I wish I had a beach house like the one designed by Le Corbusier. On the French Riviera’s roughest stretch of shoreline, this is the ideal spot for self-isolation.
The Swiss-born architect built his hideaway in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, a historic hamlet midway between Monaco and the Italian border that overlooks a rocky, tortoise-shaped peninsula beyond the pebble beaches of du Buse and Golfe Bleu.
In 1952, after persuading his friend, local bar owner Thomas Rebutato, to give him some property overlooking the plage du Buse, Le Corbusier built a prototype vacation cottage, Le Cabanon, next to Rebutato’s Etoile de Mer restaurant-bar (including a secret door between the two). In return, he built Les Unités de Camping, a block of five colorful camping apartments perched on stilts above the bar’s boules court.
Visitors must make a reservation with Association Cap Moderne in order to see inside.
Le Cabanon encapsulates Le Corbusier’s design philosophy: a timber cabin with yellow parquet flooring, box-stools to reach ceiling cabinets, a steel sink, and plain oak furnishings. Yvonne, his wife, slept next to the small toilet, while Le Corbusier slept in another corner on a pull-out bed.
Could I have stayed there for the long, scorching summers as they did? Under the carob tree, there is just an outdoor shower and no kitchen.
The cabin’s proportions are based on Le Corbusier’s Modulor, a 1.829-meter-tall person shown on one side of the camping units and, curiously and wonderfully, my exact height.
Villa E-1027, a modernist masterpiece built by Irish architect and modern movement pioneer Eileen Gray and her boyfriend, Jean Badovici, in the late 1920s, is located on the same seaside promenade. It has the appearance of a cruise ship, with sharp edges in concrete and glass and interior replicas of Gray’s chrome, glass, and leather furnishings (including her Bibendum chair).
The guy, Le Corbusier, was not a fan of hers.
The €5.5 million repair of illa E-1027, which included the reconstruction of her furnishings and furniture using her original techniques and materials, was finished in 2021. Gray’s complicated writing table has been painstakingly recreated from a single, surviving picture, in addition to strengthening the concrete walls, installing electrical connections, and replicating Gray’s geometric-motif carpets.
Along with the home, Le Corbusier’s Cabanon, his camping units, and the old Etoile de Mer beach bar, the site’s manager, Association Cap Moderne, wants to add a research center for academics.
I cross the pebbly bay to the other Le Cabanon, a swanky beach restaurant serving Ligurian-style seafood and pasta – cuttlefish salad, seared tuna with mint, lime, and courgettes, and lemon sorbet, a local specialty. It’s one of the couples’ favorites as they swim towards me amid the outcroppings of Roquebrune puddingstone.
Nancy and PJ Heslin, both Ironman racers and swimmers, relocated to Roquebrune from Nice, 20 kilometers distant, two years ago.
“We both work in Monaco, so when we were looking for a place to live, we took the train to Roquebrune and simply swam back along the coast, looking for places with stair access to the beach,” PJ explains. Roquebrune’s tranquility appeals to them: “It’s a place where you can really connect with nature,” Nancy explains.
“The open-water swimming is fantastic; we swim three times a week for five to ten kilometers. There’s seagrass, lots of fish, and a few natural springs where the water becomes very cold if we walk along the Cap.”
They often encounter dolphins, and since Golfe Bleu has no car access, it is seldom congested, according to PJ.
Even for the Modulor me, the trek from the plage du Buse to Roquebrune town takes a good 40 minutes, as I wind my way up a hillside of disconnected stairs, steep slopes, and vaulted passageways to the 10th-century castle. A cat, a hand-painted flowerpot, or signs pointing to the closest defibrillator may be seen on every corner.
Since the pandemic, the number of visitors to the castle has dropped by half, but the local eateries remain popular: Casarella for lunchtime pasta and Au Grand Inquisiteur for substantial French cuisine amid the chateau’s vaulted former sheepfold. It was founded in 1965, according to the metal sign outside, although it might easily have been 1265.
On the Place des Deux Frères, La Grotte et L’Olivier is half-airy terrace, half-cave, the cave portion having been formed when roadbuilders were unable to completely dig through the puddingstone and just stopped.
Roquebrune-Cap-Martin has drawn a distinct Riviera audience than Monaco’s jet set and Menton’s holidaying aristocracy. While lying on a sunbed in his villa on the plage du Golfe Bleu in the 1960s, Belgian singer Jacques Brel wrote two of his most plaintive and brutal songs, Le Plat Pays, about the flat, windswept landscape of his family’s native Flanders, and Amsterdam, about the shore-leave antics of drunken sailors.
WB Yeats spent the final year of his life at Cap Martin, while novelist and war-pilot Romain Gary resided at the end of a dark tunnel in Roquebrune with his English wife, writer and explorer Lesley Blanch.
Gary received France’s most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt, in 1956, but had left the town (and Blanch) by the time he won it again in 1975, this time under the alias Émile Ajar, deceiving the Goncourt judges. He liked to go for a morning stroll to the village’s massive olive tree on the eastern outskirts.
It is said to be the oldest living object in France, with an estimated age of 2,500 years. It continues to produce picholine olives.
My view from the olive tree is breathtaking: elephant-grey peaks looming over a hillside of residences and small blue pools, paragliders, and the odd helicopter circling Monaco’s towers in the distance.
Le Corbusier, who could have built a beach hut anywhere in the globe, chose to live among the “savages,” as he humorously referred to the inhabitants, on this stretch of untamed Riviera coastline.