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 A Showerful of Sundry Stars: The Martinez Hotel of Cannes

“When Woody Allen came to Cannes last May (2002) to receive the Film Festival Award, he stayed at the Martinez Hotel,” said general manager Sylvain Ercoli. “He walked into the lobby with his family, looked at me, and asked ‘Do I know you?’

“I wasn’t sure he was serious. But I said, ‘From the Ritz in Paris.’

“And he said, ‘Ah yes.’

“It was a long time ago. He was married to Mia Farrow back then, and I was manager of the Ritz. Now we passed the lift and headed towards the stairs. ‘You remembered that I like my room to be on a lower floor,’ he said to me.

“I did remember he had a phobia of high floors; I even remembered his room number at the Ritz. We gave him a room on the second floor of the Martinez so he could walk up but also have a view of the sea.

“It was the 50th anniversary of the Film Festival. Opening night, they showed Hollywood Endings where he plays a director whose film flops in the States, but is claimed a masterpiece by the French critics. There was some truth in it, and in his speech, he thanked the French people for always being supportive of him even when the reviews elsewhere were bad.

“We make special arrangements for celebrities to enter and leave the premises, and Woody Allen is a very shy person,” Sylvain Ercoli added. “Nevertheless, when he left the Martinez, he walked out of the main door. He was comfortable, he told us, because he received such a warm welcome in Cannes.”

One need not be a famous American film maker to feel warmly welcomed in this glittering town along the French Riviera where the image of America as World War II liberator retains its resonance. The Allied landing on the Cote d’Azur August 15, 1944 and the overthrow of the occupying Nazis forces in Cannes nine days later is still commemorated each July 4th with a jazz festival, fancy dress ball and fireworks display.

Georges Enrietti, the Martinez head bar man and local television celebrity - Click to Enlarge
Georges Enrietti, the Martinez head bar
man and local television celebrity

“When the Germans occupied the south of  France they stayed in all the best hotels on the Cote d’Azur,” says Georges Enrietti, the Martinez Hotel’s lively head bar man who doubles as local television personality and trainer of  the next generation of bartenders. 

“Nazi officers could be seen walking around here. But after the liberation, this bar was filled with GI’s. Five thousand bottles of beer would be drunk every night.” In a room behind the bar he keeps a photograph in a simple black frame -- a crowd of American GI’s on the deck of an aircraft carrier docked in the harbor of Cannes. “All Martinez regulars,” he says.

“Last year a solider from the United States Army came back here,” assistant manager Jacques Chavance told us. “It was the first time he had been in France in over 50 years. He explained how the American Army arrived with some French forces, how they came to this hotel and celebrated.”


Jacques Chavance a descendant of Burgundian cavaliers

Chavance is a sprightly man with an old fashioned twirling mustache, a tradition he maintains as a descendent of Burgundian cavaliers. He came to the Martinez in 1985, a few years after the Taittinger family (of champagne fame) bought the hotel from the French government. “The original owner was said to have collaborated with the Nazis, and at the end of the war, the Justice Department took the hotel from him,” he said.       

“What happened to the collaborator?” we asked.

“Who cares?” said Chavance. “The State Property Department did a good job of running the hotel for the next 37 years.”

Back when the Martinez opened in 1929, Cannes was already enjoying a decades-long reputation as favored destination for European royalty. The town’s hotels and mansions were largely of the Baroque-inspired “Belle Époque” style, named for the era around the turn of the last century during which they were built. Sweeping, streamlined and stark-white, the Martinez Hotel was something else. Its 404 rooms made it one of the largest hotels in France; its dramatic Art Deco design signaled a new aesthetic. Today, nearly seventy-five years later, the Martinez is no longer distinguished for its size; it remains, however, a vision of eternal modernity.

A vision of eternal modernity

One of three “palaces” (the French designation for hotels that exceed the maximum four-star rating) along the one and a half mile-long seafront boulevard the locals named La Croisette after English visitors who would cross from one side to the other as they strolled the promenade, the Martinez in its early years drew a royal clientele, entire families with servants who stayed the season. Since the post-war period, its guest roster has expanded to include movie stars and producers, political leaders, heads of major corporations, and ordinary travelers who delight in staying in the most glamorous hotel in perennially glamorous Cannes.

