Art treasures, luxury and a guest list of greats: the Negresco IS the Côte-d’Azur..
The world is full of luxury hotels. Then there is the Negresco. It is, strictly speaking, incomparable. For a start, it is one of the very few palace hotels still in private ownership.
It also has about as many works of art as the Louvre, though rather more comfortably disposed.
And the voiturier chaps who park your car have what may be the most eccentric uniforms in the hotel trade. (Knee-breeches, plumed hats – you’d better have a spectacular motor.)
Countess of somewhere
This is all the work of the private owner in question, the formidable Mme Jeanne Augier. Now in her ninth decade, she’s quite unlike any other hotel person I’ve met. A while ago, I was sitting with her in the hotel bar (it’s like the poshest London club, with added priceless tapestries) when a guest swathed in furs sashayed up. “I am the Countess of somewhere,” she said. I didn’t catch the name. It sounded Russian.
She and Mme Augier chatted, as elegant ladies will. Shortly, the Russian left. “Countess of where?” I asked. “No idea,” said Mme Augier. “It goes in one ear and out the other.” Then she described how, in the ‘60s, Nikita Khrushchev had tried to chat her up at the bar table opposite. Then she got on to contemporary art, her real passion.
Elegant, luxurious and efficient
And that, in case you’ve ever wondered, is true class. Mme Augier has it by the decanter-full. Also character, and extraordinary taste which treads exactly that fine line between magnificence and excess. These have been the pillars of the Negresco since she and her (now late) husband took the place over in 1957.
By then, the hotel had been dominating the Promenade des Anglais for 40 years or more. Its pink dome and roofing, and fancy Belle Epoque façade (blindingly white, following this year’s renovation) remain unmissable. But the establishment was at a low ebb. Mme Augier set about re-creating it in her image - elegant, luxurious, efficient and, not least, a show-case for the finest French art, from the 17th-century through to right now.
The tone is set outside the main entrance ... overseen by a Niki de St Phalle sculpture of jazzman Miles Davis. Inside, things get a lot more eye-popping. With its coffered ceiling, sumptuous furnishings and vast portrait of Louis XIV, the main salon is really a place where you should take tea and receive notables.
Beyond, the glass-ceilinged rotunda is studded with such fine statuary and paintings that, were you a crook, you wouldn’t know what to pinch. A chandelier the size of a helicopter has its twin in the Kremlin.
Each suite and bedroom boasts its share of genuine period furniture (including, in one, Napoleon’s bed) and artefacts, each corridor its coating of art and design. Inter alia, there’s a genuine Modigliani in there somewhere. Meanwhile the Michelin-starred Chantecler restaurant contains what may be 18th-century France’s entire production of wood panelling.
Yet the place isn’t a museum. Standards of comfort and service rival any in Europe. It’s just that they’re set in the continent’s richest décor, that’s all. Nor has this year’s 10 million euros refurbishment altered the tone. It’s merely freshened things up - and equipped the fifth floor with a fleet of executive suites.
These mix period furniture with some pretty bewildering hi-tech. Once you’re registered, the rooms remember who you are – thus automatically setting the shutters, the lighting and even the temperature of the bath water to your desires. (Clearly, the very rich really are idle.)
Richard and Liz
So, the Negresco isn’t so much a hotel, more a monument to decadent, civilised Riviera high-rolling. Everyone you’ve ever heard of has passed through. William Holden ran off with a waitress. Richard Burton racked up a telephone-number bar bill, then forgot Liz’s jewels on a bar-stool. Sinatra. The Beatles. Sophia Loren. Elton. Jacques Chirac – and the PM of China, into whom my wife bumped in the lobby.
They’ve tended to stay in the Montserrat Caballé Suite or the Empire-style Suite Impériale. But, frankly, take any room overlooking the Med and you’ll feel among the cultured elite.
Nor is the style likely to change any time soon. To keep the Negresco out of the hands of international groups, Mme Augier has arranged to leave it to a foundation dedicated to alleviating human and animal suffering. Animal welfare is another passion of hers. That’s why, unusually for a swish spot, pets are particularly welcome at the Negresco. Ask nicely and the blokes in breeches and plumed hats will even assure Bowser’s daily walk.