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Hotel Byblos:

The Heart and Soul of St.-Tropez

Les Caves du Roy at the Hotel Byblos - click to enlarge Summer in St. -Tropez. High season. And it’s hot. The harbor is clogged with yachts. An empty hotel room? Not a shot. Daytime, the action is sea and sand under a predictably blue Riviera sky. The sun sets, and it shifts to Les Caves du Roy at the Hotel Byblos. On any given night, some 800 people will assemble on an inconspicuous street just beyond the town square, form a rough queue, and press halfway up an arbored stone stairway. There the well known, well dressed, and well heeled will be selected from the throng and admitted to a pulsating interior forever fixed in 1970’s chic.
   

Off in his high- tech retreat is the D.J. Jack E. mixing music and managing lights. Torcheres, plumed African headdresses atop Ionic pedestals, and throbbing neon fixtures throw gaudy beams across a dance floor crowded as a rush hour subway car and looking like the surface of a swirling pin-ball machine. In the strategic carpeted area reserved for the rich and famous, such as Elton John, Denzel Washington, Mick Jagger, Jack Nicholson, Donatella Versace, the U-2 boys, and Puff Daddy along with  billionaires and the most beautiful girls in the world are blowing thousands of Euros on magnums of champagne, gyrating on the chairs and table-tops, showing off.

The high voltage scene of Les Caves du Roy bears no comparison to the spacious tranquility of the Hotel Byblos proper which begins where the stone staircase ends on the highest hill of St.-Tropez. Directly ahead are stuccoed, shuttered buildings in bold Provencal shades of gold and apricot, coral and ochre, their sloping tiled roofs topped with little chimneys. Standing flat against each other and looking very much like the houses that line the St.-Tropez waterfront, they form the backdrop to a grand patio where lantana bushes and spreading palms surround a free-form swimming pool.

An emergent platform that divides the pool boasts a stylized mosaic of Europa and the bull, the Greek myth of abduction and seduction, which is the hotel’s motif reappearing as onyx statue, in mosaics and bas reliefs. Under a bright red awning, tables are set for alfresco dining. An expansive octagon-shaped lounge with circular bar is just beyond. It is late afternoon. The distant hills of Provence are visible in the crystalline light. So are the rooftops of St.-Tropez all the way down to the harbor.

The epitome of elegance: Corinne Dupouy - click to enlarge
The epitome of elegance: Corinne Dupouy - click to enlarge

“This resort is what they call a hameau (a hamlet),” Byblos’ public relations director Corinne Dupouy tells us. “The stucco buildings up on this level emulate the look of the old village. They seem like separate structures, but actually they are interconnected and contain the guest rooms, lobbies, restaurant and bar, boutiques, fitness center and salon – nearly the entire hotel.” We are in the reception area standing on a marble floor of intricate abstract design, admiring Phoenician and Greek antiquities that meld with contemporary furnishings into a setting of dramatic elegance. Corinne is petite, perky, and herself the epitome of elegance. She has agreed to show us around the 95-room resort.

“No two rooms are the same,” she says.  “Each has its own style and individual decor. Some have private patios, other little balconies. Some overlook the pool, others the rooftops. From still others, you can see the Gulf of St.-Tropez.” Corinne allows us a peek into a range of rooms: a suite done in shades of red, yellow and gold creating a Roman ambience, another furnished with pickled woods and neo-modern furnishings in cool blue, an upper floor room with sleeping loft that faces a wall-sized window framing a view of the sea. And then there was the main floor suite we happily were occupying decorated in warm Provencal tones with French doors that opened to a patio enclosed in brick.

Like the village of St.-Tropez, the Hotel Byblos reveals itself gradually. Pathways go off in intriguing and unexpected directions. Here, masses of flowers spill out from their beds; there hedges are clipped in the formal French style. We pass a Moorish fountain surrounded by blue and white tiles, and a circular patio with an old gnarled olive tree at its center. Nearing the pool area, Corinne leads us into a little lounge. Its ceiling is carved cedar, its floor is ornate tile, its centerpiece is an extraordinary antique chest of inlaid mother of pearl. The place looks like a scene Scherazade dreamed up for one of her thousand plus stories. Corinne tells us it was the vision of the Lebanese man who built the Byblos.

 

 

 

Suddenly we are on the stone stairway once again. Walking down the steps under the Suddenly we are on the stone stairway once again.  Walking down the steps under the flowering arcade, we pass the entrance to Les Caves du Roy, eerily dark and silent in the brightness of the afternoon, and Spoon, Byblos’ new concept restaurant, and emerge onto the street. The Byblos is behind us, hidden by a stone wall. One block away, the local men are playing a kind of bocce on the town square. It was as if we had stepped out of a dream.

