At dinner one night, I told Lorne that before we came to the Cote D’Azur, I had never seen skies in which most of the clouds were jet trails. Criss crossing over the Mediterranean with lattice-work fluffiness, they tantalize with unanswerable questions: Where are those planes headed? Where have they come from? Who’s on board? And who’s at the controls?
The Nice airport is only a few kilometres away, so commercial airliners are leaving some of these trails. But on the Cote D’Azur, private jet tracings are a probability too. Wealth is on display in every parking lot, harbor, and hillside. In Antibes, site of one of Europe’s largest marinas for superyachts, the general public can tour the Quai des Milliardaires. That last word isn’t a spelling mistake – it indicates the yacht owners are billionaires. Why not go for a weekend wander along the dock and have a look for yourself?
Of course, if you’ve got a yacht parked in Antibes or Monaco, you can’t just live onboard. You’ll need a place to call your own on shore. When we first arrived in Villefranche, I was impressed by many of the homes up the hill from our apartment. I realize now that the wealthiest people seeking real estate on the Cote D’Azur would not even consider buying these properties. I googled “La Loggia” last night, the name of a villa that has attracted me since we got here, and came across a fascinating article that discussed its details, and those of other homes and their prospective buyers. La Loggia is on the market, its asking price only disclosed to people with the bank accounts to make serious inquiries. Although the house has a Belle Epoque grace, the truly wealthy may bypass it in favor of a more prestigious waterfront villa.
The Cote D’Azur has a long history of ostentatious houses and their equally over-the-top owners. We visited the Villa Kerylos, the residence of Theo Reinach, a wealthy Paris intellectual (he and his brothers Joseph and Salomon were referred to as the “Je sais tout” (I know everything), a play on the letters of their first names, and possibly, their opinion of themselves). Theo was fascinated by Ancient Greece, and contracted an architect to recreate the splendor of that time and place. Isadora Duncan, Sarah Bernhardt and his neighbor Gustave Eiffel were frequent party guests.
Across the water from Reinach lived Beatrice, the Baroness de Rothschild, in a pastel pink confection perched atop Cap Ferrat. I was entranced by her vast collection of art and antiques, but more fascinated by Beatrice herself. At 19, she married a 34 year old man whose Russian business connections would be valuable to her family. He quickly amassed more than 3 million euros in gambling debts, and eventually, they separated although he maintained a room in the residence to keep up appearances.
Beatrice revelled in her wealth, her pets, and her gardens. Her menagerie included dogs, a mongoose, a monkey, and gazelles, and she conducted lengthy conversations with them. She staged an elaborate wedding between two of her dogs, inviting her friends and their pets to attend in appropriate matrimonial attire (the audioguide hastened to assure us that although this event seemed eccentric, it was actually Beatrice’s comment on her failed marriage).
The Baroness’s 4 acre garden was designed and redesigned to her exacting tastes and specifications. It showcased sculptures, fountains, and the many plant species she had seen on her extensive travels to exotic locales. From the home’s upstairs balcony, the garden’s shape resembled the prow of a steamship, and Beatrice’s garden staff were required to dress as French sailors.
As we ended our tour of her villa, we noticed a crew arranging flower bouquets and looping swaths of white tulle on the central garden pergola. Another team unrolled plastic sheathing on the gravelled pathway and stairs. In the parking lot, men were unloading a half dozen event specialist trucks, and a wedding planner rushed by with an emptry birdcage. I wondered if Beatrice would be thrilled by the upcoming wedding spectacle, or if she’d offer a quiet word or two of sisterly caution to the bride.
This afternoon, our last in Villefranche, we took a boat tour to Monaco for a final look at the Cote D’Azur’s splendor. We ambled past many of the sites we’ve enjoyed, the waterfront view giving us an alternative perspective. The tour paid for itself when the captain motored into Monaco harbor and gave us the chance for up close and personal photos of the megayachts, their crews waving to us from deck chairs
Like many people who visit the Cote D’Azur, I’ve fantasized about what it would be like to be so rich that pricetags are not an issue. That’s one type of wealth, and it might be fun to try out that lifestyle for a while.But the last three weeks have offered us wealth of a different kind – the joy of making discoveries together along cobbled passageways, in markets and boulangeries and village squares. We’ll never own a Cote D’Azur yacht, villa, or Ferrari – but the memories we’re bringing home with us are just as valuable.