We arrived at 11am. I sat right next to an old couple who probably lived at the hotel all year round. We ordered our first glass of white wine while watching a real-estate tycoon steal pretzels from the bowl of a Swedish duchess, who was laughing at the jokes of a troubadour with a top hat, who probably hadn’t left the bar since the day before. If you ever wonder where movie characters go once the movie ends, it’s here: La Colombe d’Or.
Paul Roux, its founder in the 1920s, was an art lover. When you down your second glass of white in front of a ceramic fresco by Fernand Léger on the terrace, it’s because Paul used to offer room and board in exchange for works of art — mostly by small, unpretentious artists like Miró, Braque, Chegal, César. Alexander Calder — before installing one of his famous mobiles in front of the pool — used to send small paintings by mail.
This charming habit, which began during the Second World War when the south of France was a free zone that welcomed artists, has lasted many years. The collection has continued to grow, with pieces signed by the greatest names in the history of art. The most recent work to be deposited was in 2007, by Sean Scully. But it doesn’t feel like you’re in a maniacal collector’s home, where the pieces are protected by a velvet cord. Instead, everything is just there, right in front of you, as if it were yours.
A waitress of a certain age — with charisma to rival Lino Ventura (who came here regularly, by the way) — settles us in for lunch. She hands us the famous coloured card — the menu that’s barely changed since it first opened (except for its prices, of course, written in pencil, but with a trace of eraser on each of them).
We opt for the delicious rognons à la Provençale and the Carré d’Agneau rôti et sa garniture de petits légumes Méditerranéen. We have to put aside any curiosity for the Poussin à la Chipolata (translation: ‘chick at the sausage’), or the Civet de Lapin du Facteur (a ‘postman’s rabbit stew’) in order to save room for the famous Mère Roux’s tart. The recipe has been passed down through the generations.
Today, it’s still the descendants of the founder who protect — with a fierce grip and spirit — this mythical establishment from falling into the vulgarity of the Riviera-at-large. Though the rest of the area becomes deserted in winter, the Colombe d’Or is more alive than ever. In fact, this is the best time to go. You can sit by the fireplace, with its organic shapes, designed by the famous architect Jacques Couëlle, who lent an elegance and rawness to the architecture. And you can stroll around the pool, guessing at the great artists behind the works that hang here and there, without the attention of bathers or posers.
But all good things must come to an end. Before we left, like Picasso, I scribbled a little drawing on a piece of paper and held it out to pay the bill. To my surprise, it didn’t work.