Having mastered the lay of the land, we had no trouble finding our way back inside and to the poolside bar that evening to have a drink with Jerome Foucaud. If Corinne had showed us the village that is the Hotel Byblos, Jerome would position it for us in the larger village that is St.- Tropez.

A resident manager who looks like Marcello Mastrionni: Jerome Foucaud - click to enlarge
A resident manager who looks like Marcello Mastrionni:
Jerome Foucaud - click to enlarge

Byblos’ resident manager, who in his black-rimmed glasses could easily be mistaken for a young Marcello Mastrionni, grew up in the snowy region of Savoy, in a family of hoteliers. “I never wanted to be in the business,” he told us. “As a child I worked around the hotel, and my mother said ‘Don’t do the same job as your father. Because it’s not a job, it’s a life.’ Well it has become my life, although I must admit that I like it.

“I worked here as a student eleven years ago,” he continued. “Then three years ago, when given the chance, I decided to come back. Because it was St.-Tropez.  Because it was the Byblos. In my mind, St.-Tropez, Brigitte Bardot, and the Byblos – they are all part of the same thing.”

There was a St.-Tropez before Bardot, Jerome assured us, going back to ancient times. In the 15th century, the strategic port was settled by Genoese soldiers and their families. It became an independent republic in the Venetian manner, a status that lasted for two centuries before Louis XIV brought it into the French realm. In the 1890’s, the pointillist Paul Signac established his home and studio just down the road from where the Byblos stands today, and in his wake came a host of early 20th century avant-garde painters. But it was not until Roger Vadim filmed “Et Dieu Crea La Femme” (“And God Created Woman”) in 1955 that what had been an isolated fishing village whose only easy access was via the sea landed on the map of the international glitterati.

By 1950’s standards, the film was scandalous, Jerome said, which only added to its interest.  Brigitte Bardot became a household name, and  St.-Tropez took on the aura of a place where rich and famous people spend their days making love on the sand. During this time, Francoise Sagan and her literary set from St. Germaine de Pres claimed St.-Tropez, adding a gloss of bohemian luxe to the image.   

“Then in 1963, a Lebanese businessman, Jean-Prosper Gay-Para, decided to build a fantastic hillside hotel that would reflect the excitement of this newly fashionable international destination,” Jerome continued. “He named it Byblos after an ancient Phoenician seaport, carrying out the theme with Mediterranean and Assyrian antiquities that he had placed throughout the palatial resort. But by the time it opened in 1967, he had decided to move on to other ventures, and he turned the hotel over to Sylvain Floirat, a French businessman. It is Floirat’s great-grandson, Antoine Chevanne, who manages the property today.

“And so,” Jerome folded his hands and leaned back, smiling in his easy going manner, “the story of the Byblos is entwined with the story and the mystique of St.-Tropez.”

There was more to the story and the mystique, Jerome suggested, but it was time for dinner -- although at the Byblos, time can be a very flexible matter. “Some people don’t go to sleep until 8 in the morning when others are having their breakfast,” he told us. “They’re not ready for breakfast until 2 in the afternoon.” But correctly assuming our sense of time ran to more conventional standards, he booked a table for 8 in the evening at the poolside restaurant adjacent to the bar that we had noticed earlier in the day. There was an interior dining room as well, an inviting setting of wood and stone textures with floor-to-ceiling windows bringing the outdoors in. But we opted to dine on traditional Provencal cuisine prepared by chef Georges Pelissier beneath a starry Provencal sky.

The handsome maitre d': Jacques Bouillet - click to enlarge
The handsome maitre d': Jacques Bouillet
click to enlarge

Jacques Bouillet, the handsome maitre d’ who comes from the middle of France, has been at the Byblos for 15 years. He suggested we start with an Italian favorite: thin pasta with cherry tomatoes, small artichokes and green olives in a pesto of oil, garlic and basil followed by a salad of radicchio and leeks in a vinaigrette enlivened by slivers of gray truffles whose exquisite aroma and flavor were so strong, they seemed to go directly to the head. “It is an end of summer truffle and local from Provence,” Jacques told us. “We use local produce almost exclusively.”

Sommelier Serge Maloubier assured us he is French despite  perfect American-English articulation which he attributes to spending some months with the North Carolina branch of his family. A major interest of the young sommelier is Provence wines that are beginning to move up the quality ladder, and he regularly explores vineyards in the Var region to amplify the Byblos’ collection. He recommended a 1998 Bandol, a full-bodied fruity red that nicely accompanied entrees of perfectly grilled entrecote and sea bass.

