If paradise exists, in my mind, it looks just like the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild in the South of France. I was there last month, on a five day break … although it seems a world away now.
The Villa Ephrussi is at Saint Jean Cap Ferrat, on top of a high promontory looking down on the lovely Riviera towns of Villefranche and Beaulieu. It’s a rose-pink Italianate holiday villa built between 1905 and 1912 by Baroness Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild, and also named Ile de France, after an ocean liner aboard she and her husband had once sailed aboard.
I try to go every time I visit the South of France. My parents bought a holiday home at Eze, on the coast not far from Monaco, more than a decade ago, and I consider myself very lucky to get the chance. But I was first told about the Villa Ephrussi by the novelist Wendy Holden, when I was interviewing her for her 2003 novel Azur Like It (a glamorously fun romp through the French Riviera – a great read, especially if you are on holiday in the area. And while I’m here, Wendy has her own website, with a section on her favourite places, here: http://www.wendyholden.net/index.php ).
The Villa Ephrussi features in Azur Like It as the heavenly setting for a party, and Wendy told me all about the gardens and the views and the house itself. Anyway, once my parents bought their apartment and I realised it was close by, I couldn’t wait to see it for myself.
Many so-called beautiful places fail to live up to description and expectation once you set eyes on them, but the Villa Ephrussi more than exceeded mine. I was stunned, fell in love and that was it.
More on the fabulous Béatrice. She lived 1864–1934 and was a member of the Rothschild banking family as well as the wife of banker Baron Maurice de Ephrussi, so ridiculously rich, and she filled the mansion with the most stunningly beautiful stuff, antiquities, paintings, furniture, the best china collection in France, classical relics, sculptures and mosaics. Everywhere you look is something wonderful, and it’s said boats used to sail from around the world, laden with treasures, into the little quay below the Villa Ephrussi, so she could take her pick.
On her death in 1934, she donated the Villa Ephrussi and its collections to the Académie des Beaux Arts, which was nice, so now it’s open to the public – if I remember, it costs about £10 to get in, an absolute bargain.
The gardens are probably what the Villa Ephrussi is most famed for. They was conceived in the form of a ship with the house like the bridge, surveying them from the balcony, and on all sides, the sea, the sea. Beatrice employed a team of 30 gardeners, dressed as sailors, in berets with red pom poms. What a sight that must have been.
There are nine gardens in all, and you can wander through them, the one leading to the other, as you meander around the isthmus, with the sea on all sides. Each garden explores a different theme: Florentine, Spanish, Garden à la française, exotic, stone garden, Japanese garden, rose garden, Provençal and a garden de Sèvres.
My favourite is the stone garden, which has all the classical sculptures and statues, and pieces of stone carvings taken, at some point, from ancient places. Photos cannot do it justice.
As I said, we were there last month, the husband and I, and, if anything, it was even more stunning than I had remembered it from my previous visits. Once we’d had a good wander and a marvel for a couple of hours, we went for lunch. The restaurant is, in my opinion, the most lovely in the world, with breath-taking views over the Med – and it does the best Salade Nicoise ever.
Ah … until next time. You can find out more about the Villa Ephrussi, and see pictures much better than mine, here: http://www.villa-ephrussi.com/en/home