THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
France has not been having a very good anti–coronavirus campaign. So should you give up on a Mediterranean holiday this year? You will find that you don't need to. For by high summer Americans, if vaccinated, will be welcomed back with open arms. I hope that these short sketches may encourage you to try again.
Though I am a native of Muncie, Indiana, study of Bardot movies had convinced me that I would know just how to behave when I got to France. On my first visit to St Tropez, on emerging from Les Caves du Roy at 3am, I threw off all my clothes and plunged into the pool attracting, to my surprise, a small crowd and causing my companion to scuttle in a panic to the hotel reception in search of a towel. Next morning, the Byblos manager told me very sweetly that though such conduct had been de rigueur in Brigitte's heyday, it now was frowned upon by the local constabulary.
So I retreated chastened to the Le Club55, which I had been told was unbeatable for people watching and where, near miraculously, they serve excellent lunches to a few hundred people each day. Exploring the village on foot, however, on walking past the cemetery by the sea, full of old fishermen's graves, I chanced upon the tiny and charming Plage des Graniers, on the edge of town.
If expense is no object, you can hire a boat to take you for lunch at the Mas des Langoustiers on the island of Porquerolles, where the only means of transport is by bicycle. This does entail running the gauntlet of teenage topless French nymphets selling ice cream from their ski-jets off the beach at Cavalaire.
But the best advice I can give about St Trop, especially this year, is to go there, if you can, in September, when the beautiful village is no longer overrun by hordes - reminding me of a favourite saying of Yogi Berra: "No one goes there anymore. It's too crowded!"
Perched above the sea, approached by a tiny funicular rail car in the gardens of the Grand Hotel in Cap Ferrat, lies the beautiful Club Dauphin. Still determined, as I imagined, to emulate the locals, I leapt into the pool sans bikini top, only to be told by an indignant French maman that the sight of my chest was traumatising her kids, leading to a hasty cover up.
On the way back through the hotel grounds, to restore my morale, I decided to trip up and pin down on the grass my male companion who, unwarily, was admiring the flower beds. Successful execution of this feat brought a small ripple of applause from the waiters preparing dinner on the terrace.
But this was followed by another misadventure as, post dinner, I retired to the ladies room in the basement, only to find that I could not re-open the door to emerge and no one could hear my strangled cries. I proceeded to use my heavily built up Louboutin kick ass python shoes to kick my way out, only to discover, after quite a struggle, that it was a sliding door! I admitted this to no one at the time and have to hope that the hotel is not reading it now.
You will no longer encounter the legendary ancient swimming instructor who, well into his eighties, presided over the pool in a sort of straw magician's hat, using a long bamboo pole to prod his pupils, not too gently, never entering the water himself. I was too scared to book a lesson with him, but his stellar list of former clients included Mick Jagger and even Charlie Chaplin!
Perched in the sky above Cap Ferrat lies the beautiful ancient hilltop village of Eze, home to the Chateau de la Chevre d'Or. Walk through the magnificent terraced garden, ignore the Michelin starred restaurant and opt instead to lunch al fresco to admire the breathtaking view of the Cape below. Friedrich Nietzsche used to climb up to these dizzy heights each day from the beach below, which may have been what finally drove him mad.
I was going through the usual learning process re how to survive the attentions, or sometimes lack of them, of French waiters. I had some training at The Brasserie in South Kensington where, one day, I found a slug crawling across my salad. Having very reluctantly agreed to remove it, the waiter then proceeded to include the salad and the slug in the bill!
When in Nice, having ordered lobster, I asked for parmesan cheese to go with it, I was indignant to be told, "Madame, it's not advised!" I had to pretend that it was for my spinach. I haven't dared to ask for cheese with my lobster since (except thermidor), a small victory for the French.
Like many others, I have discovered that if you return each year and become an habitué, there is almost anything the French will do for you. Before becoming a regular, I had to rely on wearing skimpy outfits to get the waiters' attention. The only other worthwhile tip I can give you is to try to speak at least a smattering of French.