Presented on white china rimmed with a mosaic design that echoed the Moorish themes of the resort, each Le Byblos course -- from the amuse bouche of tomato tartar to the indulgent desserts of chocolate coffee cake and tart with figs -- delighted the eye as much as the palate. Another delight was meeting Jacques, Serge and the entire serving staff who seemed like members of a family intent on insuring the pleasures of guests visiting their home.

With the village of St.-Tropez literally at the Byblos’ doorstep, it’s possible to walk down to the harbor and up to the Citadel, explore narrow cobblestone streets with shops to rival those on Paris’ Rue Francois and trace the haunts of figures who created the St.-Tropez legend, even visit the amazing Annonciade Museum whose collection includes works by such as Bonnard, Matisse, and Utrillo in a single, unhurried day.

The Pampelonne Beach is a ten minute drive from the village, and the Byblos provides guests with free shuttle service to any of the 31 beach clubs. “They all have different environments, different food,” Jerome had told us. “Try them out, but don’t miss Club 55.”

Patrice, another of the Byblos family, deposited us close to the shore where General Patch and his American commandos landed in August 1944 to begin the liberation of Provence. The beach was before us, a stone wall to our left. We passed through a small opening and walked down a wooden track into a bustling open air restaurant shaded by rushes and tamarisk trees and fronting the sea.  Club 55 is the lunchtime destination for the rich and renowned in St.- Tropez, we’d been told, so we gave the place a once-over trying to spot a celeb among the crowd that had come off the street, from the beach, even from yachts anchored off shore. We recognized none, but we did make eye contact with the young honeymooning couple from Copenhagen at the next table who asked us to take their photograph. After that, we dispensed with people-watching and concentrated on a lunch of huge steamed artichokes and grilled chicken.     

The one celebrity we did meet that day was the charming Patrice de Colmont who, with his sister Veronique, owns the restaurant founded by his parents. “My father was an ethnographer and explorer, and my parents lived in many parts of the world,” he told us when we joined him for espresso at the beach-side bar. “After World War II, we spent some summers camping on the Pampelonne. It was a very wild and deserted place then. In 1953, my father bought the land we are on now and built a wood cabana. This was to be our home, he said. When people come, we will show them the same hospitality we were shown in other countries. And so we moved into the cabana and lived here without electricity or running water.  

“Two years later, Roger Vadim came to St.- Tropez make the movie “Et Dieu Crea La Femme” starring Brigitte Bardot who was his wife at the time. The crew saw this place, the big table set outdoors, people having a meal. They thought it was some kind of snack bar and asked my mother if it were possible for her to cook for 80 people for a few days. My mother said ‘Why not?’ We all pitched in. We didn’t have enough room in our oven so we brought some dishes to the village baker.  We had to go to the village to get drinking water. But that was how it started. Then my father decided to make it official. He called the place Club 55 -- “club” which meant we could accept whom we like, “55” because it started in 1955.

He continued, “The food was inspired by my parents’ travel. They served corn which we still do. Back then, only the pigs ate corn. They served heart of palm. No one had heard of it. And green sardines. Only fishermen ate them. But whatever they served was the best.  This is the way we still operate. ”

Patrice de Colmont at Club 55 - click to enlarge
Patrice de Colmont at Club 55 - click to enlarge

Patrice is a gentle and soft-spoken man, seemingly unaffected by success.  “I am amazed when I think of it,” he told us. “So many famous people come here.” Focusing on compatriots, he recalled Catherine Deneuve – a frequent visitor, and Charles Aznavour who has been a regular since his career began. “He used to sing ‘I Love Paris in the Month of May.’ Roger Vadim, who died two years ago, became a good friend. He was here many, many times.

“But everyone is the same to us,” he added. “Whoever calls gets a table. If you have a reservation, you are in.” He showed us his reservation book. In high season, the restaurant serves 800 – for lunch. Club 55 serves only lunch but on St.-Tropez time, from noon to 6pm.

We thought of what Jerome had said to us two nights ago: “St.-Tropez, Brigitte Bardot and the Byblos – they are all part of the same thing.” A director decides to shoot a film in a sleepy, largely inaccessible Mediterranean seaport. A restaurant is born to feed its crew. The movie is a big hit, and the village becomes one of the most fashionable places in the world. The restaurant, in turn, becomes internationally famous. A beautiful resort is built on the highest hill of the village. The star of the movie is the hostess at its opening day. In the strange manner in which way leads on to way, a Byblos/St.-Tropez mystique evolves, just as Jerome had said. It reads like a fairy tale. And it even has its own Prince Charming.

