posted 8 February 2005

Nancy and DavidThis last weekend, I finally managed to make connection with Smith College classmate (and fellow French house resident) Nancy Reed. She's been living in France since soon after graduation, most of it in Nice, and we hadn't seen each other since commencement weekend in 1971!

She came over about noon on Saturday, and we went out to lunch in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat before touring the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild. Here, Nancy and David share an apperitif in our apartment before the excursion.

Lunch was at Le Provençale in Saint Jean. David had scrambled eggs with truffles, then duck legs two ways (one grilled and one confit) with gnocchi. Nancy and I started with crayfish and spinach salads with truffles, then had roasted filet of "loup de mer" (sea bass) with baby artichokes and soy and alfalfa sprouts. Dessert all around was small pears poached in wine with pineapple sorbet and rhubarb jam. All pretty good, but I think David got the best of the choices.

We were eager to try truffles in winter. Our past experience has been confined to summer truffles (a different species), and we have always found them utterly tasteless. Alas, these winter truffles were no better, but Nancy assures us that it's not just us--they really were tasteless. She says there's a restaurant in Nice that specializes in truffles and that the specimens there are full of flavor (although she adds that, sometimes, the flavor they are full of is dirt).

We had intended to tour both the villa and the gardens--Nancy especially wanted to see them, because her daughter's wedding pictures were taken there--but it was too cold and windy. After the tour of the villa itself (most of which wasn't heated), we settled for a cup of Earl Gray in the villa's tea room (which must have been the villa's "winter garden"; a sort of semi-greenhouse) and a promise to come back in warmer weather.

The villa was built in the early 20th century by Béatrice, daughter of the rich Rothschild banking family (her father and uncle also invested in wine-making chateaux), who married into the rich Italian Ephrussi banking family. She was a baronness, but I forget whether it was by birth or by marriage. Anyway, she bought about 15 acres at the top of the narrowest part of the neck of Cap Ferrat (you can see it from our place), mostly solid rock, then spent several fortunes blasting out a level space, building the villa (which she designed herself), filling it with art and collectibles, and laying out and constructing seven gardens--a flat, formal one in the shape of the deck of a ship (she loved traveling the world by ship) and six others, of various persuasions (Japanese, Italian, etc.). She didn't just say "build me a Japanese garden--she sent someone to Japan to copy the Mikado's. She couldn't be bothered to wait for things to grow, so, after shipping in tons of soil to cover the bare rock of the site, she had full-grown trees installed. Antique dealers and furniture makers would load their entire stocks onto trains for the trip to Beaulieu, where she would come down to the station, pick out what she wanted there on the platform, then send the rest back. And after all that, she didn't bother to live there. She and her family had houses all over Europe (her father had three in Monaco alone). She used it strictly as a place to give parties, so she has a bedroom suite on the ground floor, next to the large, indoor "patio" that served as a ballroom (with a ceiling painted to look like the sky), and the upstairs was all guest suites. It doesn't have a grand staircase, because it has a built-in elevator--unheard of at the time.

Nancy and AnneHere, Nancy and I are standing in front of the north façade. The Michelin guides list the villa as "worth a detour" and the site and gardens as "worth a special trip." The website, at http://www.villa-ephrussi.com/ephrussi/index.htm, gives the full story and gorgeous pictures.

Nancy and I had fun catching up, after all these years, playing "What ever happened to . . . ." It would be even more fun if more of you old Dawes House residents (you know who you are!) came over to join us!

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