I kept yearning for relatively simple meals and waiters who seemed actually to like their clients. So where better to find them than at the legendary La Colombe d'Or in Saint-Paul-de-Vence. In the dining room you will find paintings by Braque, Léger and other greats, donated by them in bygone days to pay for their meals, to be followed by an excellent lunch, sympathetically served, under the trees outside. Or try Mamo's restaurant in Antibes, favourite of the yachting crowd, where you are liable, as I did, to bump into Magic Johnson or Sylvester Stallone.
At La Petite Maison in Nice, beware of the owner, for Madame dislikes diners with ties and does not hesitate to cut them off with a pair of shears. Good food and ambiance, though sometime iffy waiters. But you may get to hear the best Riviera band, the Gypsy Kings. Otherwise, try to track them down wherever you can.
The impossibly beautiful Hotel du Cap is the favourite haunt of half the world's movie stars. At Eden Roc, the impressive doorman Michel, apart from being a Count, is famous for having broken up a bibulous scuffle between the two best known actors of, respectively, France and America, with the words "Behave yourselves, Gentlemen!"
The American Oscar winner in question, anxious to remain incognito, adopts an alias which, however, is unlikely to deceive anyone, as he barely speaks a word of French. "Bonjour M. Berger," I greet him cheerfully but in vain, as notoriously, he is only interested in dusky ladies.
The hotel has just published its own extraordinary history, of Picasso sketching, Chagall painting and Scott Fitzgerald writing there, with its galaxy of famous guests. It was for a time necessary to arrive with a holdall full of cash, as a former manager harboured a deep distrust of cheques and credit cards.
Before the War, the youthful JFK, staying there with his family, fraternized in one of the beach huts with a glamorous Swede who, J Edgar. Hoover took pleasure in warning him, unfortunately was suspected of being a German spy.
With impeccable management and exceptional staff, the hotel has had the good fortune to be owned for the past half century by the admirable Oetker family who, thank goodness, have no need or desire to sell it to any of the Russian oligarchs who keep trying to buy it, cherishing the hotel as their own home from home.
Not far away is the Belles Rives, which was the home of Scott and Zelda and where, in the bay, water-skiing was invented. Or, less expensively, you can stay in one of the numerous small hotels and lunch and swim at the Plage Keller on the beach at La Garoupe.
Which brings me to Monaco. A wonderful place to stay or lunch is at the Beach Club or, more affordably, at Le Méridien, also on the beach. The Hotel de Paris boasts the famous American Bar and Le Grill, with its amazing views. To be avoided is the beautiful old Casino, now full of slot machines.
In the pool one day at the Monte-Carlo Bay Hotel, swimming backwards without looking, I collided with a super polite gentleman who apologised for bumping into me, though the fault was entirely mine. I found, to my embarrassment, that I had made a dent in the midriff of His Serene Highness Prince Albert of Monaco, whose friendliness is a byword in his small kingdom. The pool, in summer, is so large that it has a sandy floor! Also to be found staying in the Rafa Nadal suite there during the famous tennis tournament on the spectacular site of the Monte Carlo Country Club is none other than R Nadal, who is such a gentleman that he allows me to co-exist with him in the gym when others are thrown out, possibly because I am his greatest fan.
For a special dinner, book a table early, if you can, on the tiny balcony at Coya. If it is nightlife you are looking for, rather than the overrated Jimmy'z, try the more upscale Twiga, with its live shows. If Alessandro and the Portofinos are on the schedule, table hopping with his bevy of female admirers singing along to every song, sign up immediately.
Despite the present impediments, for those of you who are concerned to get back as soon as possible to a more normal life, I hope that this may encourage you this summer to enjoy further adventures on the Cote d'Azur, as I am definitely planning to do.
Time to dust off my Net a Porter Hervé Léger dresses. How about you?
But first, please get vaccinated!