Friday 26 June 2015

Holidaying on the French Riviera, Grand Hotel Style by Carol Drinkwater

I am suffering from Deadline-itis. Two deadlines glaring at me with fanged intentions. As always during these stressful moments, it seems that all the world apart from me is in holiday mode; either on holiday or about to depart.
I go out so rarely at present due to the pressure of work that when I receive an invitation from friends who have arrived here on the coast, it is a rare treat and reminds me that the Côte d’Azur is more than a  Spaghetti Junction for tourists. It has some quite remarkable locations and buildings, each with its own story to tell.

                                                      One of the Carlton's Belle Epoch cupolas
According to legend the hotel's twin cupolas were modelled on the breasts of the dancer-actress-courtesan, Carolina Otero, christened 'la Belle Otero'. Until recent renovations, the restaurant on the hotel's top floor was named La Belle Otero in celebration of the Spanish beauty.

The friends I linked up with this week were staying at the Carlton Hotel in Cannes. A seven-storey linen-white building boasting 343 rooms as well as ten capacious penthouse suites on the top floor with views to the Bay of Cannes beaches and the Mediterranean. ‘Luxe’ as the French say. Deluxe beyond my dreams. My pals were staying in the Grace Kelly suite. We drank champagne on their private terrace and enjoyed the sun descending over the water. One of them asked me whether I had known that the Carlton with its Belle Epoch domes had been built in 1911. I would have mistakenly dated it a little later and we began a conversation about the birth of tourism along this coast. Antibes, Golfe Juan and the Cap d’Antibes were the haunts of the Americans whereas the British and the Russians preferred Cannes. Nice was more cosmopolitan. Each of these three resorts has its grand hotel. The Negresco in Nice, the Carlton in Cannes and the mythic Hotel du Cap right on the water at Antibes. And each hotel has a remarkable and glittering history.

So, as I will not be going on holiday this year I will visit each of them here!

                                                           Garden view Hotel du Cap

The Grand Hotel du Cap. "Un établissment mythique et incomparable". Its first incarnation was as the Villa Soleil, built in 1869 as a private residence byHippolte de Villemessant,  the founder of Le Figaro newspaper. He very generously offered his fabulous Napoleon III-styled pad to ‘writers seeking inspiration’. (If only!)
In 1887 it was sold to Antoine Sella, an Italian hotelier. It opened as the Grand Hotel du Cap in 1889 and has never looked back. Its Eden Roc pavilion was built in 1914. The same year as its heated seawater pool, which is truly invigorating to swim in, was cut out of the Mediterranean cliff-side. Thirty-three cabanas were built into the rocks facing the sea. Marc Chagall spent time drawing sketches in one of these cabanas.
I am assuming that the pool was heated back in 1914, because it would have been used exclusively for winter swimming. During the long hot months of summer, this coastline was deserted. Until the early twenties when high society and the intellectual elite, led by the wild energy of hugely wealthy Americans, took to the beaches and to villas nesting in pine groves to party, paint, write and compose through all seasons of the year.

                                                            The Plage de la Garoupe

I wrote about the American expat millionaires, Gerald and Sara Murphy and their impact on the Riviera in my History Girls blog:

The Murphy couple once rented the Hotel du Cap for an entire summer. This was unheard of in the early 1920s because at that stage this coast was exclusively a winter resort. It is claimed that it was Coco Chanel who invented ‘the tan’ in 1923 when she was photographed in a backless dress exposing skin that had caught the sun while on a French Riviera cruise. Up to that point, weathered flesh was associated with the working classes, but from that summer onwards, it was chic to allow one’s skin to be tanned. Sporting a suntan became a sign of wealth and beauty.
Coco and Dog

Scott Fitzgerald, one of the Murphys' friends and regular house guests immortalised the Hotel du Cap as the Hotel des Etrangers in Tender is the Night. Most of the major film stars who are flown in for the Cannes festival stay at the Grand Hotel du Cap. Past visitors have included Orson Welles, Ernest Hemingway, Marlene Dietrich, Churchill, De Gaulle, J.F. Kennedy and the Burtons who honeymooned there.

