The rental car with automatic transmission, reserved long before and despite emailed confirmation, was nowhere to be found, and enquiries produced wreaths of bemused smiles, tossings of the head and shrugs of the shoulders indicating quite clearly that in France one does not drive an automatic, one simply knows how to drive properly. We lurched a few times around the parking lot - the Celt remembering how to drive a stick-shift (I'm purely automatic) - flung ourselves into early morning rush-hour traffic and headed for the Promenade des Anglais where our hotel, cunningly disguised behind a large sign for the Casino, awaited.
The first view we had of Villa Kerylos was above the Baie des Fournis on the ever-climbing and narrow road from Nice. I had read about the villa years ago in an issue of The World of Interiors and it had remained at the back of my mind as nothing more than a curiosity. It was our friend Will's recent visit there and his account of what he saw that made Kérylos interesting enough for us to decide it should be part of our vacation.
The most surprising thing for me about houses such as Villa Kérylos, Villa Ephrussi, La Leopolda, even Villa Fiorentina, was that they are all either on or at the end of narrow, frequently car-choked, paved tracks winding up and around the terrain. Surrounded as they may be by large grounds and as magnificent as they are, these houses are as closely packed together as any subdivision in America. Why I should have been expecting otherwise I cannot say.
Villa Kerylos is probably one of the most exciting houses I've seen. It was difficult to concentrate on it when we first arrived, so much was there to take in: the air; the light; the sea; the curve of the bay;the plantings; the sky; the flanking hills; the boats in the dock; and the house itself - in all its crisp, white splendour speaking of a time long gone, if only from the imagination of the modern world. Hard to concentrate indeed, difficult not to photograph everything in sight and consequently easy, in my excitement, to feel I missed a lot.
There were but two other visitors when we arrived at the front door and they quickly departed, leaving the house to the two of us so we could wander at will - or, at least, where the self-guided tour recording suggested. The Villa Kérylos is a marvelous place, an entirely convincing (save for the chrome and lucite folding visitor's chairs discretely placed here and there) recreation of what could have been an ancient Greek house. This house does not make one shuffle self-consciously through its rooms, across its mosaic floors, by its murals and friezes, under its lamps and ceilings, through its peristyle and by its superbly crafted and beautiful inlaid furniture, as did the Getty Villa when I first visited it fifteen years ago. Perhaps the culture has changed, but there was a time when such a recreation, or better, evocation, would have been dismissed as mere rich-man's revivalism, kitsch even. Not so, I felt, with the Kérylos, for clearly it is the product of an education, depth of scholarship, culture and refinement, the likes of which today, if it exists, is subsumed in a celebrity-ridden culture that has not one jot of value for it. Judgmental, you think? Perhaps.
The experience of visiting the Villa Kerylos is so astonishing - almost overwhelming - that I shall leave for a second post more details of the interiors, decoration and furnishings.
The vestibule or thyroreion has a beautiful mosaic floor (as do most of the rooms) with a delightful inset panel of hens and chicks and an inscription that translates as both "hail" and "rejoice" - a wonderful welcome, as well as an instruction to the visitor.
Unlike a museum, where one is herded through roped-off corners of rooms and allowed to peer at things from a "safe" distance, at the Kerylos, the rooms are completely open and one may walk where one pleases. One could almost sit on the furniture if one dared (we didn't of course). This freedom, and the fact that we were entirely alone, created the impression we were truly visiting a house, rather than a museum - a 3,000-year-old house, but a living house. The sensation was vivid and enveloping and quite, quite magical.
Above, the statue of Sophocles that faces the visitor on entering the vestibule; then, views of the peristyle, or atrium, that formed the center of a classical Greek house, with its colonnade of devastatingly simple white marble Doric columns surrounding a slender basin, and sepia-colored frescoes of gods, legends and sea creatures on all the walls.
All photographs, except the second which is from Wikipedia Commons, are by the Celt and me.