a vision in pink: the mediterranean villa fit for a baroness

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Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat

acs_0491 In 1905, Baroness Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild, heiress to a banking fortune, was so wealthy, restless, and enamored with the color pink that she oversaw the construction of a bubblegum mansion overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

A native Parisienne, Béatrice warmed her new summer home with splashes of her favorite color. It was everywhere: from the eye-catching exterior paint to the marble columns to the roses in the nine surrounding gardens. Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild was a veritable island of pink: 17 acres of la vie en rose. acs_0496

Béatrice filled her winter home with art from her personal collections and established a small private zoo, featuring such exotic specimens as mongoose, gazelles, and–naturally–pink flamingos.

The villa sat on a cape, so Béatrice could enjoy a view of the sea from almost any window. The nine gardens were themed in a display of worldly botanical abundance, from Spanish to Florentine to Japanese. No less than thirty gardeners worked to maintain the property. They dressed as sailors to further the comforting illusion of the villa and gardens as adrift on a lazy sea. In fact, Béatrice called the property the “Ile de France,” also the name of a grand ship on which she had traveled.

Béatrice knew how to throw a party. And like the classiest of hosts, she was inconspicuous, though the poet Andre de Fouquières wryly described her fêtes as  “generous.” He noted one particular image that stuck with him: that of Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova dancing in the gardens to Chopin nocturnes, “bathed in moonlight.”

On my visit to the villa, it was tempting for me, a mere peasant, to dream myself into this world. Baroness Béatrice’s pink confection of a house brought to mind the Barbie Dream House I had as a little girl. Complete with a working elevator, it was magic itself. And here I was in the South of France twenty years later, staring at a much bigger pink house, this one a delight to my grown-up heart.

img_2748There were no flamingos and I didn’t spy a single gazelle, but there was a fountain choreographed to elegant classical music. There was a café with a garden view, where you could linger over tea and a luscious tarte aux fraises.

I imagine living with so many choices, so much power. I imagine hosting parties lit only by the moon and tiny candles placed in the garden. I imagine swans in the fountain. Shimmering necklaces that lay heavy across my collarbone. Piles of exotic fruit topped with fresh chantilly. A treasured white mare brought by sea.

But I must keep my feet on the ground. On my feet, anyway, are heavy Vans hi-tops. They clomp on the aging wood floors, floors that squeak and tilt just a bit. They slap inelegantly on marble patterned with pink and white diamonds. I walk through intimate rooms where people once slept, now open to me and my camera and my sneakers. The rooms are still furnished with mirrors and bedding and vases of fresh flowers and might have seen all kinds of human emotion: joy or strife or simple boredom–a world-weary party guest staring bleakly out the window. There was life here. What are my Vans doing stomping through this early 20th-century glamour? Suddenly it looked so strange and anachronistic that I laughed.

Baroness Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild died in 1934 and was buried in La Père Lachaise in Paris. She bequeathed her property, all of it, to the Institut de France for the Académie des Beaux-Arts, and wished her home to be reopened as a museum. “It is my wish that as much as possible the museum keeps its current appearance as a salon.”

Would she have been pleased? Here there is dust, there, a chip in the paint. The villa remains grand, but the subtle decay is undeniable. Slowly going the way of all things.

Exploring places where people have lived tends to make me consider mortality.

A palace or villa or château that has outlived its owners does a much better job bringing the dead to life than does a graveyard, with its sober finality. These empty spaces evoke a bittersweet melancholy.

Look at these treasures, stored where “moth and rust doth corrupt,” already succumbing. Look at the owners–gone. Look what they took with them–none of it.

I am again struck by what terrible predictors physical possessions are for happiness.

Who was this eccentric woman, really? Was she happy? What did she long for? Did she know love? Did she find truth?

History remembers her…is that a solace?

History remembers her, of course, because of her father’s wealth, because of La Banque de France. Because she had the whimsy and the means to build a pretty pink house on the sea. acs_0510Some other facts: she was married at 19 to a friend of her father’s, much older than she. Her husband gave her a disease that left her unable to have children, and his serious gambling addiction threatened the marriage until it broke, culminating in divorce in 1904.

We love to glamorize the wealthy and dead, as if fine clothes and cakes work to redeem suffering.

 


Further reading:

Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild: creator and collector

Rothschild Family Archive

Tour the Villa with Exploring Provence

the off-season

In Cannes, land of silver screens, someone has pressed pause. The town sleeps, stirring occasionally to prepare for things to come. Since November, the wind has carried visitors away.

