublime Mediterranean backdrop. Its enamelled decor is inspired by the Greek mythology so dear to Cocteau. This exceptional site can be visited once a year during France’s heritage days (Bookings at the Cap d’Ail Tourist Office).

Stage 6MentonThe Séverin Wunderman collection, Bastion Museum and wedding hall

Menton became a cultural hub just after the end of WWII, with the creation of the Biennial Exhibition of Sacred Contemporary Art and International Chamber Music Festival. Jean Cocteau, who was living at Villa Santo Sospir at the time, fell under the spell of this charming town, with its air of Italy. Several sites pay homage to his creative genius. Set inside a contemporary building signed by architect Rudy Ricciotti, the Séverin Wunderman collection at the Jean Cocteau Museum showcases the largest public collection of the artist’s works (N.B. the museum is currently closed for refurbishment work). But that’s not all: the town is also home to a second museum celebrating Cocteau: the Bastion Museum! Located just a few metres from the first, it features, in particular, drawings from the 1950-1963 period. To wind up our tour, let’s head to town’s wedding hall, entirely decorated by Cocteau in 1957. Once again, the decor is strongly inspired by Greek mythology (Orpheus and Eurydice), although local influences such as The Lovers of Menton also have pride of place, as well as the artist’s hallmark colourful arabesques. Simply sublime.