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On the Bay of Angels
Le Palais De La Méditeranée of Nice

Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

The opening of the Hotel Palais de la Méditeranée January 5th 2004 was a cause for celebration throughout Nice. The new hotel was a magnificent addition to the capital city of the French Riviera, a four-star deluxe property of the most luxurious materials and up-to-date facilities. Its situation could not be more spectacular -- virtually at the center of the horseshoe-shaped harbor front overlooking the rightly-named Bay of Angels, whose color, our friend Claudine Zeitoun says, is a shade of aqua marine unique in all the world, reflecting the exquisite Côte d’Azur light and deepening in the distance as it flows into the Mediterranean. But beyond such considerations, the hotel provided a bridge to the past, a still-remembered golden era, and an opportunity to indulge in a splendid nostalgia.

Views of sea and hillside from a ninth floor suite
Views of sea and hillside from a ninth floor suite

Seventy-five years earlier, almost to the date, another Palais had opened on the same site. Critics of the time likened it to the 1920’s ocean liner le Normandie; future critics judged it the most beautiful example of Art Deco architecture built between the two wars. This was just four years after the Paris Exhibit had introduced Art Deco to the world, and the building was a fitting example of the excitement and glamour perpetuated by the avant- garde style. Stretching along the Promenade des Anglais, the long rectangle of white marble was punctuated by Doric pillars.

A wing at each end rose to a ziggurat adorned with bas reliefs of classical female figures and prancing horses. At street level, arches two stories high formed a shaded colonnade beneath a row of enormous windows twice the height of the arches.

This Palais was not a hotel at all, but a casino that lured the rich and famous to gaming tables behind the great windows. There was also a 1,000-seat theater where Josephine Baker and Charlie Chaplin, Mistinguett and Maurice Chevalier, Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel performed, an art gallery where the works of such artists as Toulouse-Lautrec, Rodin, and Léger were on view, and a staircase 23 feet wide where the most elegant of women, dressed in couture gowns and glittering jewels, would descend.

For nearly half a century, this Palais contributed in no small part to Nice’s aura of French Riviera glamour and its reputation as France’s second city of art and culture. But by the mid 1970’s, beset with financial problems and harassed as a result of organized crime’s attempts to infiltrate casinos on the Côte d’Azur, it closed down. The art was sold, the casino doors were shut, and behind the white marble edifice, all was dark, empty and abandoned.

The building was finally demolished in 1990. But the façade was spared the wrecker’s ball having been listed as a historical monument just the year before. Unable to tear it down, the Lebanese firm that now owned the property sold it to the city, and for the next eleven years, the edifice languished before a field of rubble.

It was not until March, 2001 that Frantz Taittinger (of champagne fame) arranged for one of the company’s subsidiaries, Concorde Hotels, to propose the restoration of the legendary landmark. This new Palais would be a 188-room hotel and a casino to be operated separately by the Partouche Group.       

Two views of the third floor courtyard: looking down from the ninth floor; looking out from the enclosed portion of the heated swimming poolArchitects Olivier Clement Cacoub and Maurice Giauffre have fulfilled the mandate to stunning effect. They placed the hotel’s entrance at the base of one wing, the casino’s entrance at the base of the other. What had been the game room above the colonnade is now the third floor of the hotel, largely given over to a courtyard more than 300-feet long that frames views of the sea through huge, pillar-bordered rectangles (the former game room’s windows minus their panes). Tables set for outdoor dining, a lounging area and curved swimming pool that flows into an enclosed region, mandarin trees and lavender plants adorn the courtyard’s surface while along its perimeter, the remaining three sides of the hotel loom up, five floors of terraced guest rooms.

Two views of the third floor courtyard: looking down from the ninth floor; looking out from the enclosed portion of the heated swimming pool - click to enlarge Two views of the third floor courtyard: looking down from the ninth floor; looking out from the enclosed portion of the heated swimming pool  - click to enlarge

The noted French interior designer Sybille de Margerie has retained nuances of Art Deco design in the long neo-modern lobby paneled with cedar wood punctuated by marble pillars banded in brass; chairs trimmed with chrome, maroon and gray upholstery alongside black wood.