The air holds a bitter chill. Even on sunny days, it lurks in shadows waiting to pounce.

The clink of cutlery and smell of frites at the beachside restaurants have been replaced by the violence of jackhammers. Dingy red carpets mark a safe pedestrian path through construction zones.

At the beach, bulldozers have scraped all that soft sand into small mountains. The beach chairs have disappeared. Scattered in their place are new bags of sand, tires, orange mesh fencing…detritus of a beach facelift.

Closed for congés annuels: the signs dot storefronts and windows. 

I hide out at a café I like, quiet and good for writing. Shelter from the wind. The barista, Jérémie, tells me that in a few months, the place will be packed. In January, I often have it to myself.

On days when the sun peeks through the clouds, shining like hope, I scurry to follow it, sitting outside in a patch of light at one of the cafes near the Hôtel de Ville and the port. These are the people-watching cafes, inhabited by groups of men smoking, travelers toting body-sized backpacks, and stately older women in sunglasses, sharing a glass of wine with no one.

I like the camaraderie, the shared newspaper, the way newcomers greet everyone around them. I like the smoke less, but that comes with the territory. 

Soon, the clouds close in again, impending doom. Shivering, I cross the street to wait for the daily hypnosis of the bus, stunning redundancy. There are people I’ve come to recognize from regular travel: the man with the hair. The woman with the perfume. The curly-haired little boy who busily eats his afternoon goûter, crumbs falling on his down jacket. His feet barely reach the edge of the seat.

We stare like zombies, the bus’s rocky turns and weak light a call to sleep. We are thinking, off in our individual worlds, or else not thinking at all, who can tell.

Soon the city blinks into darkness.

It is the off-season, no doubt about that. This is not the city that never sleeps, but one in hibernation.

It’s my off-season too. Winter does this to me, but I thought maybe I would escape it in the South of France. The listlessness, my mind like some caged animal. The cold fingers. Alas, winter has cast its frozen curse like always.

One day, late January, I am walking to school with the usual frozen toes and bleary eyes. I turn a corner and notice the mimosa trees have burst into bloom, the yellow blossoms a brilliant contrast against the cold blue sky. It’s not quite spring, but the sudden color is a cheerful preview: this season will pass

Not just winter, and the way it shall inevitably surrender to spring, but my own personal winter. This year has contained much joy…and many disappointments. I’m not where I wanted to be, and I don’t know where I’m going. I am not happy. Lonely, yes. Disillusioned. Sick with the constant dull ache of a sinus infection. Challenged by my financial situation. And the worst thought: did I make a mistake by coming here? Did I force something that wasn’t meant to be? Am I wasting my time? 

It’s easy for me to get lost here, staring out the bus window at gray clouds, eating canned soup alone and counting my problems. Forgetting that this, too, is a season.

I’m not happy. Not in the way I had come to count on, to expect, even.

But I am trying.

Working.

Thinking.

Reading.

Writing.

Teaching, to the best of my ability.

Learning, I think. I am just beginning to see that. One day, I expect, I will look back and count all this a victory. Much beauty comes from working through the off-season.

mediterranean magic: a walk around monaco

Monaco sparkles.

That is my first impression, both times I’ve visited. Passing from the dark train tunnel and into the light, I see a scrubbed-clean city, feel the sun on my shoulders, and hear the many proud flags whipping in the breeze, the red and white color block stark against the blue sky.

These are, of course, the impressions of a mere visitor to this independent city-state, the second-smallest country in the world, of which millionaires comprise thirty percent of the population. I won’t pretend to know how much everyday life here could differ from where I live (or anything else, really). But I do know this: it makes for one hell of a walk.

From the train station it’s a quick climb to Monte Carlo Casino. Climb is surely the word: it’s unavoidable unless you know where to find the public escalators, established to make the hilly terrain more navigable. I’ve only seen a few, but there are 35 total: a great deal for a country the size of Central Park. Perched right between the mountains and sea and highly developed, Monaco has no agriculture to speak of: there’s simply no room.

The climb up is lined on the left by designer stores, labels with enough classe to entice with bold and cheeky window displays. Sometimes ridiculous, still they are fabulous (it must be admitted). There are skulls and metallic balloons and sea creatures, high heels like an art piece. These displays wouldn’t be out of place at the Pompidou.

