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Reliving Colette's Riviera

To the fastidious Maurice, La Treille Muscate, as he wrote in his memoir, would never be "really beautiful or really comfortable," although Colette would give it—magically, as she had given all her Edens—the illusion of being so. She would also do some of her greatest writing here: The Pure and the Impure, which she called her "personal contribution to the sum total of our knowledge of the senses," and which is something deeper, too—a meditation on the way human beings eroticize their first bonds. And she would make the house, St.-Tropez, and its landscape the setting for her masterpiece, Break of Day: "The finest Côte d'Azur book," writes the coast's most astute recent chronicler, Mary Blume, "in which a middle-aged writer named Colette renounces the pleasures of the flesh, and in particular the sunburned, salt-flecked flesh of a handsome young man, for the sterner demands of art. [Break of Day] is a book of considerable nobility whose composition was undoubtedly eased by the presence of the sunburned, salt-flecked young man whom Colette married in 1935. Like so much of the Côte d'Azur, it is all a cheerful imposture."

The destiny of ravishingly scenic coastal real estate with a caressing climate seems to be ruled by a set of laws as inexorable as natural selection. First come the artists, then the rich, then the aspiring rich, and finally the masses. It wasn't long before Pastecchi's, the St.-Tropez piano bar, was charging Deauville prices and crowded with celebrities and moguls in couture beach pajamas air-kissing over their champagne buckets. Soon there were traffic jams of Hispano-Suizas and Bugattis triple-parked in front of the little shop where Colette bought her stationery and toilet paper. (They have since been replaced by Jaguars and Ferraris.) In 1932, having quixotically entered the beauty business, she opened her own boutique on the port, selling cosmetics with the Colette logo and—in a white lab coat—doing makeovers of the famous actresses who, it was noted, came out looking 10 years older than when they went in.

While the glamour of St.-Tropez has never quite palled, it was even then being diluted by the campers, the tents on "her" pristine beach, the proliferation of nasty little snack bars with American names—"Hollywood-Beach," "Seawood Lodge"—and the souvenir stands selling postcards of "Collette's villa [sic]," which she bought up wholesale and sent, half-furious, half-amused, to her friends. She deplored the cars full of foreign "sheep" (including those from Paris) that created gridlock on the corniche. By the mid-1930's, it was only at dawn that she could swim in the Baie des Canoubiers without being pestered for an autograph or offended by German nudists showing too much chalky flesh, or by amorous couples pushing the envelope of flamboyance. Colette admired discretion. She also liked having things to herself.

As the years passed, her haunts on the Riviera became the naturally inaccessible rather than the socially exclusive ones. She was invited to dine on the burnished yachts moored in the new marinas, and in the flashy villas going up in the hills, where white-gloved servants waited on languid convives who later retired to swap wives, daughters, or occasionally sons. But she much preferred the family suppers of ratatouille and fish soup at the farmhouse of her closest neighbors, Vera the ballerina and Julio the dentist; or a pre-breakfast walk with her bulldog through the pinède, where she soaked her espadrilles in the dew and feasted on stolen figs; or an expedition with her friend Moune to the hill towns—Grimaud, Bormes-les-Mimosas, Èze, Haut-de-Cagnes—to explore the ruins and to buy old pottery for a song. If the heat abated or a novel was stuck, she might set out for a daylong hike, with a picnic, through the Dom Forest.

Today there is little tourism and almost no commerce on the shadowy N98 out of Bormes-les-Mimosas, which runs through the Dom. Twelve miles west of St.-Tropez one passes a small vineyard—Domaine des Campaux—which produces one of the delicately spiced and delicious local Côtes de Provences. The old stone maison de maître, surrounded by a flagstone terrace, has been converted recently to a bed-and-breakfast, with rustic rooms and a wholesome table d'hôte. It looks much as La Treille Muscate must have when Colette discovered it.

You may decide, with her, to bypass the coastal resort towns east of St.-Tropez and spend half a day finding the 12th-century Chartreuse de la Verne, set in a grove of ancient chestnuts. Drink from the sacred stream and count your blessings. You might also, in her honor, stop at the Restaurant du Café de France, in Grimaud, for a plate of roasted yellow peppers, meltingly sweet and smothered in raw garlic.

If you do nothing else in St.-Tropez (besides sun, gorge, ogle, and shop), you must bike or drive down La Route des Salins, which runs past Colette's farmhouse, to the Plage des Salins, where the sentier littoral begins. This footpath of ocher sand winds for miles along the coast, through fragrant scrub, with unspoiled views of the sea. You can clamber down the rocks for a swim, your communion with the elements uninterrupted by greasy toddlers carrying Barney floats, brokers with laptops, or topless models flaunting perfect bodies.