Strolling in the shade along La Croisette - Click to Enlarge
Strolling in the shade along La Croisette

By the shores of the beautiful sea - Click to Enlarge
By the shores of the beautiful sea

It is a designation vouchsafed by the hotel’s original Art Deco architecture and museum-quality furnishings. The staircase Woody Allen preferred to the lift is a dazzling swirl of creamy marble laid with burnt orange carpeting and lined with a  banister of elaborately wrought iron and brass. Looking up the spiral from the ground floor or down from the seventh can take one’s breath away. Landings have period settees and small chests with many drawers, typical of the Art Moderne style. Matisse and Picasso lithographs and Lalique-like forms decorate hallways. 

In the lounge, walls are covered in peach moiré and copper-hued mirrors. Guests recline in deep 1930’s arm chairs upholstered in leopard-print velvet or banquettes trimmed with black lacquer. La Palme d’Or, the Martinez’s two-star Michelin restaurant on the second floor, is accessed via a private elevator of lacquered burled wood. It opens onto a long hallway carpeted in fuchsia with gold and black patterns, lit by sconces, and lined with black pedestal tables each displaying an original sculpture of classic Art Deco design.

Looking up or down the spiral staircase can take the breath away - click to enlarge
Looking up or down the spiral staircase
can take the breath away

An elevator lined with burled wood - click to enlarge
An elevator lined with burled wood

The way to La Palme D’Or is filled with Art Deco treasures - click to enlarge
The way to La Palme D’Or is filled with Art Deco treasures

Guest accommodations pick up the ambience in colors and furnishings. Sitting in our room on a curved loveseat of dusty rose facing a pair of French doors that opened to a little balcony and overlooked the sea, we felt part of a scene on the silver screen – a fantasy not too far-fetched as the enormous Palais de Festival, where the Film Festival is held each May, is but a walk down La Croisette.

At the time of our visit, the Martinez was slated for a $14 million renovation that would redo the lobby, restaurants, and guest rooms but would happily leave priceless original Art Deco features and artifacts intact. By the spring of 2003, a dozen junior suites will have been added to the seventh floor along with a Givenchy-operated spa. Already in operation was the luxurious penthouse suite, the largest in Europe. Universal Studios had rented it for the last Film Festival. Next door, the house of Christian Dior set up shop, lending ensembles to movie stars for their public appearances.

The Martinez is closely associated with the two-week Film Festival, hosting figures on the order of Francis Ford Coppolla, Catherine Deneuve, Clint Eastwood, Jack Nicholson. Begun in the post-war period in reaction to what was viewed as the political domination of the Venice Film Festival, the twelve day celebration has itself become a feature of films, most recently Brian de Palma’s inscrutable “Femme Fatale.” Yet it is hardly the only congress on the Cannes calendar. One hundred sixty festivals assemble in this Riviera town yearly with participants and press swelling a local population of 69,000 to many times that number. The largest is not the Film Festival, but Medem, the international music gathering, held at the end of every January.

“It’s our biggest draw,” Georges Eneretti told us. “In one week we make 10% of the receipts for the year. The people are artistic, and we are welcoming. No one stays in the room; they are all in the bar.

“About ten years ago, the crowd was so dense that one guy came from the reception desk, across the lounge, and all the way to the bar on the shoulders of the crowd. They kind of passed him along.”

Although things were more subdued during our stay with no Cannes conference underway, “L’Admiral” Bar was a nightly scene of  high spirits and even higher energy. Famed Riviera pianist Jimmy McKissic entertained the modish and lively crowd. Every bar stool and banquette was taken. One evening we were introduced to another famous Riviera figure, a racing driver whose name we subsequently forgot although one of us being in a protracted film state of mind conjectured he was the inspiration for “A Man and A Woman.”

The bar opens onto a lovely palm-shaded terrace and Art Deco-style swimming pool, with tables set for outdoor dining. 

Assistant Manager Veronique Vermot Desroches beside the palm-shaded pool - click to enlarge
Assistant Manager Veronique Vermot Desroches beside the palm-shaded pool

Just beyond, behind a wall of glass doors, the Relais Martinez serves Provencal-style lunch and dinner in an airy, casual setting. Our excellent dinner at the Relais Martinez consisted of tapenade of black olives with garlic, almonds and anchovy spread; a tangy fish broth to which was added a mixture of mayonnaise, saffron and garlic and a sprinkling of grated cheese; an excellent steak with thick cut fried potatoes, and tiny asparagus; and duck breast served with a mélange of onions, carrots, celery, leeks and string beans.