On the right is the bay, and then the sea. img_6539-3

Entering the casino, I saw that the atrium and rotunda, which visitors are free to explore, were dressed for the holidays: draped in red and white diamond-patterned fabric. Artist Charles Kaisin designed the temporary installation to evoke both Monaco’s coat of arms and card games. The effect–to this viewer, at least–was of a surrealist dreamscape: something between Alice in Wonderland at Christmas and the Twin Peaks Red Room.

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Outside, palm trees and fake snow mingled with giant dice, the mirrored faces reflecting the blue sky and few clouds above.

Neighboring the casino is Alain Ducasse’s Louis XV, a super chic spot at the Hotel de Paris. The current menu includes pigeon breast with quince, milk-fed lamb, and Passe Crassane pears with ginger ice cream. Absolutely dreamy, but I wasn’t really dressed for it.

Back down the hill, I stopped at the Christmas market for a Savoyard burger. It was 63 degrees out, but the cold-weather Christmas kitsch lived on: a scary grinning Santa spun in a slow circle, children dressed as gold stars danced through the market, and the voice of Bing Crosby rose above it all. Stands sold plates of raclette and confit de canard, and a large pig turned on a spit.

My next stop involved a climb up the opposite side of the bay to the Musée Océanographique, an aquarium and museum set into seaside rocks, founded in 1889. The building is grand and palatial, with stately staircases, big windows, and the occasional giant squid hanging from the ceiling.

Downstairs in the darkness is the aquarium, where I saw piranhas and parrotfish and came face-to-face with the spectacularly ugly moray eel. I found a seahorse that wrapped its tail around a plant and hung upside down and a tank of bright clownfish as tiny as goldfish crackers. Starfish of all colors and sizes stuck like wall clings. I watched the jellyfish for a long time as they twirled around their ring-shaped tank, trailing their tentacles behind them, as translucent and impossible as ghosts.

Upstairs, in the Salle de la Baleine, the skeletons of sea mammals dangle overhead, poised in graceful flight. From their plus-sized skulls protrude long jaws with sharp teeth, and in the case of the narwhal, a fearsome tusk. Elegant and enormous, the specimens might drift away at any moment, inhabitants of some undersea underworld.

Outside the museum sits Jacques Cousteau’s mini submarine. Cheerful and yellow, its cuteness belies its significance. Built in 1966, it could reach a depth of 100 meters.

I continue my walk in the Old Town, quiet streets where graffiti and trash are notably absent, an area that also holds the Prince’s Palace of Monaco. img_6321-2 Suddenly twinkling with light as night fell, sparkling a soft pink, le palais recalled my first visit to Disneyland last fall. It was a fun, memorable day with a best friend, but wasn’t what I would describe as magical: not the long lines or screaming children or people stepping on the back of my shoe. The main attractions struck me as unsettling. A man-made mountain. A castle with no history: no bloodshed, no strife, no monarchs born behind its walls. (It is the Happiest Place on Earth, after all). I thought about castles and cathedrals I’ve visited in France, hundreds or thousands of years old. I thought about Paris, its patchwork of struggle and triumph and cobblestone, and then about Tianducheng: a Chinese replica of Paris in the suburbs, complete with an Eiffel Tower copy, created to cash in on francophilia. img_6310-2

There’s a difference. I tried to appreciate what I saw on a purely aesthetic level, but felt about fifteen years too old for that. Old enough for X-ray vision: I could almost see the sweating, tired human inside the Goofy suit. Maybe that’s when the magic goes. The beauty for beauty’s sake (for profit, really): it didn’t quite work for me. It happens all the time, I suppose, but rarely is it so transparent.

Monaco, like Disney, is pastel and lovely and speckled with flowers, but it’s real. It too has a palace that lights up at night, only this one dates back to 1191.

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I finish my walk as the sun sets, sparking color in the sky. It really is beautiful.

I’m no idealist. If I lived here, I know real life would surely creep in, like anywhere, the haze of la vie quotidienne dulling the wonder. Often, the scarcity is what makes something magical. It’s amazing to what extent we can become accustomed to beautiful things: whether that be love we take for granted or the Mediterranean sea on our doorstep. The New is easier to appreciate, with its power to surprise and delight, just when we thought we couldn’t be surprised again. Of course, nothing can stay new for long.

That’s what I remind myself. Living in Monaco would be like living anywhere. Maybe with a better view.

But on a day trip, walking the paths overlooking the bay and the sea, wandering amidst the soft pastels of the Old Town, feeling the warm sun and crisp breeze and watching the lights click on as the sun sets, I forget that for awhile.

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