Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2006/26 posted by hidden europe on

To drive the main coastal road west from the French-Italian border along France's Riviera coast is an essay in chic exclusivity: Antibes, Cannes, Ste-Maxime and so on. Not quite hidden europe territory. Most travellers speed through Port Grimaud at the head of the Golfe de St Tropez without even noticing it. Just one more of those spots with a fleet of yachts and too many people with too much money.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

To drive the main coastal road west from the French-Italian border along France's Riviera coast is an essay in chic exclusivity: Antibes, Cannes, Ste-Maxime and so on. Not quite hidden europe territory. Most travellers speed through Port Grimaud at the head of the Golfe de St Tropez without even noticing it. Just one more of those spots with a fleet of yachts and too many people with too much money. But Port Grimaud deserves a second look, for it is actually one of Europe's finest pieces of fantasy architecture. This picture perfect village looks as though it might offer centuries of rich history. With its terracotta tiled roofs, painted facades in shades of ochre, cream and claret, and a delectable little harbour, Port Grimaud is just too picturesque to be true. It is in fact a fake - but a very accomplished piece of architectural make-believe.

It was forty years ago this autumn that work started on François Spoerry's visionary design for Port Grimaud. The township exemplifies Spoerry's notion of 'gentle architecture' (l'architecture douce) with its human scale elements and emphasis on little piazzas, waterside walks and intriguing vistas. It may be an exercise in deception, but Port Grimaud is every bit as wonderful as Portmeirion on the coast of Wales, Clough Williams-Ellis' splendid piece of fantasy architecture - and one that shares the Italian accents which are a component of Port Grimaud. For all we know, Spoerry's adventure at Port Grimaud may have been influenced by its Welsh forebear.

Of course, fantasy architecture is nothing new and Europe is full of fine specimens of the genre. King Ludwig's fairyland castle at Neuschwanstein in Bavaria is a celebrated example. McCaig Tower on the hillside above the Scottish west coast port of Oban is a neat piece of mock Roman architecture. And Antoni Gaudí's ambitious blending of symbolism, fantasy and humour is laid bare in many buildings in Barcelona.

bridges in France

There are few structures more inspiring than a handsome bridge. One of our favourites is the new Millau bridge that carries France's A75 motorway over the Tarn river in southern France. The bridge has a remarkably dramatic silhouette, best seen on an autumn morning as the dawn mist lingers in the Tarn valley below. Designed by Norman Foster, the bridge is audacious, a stunning streak across the green Tarn valley and yet it somehow contrives to complement the surrounding landscape beautifully - a twenty-first century piece of design that is as fitting as Brunel's nineteenth century railway viaducts in England. Devotees of classical architecture who flock to the Pont du Gard, one of the finest surviving Roman aqueducts in Europe, might do well to then visit the Viaduc de Millau. It is less than two hours away by car. True devotees of impressive structures can thus take in two thousand years of European engineering in a single day.

We return to architecture in the next issue of hidden europe, published on 3 November, when we visit a bridge that has just been inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List: the remarkable Vizcaya Bridge near Bilbao. And, as it happens, Norman Foster gets a mention in the next hidden europe too, as we investigate 'fosteritos' - a curious feature of the Bilbao cityscape that has now made an appearance in London too.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.