SAINT-PAUL DE VENCE, FRANCE: La Colombe d’Or is a legendary hotel and restaurant set on the edge of the ramparts of the ancient Roman hilltop town of Saint-Paul de Vence in the South of France. It was opened by Paul Roux and his wife Baptistine, known as “Titine”, in the 1920’s as a roadside bistro.
Over the years it has expanded into the beloved landmark hotel and restaurant it is today. It retains a distinctive upscale bohemian vibe, and has remained in the Roux family for close to 100 years. Paul Roux passed it on to his son Francis, and today it is run by his grandson Francois and his wife Danielle.
La Colombe d’Or: a repository of the history of modern art
As the hotel began to take shape in the 1930’s it became a hangout for notable artists like Picasso, Leger, Braque, and Calder, who became, in a sense, part of the family. The artists frequently paid for their lodgings with works of art, which are now found throughout the hotel and especially in the dining room.
Indeed, La Colombe d’Or is almost as much a museum of exquisite modern art as it is an iconic hotel. Incredible works of art by legendary artists worth millions of dollars can be found in every corner of the property.
La Colombe d’Or: the “Golden Dove” in Saint-Paul de Vence
From the giant Calder mobile over the swimming pool to the Picasso’s, Leger’s, and Braque’s in the dining room, La Colombe d’Or is an intoxicating immersion into a celebration of art and life, fine dining, and the rich history of the South of France.
La Colombe d’Or means literally the Golden Dove and is exemplified by the Ben Jacober sculpture of a large stone dove which perches on the exterior wall overlooking the outdoor patio where lunch is served.
Saint-Paul de Vence: an ancient monument in the sky
The village of Saint-Paul de Vence is a monumental 2000 year old fortified Roman hilltop town whose ramparts and internal structure are almost perfectly preserved.
It stands like a vision in the sky, a fortress on a hill standing out like an apparition in a gleaming spectacle visible from miles around. A full rampart completely encloses the village.
Today it is a huge tourist attraction whose narrow alleys are filled with shops and art galleries. Its buildings, including numerous private homes, are restored to perfection.
La Colombe d’Or in the 1930’s and 40’s
Just outside the ramparts at the entrance to Saint-Paul de Vence stands La Colombe d’Or. Now imagine the tourists are gone, and it is the 1930’s, 40s, and 50’s. In the cacophony of Europe in the 1930’s and WWII many artists have fled to the South of France. Among them Pablo Picasso.
In the postwar era before the boom of modern tourism Saint-Paul de Vence was more of a bohemian artist colony than a tourist attraction. The smart set and the Hollywood elite were rediscovering the South of France.
La Colombe d’Or, Simone Signoret and the 50’s Jet set
In the 50s Simone Signoret and Yves Montand take up residence in the building just across from La Colombe d’Or. They become part of the lifeblood of the village. This is a bucolic era, the golden age, before the tourist swarms began arriving in the 1970s’
David Niven and Paul Newman and Roger Moore and the usual suspects of the 1950s jet set make La Colombe d’Or one their mainstays. Like the artists who are frequently at residence, they are part of a large extended family.
La Colombe d’Or: the compound
Afternoons are spent playing Boule on the great lawn in front of the hotel. That tradition carries on in the village to this day. This is the golden age of La Colombe d’Or, during which the hotel amassed quite an amazing art collection from its dear friends.
The hotel is a compound set right across from the village ramparts. The entrance is through a gate through a large stone wall leading to the outdoor patio. A velvet rope keeps interlopers, meaning tourists or people without reservations, at bay.
La Colombe d’Or: the terrace
Once inside the walls La Colombe d’Or it is a world unto its own. The large terrace is filled with smartly appointed tables stretches out to the edge of the overlook into the valley below.
The ramparts of Saint-Paul de Vence loom above the stone wall surrounding the terrace.
This is where lunch is served daily to the public, and breakfast is served privately in the morning to the hotel guests. A 5 foot sculpture of a large thumb sits just outside the entrance.
The hotel is 4 stories of exotic charm of stone, glass and wood. Each of its 39 individually designed rooms and suites are completely different, exotic, and stylish.
La Colombe d’Or: the legendary bar where Picasso drank
Just inside the front door is the legendary bar, a gorgeously appointed rectangular room with stone walls, wood trimming, and vaulted ceilings. Window seat areas double as sofas. The cozy atmosphere in the room is wondrous.
This is where Picasso spent many an evening, and there is his picture, in this room, on the exact spot where it is being viewed, hanging on the wall.
La Colombe d’Or: a family legacy of three generations
The front desk cage is just at the end of the bar, which is where we see Danielle Roux as we check in. Like so many of her hotels guests, this is not our first time here.
One of the great glories of La Colombe d’Or is not just its history, or that it was a getaway for so many famous artists and actors. It is that they came back again and again, like so many of the hotel guests over the years. To be welcomed like family to the warmth and gentle understandings in the comforts of their surroundings.
