During the hectic days of the Cannes Film Festival, some of the smarter people head inland, seeking out a more “normal” pace of life
The mediaeval town of St. Paul de Vence perches on a rocky outcrop with spectacular views of the surrounding countryside and of the alluring waters of the Côte d’Azur – just 10km inland from Cagnes-sur-Mer, a 20-minute drive from Nice and a half-hour drive from Cannes itself.
It is what’s known as a village perché; a perfectly preserved example of such settlements, where ancient stone buildings, steps and cobbled streets intertwine seamlessly over the natural contours of the hill. It’s a town where only residents and delivery people can enter with a motorized vehicle; where pastis-drinking jovial men with black berets play strategic games of boules under the shade of plane trees.It’s Vieille France charm and architectural beauty, coupled with its convenient location make it the 3rd most visited spot in France, and this ensures a steady stream of tour buses releasing their large, slow-moving pedestrian cargoes that cram the narrow streets for much of the year.
An oasis amidst all of this activity is the Colombe d’Or restaurant. Intriguingly situated behind a heavy oak door on the left hand side as you enter the town, this eatery and guest house has become a veritable institution in these parts, as much for its art and association with certain celebrities as for its consistently excellent cuisine.
“Sunshine is the main ingredient” is what the owners claim and you can certainly see why when you walk through the door into what resembles a gourmet garden party with earthy sculpture pieces dotted around the place. The main dining area is outdoors on a terrace overlooking the ramparts of the ancient town, with the verdant hills of Provence in the background. Dappled sunlight diffuses through the trees to complete an utterly charming scene.
“We’ve always had a great passion for art,” says Michèle Roux. She is married to François Roux and together they run the Colombe d’Or. François’s grandfather Paul Roux founded the guest house, which was then known as “Le Robinson”. Serving simple Provençal fare in their restaurant, it soon became a favourite haunt of the many artists that lived in the area. During that inter-war era, money was tight and many of the artists paid for their dinner with their (now priceless) artistic creations. The walls of the interior are liberally sprinkled with paintings by Matisse, Chagall, Renoir and Dufy, amongst others.
“When Paul’s son Francis Roux took over the business, he continued to add to the collection,” says Mme. Roux, “continuing in the tradition of the family’s passion for art.”The Colombe d’Or not only attracted painters, but also famous writers of the time such as Cocteau and Jacques Prévert. In time, these were followed by directors, scriptwriters and film stars, including Romy Schneider, Roger Moore, Tony Curtis and Yves Montand. The latter was a very famous crooner and, in later life, an even more famous actor (best known in this part of the world for his role as César Soubeyran in “Jean de Florette”). According to Mme. Roux, Montand, who lived in St. Paul, was “like family…. He and my father-in-law were best friends.”
Today, the restaurant continues to attract the latest generation of glitterati. Elton John and our own Bono (who has a house in nearby Eze) are regulars. “The Colombe d’Or has always attracted people from all the arts, whether it’s film, music, literature or painting. It’s one of unique features of the place and something that we’ve always liked to cultivate.”
From mid-April until October 22nd (when they close for 2 months), both the restaurant and the accommodation are full so you have to book in advance, but the food prices are not as exclusively expensive as you might expect and represent good value by current Irish standards.
Staying at the Colombe d’Or is a more exclusive jaunt, which costs between €230 per night up to €400 for a suite. The building has a courtyard at the centre of which is a private swimming pool and the overall feel of the interior is that of the home of an eccentric artist – cool, thick pale-plastered walls, with an eclectic mixture of art and décor and a tantalisingly hedonistic 1970’s ambiance. You can almost hear the ghosts of past generations partying in the lounge and dining room.Despite the plethora of famous faces that frequent their establishment, the Roux’s are not ones for the limelight, concentrating on the food, the atmosphere and the art, like they have been doing for generations. It’s a refreshingly down-to-earth attitude in an age where bawdy exploitation of the cult of the celebrity is commonplace and it’s something that they are proud of at the Colombe d’Or: “We don’t really want to our pictures plastered around the place… It’s not that sort of set-up here,” says Michèle.
The last time I was here, my wife spotted a painting by Irish modern artist Sean Scully, whose works now sell for five-figure sums. It has been joined since by a 6-metre long ceramic wall in the swimming pool courtyard; a piece that was donated by the artist. Michèle is at pains to point out that this is not a return to the days when an artist paid for his meal with a painting. “That practice was from another era,” she says, “it’s not the sort of thing that’s manageable in this day and age. Sean Scully’s donation was an exceptional event.”
“One of the essential characteristics of the place and the reason why so many well-known people like to come here time after time is because when they do come, they are allowed to be themselves … We don’t differentiate between a famous film star and anyone else who comes to eat or to stay here.” Music to anyone’s ears.
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