I have come to appreciate more and more each day the invigorating light of the Riviera. Henri Matisse once said: “Quand j’ai compris que chaque matin je reverrais cette lumiere, je ne pouvais croire a mon bonheur!” (When I realized that each morning I would see this light again, I could not believe my happiness!). Going out each morning to fetch our croissants and pains au chocolat, I am hit as soon as I step outside with a feeling of happiness and readiness to face another day by the warm light of the azur blue sky above. No wonder those great artists of the Riviera, Picasso, Chagall, Matisse lived very long lives!
Today was no exception to the incredibly good weather we have experienced so far on this trip. Not a cloud in the sky and an azur-tinted blue sky to die for.
Our main destination today was the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild , on top of the Cap Ferrat peninsula just east of Villefranche-sur-Mer. The easiest way to get there from Nice is bus no 81, whose route follows the coastline and therefore provides fantastic views of the old port of Nice, of Villefranche-sur-Mer and of the Mediterranean sea. In addition, the bus stops right outside the gates of the villa.
Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild is the mansion built by Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild in 1912 and in which she lived, either seasonally or full time, until her death in 1934. Thankfully, she donated it to France at her death, which is why it has been preserved and can be visited today.
Beatrice de Rothschild was the grand daughter of the founder of the Rothschild dynasty in France, James Rothschild, and inherited an immense fortune when her father died. Her family had welcomed her marriage to the older Maurice Ephrussi partly because he was Jewish but as importantly because he came from a powerful Russian banking family, and the Rothschilds wanted to improve their business with the tsar of Russia.
An interesting piece of information is that Charles Ephrussi, Maurice’s brother, was very fond of the arts and he befriended the artists of the day, Manet, Monet, Renoir, etc… which explains why he appears in one of my favorite paintings, Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party.
A second interesting piece of information is that the Rothschilds acquired their barony from the emperor of Austria after the battle of Waterloo because the Rothschilds had organized the financing of the war against Napoleon.
Before touring the house, we took a light lunch in the beautiful room which used to be Beatrice’s dining room, and which offers incredible views of the bay of Villefranche. The ambiance was greatly enhanced by soft light classical music and operatic arias in the background.
Beatrice was a perfectionist, and as a result, everything about the house, the gardens and the furnishings are masterpieces. Beatrice had wanted her palace (and it is a palace) to be built in an Italian Renaissance style.
The large central reception hall area is magnificent with each room around it providing indescribable views of the French Riviera around it. There is no doubt that, from both the house and from the gardens, one gets some of the most spectacular views available anywhere in the world.
We toured the house with the help of a very useful and comprehensive audio guide. Everything about the house fascinated us as it represented the best of French manufacturing, whether it be furniture, tapestries, carpets, works of art, etc… As a result, we spent almost three hours inside the house, and I could easily have spent twice as long.
One example out of hundreds: the secretaire desk in Beatrice’s boudoir. It was built specifically for Queen Marie-Antoinette by Jean-Henri Riesener, one of the most famous cabinetmakers in France. It is called a “Bonheur du Jour” (Happiness of the Day) desk, which means that it has an intricate detailed design, has many “armoirettes” (small drawers), and at least one secret compartment. Whatever we looked at, it was the best there was at that time.
The villa has the best collection of French porcelain in the world, the best collection of French tapestries, and the list goes on. Of particular interest to me was her love of Jean-Honore Fragonard, also one of my favorite French painters of his period. Fragonard was regarded as the main poet of gallant love (l’amour gallant) and came from the Fragonard perfume family of Grasse. I am hoping that we will find time to go to Grasse during this trip to visit his museum.
And Beatrice had her eccentricities. She loved animals and surrounded herself with them. She had dogs, monkeys, a mongoose from India, parokeets, etc… In her bedroom are two small upholstered chairs, one for one of her favorite dogs, the second one for her mongoose. In 1897, she organized an elaborate wedding for two of her dogs, including hundreds of canine guests and their masters all in tuxedo and bow ties.
Another aspect of Beatrice which fascinated me was that she was an insatiable traveler. She had cruised all over the world and particularly liked the french liner Ile de France, which is why she named her palace the Ile de France and designed the French gardens in her backyard to be in the shape of the deck of a ship.
Beatrice wanted her gardens to be an invitation to see the world, and therefore, in addition to the French garden, one also finds a Spanish garden, a Florentine garden, a Japanese garden, a Provencal garden, an Exotic garden, a Sevres garden, a Stone garden and finally of course a Rose garden (including a special breed of rose named after Beatrice).
All along the gardens, on each side (one side facing the bay of Villefranche-sur-Mer, the other side the bay of Beaulieu-sur-Mer and Monaco), scenic viewpoints allow the stroller to take in spectacular views. This adds up to a lot of gardens and we walked all of them and stopped at all the viewpoints, so mesmerized were we by the beauty of the place.
As if we had not already walked enough, we decided to walk from Villa Ephrussi to the port of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, off the beaten track, where we settled down at the wonderful hotel restaurant La Voile d’Or first for drinks, but given the fabulous setting, lingered on and finally stayed for dinner. The walk, the views and the dinner could themselves make the subject of another blog. We settled for a taxi back to our apartment, which probably cost more in one ride than all of the other modes of transport we had taken in the past week in Nice (the service was excellent).
Overall, a memorable day which made us fall in love yet again with the French Riviera!
Stay tuned to BonVoyageurs.com for more Countries of the World as we share our joie de vivre from around the world. Luxury escapes and city breaks to Quebec City, New York, Washington, Buenos Aires. In Europe, places like Paris France, Nice France, Provence and the Cote d’Azur (French Riviera), Tuscany and Florence in Italy, Rome, Napoli and the Amalfi Coast. In Asia, countries like China, India, Nepal and so much more!