Day trip to Capri; things are quiet, no wait in mid August to go up to Capri Town on the Funicolare. By now in almost full holiday mood I stop at the Gran Caffe for a cooling drink. Outside the same as ever, just as you’d want it. Inside they now have loos so no need to go down out and around with a key on a piece of wood. In fact, the whole interior has been remodelled with a fabulous bar curving forward in milky glass. This café is one of my favourite places in the world. In the morning while the clock chimes on the quarter hour it is in the full glare of the sun and a complex of umbrellas protects you, to enjoy a cappuccino and read a paper. In the evening they mix fabulous martinis and Bloody Marys, while you watch the giovani, the belli, and other assorted Capri types wending their way home and to dinner. It represents café society at its pinnacle. So Italian, so modern, so stylish.
Then lunch at Il Ricchio by the Blue Grotto, but not before a stop at Capri People (sadly Salvatore is in Verona) for new shades, and an unscheduled stop at Aurora, not for food but to buy some Murano water glasses; spotty, handblown, and chic.
A taxi with lime green upholstery and only a canopy for a shade rushes up the cornice road through Anacapri and on to Il Ricchio. I was nervous when I found their telephone number online to discover some relationship with the Capri Palace. Sadly, it has been taken over and is no longer the expensive but real beach bar and restaurant. Now it is the seaside annex of the hotel; overpolished and now a beach club with astronomic prices to match. No longer do they have their limited but wonderful antipasta buffet. The pastas are all about €45. We choose a home-made linguini. My disappointment at the changes, unfairly, prevented me from fully appreciating this wonderful dish with a sauce of zucchini cooked two ways, batons sauteed and in batter, and red prawns again sautéed and also raw. The raw prawns are served, shaped by a small timbale mould, atop the dish, for the eater to mix them though. It is truly wonderful, and original as only, it appears, Italian food can be. A limited number of ingredients, with an infinite number of mouth tingling dishes.
The restaurant has rebranded itself with an attractive sea urchin symbol, embroidered in deepest purple and navy blue on all the waiters’ white aprons. I wonder naively if they are for sale. En route to the loos I discover the Il Ricchio Beach Club Shop selling not only the aprons but Villbrequin designed Beach Club swimming shorts in white or blue embroidered with the now ubiquitous sea urchin. When I enquire how much they cost I know I am eating in the wrong place; € 70 for the aprons and €300 for the trunks. Shame. Even if the food is good…it is not the same. Some things change and not always for the best.
There is no easy way to get from Naples to Nice. Road: too far; plane: only by way of two flights; train with no less than two changes. I need to maintain my relationship at the Colombe d’Or and have opted for train. It only took six months, thirty emails, much patience, and even more determination to organise. From Naples by sleeper to Genova, arriving 6 am, then local train for two and a half hours to Ventimiglia, and then an even more local train to Nice. Overnight in a sleeper with no air conditioning in 40 degrees (Centigrade) of heat does not make for a good journey. When we stopped at Rome I sensed something is wrong; the engine has broken down, the air conditioning is not functioning, none of the windows which I used to lean out of on Italian trains opens.
On arrival in Nice Avis rent me a nippy Peugeot 308 and in no time I am in the protective and calming environment of my favourite hotel, and they give me without request a house in their grounds. Suddenly despite all of Italy’s beauty, France is a more comfortable place to be, and I have booked for five nights.
Is it the elite bohemian chic that makes the Colombe d’Or so attractive, or is it that throughout July and August you can hear the same telephone conversation the receptionists have with callers all day and night, “Non, je regrette”, non, nous avons un table a Settembre”? Is it the food, which is good but not haute cuisine, or the deep green pool, or the art, or sitting next to Bill Wyman, or Vanessa Paradis or Johnny Depp at dinner, pretending they are each just another diner? Or, as my therapist used to say, all of the above? What diners don’t know is the breakfast is one of the best things about this hotel. In the morning there is the palpable sense of there having been a real party the night before. The tables are bare, the uncomfortable high ladder backed chairs have no cushions, the bare flagstones of the courtyard are bald and almost bleak. And then you sit down and one of the chambermaids, doubling as breakfast waitress, dressed in understated check housecoat will bring a crisp white tablecloth for your table and transform it with starchy brilliance. The café complet brings ficelles with exaggerated quinon, mini brioches, pain du chocolat, and croissants. Best of all, a dish of thick butter curls with a stand of mixed confitures and one of cane and white sugar cubes. The coffee cups are big enough to accommodate your nose. With a newspaper from their rack or a foreign language one from the Tabac across the road, the lazy day begins slowly with a deep sense of luxuriant quietitude. And then there’s the dark green pool with its swaying Calder at one end.
As a guest you eat what and when you want. Lunch is always fun. A network of umbrellas covers the courtyard. In the evening the tables are lit by oil lamps, electric lamp lit gourds and an array of other unobtrusive lights, giving you more than enough light to eat by, but moody and romantic. The staff, probably one of the strongest points of the whole experience, encourage you to drink their house delicious house wines, rose and red. Then the menu. That large format four page book, item by item scrawled in a different crayon colour. From a simple melon to fois gras, prosciutto with perfect figs, or preferably their basket of crudités served with anchoiade and pate, or the thirty dish hors d’oeuvres. One of them leaves you in difficulty to eat more. The entrees do not favour fish or meat: steamed loup de mere, grilled dorade, roasted pousiin. This year I ate the best rack of lamb ever and a piece de boeuf hard to beat anywhere in the world, served even in summer with gratin dauphinoise. But you’ll want to eat more, the infamous soufflé Gran Marnier lit at table, fraises de bois (since before they were farmed), the vacherin glace. They do not attempt two covers on their tables. So you book your table, set the time, and it is yours for the evening or the lunch.
And then there is the art, the Leger tiled mural in the courtyard, the Picassos, and the Braque mosaic by the pool.
It was worthy the journey. It always is.