Food preparation at the Martinez for the Relais Martinez, the beach-front restaurant and La Palme d’Or is under the direction of Chef Christian Willer who arrived at the hotel around the same time as Jacques Chavance.

“There was no gastronomic restaurant here back then,” Chavance told us. “Mr. Taittinger said to Christian and me, ‘I want a Michelin star.’ When you are young and have this kind of pressure it is fantastic. 

“Christian selected the name La Palme d’Or after the Film Festival award. We opened soon after we arrived. In 1987, we got our first star, our second in 1990 or 1991. We are working towards the third.”

Along the star-studded way, the Alsatian-born, classically-trained Christian Willer became a star himself. He had worked at some of the top restaurants in Paris, Monte Carlo and throughout France and was already well known when he came to the Martinez. But it was at La Palme d’Or that the opportunity to show off his talents fully presented itself.

Having arranged to meet Christian at a café in the old town, we arrived to find the great chef standing at the bar, casually dressed in a windbreaker and chinos, drinking his morning espresso with Kathie Alex, a Californian who gives courses in French cooking to Americans in a house that had once belonged to Julia Childs. He welcomed us with a warm smile and open arms -- literally. The great chef is also a great guy, we were quick to discover, possessed of an irresistible and impish sense of humor, a man who has not let success go to his toque.

Across the street from the café, butchers and bakers, farmers and fishermen of the region had set up their stands in a huge, bustling and overflowing market. “The market is the heart and health of Cannes,” Christian told us as we walked down the aisles pausing to admire a bunch of bright red radishes, an array of fish lain on ice across tiled tables, piles of Chanterelle mushrooms – “It’s the end of summer, mushroom season,” Christian said. We passed gorgeous displays of flowers, glistening grapes, silky tomatoes, lavender eggplants, yellow squash. “I serve these often,” he said of the hot peppers, then pointed to a pile of zucchini topped with yellow blooms and added “The blossoms are a great delicacy – you will have some tonight.”

The market is the heart and health of Cannes - Click to Enlarge
The market is the heart and health of Cannes

Star chef Christian Willer at home in the Cannes’ market - click to enlarge
Star chef Christian Willer at home in the Cannes’ market

The streets of the old town are lined with family-owned shops. We stopped at a 66-year-old bakery, fragrant with freshly baked breads and croissants. After engaging in a bit of banter with the owner, Christian treated us to slices of a flat bread baked with onions, olives, parsley and olive oil. “A specialty of the Riviera,” he said. He took us into the sparkling Ceneri cheese shop on the Rue Meynadier, another family enterprise, whose proprietor seemed to be a good friend of our erstwhile guide. We were then led through a narrow alley beneath several arches to the shop’s warehouse where cheeses in big wheels sent from all over France are aged, cut and wrapped in preparation for shipment.

In the Ceneri Cheese Shop and on the streets of the old town in Cannes - click to enlarge

In the Ceneri Cheese Shop and on the streets of the old town in Cannes

A fond and familiar figure with a strong connection to the people who grow and supply the tools of his trade, Christian Willer centers his world here in the market, shops, and along the streets of Cannes. In the course of a couple of hours, he was stopped by dozens of people for a moment or two of conversation and a quick embrace. To the outside world, he may be the Christian Willer celebrity chef; here, it seemed, he was simply good neighbor and friend.

It now remained for us to experience first-hand the culinary gifts of Christian Willer. Which we did that very evening in the company of general manager Sylvain Ercoli and his wife Sylvie. “Christian’s style is gastronomique with an emphasis on Provencal,” the debonair Sylvain said as we took our seats in the deluxe dining room before a window overlooking the Bay of Cannes. 

“When he came here, there were no restaurants in Cannes of this order. La Palme d’Or was built for him.”

To dine at La Palme d’Or, by general acclaim the best restaurant in Cannes if not all of the Cote d’Azur, is to experience the sublime pleasures of wonderfully prepared food in beautiful surroundings facilitated by a gracious and accomplished staff whose service is so smooth and unobtrusive it is almost not there. The gilded menu is an immediate signal that the dining experience will be out of the ordinary. Beyond the range of offerings described in tantalizing detail, a brief evocative statement by Christian Willer about the transitory nature and special bounties of autumn sets the appropriate mood.