The Byblos’ Prince Charming: Owner & General Mananger Antoine Chevanne - click to enlarge
The Byblos’ Prince Charming:
Owner & General Mananger Antoine Chevanne
Click to Enlarge

Antoine Chevanne, representing the fourth generation of Byblos family ownership, is at 29 the hotel’s current general manager. A combination of matinee-idol good looks and an incredibly sweet, unspoiled nature, he joined us for dinner at the Spoon Byblos, an Alain Ducasse concept restaurant that focuses on variations of Mediterranean / Asian cuisines, and told us the story of his family and the hotel.

“After its construction was completed, the Byblos was bought by my great-grandfather Sylvain Floirat,” Antoine began. “He was a self-made man who created his own company with many subsidiaries. His only child was my grandmother Simone who had two sons, Bernard and my father, Sylvain,  who bought out all the shares of the company. I am his only child.

“My father was never a hands-on operator of the hotel. He relied on expert managers, and when I was growing up we did not live on the property. But from the time I was four, we would visit for a few weeks every summer. I grew up knowing the Byblos from the client’s perspective. Still, I always felt closer to the employees than the guests.

He continued, “My mother Mireille, who is now the company president and the Byblos’ interior designer, used to be a dermatologist. She hoped I would become a doctor. But I studied economics at the university. When my father realized I wanted to work in this industry, he sent me around the world to visit the world’s finest resort hotels in order to locate the Byblos among these places. He said, ‘If you want to know what the hotel business is, you have to live it.’ I worked at the Royal Monceau in Paris for a year, starting at the lowest level and moving up to assistant manager. After, I studied hotel management at Cornell, came back to the Byblos, and worked with Sylvain Ercoli, our general manager at the time.

“Then Sylvain decided to move on to the Hotel Martinez in Cannes. We all wondered who would take over the job. Sylvain said, ‘Why not Antoine? He grew up in the hotel. He’s worked on many projects with me.’

“My parents said to me ‘It’s your choice.’

Antoine lay down his chopsticks and laughed. “I had only two days to make up my mind. My heart spoke more than my head. I had to change everything, leave my private life in Paris. I no longer have much time for a private life.        

How has it worked out, we wondered.  “Most of the people who work here have known me since I was a small boy -- Jacques, the maitre d’, was like a father to me. I think they are quite pleased I took over the job and that I have the respect of all, but credibility is something you build day by day.” He paused, then added  “I am lucky in having such a good staff.”

During our short stay, we’d met a number of them: Jerome and Corinne, Jacques and Serge, Maurice who picked us up at the airport and told us he’s worked at the Byblos for 20 years and hopes to work there for another 20 years. And there were others, all of whom contributed to our impression that the Byblos staff was like a single extended family.

“Byblos is a family operation,” Jerome had told us. “We are all part of it: the staff and the guests as well. We have 75-80% repeat guests, Americans, South Americans, Italians, from everywhere. People make their reservations for the next year while they are here.

“There is a Brazilian young woman who has been coming to the Byblos with her family since she was 12 years old,” Antoine said. “We grew up at the same time. All these years, I never had the nerve to approach her. But this summer, I went over to her and said ‘Now that I am the general manager, I want to introduce myself. We have known each other since we were 12, and we must have good stories to tell each other.’ Well it is fantastic. She is a jewelry designer, and she still comes with her family.”

He continued, “My parents live here, and I speak to them about the property every day. I want the place to evolve with new details, new themes. We plan to change the Le Byblos restaurant, retaining the Provencal cuisine but changing the look to make it more dynamic and young. We plan to redo five rooms next year and 20 rooms the following year. But I want to retain the soul of the property.”   

At the time of our dinner, Antoine was nearing the end of his first year as general manager of the Byblos St.-Tropez. He’d seen it through the high season when billionaires’ yachts are docked in the port, the village and hotel are packed with people, and Les Caves du Roy stays open past sunrise. And he’d seen it through the low and mid-seasons from April through June, September and October when St.- Tropez returns to being a quiet fishing village, the local people reclaim their turf, and one can take the time to have a cup of coffee at an outdoor café.

At the end of October the Byblos St.-Tropez would be closing down, not to open again until the following spring. But by mid-December, most of its extended family: Antoine and Jerome, Corinne and Jacques, the concierges and chef,  the bartenders and housekeepers will have reconnoitered in the snowy regions of the French Alps to spend the winter months at the Byblos, Courchevel, the luxury alpine resort Antoine’s grandfather opened in 1984.  But that is another story.        

(Photos by Harvey Frommer)

Hotel Byblos
Avenue Paul Signac
 83990 St. -Tropez

Phone: 33 (0) 4 94 56 68 00
Web: http://www.byblos.co
Email: saint-tropez@byblos.com

One of The Leading Hotels of the World

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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
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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