All Articles A Black literary tour through the South of France

A Black literary tour through the South of France

Follow in the footsteps of James Baldwin and others.

Dana Givens
By Dana Givens23 Jan 2024 4 minutes read
The cathedral of Saint-Sernin of Toulouse, France
The cathedral of Saint-Sernin of Toulouse, France
Image: nevskyphoto/Getty Images

When you think of café culture in France, chances are your mind goes straight to Paris. It’s part of the city’s allure that brings in tons of annual visitors. But over a hot, long summer weekend in early July, I traded Paris for a different café scene further south in Nice.

My travel to the south of France was reminiscent of African American writers of old who journeyed to write stories from the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region. Paris-based creatives like James Baldwin, Claude McKay, and Jessie Fauset traveled south when they needed a break from city life. Most of these Black American writers came to France for a different, and most importantly, safer life outside of the United States. Their tales of finding peace and creativity in France inspired a generation of creatives like myself to do the same.

On the hunt to capture the same sense of creative wonder that drew these iconic writers, I relished in Nice’s slower pace. Just 15 minutes from the famous Promenade des Anglais, a beachfront bordering stylish eateries and beach clubs in the Quartier des Musiciens, I spent mornings at a table sipping black coffee behind dark shades, watching life pass by or browsing through the Cours Saleya flea market. In the afternoons, I strolled, taking in the scene of stylish pedestrians in and out of storefronts, before wandering the galleries of the Palais Lascaris or admiring the stained glass windows in the Basilique Notre-Dame de Nice. I often found my way to Coco Beach to soak up the sun. It was clear why so many had been drawn here.

Beyond Nice, there are other small towns and cities in the region that provided storied African American writers with the space to let their imagination run wild. While many of their actual haunts are no longer standing, the spirit of creativity remains. Here, a guide to seeing the French Riviera and beyond while channeling some of history’s most iconic Black authors and poets.

Explore James Baldwin’s Provence

James Baldwin
Exterior of Fondation Maeght
James Baldwin (L), Exterior of Fondation Maeght (R)
Image: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images (L), Courtesy of Fondation Maeght (R)

James Baldwin, the prolific author of Giovanni’s Room and Go Tell It On The Mountain, came to Nice from Paris in the early ‘70s for a quiet retreat. He eventually settled and made a permanent home in the hilltop town of St-Paul-de-Vence until his death in 1987, hosting famous friends like Maya Angelou, Nina Simone, and Miles Davis.

Sadly, the artist’s former home was not preserved, and what remains has become a part of a new set of luxury apartments. (A few tours like Art and Tours pass by the site, though, if you want to learn more.) While you’re in town, grab a meal at La Colombe d'Or, a historic inn and café that Baldwin himself was known visit; find inspiration at the Fondation Maeght museum, which is filled with works by iconic 20th and early 21st century masters and enormous sculptures by Miró and more; or sip wine at La Petite Cave de Saint-Paul, housed inside a 14th-century cellar.

Roam around Jessie Fauset’s Toulouse

A notable figure in the Harlem Renaissance, poet and essayist Jessie Fauset may be most known for her role as literary editor for the NAACP’s The Crisis magazine. But before that, she worked as a public school French teacher and in 1914, Fauset took her first trip to France to study at Paris’s Sorbonne University, making frequent return visits to the country through 1934. Her experiences traveling through the country would be used as an aesthetic for some of her works, and portions of her novel, Comedy: American Style, take place in riverside Toulouse—also known as the “pink city” for its terra-cotta brick exteriors.

Today, Toulouse is known as being more laid back than its coastal counterparts, and must-visits include the Basilique Saint-Sernin, the largest Romanesque church in France, and the Canal du Midi, best explored on a romantic dinner cruise.

Embrace the artsy side of Claude Mckay’s Marseilles

When poet and author Claude McKay would find himself when he needed time outside of Paris, he headed to coastal Marseilles. It’s said that he was drawn in by the Le Vieux Port and felt more at ease in the multicultural city from his first visit in 1924. It was those observations at the port that influenced the posthumously released Romance in Marseilles, which explores the legacy of the Black diaspora and queer identity with the southern port city as its backdrop.

Today, what was once described as a gritty city has transformed into a cultural hub, thanks to art museums like the Musèe de Beaux-Arts and the Musèe Cantini, which hold collections from notable French and international artists. (And don’t miss the architectural marvel that is the Palais Longchamp, built in 1869.) When you’ve worked up an appetite, go modern, and check out restaurants like Restaurant Michel, known for its robust seafood selection on the waterfront, or Sepia for city views and some quality dining.

4 tips for your next trip to southern France

Ocean view in Èze, France
Ocean view in Èze, France
Image: Thierry Orens/Getty Images
  • The best way to explore this stretch? Let the spirit of the aforementioned literary giants guide you and simply town-hop around the region.
  • If you’re coming from Nice, as many do, explore the area by train, stopping along the storybook beach retreats of Eze or Villefranche-sur-Mer and continuing all the way to Monaco.
  • Be sure to spend an afternoon on the Siagne River in Mandelieu-la-Napoule—an idyllic, artsy town near Cannes with a lot of color.
  • In Mandelieu, book a night (or several!) at l’Hôtel Casarose, which has vibrant colors reminiscent of a splashy 1960s advertisement. During the day, you can wander in and out of art galleries; by night, catch an evening jazz performance at the Théâtre Robinson.
Dana Givens
Dana Givens is a freelance journalist who writes about travel, food, mental health and lifestyle topics. When she’s not traveling, she enjoys reading a good book and is currently studying French. Follow her on Instagram and TikTok.