                The Cap d'Antibes has ideal sailing waters. One of the reasons why the Greeks in the 5th century B.C founded Antibes (Antipolis) as one of their northern trading posts 

In 1964, Rudolph August Oetker, a German industrialist, was sailing with his wife along the Riviera coast and spotted the hotel. Five years later he acquired it. This very prestigious address set in eleven acres of magnificent palm and pine gardens is now part of their “bouquet” of international hotels known as the Masterpiece Collection. So exclusive is it that it only opens for the season in late April before the film festival and closes in October. Until recently, it was renowned for accepting only cash. Guests either paid their bills from suitcases of money or wired the funds on ahead. This policy changed a couple of years back.

The Carlton Hotel (now managed by Intercontinental).  The site of 58 Boulevard de la Croisette was purchased in 1908 by the British businessman, Henry Ruhl, who invested in luxury hotels. In order to build on the location he began looking for investors and found the majority of the money from the Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich of Russia, youngest son of Emperor Alexander III.
The Carlton was opened in early January 1911, but reached it definitive version in 1913 after Ruhl had purchased an abutting hotel, La Plage, and used the space to create a new wing for the Carlton. Ruhl chose the name Carlton because there was a hotel in London with the same name. It is Scandinavian for 'town of the free man'.
Grand Duke Michael, rather a ladies man, had been sojourning regularly in Cannes since the late 1890s. He financed the construction a golf course at neighbouring Mandelieu-La Napoule. Back in Russia he spoke of the Riviera town of Cannes as at a 'city of elegant sports'. Soon Russian high society was flocking to this coast and spending vast sums of money. Their wealth and extravagant living, along with members of the British royalty who also frequented this Riviera spot, certainly put the town on the map.

The Carlton's Belle Epoch luxury only lasted one year due to the outbreak of war, at which point the hotel was requisitioned as a field hospital. One of its more famous patients was the writer Blaise Cendrars who in 1915 was seriously injured and was obliged to have his arm amputated at the makeshift hospital.
There were tough days post-war for the Carlton. Europe, France, was in a slump and the Russian Revolution of 1917 caused it to lose vital clients and wealth. In 1919, it was on the market for one million francs.
In 1920, Coco Chanel was in Cannes with her boyfriend of the moment, Grand Duc Dmitri Romanov (nephew of Michael who had helped finance the establishment). She was there to meet with an exiled Franco-Russian perfumer to create her own essence. The result was Chanel 5. Brilliant and forward-thinking as she was, Coco was the first designer to use her name to brand her perfume.

In January 1922, the Carlton was given the opportunity to host the League of Nations conference which unfortunately did not achieve its goals but it did give birth to the Societé des Nations which has evolved into the United Nations. A political gathering of such eminence gave much-needed publicity to the hotel.
Fast forwarding to 2011 when the G20 was hosted in Cannes, Obama occupied the same suite as had Colonel Harvey, the US ambassador who had represented the United States at the League of Nations in 1922.

Grace Kelly met her in Prince, Rainier III of Monaco, at a prearranged rendezvous at this hotel. At the time she was shooting To Catch a Thief with Cary Grant directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Many scenes were set at the hotel. The Rainier-Kelly courtship was brief and Hitchcock was a witness at their wedding. Fascinatingly, the Greek shipping tycoon Aristote Onassis had been attempting to set up a marriage between Rainier and Marilyn Monroe.

While on the subject of 'catching thieves', the Carlton has been the target of several high-profile jewellery heists. Two in particular, one in 1994 when the thieves got away with over $60 million worth of jewellery and precious stones and another in 2013 when the stolen cache was reported to have been somewhere near $137 million. In both cases, nobody has been charged, no criminal cited as responsible.
Thriller stories in their own right!

Negresco, Nice

The Negresco in Nice. The last of this trio of grand hotels to be constructed, the Negresco dates back to 1913. A Romanian innkeeper's son, Henri Negrescu, who at the age of fifteen left his home town of Bucharest to head for Paris to become a gypsy violinist, was the inspiration behind the birth of this pink-domed beauty. After Paris, Negrescu worked in hotels in London and Monte Carlo, but decided to settle on on the Riviera coast where luxury tourism was a burgeoning business. He took the job as director of the restaurant of the Municipal Casino in Nice. It was here he commenced plans to build a sumptuous hotel to attract the very wealthiest of guests. Once the finance was in place, he commissioned the star architect Eduard-Jean Niermans to design the hotel. The design included the pink dome (see above). Whether Niermans or Negrescu wanted the dome to flag to their very wealthy clients that the Negresco would match the style and luxury of the Carlton in Cannes, I do not know. In its hall hangs a magnificent crystal chandelier. It boasts 16,309 crystals and was crafted by Baccarat for Czar Nicholas II who was never able to take delivery of it. It remains one of the largest crystal chandeliers in the world. The hotel opened its doors on 8th January 1913.

