Towns of L’Esterel: Mandelieu-la-Napoule
The town of Mandelieu-la-Napoule is situated between Theoule-sur-Mer and Cannes. It is in an attractive location, with the Mediterranean to the front and hills behind the town. There are two parts to the town: the seafront at La Napoule itself (which is the only area worth visiting) and the modern, commercial town of Mandalieu, a little way inland.
Golf is what makes Mandelieu famous. Choose between the Old Course and Riviera Golf, the first laid out a hundred years ago by the nephew of the tsar, the latest by an American. The brochures speak of ‘panoramas to stop you from breathing’. If you recover your breath, head to the coast, where La Napoule awaits.
La Napoule has the usual beaches and hotels and the nuttiest folly ever built by a foreigner on this shore: the La Napoule Art Foundation, housed inside the Château de Napoule — a pseudo-medieval fantasy castle beautifully set near the Pointe des Pendus (Hanged Men’s Point), built by a pseudo-medieval artist, Henry Clews Jr.
Château de Napoule
The Château de la Napoule was constructed in the 14th century by the Countess of Villeneuve. Over the centuries it was rebuilt several times. In the 19th century it was turned into a glass factory. In 1918, it was purchased by the American trust-funder, Henry Clews Jr.
Born in 1876 into a wealthy American banking family, Clews was a sculptor and designer who fancied himself a modern-day Don Quixote. Clews’ older sister, Dr. Elsie Clews Parsons became a renowned anthropologist, author and activist, with three university degrees, including a Masters and a Doctorate from Columbia University. During the same time period, he failed at three successive universities (all by the time he was 20 years old), having been expelled from Amherst College, dropping out of philosophy at Columbia and then thrown out of Leibniz University Hannover in Germany.
After dropping out of the family business, he decided to become an artist and studied sculpture under Auguste Rodin (whom he paid to study under), but –again– he wasn’t successful. Divorced from his socialite wife, he began to re-invent his life when he married the beautiful divorcee Elsie Whelen Goelet (whom he renamed Marie because she reminded him of the Madonna — yes, that actually happened!) They had a son and moved to Paris, leaving two young children from his first marriage behind, only to be chased out by the noise of the bombardments in 1917.
The Clews came down to the coast, bought the ruined fort first built by the Saracens and known as the Château de la Napoule, and converted it into a crenellated fantasy castle that Henry called La Mancha, his refuge from the modern world, scientists, reformers, the middle class, democrats, and everything else (although everyone noticed he didn’t extend his hatred to telephones and the other mod cons of the day).
Although a small part of the castle (the Saracen Tower) dates back to the 11th century, most of the castle you can see is a 20th-century reconstruction of a 14th-century castle destroyed during the Revolution. The Clews had their own vision of their castle and did not wish to consult with historians; instead, they worked directly with local masons to build what they wanted.
Over the door he carved his life’s motto: ‘Once Upon a Time’. Once installed, the Clews rarely left the fairy-tale world they created. Henry designed medieval period costumes, not only for himself and Marie but also for the maids and the Senegalese butler, which they wore every day. During their two decades together in residence at the chateau, in addition to the reconstruction and the creation of art, they also hosted elaborate parties for European society and American expatriates. They filled the château and garden with peacocks, flamingos and other exotic birds, and loved to stage dramatic, elaborate dinner parties that to the bewildered guests seemed to come straight out of a Hollywood movie.
The most lasting feature of all is Henry’s personal mythology, devoted to something he called ‘Humormystics’, amply illustrated in stone throughout the castle, cloister capitals and gardens: weird monsters and grotesques, human figures and animals, many in egg and phallic shapes with cryptic inscriptions and most carved in stone out of his private quarry in the Esterel with the help of 12 stone cutters.
The local villagers were not forgotten by the Clews, who built a fisherman’s harbor and arranged for religious services and other events on the chateau grounds for people in the town. When Henry died in 1937 the funeral procession included virtually the entire village.
Here, too, is Clews’ own self-designed tomb and epitaph (‘Grand Knight of La Mancha Supreme Master Humormystic Castelan of Once Upon a Time Chevalier de Marie’), completed by Marie, who survived until 1959 and made sure all was preserved intact by founding the charitable La Napoule Arts Foundation, where American and French artists and writers can work immersed in Clews’ phantasmagoria.
Today, you can still see Henry Clews Jr.’s art exhibited inside. Make sure to stop and have a cup of tea at the cafe overlooking the sea.
Want more? Here’s a list of famous villas, the celebrities who owned them, and the crazy things that happened there.
The Ports, Beach, and Markets
There are several ports along the sea front here, from the small port at Riou de l’Argentiere to the much larger ones at Port de la Rague and Port La Napoule. Various boat trips can be arranged from the harbor area of Mandelieu-la-Napoule, to see the nearby coast and the Lerins Islands, while the footpath that heads south-west along the coast can be followed about two kilometres to reach Theoule-sur-Mer.
The beach areas, although not very extensive, are sandy and popular and have been awarded the ‘blue flag’ award for cleanliness and facilities.
Local markets, a good chance to sample many local products, are held in Mandelieu four times a week – but not always in the same place. Wednesday and Friday mornings the market is in the Place des Combattants in the town center, Thursdays it is in La Napoule at Place Saint-Fainéant, and Saturday mornings in Place Jeanne d’Arc .
There are also several large parks in the town, known for their mimosa trees (several events are held to celebrate the mimosas at the end of February each year).
Wondering how to get to Mandelieu-la-Napoule? Check out our guide: How to Get to the Esterel Area.