Like father, like son: Francis and Francois Roux of the Colombe d'Or (Arnold Crust)
At the Colombe d'Or in St Paul de Vence there was no telephone in the bedroom of my suite, nor a television, the beds creaked and sank in the middle and if you ask for your car to be brought up from the distant car park you may spend a vast amount of time waiting. It might surprise you that I was there at all. In fact the Colombe d'Or is one of my favourite places in the world.
It was opened in 1931 by Paul and Baptistine Roux as a Provencale inn near the entrance to the old walled town of St Paul de Vence where they ran a cafe. I remember St Paul de Vence when it was a lived-in town; now its cobbled streets are full of extraordinarily good-class shops which have edged the residents back a bit. It is still enchanting. The Colombe d'Or looks down on to valleys and hills, which, when I first went there, had a few old farmhouses scattered about. Sadly, fashionable villas are springing up relentlessly and the dreaded sight of cranes building more looms over the vista.
Paul Roux became a friend of many of the great French artists of the period and the place is alive with excellent paintings by Braque, Miro, Picasso, Matisse and others. Not the sort of thing you find on most hotel walls! The poolside mobile is by Calder, there is a mosaic dove by Braque, a finger-sculpture on the dining terrace by Cesar and a tiled wall-mural by Leger. Rumour has it that these were donated in return for food and drink. The terrace of the Colombe d'Or is still one of the greatest places in the world to eat. The food is not Michelin-rated but excellent nevertheless, the speciality being an hors d'oeuvre that puts every other one on offer anywhere to shame. The sight of the little bowls coming toward me creates an excitement hard to understand!
The hotel is now run by Paul's son Francis, his son Francois and Francois' wife Daniele. The French have a habit of viewing all hotel guests as a nuisance. They are, of course, quite right. Guests are a nuisance, particularly me. Ask Daniele for something as she stands behind the wood-grilled reception area and a look of slight disbelief is followed by considerable but brief irritation. A sort of internal "tut-tut" comes, if you are lucky, before a smile. That is an absolutely proper way to behave, and I wouldn't have her any other way. Her husband Francois is rather jolly, and his father Francis works so quietly and efficiently that I never realised until recently that he was the boss.
There is something about the loup de mer with an accompanying yellow sauce ("How dare he not know the name of the sauce?" you rightly say) that places it apart from all other fish offerings. The famous people who have been attracted to the Colombe d'Or are too many even for me to mention. It remains an unchanging gem in a world of non-progress and increasing ugliness.
A few miles away is another walled, old city on a hill, Cagnes. This is less touristy than St Paul, very pretty and houses one of the many legendary restaurants of the area, Le Cagnard, set in an old stone building on the ramparts, also overlooking a valley. The painted ceiling panels are copied from the 17th-century Chateau Oeron. Philippe Giron, the maitre d', pressed a button, and with a clang they slid back to let in the sun and reveal the blue sky. The "clang" start made Sarah jump madly as she had been totally unnerved by my awful driving. Mind you, she left me in no doubt about her view on that! The freebie starters, stuffed tomatoes, were a bit tired, but things looked up with a delicious lobster salad, with mango, caviare, leaves, apples and cucumber. The warm apple tart was near-historic and the selection of cheeses sensational. "You had roquefort," said Sarah helpfully. Then "No, you didn't." It's nice to have an expert along with me on these little trips.