Baccarat crystal chandelier, Hotel Negresco
The hotel was listed as a National Historic Building in 2003

When WWI commenced, the Negresco was also taken for use as as a hospital. Unfortunately for Henri Negrescu the downturn in tourism after the war and the renovations required to give the hotel back its five-star status led him into dire financial straits. He never recovered his investments. The hotel was seized by creditors in 1920 and sold to a Belgian company. Negrescu died in Paris that same year, a broken and ruined man at 52 years old.

Henri Negrescu

The hotel has had a checkered history with some challenging financial ups and downs over the decades until 1957 when it was sold to the Augier family. Renovated by Madame Jeanne Augier to a standard that included mink bedspreads, it has clawed back its quality rating. Today, its Chantecler restaurant has  two Michelin stars, and the hotel is a member of the Leading Hotels of the World.
Among the legion of famous names who have passed through its doors, Salvador Dali comes to mind. I do smile when I think of him tucked up beneath his mink cover.

The travel writer Eric Newby wrote glowingly of a meal he had eaten in the Chantecler restaurant at the end of his journey for the book, On the Shores of the Mediterranean. 
Paul Theroux in his Mediterranean travel book, Pillars of Hercules, loudly criticises Newby for his blatant kowtowing. 
Having written two Mediterranean travel books myself (The Olive Route and The Olive Tree) travelling as a woman alone to some pretty dangerous territories, there are a few handfuls of mud I could sling at Theroux, but not here. Here, I will finish my visit to three hotels built to feed the dreams of the wealthiest of tourists and this desk-bound writer by a quote from Theroux's chapter on Nice. 
(Note: Paul T does not give the name of his 'friend's' book!).

'There was a placard in front of the Negresco's Chantecler restaurant with a quotation from my friend Eric Newby, cobbled together from the six pages he devotes to the Negresco in his book on his trip around the Mediterranean: "One of the greatest restaurant (sic) in France… newest Mecca for gourmets… most beautifully presented meal … my entire life …best I ever ate or am likely to eat," blah-blah-blah.
Newby! Singing for his supper! Hang it up, Eric!'

So, back to my deadlines after a day out as a virtual tourist.

Carol Drinkwater


Unknown said...

Fascinating! Thank you for the virtual tours. That's the only way I'll ever see those places, I'm afraid.

Unknown said...

Wonderful,as always,from Carol Drinkwater.Really informative seeing as i am never likely to experience these hotels first hand..

Sue Purkiss said...

Good luck with the deadlines, Carol. I enjoyed the tour - am feeling sorry for M. Negrescu, though!

Kate Lord Brown said...

Deadline sympathy - but what bliss it would be to lock yourself away in a quiet room with a sea view and room service, and just write. One day. Or perhaps we should have put our brains and energy into becoming jewel thieves ;) Great post x

Unknown said...

Fabulous! I do love reading about the Riviera 'back in the day', the glitz and glamour of the writers and artists, the fabulously wealthy, other-worldly, beautiful people and their love of this magical stretch of coastline, but I'd never given much thought to the buildings so intrinsically linked to those people and their stories.
Yet again, Carol Drinkwater treats us to an evocative, beautifully written history lesson on those very hotels. Fascinating stuff. More please!

Unknown said...

What a fun tour. Thank you Carol. Amanda Vaill's biography of Gerald and Sara Murphy is a great read about the golden age of the coast. It is titled Everybody Was So Young.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Gorgeous! It must be nice to have the money to stay at places like these - or have someone else pay for you, so you can appreciate it more than someone who expects this level of luxury. ;-) Mink bedspreads - amazing! As for the sea view and the luxury, I suspect it would make me forget my writing rather than be inspired. Lol!

Carol Drinkwater said...

Hi Thomas, Yes, I know the book. I have a copy of it here.

Unknown said...

What a great tour Carol! I'd love to visit some of these hotels myself. :)

John Smith said...

Great insight in to holidaying & staying in France. I have been looking for good hotels in France to reserve my stay for my trip next month. I would surely refer to your post. Thanks.