If you arrive in the sharp heat of a summer day, you understand immediately why they flocked here, the greats like Picasso, Matisse, Leger and Renoir. On the Côte d’Azur, the sun seems brighter, the sky bluer, the shadows darker, the light more dazzling. If you stare long enough, the wrought-iron balconies turn Cubist, the palm trees Fauvist. And in Saint-Paul de Vence, a little village in the arrière-pays behind Nice, you can glimpse both inspiration and oeuvre at La Colombe d’Or.
As the story goes, this simple café-cum-hotel welcomed impoverished artists in the 1950s, allowing them to exchange their artwork for meals and sojourns. The result is a treasure trove of paintings and sculptures. They line the walls, the stairwells, the linen closets, you know, just a little Miro in the front hall, a Braque, Chagall, or César in the dining room, a Calder mobile floating above a stack of tablecloths. Some say the paintings are copies now, the real canvases hidden in safety, but I prefer to believe they’re just nailed to the walls.
The collection is open to the public, but to visit it, you must be a guest of the hotel, either staying in one of the rooms or eating at the restaurant. Alas, you can’t just pop round for a drink and tour (I had that idea, too). You have to make a reservation and embark upon a full meal. Which begs the question: How’s the food? Well, last weekend, my parents and I had a chance to find out.
We were traveling with some friends of my parents, lovely, worldly friends who know people who know the Colombe d’Or. The Sophisticated Friends made the reservation — a table on the terrasse underneath an ancient fig tree, a Leger mural along one wall, a César sculpture in the corner — and when we sat down, a bottle of chilled champagne appeared, a gift from the Sophisticated Friends’ friends. Champagne. Appeared. As if by magic. It joined the softening light and gentle air, the buzz of happy voices and exquisite artwork, in casting a spell.
As for the food? It was quite simple and plain, if you can consider salads of truffle and lobster simple and plain. The ingredients were fresh, though not particularly well considered (for example, arugula leaves completely overpowered the truffle shavings). But the classics were well executed: an aioli Provençal with sparkling fresh cod and a bouquet of vegetables, a sauceboat of garlic-scented mayonnaise hovering by the side. A thick pavé steak seasoned with a generous sprinkle of salt and pepper, cooked judiciously à point. A bottle of chilled Bandol that filled our glasses with a rosé-pink glow. The Grande Marnier soufflé, a fragile mound set alight in a halo of blue flames. An orange-scented grappa — the hotel’s signature, homemade digestif — that the waiter spilled into tiny glasses. He came around a second time to offer us another drop, to keep us under the enchantment for a little longer.
La Colombe d’Or
Saint-Paul de Vence
tel: 33 04 93 32 80 22