She decorated the spacious guest rooms with a cool, contemporary look in a floor-coded color motif: the four and fifth floors in shades of reds; sixth and seventh in yellow, brown and ocher; eighth and ninth in blue. Ample Cote d’Azur light enters through the many windows that face either the Bay of Angels or the hillside of Nice that climbs up red tiled rooftops as far as the southern beginnings of the French Alps. Many of the houses are Italianate in design with shades of green and ocher in their façades, a reflection of the time Nice was part of Italy. From the terrace of a ninth floor suite, one sees the fashionable apartment house that had been Queen Victoria’s residence during her many visits.    

“English people were the original tourists here,” Isabelle Santin, the Palais’ director of public relations, told us, “and the English culture still remains. There is also a strong Russian culture. Russians built the railway station. It was the last tsar who built the cathedral,” she added referring to the brilliant dome in the distance. “So Nice is a mixture, but mainly it is French.”

Views of sea and hillside from a ninth floor suite  - click to enlarge Views of sea and hillside from a ninth floor suite  - click to enlarge

Views of sea and hillside from a ninth floor suite

Isabelle was showing us around the Palais. We saw Le Padouk, the gastronomic restaurant on the third floor which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner either within its intimate dining room or out on the courtyard. “The name is for the dark wood that you see on the walls,” Isabelle said. “It is a rare and precious wood found in Africa and India that is used to make violins.”

Beyond le Padouk is the exotic scarlet and purple Pingala Bar. From the sofas shaped like pagodas, waiters dressed in plum tunics, and old photographs of maharajas hanging on the walls, we understood the theme here was India. “The name comes from Indian mythology,” Isabelle confirmed. “Already it has become a very trendy place here in Nice. People come from all over especially on Wednesday to Saturday when there is a piano bar.”

 - click to enlarge

She brought us into the casino which had opened June 7, 2004. Although it was the middle of the day and the gaming tables were not open, we could imagine the scene of high-stakes drama that is played out every night. “For the moment, there are only the traditional games like blackjack and roulette,” Isabelle said. “The slot machines are going to be added.” Each room of the casino reflects the mood of different Mediterranean nations from a gala Venetian carnival with red and white striped poles, to a room with faux frontispieces of pharaohs’ tombs. A Moroccan-inspired brasserie was hung with Matisse-inspired paintings of riotous colors and bold designs. A great space lined with golden palms was big enough for auto shows but can also serve as banquet hall for 600 or concert hall for 1,000.

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The sense of history repeating itself in this building where the past is so much part of the present is not lost on Isabelle. “When the hotel opened in January, so many people came who remembered the Palais de la Meditérranée when it was the old casino,” she said. “It is part of the memory of Nice.”

But while Isabelle is a native of Nice, the former Palais is not part of her memory. She is far too young to remember its earlier incantation. The same could be said of the affable staff who are attractive, elegant, and imperially slim as well as the general manager Christophe Aldunate.

A native of Nice: public relations director Isabelle Santin  - click to enlarge Le Palais’ young general manager: Christophe Aldunate  - click to enlarge

A native of Nice: public relations director Isabelle Santin

Le Palais’ young general manager: Christophe Aldunate

Combining youthful enthusiasm with professional confidence, Christophe shared with us a piece of his personal history that has made him at 31 years of age  the youngest general manager in France at a hotel on this level.

“I was born in the region around Paris,” he began, joining us for dinner at Le Padouk . “I was not so good at school, and I had to find a job. One day I went to a job fair, and it was there that I decided to become a cook. If you are a cook, you take some products, create something, and see people enjoying what you made. That would be a great satisfaction for me, I thought. So at the age of 14 I left school and got a job in a one-star Michelin restaurant in the west of Paris.  When I was 16, I returned to school to get my diploma, but I continued working at night to pay for my classes.”

As part of his training, Christophe was required to focus his work in one area for a lengthy period. “We had different choices like the United States or England, but they seemed too easy. I wanted a challenge. I offered my services to a joint venture between France and Russia for the first four-star hotel in Moscow.       

“This was in 1992 soon after the fall of the U.S.S.R.,” he continued. “I was 19. After six months, I returned to France to finish my studies and then I went back. Living in Russia, it was as if I was transported to the time of my grandparents. The technology was spotty, the products were scarce and hard to come by. I saw people making do with very little. But the experience left me with a lasting impression. At first, people are distant. But when they give you their friendship, it is deep and for life. I still go back.”

