The blue of the Mediterranean is special. There is a musical ring to that word, of course; think of Amal telling Charulata: “Mediterranean, jeno tanpurar jhonkar (Mediterranean, like running your fingers over the strings of a tanpura)". There is a crystal clear quality to it, a certain luminosity that lies deep within the sea, which mirrors the sky. The blue has richness and depth that you don’t find elsewhere, except in some lakes. Everything looks sharper and starker, and however good your camera might be, and however many pixels it can capture, the image on your screen looks artificial, lacking the brilliance of the sea, the fishing villages and the wine estates along the shore.

I had come to the Mediterranean the first time in 1994: I was in Nice, to write about a banking conference, but also keeping an eye on the central bankers sneaking off to Monte Carlo to try their luck, and the private bankers presumably exploring tourism potential in the area, by going to the beach. My wife Karuna went off to the home where Henri Matisse lived, and she got passionate as she described how Matisse, losing control over his movements as he grew older, had started cutting sheets of colourful paper, sticking them in patterns that might seem abstract at first, but which were later revealed to be elegant human forms. The colour he chose was blue.

Later that week, once the bankers had gone, we went to Antibes, the town further down the coast, where we saw Picasso’s home. While St Tropez brought the world’s rich and famous to parties during the summer, further along the coast, the painters and writers lived, seeking inspiration from the changing colours of the sky and the mild breeze which made the heat bearable. The colours, seen from Picasso’s windows, were vivid; the aquamarine soothed our eyes. It felt like spring was in the air. We wanted to come again.

Silhouettes: The town of Collioure, where Fauvism, a short-lived art movement, began. Udayan Tripathi

The terraced fields around us, with their neat symmetry, grew grapes, not rice; this region produces nearly half of France’s table wine. The water was reassuringly blue; some beaches had stones, others had sand. We saw children building castles, tossing stones in the water. We saw lovers lost in long kisses, as the sun descended gently. The sky blushed, turning pink. The wind caressed us, and you saw the lights coming alive in people’s homes, almost reluctantly, as if recognizing that the fading twilight would soon darken. We walked to the edge of the land, the colours of the buildings light blue and pink and cream and yellow and orange. And there, right at the end, stood a stark, dark cross.

That blue still remained in my mind. Later that week, we drove to Barcelona, in Spain. Our destination was the Picasso Museum, an imposing structure which houses Picasso’s works in Barcelona, or inspired by the city. As we walked through the dark rooms, we saw his pre-Cubist art—the Blue Period. The colour was as much real as a metaphor for the state of his mind. The figures were drawn deftly, human forms recognizable at first glance, and not after peeling through the layers of the cubist iconography that he was to develop a few years later in Paris.

And then it happened, with startling clarity. We were in the last room, where the museum had kept its new acquisitions, not connected with Barcelona. There were half a dozen canvases, looking somewhat identical. It was getting dark outside, but the room beamed with good cheer. As you saw the paintings of the landscapes Picasso saw through his windows in Cannes, you could see the white and grey pigeons on the side, and you could almost hear their fluttering wings. The luscious green leaves of the trees seemed palpable, as you sensed the tactile energy with which Picasso’s brushstrokes had painted those trees. The earthy brown of the wood was rich. And beyond, there was the yellow sand and the deep blue sea, with frothy waves—and the sparkle of the Mediterrenean.

My sons recognized the last painting immediately. It is the one that my wife had chosen from the posters we were looking through at a shop in Nice in 1994. We had bought it then, and in the years that followed, it continued to bring some of Nice’s sunshine to our home, even during London’s bleakest autumns and dark winters.

I kept staring at my sons looking at that canvas; it made me feel as though she had been walking with us while we walked through the museum, as if she had never left us, completing that journey.

Write to Salil at detours@livemint.com

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