La Colombe d’Or: art in the stairway
Each of the rooms and suites on the 2nd, third, and fourth floors are an individually styled enclosed atmosphere of exotic glory. Halfway up the stairs to the 2nd floor, a small Calder mobile hangs, suspended in the balance like a casual trinket, just another spectacular piece of art with nowhere to put it but the stairway.
On our first visit 13 years ago we stayed in Paul and Titine’s suite, a gorgeous chamber stretching across the front of the hotel on the second floor, with a sunken living room, overlooking the boule court. The bedroom window opens to provide a birds eye view of the Jacobers sculptured dove.
The rest of the hotel is a similarly unique array of chambers of different sizes and configurations.
On the 3rd floor is a gorgeous communal sitting room, filled with windows, its cantilevered roof slanting down under thick wooden beams. A large wooden table is at the center of the room, and it looks out over the swimming pool.
La Colombe d’Or: Calder by the pool
Walking out the back door the large emerald green swimming pool has a massive Calder mobile perched at one end. A sculpture of a green apple sits next to a row of chaise lounges.
From the far end of the pool is the best vantage point to see the beauty of this charming family establishment. The hotel rises like a 3 story sculpture against the green tiled pool and the deep blue sky.
Just above the pool sits the Roux family compound, where three generations have built an iconic establishment with a glory and a heritage all its own. Ivy covers the side of one end the hotel, climbing the walls, lending a bucolic country cottage feel to this living museum where every corner of the hotel is a lesson in art history.
La Colombe d’Or: a dining room full of art
The dining room is the centerpiece of the hotel. A grand structure of two large rooms, with floor to ceiling windows, it fills the front of the first floor of the hotel, its high ceilings supported by a massive wooden beam.
Then there is the art. On the walls are tens of millions of dollars worth of precious art by many of the masters of the 20th century. A Picasso above one table. A Braque above the table next door. A Leger in the corner next to a Miro.
La Colombe d’Or: The fireplace lounge and breakfast room
In the next room is a large sitting area around a central white stucco fireplace, with three Calder Mobiles hanging above it. The walls are drenched with a fascinating array of modern art.
A large sunroom in the antechamber next door overlooks the pool under thick beamed ceilings, and is where breakfast is served indoors in the morning.
La Colombe d’Or: the secret apartments
There are also 10 chambers in a more private adjacent building, just down from the main hotel, and under the rampart walls. It sits amongst a thick of trees on the edge of the valley.
Our room there is like a cozy apartment, decorated with antique furniture. A private terrace overlooking the valley is breathtaking. It is the perfect place for an afternoon with a bottle of wine. The air of romance is palpable.
An evening in the dining room
Dinner at Le Colombe d’Or is an immersive fine dining experience. The bar area is humming with the din of conversation as guests have aperitifs before dinner. The air of anticipation is palpable.
The dining room is ablaze with light as it fills with an array of customers, locals, and hotel guests. A reservation is a cherished commodity. Many of the staff have been here for decades and operate like a fine swiss watch.
La Colombe d’Or: paintings and ex-patriots, legends and locals
The history of the room comes alive. Paintings by Picasso, Leger, Miro, and many others shimmer from the walls wherever you look. It is a combination of the sublime and the surreal.
The room is filled with people from all over the world. Ex-patriots from Britain, tourists lucky enough to have secured a reservation, and an enormous number of regulars who live in the area.
Rolling Stones bass player Bill Wyman is at the next table, celebrating his 25th wedding anniversary. He celebrated his wedding here as well. He, like so many others, treat Le Colombe d’Or like a second home.
La Colombe d’Or: the meal
The menu is colorful with an emphasis on the wide variety of fresh fish and succulent meats. The cooking is bistro style, like a family dinner in extraordinary settings.
Fillet of Beef is extraordinary, cut at tableside, beautifully cooked. It is served with a potato au gratin and fresh broccoli. Cornish game hen covered in herbs is classic, sumptuous, and delicious.
A phenomenal Phalen-Segur St. Estephe 2011 accompanies the meal. A sumptuous blend of 75% Cabernet and 25% Merlot, it opens up beautifully over the next two hours as the evening unfolds.
La Colombe d’Or: Incomparable and unforgettable
A sumptuous culinary indulgence passes the hours in a fever dream of joy, a singular experience in the most divine of atmospheres. A stay at La Colombe d’Or is unique, unlike any other hotel experience in the world.
Close to all the wonders of the South of France, it transcends the ordinary with its indelible legacy. Three days pass all too quickly in this sublime corner of existence, like an island of tranquility in a sea of divinity.
A special destination, intrepidly unique. Drenched in iconic art, with historical resonance. La Colombe d’Or is an experience to be breathed deep with the hope of never having to exhale.
Joel Berliner is a travel writer based in Los Angeles @JoelBerliner
All photos by Alison Reynolds. @BigAlPeoplesPal