Monday, March 26, 2018

Provence's Legendary La Colombe d’Or Still Sparkles

For travel junkies, the world is full of iconic, mythical destinations. Maybe we read about them in novels or travel magazines, or perhaps we heard an author or famous actress talk about a visit to the spot during an interview on a talk show. Wherever or however we heard about them, they captured our imagination.

In the early 80s, several years before I took my first trip to Europe, I read about such a place, a restaurant housed in a cozy inn near Nice. The restaurant, La Colombe d’Or, sat on the edge of Saint-Paul de Vence, a sleepy Medieval village perched on a mountaintop overlooking the Mediterranean.

The inn was the haunt of Picasso and Matisse, Chagall, and Miró, and many others. During the day, the artists soaked up the warm Provencal sun, played boules on dusty courts, and sipped chilled rosé. In the evenings, they gathered around candlelit tables for wine-soaked dinners, philosophizing, and exquisite food served by hotel founders Paul Roux and his wife Baptistine. Because many guests were struggling artists (at the time, anyway), they paid their bills in artwork—paintings, sculptures, and watercolors. Instead of hanging the art in their own home or selling it, Roux and his wife displayed it throughout the inn and restaurant.

When I first traveled to Europe as a college student, I was traveling with a backpack and staying in pensiones and small hotels—some of which didn’t even offer hot water. I thrilled at the sense of adventure, the concept that everything I needed was in my front pocket and, to a lesser degree, in the pack I carried on my back.

But during those first trips to Europe, I couldn’t even remotely consider a dinner at a place like La Colombe d’Or.

“Someday,” I told myself. And that day eventually came.

A few years ago, I finally made it to La Colombe. To reach the restaurant, my partner and a friend and I boarded a small bus that took us from the buzzing center of Nice to a sleepy square in Saint-Paul de
Vence. Unbelievably, a group of men stood in the square playing a game of pétanque.

Seriously? Had the local tourist council paid them?

We strolled around the charming but touristy village, admiring the views down to the deep blue Mediterranean which sparkled in the late morning sun, and then explored the narrow cobblestone streets. As noon approached, we slipped through the unassuming garden gates of La Colombe and found ourselves in an enchanted world—a courtyard crowded with white-clothed tables, creamy market umbrellas, ivy-covered stone walls, and sculptures.

Lunch began—as it should—with cocktails: bubble-riddled golden champagne and fiery-orange aperol spritzes. We watched the terrace fill with foodies, destination tourists much like ourselves, fashionistas from Paris, and lucky locals looking for a good lunch. Maybe we were projecting, but the atmosphere was celebratory, not stuffy. Kids at a nearby table were never hushed and when we tragically spilled a glass of sancerre, not an eyebrow was raised. Sure, the prices were above average, but the attitude and atmosphere were casual.

We sat in the benevolent shade of an umbrella on that warm afternoon, chewing on crusty bread smeared with local pâté. And as the sun shifted and waiters jumped to reposition umbrellas, we sipped champagne surrounded by sculptures made by modern masters. And things only got better after that.

The lunch menu didn’t overwhelm with options. Instead, a sampling of French classics were the rule. And why would you want it to offer anything else?

After dining on oysters from Brittany, delicate Sole Meunière, au gratin potatoes, roasted asparagus, and boeuf, we wandered around the inn. Just beyond an unassuming doorway off the restaurant courtyard, we found a marble-topped front desk with nearby seating that overlooked a verdant, overgrown garden which plunged down the mountainside.  Further inside a pool and terrace tempted us to linger. Or stretch out and take a nap.

And finally, we wandered through a few adjoining rooms in the classic restaurant—its walls crowded with original oil paintings and water colors. One room featured a large fireplace that conjured up images of crisp winter nights, candlelight setting the rooms aglow, and a roaring fire providing heat. But with its verdant garden and mullioned windows overlooking the sublime courtyard, Colombe d’Or in my view is best visited in warm weather months.

La Colombe d’Or represents a restaurant from a bygone era—in the best way. Made famous by artists, writers and actors, the restaurant and inn were destinations because they served great food and their walls were crowded with masterpieces of modern art that painters and sculptors used to pay their bills.

For a lover of art, history, culture, and cuisine, there’s no other spot on the planet that compares.


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