Paris has the Café Flore, Venice has Harry’s Bar, New York had the Stork Club. There are some places that just had that “je ne sais quoi“, a power to lure in the world’s most fascinating people where legendary conversations, untold flirtations and scandalous altercations took place at candlelit tables in the corner by the bar.
In the hills above Nice, where the singing cicadas welcome bronzed bodies retreating from the glitz and excess of the Cote d’Azur in need of a sleepy provincial lullaby, one such place awaits in a stone medieval village at the gateway to Provence.
The Colombe d’Or has belonged to the same family since it started life in 1920 as “Chez Robinson”, a café with an al fresco terrace where locals would drink wine and dance at weekends.
Paul Roux, a Provençal farmer had opened the simple café upon returning from World War I and ran it with his wife “Titti”, who convinced him to expand the business into a small hotel as a three-room inn under a new name. It soon began attracting colourful characters from the nearby region such as the Fitzgeralds, who were summering at their beach villa half an hour south, cavorting with Hemingway and friends in Antibes. Scott and Zelda once had a jealous row over Isadora Duncan at the Colombe d’Or.
During World War II, the tiny terracotta hotel became a secluded safe haven for struggling artists like Braque and Léger, followed by Picasso, Chagall and Renoir who began regularly stopping by for the highly-praised home-cooked lunches.
Paul Roux and his wife befriended the artists, and although they had no formal background in art, began developing an eye for it and decided to offer free accommodation in exchange for paintings and sketches. A sign was hung on the door of the Colombe d’Or saying, “Ici on loge à cheval, à pied ou en peinture,” – Here we lodge those on foot, on horseback or those with paintings.
And that’s how the Colombe d’Or became a legend and ended up with more important art than most museums. The atmosphere of the hotel is thick with nostalgia and the lurking presence of greats such as Picasso, who could be found smoking at the bar, keeping an open tab with the promise of another painting. Paintings by Henri Matisse, another loyal guest, line the walls, a Mirò bathes in the poolside warmth, a mural by Legér surveys the terrace and a César Baldaccini’s sculpture greets diners at the entrance.
Few people actually know the size of the Roux family’s collection, nor has it ever been appraised. Certainly at any given time, what is “displayed” (casually hung over tables and in the hotel’s corridors without formal plaques or labels), is but a small glimpse of their secret collection, which rotates like that of a museum. In 1960, a large portion of it was reported stolen and recovered in a storage area of the Marseille train station.
While the hotel itself has always remained disarmingly simple, the clientele is still anything but. Bohemian, intellectual, artistic knowns and unknowns still head to the sleepy hilltop village of Saint Paul de Vence for a home away from home. Famed publishing house Assouline, launched their first book in 1993 on the founder’s favourite summer refuge, the Colombe d’Or. The Roux’s descendants run the hotel today, still a small-scale operation with under 30 rooms and new works by emerging and struggling artists are always popping up poolside or above a table where Jean Cocteau once worked with Igor Stravinsky on an adaptation of “Oedipus Rex.”