Côte-d’Azur gossip

by Anthony.Peregrine

VOLCANIC ASH LATEST: I was out this Monday morning on the coast. I bumped into a British couple stranded by the presence of unwanted bits of Iceland above our heads. Flight cancelled, plans in disarray, etc.. They were expressing their anguish by sitting on a café terrace, sipping wine and soaking up sun. "I've just rung my boss," said the husband, a council employee. "Said we were in turmoil and couldn't get back." Then he took another sip, and grinned. "Iceland can go on exploding for as long as it damned well likes."

* Meanwhile, back in the normal world, this spring is a time of great events on the Côte-d’Azur. In St Tropez, for instance, they’re measuring the speed-bumps. They do so every year. Well, first of all they study the luxury car magazines, to see what the road-clearance of the latest models is.

Then they go out on the streets. If, say, this year’s Lamborghini is lower than last year’s speed-bump, they lower the bump. “What do you expect?” says an acquaintance of mine who works for the council. “That we’d let all the Lamborghini owners go round scraping their bottoms?”

No, I said, I really wouldn’t expect that at all.

Over in Nice, the legendary Hotel Negresco is undergoing its most thorough renovation since it opened almost a century ago. The place is clad in scaffolding and barriers. New suites and other terribly important facilities will be the result. But the heart of the place will remain untouched because the heart of the place is Mme Jeanne Augier, without the slightest doubt the most admirable hotel owner in France.


Now in her ninth decade, she has embellished Nice’s landmark hotel with genuine art treasures. She has seen off all attempted buy-outs from international corporations. And, if rumour is to be believed, she has made plans to consign the hotel to an animal welfare charity when, in a hundred years or so, she finally leaves go of the reins.

Not too long ago, I was talking to her in the Negresco bar. En passant, she mentioned the problems of entertaining Khrushchev and of sweeping up Richard Burton after a particularly heavy night (his, not hers). But what she really wanted to chat about was an animals’ home which she supports. Then a lady swathed in furs shimmied across to interrupt us. “I’m the Countess Something of Somewhere,” she said. As both words were Russian, I caught neither.

The two ladies chatted, Mme Augier listening acutely and making all the right noises. Then the countess left and I asked: “Countess who of where?”

“No idea,” said Mme Augier. “It goes in one ear and out the other.” We returned to discussing the world’s poor treatment of dogs. In case you’ve ever wondered, that’s true class. The hotel re-opens on July 1. As you’d expect, it accepts pets.

Leisured sensuality

Meanwhile, nearby in Cannes, they’re getting ready for the 63rd Film Festival, from May 10-23. Of all the places I shall not be between those two dates, Cannes comes top of the list.

In normal times, of course, the town is utterly appreciable. My aunt and uncle go there twice a year and wouldn’t dream of going anywhere else and I can see why. There’s a leisured sensuality about the place. Come festival time, though, Cannes both goes into turbo-drive and shuts up like the worst sort of gated community.

The place is overcome with policemen and security gorillas, all talking into their lapels as if the imminent arrival of Tom Cruise heralded a figure of importance rather than a short Scientologist. Air-headed women with clipboards are ubiquitous, ensuring that only yellow badge holders get into the yellow-badge holders’ soirée, which might later be graced by the attendance of Jane Birkin. Or then again not. On my last visit, I was thrown out of the bar of the Carlton for the simple offence of being in there in the first place. (Good job, too, incidentally; the only thing I could afford was the frown on the face of the waiter.)

There’s a permanent level of mild hysteria quite unjustified by a bunch of films which will have a total audience of fewer than attended a couple of showings of Avatar. By definition, any party or event that you can get into is not one you’ll want to attend.

Rosanna Arquette

And the beach bars are all taken over by rampant commercial concerns, desperate to get Bruce Willis or Julia Roberts to give their brand the kiss of celebrity. This year one promises: “Feng-shui ambience guaranteed!” God help us all.

Yet ordinary Joes and Joans, without a badge between them, flock in, in the hope of a glimpse of Richard Gere. The saddest among them line the fences by the red-carpeted steps up to the Festival hall. On my visit, I joined them, because I can do sad as well as anyone. After hours, I caught a peep of the back of someone who might have been Rosanna Arquette. Then I wandered off and had a hot-dog. Then I got food poisoning.

Up to May 9, and from May 24, Cannes welcomes spring with lightness and vigour. It’s a lovely place to be. Go there during the festival, though, and you’ll regret it. You have been warned.

For further expert advice, see my pages on Provence, Cannes, Marseille, Monaco, Nice and St-Tropez.