After her morning swims, Colette loved working among the lizards and the stray cats in her own garden. She dug an irrigation ditch for her tangerine trees and mulched them with heaps of seaweed, which she carried from the beach and rinsed in well water. In September, she helped her farmhands bring in the grape harvest. And only when the new wine was in its casks did she close up La Treille Muscate and return to the gray light of Paris.

In 1939, when Hitler signed his "Pact of Steel" with Mussolini, Colette and Maurice sold their house in St.-Tropez and bought a country place closer to the capital. She was beginning to suffer from the excruciating arthritis of the hip that eventually crippled her. During the exceptionally frigid and damp first winter of the war, Colette's doctors advised her to go south for some relief, so she and Maurice booked rooms at the Hôtel Ruhl, in Nice. She told friends that the garlic, the oranges, and the flower market had restored her, at least a little.

Old cities, like old trees, have deep taproots that can't be shaken as easily as resorts are by the storms of change, and Nice, like Marseilles, is an inexhaustibly real place. Visit "her" flower market in the Cours Saleya, with its ancient pastel houses, two stories high, and lunch on salade niçoise at the Riviera's most charming hole-in-the-wall, Chez Palmyre. There were two Chez Palmyres in Colette's life, one a famous lesbian bistro in Belle Époque Paris, the other a tiny restaurant in St.-Tropez, where an aged "Ma Palmyre" did all the cooking, and this is the latter reincarnate. It is even possible that Colette ate here—Mme. Palmyre of Nice, now 84, has been in business since the 1930's and still does all her authentic Provençal home cooking for a devoted, native clientele.

In winter I might have chosen, as Colette sometimes did, to stop at the Negresco. But since it was July I avoided the heat and congestion of downtown Nice by staying at Le Cagnard, in Haut-de-Cagnes. This handsome hotel has been artfully assembled from several ancient village houses and decorated in a medieval style. A few doors away, on Place Docteur-Maurel, I found the only shop on the Riviera that tempted me to spend some of the mad money I had been saving for the Casino de Monte Carlo. Terraïo sells classic pottery with pure shapes, the color of the dusky sea.

Chronic pain dimmed but never entirely extinguished Colette's wanderlust, and at the end of her life she was still writing prodigiously. Her confinement focused her powers, and in the course of the four war years in France, this invalid entering her seventies produced eight books, including her last and most famous novella, Gigi. When peace returned, Maurice took her south as often as he could, hoping to revive her spirits in the southern climate that had nurtured their early love. They stayed with Simone Berriau, the actress and producer, who had a house overlooking the salt marshes near Hyères, and with the count and countess—Charles and Pata—de Polignac, who rented a luxurious villa in the hills south of Grasse. Practically next door, you will find one of the most refined hotels in the region, Le Moulin des Mougins, run by Roger Vergé. It is just off a main road, but like a Frenchwoman with a flaw to her beauty, it goes to heroic lengths to be alluring, and succeeds admirably.

The Polignacs introduced Colette and Maurice to their cousin, Prince Pierre of Monaco, and in May of 1950, encouraged by her fan the prince, Colette made the first of what was to become a series of annual trips to Monte Carlo, living in a ground-floor suite of the Hôtel de Paris, which had a wheelchair entrance and a private garden. She regaled Pata with descriptions of the appallingly inelegant foreign tourists and the crowds of assorted millionaires and minor royalty—the characters, she said, from a somewhat tedious operetta. The following winter, as Colette was being wheeled into the operatically opulent Salle Empire, with its frescoes of peacocks, tigers, and naked women, she stopped to watch a film being shot in the lobby. The leading actress was an enchanting young beauty switching fluently from English to French. Without hesitation, Colette announced to Maurice that she had found "our Gigi for America": Audrey Hepburn.

Having ventured and lost 200 francs in my first 10 minutes at the roulette table, I, unlike Colette, decided that I would never voluntarily return to Monte Carlo. But it was great pure impure fun for a while. The Hôtel de Paris still caters to millionaires, minor royalty, and appallingly inelegant foreign tourists, many of them our compatriots, and the ambiance today is more Dynasty than Merry Widow. But Colette would have enjoyed the sybaritic new spa, the three-star cuisine, and even, I suspect, the hotel beach, where surgically enhanced beauties in four-inch mules, dripping with diamonds and Tahitian pearls, are kept busy on their cell phones. To what purpose?Reread Chéri.

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