BY CHERYL ANDERSON
In St.-Paul-de-Vence on the Cote d’Azur, there’s a legendary restaurant and small welcoming hotel, La Colombe d’Or. Founded by Paul Roux and his wife, Titine, its rich history spans nearly 100 years. Chic Parisians came to the Colombe from the Riviera hotels to gather, have fun, and relax. Originally called À Robinson, it began as a simple guingette in 1920. “The smart set came to mingle with the village people,” for the music, regional cooking, dancing, to play cards, or to enjoy a game of pétanque across the way—and for “its mysterious recipe for insouciance.” It’s a French treasure with a colorful history.
Since 1978, the blue sign with the golden dove, painted by Folon, hangs high above the discrete entrance. Often, there are white lilies in the fountain just inside the door perfuming the air. The tall striking sculpture by César (1983) of “his” thumb indeed catches my eye. Its quirkiness makes me smile, launching me into a frame of mind to enjoy myself.
I see the staff moving about the eternal terrace as the diners speak in hushed tones. I hear the tinkling of glasses and utensils and see dappled sun falling through the very old trees onto white umbrellas. Léger’s ceramic creation (1952) covers one wall. The chairs are cast in metal made to look like “provincial wooden seating.” I may hear the clacking of boules as people engage in a game of pétanque across the road in front of the restaurant. Yes, as in the past, the games still go on across the way.
Ready to dine, I’m graciously waited upon by the stewards of what Paul Roux began: a relaxing place where once there was dancing. The colorful menu, designed by Paul, has not changed, nor has the repast offered. The fare continues to hold part of the passion of Paul’s philosophy, each dish full of flavors of Provence. The original house wine labels were “school book” labels.
In 1930, after a brief closure due to gangs from around the region displaying their rivalry at the guingette, it reopened as La Colombe d’Or, with three hotel rooms. Artists began to arrive, some exchanging their creations for meals or lodging. Paul hung a sign that read: “Lodging for Man, Horses and Painters.” Paul loved to talk about art with all the artists who came by—including his great friends, Prévert and Picasso, who he’d share conversation with under the fig tree that surrounds the terrace.
Talking to and being around the giants of the art world inspired him, and he had a “fascination” with them. Visitors to La Colombe d’Or benefit from his and the Roux family’s passion for collecting art: among the artists represented are Picasso, Cocteau, Miró, Calder, Léger, César, Matisse, and Dufy. Inside and outside the walls are covered with the art la famille Roux has acquired.
Paul Roux would sit in a limo and have tea with Matisse. The Prince of Wales was a frequent guest, and it’s where Churchill, during the tumultuous years, could come and relax. The South of France became a “free zone” in the 1940s.
Picasso enjoyed eating poulet whilst sitting under the Miró. Another favorite place of his was the small cozy bar inside, nestled in the corner. A picture of him hangs there today and his artwork can be found on the walls. Paul and Picasso had a very close relationship. Paul said of Picasso, arguably his biggest influence, “I watched until I understood.” A green earthenware dish was so “greatly admired by Picasso” that he offered a painting in exchange. Never let go by the family, it’s known as the “Picasso dish.”
Yves Montand met Simone Signoret at La Colombe d’Or, choosing to marry there in 1951. Doves had been released during the ceremony. While the guests were dining, to everyone’s great surprise, a dove flew in through the window and landed on Simone’s head.
The handprints around the Jacques Couëlle fireplace are those of all the workers that built the wall surrounding La Colombe d’Or. The wall was built with the stones from an old ruined chateau in Aix-en-Provence. Calder’s mobile stands by the pool. He felt very much at home at La Colombe d’Or and adored Danièle Roux’s mother-in-law, Yvonne. His white dove mobile was painted “Calder red” by someone so that it would stand out, as the walls where it was hung were whitewashed. He didn’t seem to mind, in fact, it’s said he laughed when he saw it. Braque’s mosaic dove is also by the pool.
“Hidden in the garden at La Colombe d’Or, (the) little house was built in 1955 for Henri Georges Clouzot and his wife, Véra, who decided to become ‘lifetime residents.’ “
Safely locked away are the visitor books chronicling guests from the past. A charming caricature of Charlie Chaplin that he himself drew is there. Picasso left his mark with a drawing of a dove in 1951 and his signature. His is considered the finest of entries.
A who’s who of celebrities, academics of note, and world leaders have enjoyed the hospitality of La Colombe d’Or. That it hasn’t changed, one can almost imagine Picasso or David Niven still standing at the bar.
J’adore the sameness of La Colombe d’Or all these years later. It’s hard to explain just why I am so taken—experiencing it for the first time in 1997, knowing only about its amazing art collection, I was hooked. It was a hot summer’s day, and I sat at a table tucked away in the shady far corner of the eternal terrace by the outside wall with a view. After enjoying regional cooking and delightful ambience, I made my departure down the stone steps that lead to the garden below. It was a gentle descent from a delightful afternoon that would long be remembered.
My memories are truly d’or from the very first time dining at there, tucked away in the shady far corner on the eternal terrace.
The book, La Colombe d’Or: Saint Paul de Vence, published by Assouline, with text by Martine Buchet and photographs by Prosper Assouline, gives an excellent and accurate history. I would highly recommend giving it a look during a staycation, while biding your time until you can experience it in person.