In 1995, Christophe came home to a position at the Plaza Athenée in Paris. “I had so many missions,” he told us. “I made a fusion with the two teams when Alain Ducasse came along. Francois Delahaye, who is now operation manager worldwide for the Dorchester Group, was the general manager then. He learned his friend Sylvain Ercoli, general manager of the Martinez, a Concorde property and the premier hotel of Cannes, was looking for a deputy. In ten minutes my contract was signed. I arrived at the Martinez in 2002.”

That was just around the time that Sylvain Ercoli began working on the Concorde’s newest project in neighboring Nice. One day when Christophe was visiting a hotel school in Italy, he received a telephone call from Sylvain. “I want you to take over the general manager position at the Palais,” he said.

“I felt so honored they were trusting me,” Christophe told us. “Yet I had felt it was coming. I  knew the property. I knew the team. Just as I know my work here is to run the operations and achieve my goals. We are still a very new place.”

But you would never guess as much from dining at Le Padouk where the operation runs like clockwork.  Maître d’ Julien Bosio-Icart is there, at the ready to explain the menu and offer suggestions, even the white wine  that proved the perfect compliment to our dinner. “It is from Billet, the hilly region north of Nice,” he told us. “They are making some excellent wines there, and this one (produced by Clos Saint-Vincent) is excellent.” So it was, flavorful and fragrant.

Executive chef Bruno Sohn is of Alsatian and Spanish origins, and his roots are often reflected in his cuisine, Julien said. The focus is on seasonal market products as well as specialties he gets from his Spanish supplier just up the coast like the prized Serrano ham, morue -- the codfish from Bilbao, and the Spanish olive oil.

As we were consulting the menu, a little bowl of something black and glistening appeared. Caviar, we thought. No, it was a tapenade. But what a tapenade! The blend of capers, anchovies, and black olives from Nice in olive oil proved a most delightful way to begin a dinner infused with the spirit of the Mediterranean. Caviar was not missed in a dinner whose first course was vegetable soup with mussels, flavored with basil and garlic, and accompanied by a bright Italian-style bruchetta with tomatoes, fresh parmesan cheese and black olives from Nice.

Chef Sohn’s salade niçoise which he describes as “a modern interpretation” has no chunks of tuna tossed among greens. Instead it is a tangy, flat tart of tuna beneath a blossom of avocado, olives and greens topped by a little coddled egg. The Serrano ham accompanies an excellent lobster ravioli. A crusty chicken cutlet is stuffed with duck foie gras and cèpe mushrooms. The fish of the day, grilled sea bass, comes with sautéed porcini mushrooms which were at their seasonal best, and a flavorful ratatouille with no tomatoes but the added extra zest of capers, olives, and strands of fennel. There was also lobster from Brittany, roasted, served out of the shell, and accompanied by linguini carbonara, and baby duck for two roasted with porcini mushrooms and figs.

Sated, especially after a goodly sampling from the lavish cheese board, we could not find room for dessert yet were unable to resist the gorgeous mignardises, especially the miniature almond tarts and shot glass-size portions of chocolate mousse.

click to enlarge click to enlarge

click to enlarge

click to enlargeLe Padouk is modest in size. There is one seating for 45 covers inside, more when the outdoor courtyard is used. But the imaginative, lively dishes combined with impeccable service make us believe this will be one of the French Riviera’s great restaurants.

“Our guests are mostly local,” Christophe told us over coffee. “Tonight our table is the only one from the hotel. Already we have regulars.

“People in Nice don’t forget the history,” he continued. “And part of Nice’s history is the French-American connection: what we did for you with Lafayette, what you did for us in the Second World War. There was a big fireworks display this past August to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the Americans landing in Nice, and it was a major event.

“Our first market is the United States,” Christophe said. “We are a destination for passengers on the cruise ships that dock five minutes from here. Before we opened, there was nothing in Nice to offer American guests the high level of service, the standard of luxury, the welcoming environment they expect.

“Also we, and the Martinez as well, guarantee the dollar. The dollar to the Euro, one to one. It is a long term policy.”

Given the dollar’s status nowadays, this came as welcome news. And given today’s political climate, it came as welcome news to learn the historic French-American friendship is still treasured here. Certainly that was a lesson we learned in Nice and at its newest hotel, a place where heritage is a quality not taken lightly.

Palais de la Méditerranée
15 Promenade des Anglas
06011 Nice Cedex 1

Phone: 33 4 92 14 76 00

Photos by Harvey Frommer

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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

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


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