Beaulieu-sur-Mer: Meanderings Through France 5
The Belle Epoque: Souvenirs of a lifestyle in Beaulieu-sur-Mer
At the beginning of the 20th century the French Riviera became the place to spend a winter season, the meeting point for the happy few who didn’t need to work to enjoy a pleasurable life. The international Gotha and the upper classes of French society met in Monte Carlo, Nice or Beaulieu: the Prince of Wales, Leopold 2nd (king of Belgium), the Princess Galitzine, Gustave Eiffel, The Rothschild family… Many of them liked it so much that they had beautiful villas built on this dreamlike shore. Among them I would like to tell you about the Villa Ephrussi and the Villa Kerylos in Beaulieu, two beautiful buildings that still look as they did one century ago: the furniture, the art collections, the gardens are the same. Visiting them is still like entering a private house, and you would expect to come across their long gone owners.
Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild was born in 1864. She was the daughter of the Baron Alphonse de Rothschild, an extremely rich banker. But she developed a capricious and unpredictable personality and in an attempt to calm her down her family arranged a wedding with another banker, Maurice Ephrussi 15 years her senior. But it didn’t turn out as expected and worst of all she caught a kind of tuberculosis and was thus unable to have children. She began to travel a lot, collecting paintings, sculptures, fine china… from all over Europe. She was known as an eccentric, it is said that she dressed only in pink from shoes to umbrella and once she got a big party of several hundreds guests for her poodle wedding!
She bought a plot of land in Saint Jean Cap Ferat in 1906 to build a Tuscan style palazzo. Not less than 10 architects were hired and dismissed before she found one who just followed her own ideas which actually were quite good as you will be able to see for yourself. Built on a peninsula the villa overlooks the ‘Baie des Fourmis” on one side and the “Baie de Villefranche” on the other. From the villa itself and from the gardens the view is absolutely fantastic.
The patio is the heart of the villa where were held the receptions, it is surrounded by a gallery supported by elegant pink marble columns. All the rooms, the grand and small lounges, Mrs Ephrussi’s apartment and the other bedrooms are decorated in the 18th century style. Don’t miss the bathroom, a pretty, large round room with its dome covered by chestnut slats forming a treillis and its walls panelled with paintings by Pierre Leriche, one of Marie Antoinette’s painters.
Creating the gardens was a tremendous work. It took 7 years, dynamite, tons of earth, hundreds of Italian workers to create a flat landscape. There are actually 9 gardens in one: a rose garden, an exotic garden, a Provencal garden, a Japanese garden, a stone garden, a Florentine garden, a French garden, a Spanish garden and a Sevres garden! Of course there are hundreds of flowers, trees, bamboos, but while going from one garden to the other strolling on shady paths you will discover patios, waterfalls, ponds and the wonderful view on the Mediterranean sea.
On May 3rd and 4th in the French garden is held the Roses and Plants Festival: you will be able to meet renowned rose growers. Old and modern, English or Italian, all kinds of roses and plants will be on display. A wonderful time of the year, when it’s not yet too hot to enjoy the gardens!
Although it was built at the same time the Villa Kerylos is totally different from the Villa Ephrussi. It was born from the dream of two men who both loved ancient Greece. Theodore Reinach was a man of wide cultural learning: doctor of law, doctor of arts, he soon developed a passion for the ancient Greeks history. Emmanuel Pontremoli was a talented architect winner of the “Grand Prix de Rome” in 1890. He travelled a lot and got interested in archaeology while taking part in the excavation at Pergamon and Didyma in Asia Minor. These two men were meant to meet and work together. T. Reinach was married to Fanny Kann a distant cousin of Maurice Ephrussi. Thanks to her huge wealth Reinach was able to make his dream come true.
Perched on a headland overlooking the sea the Villa is a faithful reconstruction of a Greek noble house built on the island of Delos in the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C. combined with all the comfort available at the beginning of the 20th century. Although it looks like a museum Reinach and his family actually lived there. Entering the villa is like making a travel through time. Going from the Thyroreion (the entrance hall) to he Peristyle, from the Balaneion (the thermal baths) to the private apartments you will walk on ancient mosaics, admire the frescoes on the walls, the statues and the furniture gets you into the most sophisticated décor.
The Villa is fully furnished and in my opinion its furniture is making it a remarkable and unique experience: E. Pontremoli designed it all doing an exact copy of a Grecian original and commissioned one of the best French cabinetmaker to make it. Only the best materials were used: rosewood, olive tree, Ceylon lemonwood, American walnut, ivory, ebony, coral…
Of course the garden surrounding the villa was created in a Grecian spirit: olive trees, pomegranates, vines, carob trees, acanthus, myrtle, pine trees, papyrus, palm trees…Sitting there in the quietness of the garden, lulled by the song of the cicadas, charmed by the scent of all the plants makes you feel lost in time.
Also built at the beginning of the 20th century the Royal Riviera Hotel, a 5 star hotel, is ideally located to visit these two villas (the Villa Kerylos is only a 5 minutes walk along the beach). At that time it was known as the Bedford Hotel and welcomed the very first British visitors. The Royal Riviera was fully restored in 1999 in a cocktail of Art Deco and Neo-Hellenic influences. Nicely nestled in a garden with palm trees, it offers extremely welcoming rooms, very spacious and filled with light and with an amazing view on the swimming pool and the blue Mediterranean Sea.
The Royal Riviera is one of the only hotels on Saint Jean Cap Ferrat to have a sandy private beach reserved for the hotel guests. You can just lie down on your deckchair or you can do water skiing, jet skiing or parasailing. You may prefer going to the swimming pool hidden in the middle of the garden, it’s heated and open all year round.
To treat yourself you must go to the “La Table du Royal” restaurant where Chef Bruno Le Bolch will concoct you an unforgettable menu. When it’s warm enough, having diner on the terrace overlooking the moonlit sea is a unique experience.
The Royal Riviera staff is more than helpful and very happy to see their guests coming back every year, many of them saying that it feels like coming to a second home.
Text © Annick Dournes
Photos © Frederic de Poligny
About Annick Dournes & Frederic De Poligny
|Annick Dournes and Frederic de Poligny are two French tourism journalists who travel the world for many years. They will share with you their very favourite experiences of worldwide travels. Those about France, their native country, will be found on a regular basis in their chronicle “Meanderings through France”. Web|