And then there are the complex preparations that like many things of great quality appear to be the essence of simplicity. Finding our niche under  the category the menu describes as “Pour les amateurs, les poissons de peche locale” (roughly translated as “for fish lovers, the fishermen’s local catch”), we made a memorable meal of an amuse bouche of white fish with avocado between two slices of bread and a miniature pastry sprinkled with poppy seeds; French caviar over a bed of risotto with a hard-boiled egg and lobster-flavored sherbet; a platter of assorted fish selected by Christian that very morning -- red mullet, baby squid, and calamari with a sauce of tomato, olive oil and basil; and turbot with roasted with figs and raisins.

But we also succumbed to the array of autumnal vegetables and C.W.’s signature dish -- a mad combination of foie gras, olive oil and ice cream -- that once tasted will not easily be forgotten.

Sublime service and delectable dishes at La Palme d’Or including the mad but marvelous combination of foie gras with ice cream

At Sylvain’s suggestion, we drank three Provencal red wines; one combined cabernet, syrah and grenache, the second cabernet and grenache; the third syrah alone. All reflected the growing quality and interest of wines from the south of France.

The walls of La Palme d’Or are decorated with photographs of film ikons like Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Groucho Marx, Ingrid Bergman, Yves Montand, Alfred Hitchcock. The Martinez, like the city of which it is a part, is strewn with stars; movie stars, Michelin stars, and – lest we forget -- a star general manager as well.

Sylvain Ercoli has been at the Martinez for little more than a year having begun his tenure during the difficult period following the World Trade Center disaster. Still a young man, he is not only the instigator and overseer of the hotel’s multi-million dollar renovation, but of a $200 million resort in Nice also owned by the Taittinger family.

He was born in Nancy in northeastern France to Italian parents (his anti-fascist maternal grandparents had left Italy during Mussolini’s time). His father had a construction business; his mother owned a shoe shop. But the young Sylvain was anxious to see the world and when he finished school, joined the French paratroopers. “I found it very interesting at the age of 20 to get out of my typical environment and travel from the northeast of France to the south seas,” he told us. “It was the first trip of my life.”

During his two years of military service, Sylvain spent some time in the Moriches in the Indian Ocean. Sixteen years later, he was to return – this time with a wife and children – to run one of the best island resorts in the world. In between, he had discovered his calling.

It was at the Ritz in Paris that Sylvain met the charming Sylvie who grew up in the southwest part of France.  After 14 years in Paris at the Ritz and George V, and five years in the Moriches where the Ercolis went to get a break from big city living, the young hotelier accepted the position of general manager of the fabulous Byblos resorts, dividing his time between their two locales: St. Tropez and Courchevel.

“But after three years, Sylvie and I realized it was difficult for the children to move from one location to another every year. So when the Martinez position was offered, I decided to accept,” he said. Somewhere along the way, Sylvain managed to attend Cornell University’s Hotel School and developed a love of America and things American. “I lived like an American student on campus. When I came home, Sylvie didn’t recognize me.”

He continued, “I knew about this hotel before I came here. Things work here; it is so smooth. You keep the tradition, but you make it better.  I knew when I accepted the position I would be getting the means to make the kinds of changes I felt were needed.”

The general manager is a gracious man whose easy-going style sets a tone at the Martinez that is picked up by all and makes the attention level at a 400+ room property more like what one would expect to find in a luxury boutique hotel. “I came here from a small hotel but I had worked in big hotels in Paris,” he told us as we stepped out onto the terrace after dinner. “The size is not important. What is important is the soul of the hotel. How to define it? By definition the soul is impossible to describe. But when you enter a place, you feel good or you don’t.”

The terrace outside La Palme d’Or - click to enlarge
The terrace outside La Palme d’Or

The sun sets and night falls over the Bay of Cannes as seen from the Hotel Martinez

Woody Allen apparently felt good when last he visited Cannes. So did we, especially this last night of our stay at the Martinez. It was a splendid early October evening. Through the trees, we could see real stars in the heavens. Below people were strolling on La Croisette amidst banks of brilliant coleus. In the distance, the waters of the Bay of Cannes glittered in the moonlight. “It is a beautiful atmosphere,” Sylvain said. “Most of our guests find it so.   They come back to the Martinez year after year.”

Hopefully, we would too.

Photos by Harvey Frommer

Hotel Martinez
73 La Croisette
06406 Cannnes

Phone: 04 92 98 73 00 
Web Site: www.hotel-martinez.com 
Email:  reservation@hotel-martinez.com

#  #  #

About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

 

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