Anthony Peregrine celebrates the centenary of the Negresco, a Riviera hotel with four centuries of French culture at its heart.
My favourite hotel in France? No idea. There are too many contenders. But the most memorable hotel in France? No contest. It's the Negresco in Nice, an establishment sashaying through celebrations of its centenary as the summum of Cote d'Azur style - at once cultivated, frisky, magnificent and a little disdainful.
In 100 years, no one has ever missed it on the Promenade des Anglais. The facade rises white and imperious to the pink roof, and the pink dome was allegedly inspired by the breast of the architect's mistress. (But they say that about almost every dome in France. This tells you more about the French than it does about domes.)
The Negresco has long proved irresistible to the great, rich and notorious. James Brown apparently spent a night chasing his wife around the hotel in a fit of jealousy. Actors Romy Schneider and Alain Delon pursued their tumultuous love affair here. The visitors' book lists everyone you've ever heard of from everywhere in the world. These people come because it's Nice, and the sweep of the Bay of Angels spangles just outside. But they also show up because the Negresco's own story is as remarkable as any they might feature in.
The blokes on the door set the tone, carrying off with dignity what may be the daftest hotel livery anywhere (blue frock-coats, red knee breeches, top hats with a turn-up). Inside, and as with any luxury hotel, one enters a domain where the inconveniences of life - such as having to do anything at all for oneself - drop away. But the Negresco goes further. With art at its heart, it has a mission to uplift, a rare thing in the hospitality trade. The hotel enfolds you into 400 years of French culture. Across six floors, the bedrooms, corridors and public areas are sumptuous with treasures from Louis XIII's reign through to Niki de Saint Phalle's bulbous beauties.
This is the realm of Jeanne Augier, red-haired grande dame, outspoken animal lover and the last private owner of a Riviera palace. At 89, she is almost as old as her hotel but remains the driving force. It was she who determined that the Negresco should constitute a landscape of French creativity - and she who brought it about.
Its founder, early last century, was Henri Negresco, who had made enough cash as restaurant director to the French elite to create his own establishment in Nice. He hired the architect Edouard-Jean Niermans, who, as creator of the Moulin Rouge and Folies Bergere, knew a thing or two about big, frothy buildings. The Negresco opened first in 1912 and then, after a financial hiatus, again in January 1913 (thus its centenary spreads over two years). After the Second World War, it was living on past repute when Augier, her father, and her lawyer husband, Paul, bought it. Knowing little of hotels, Madame Augier ignored the '50s rule book (browns, greens, bordeaux reds) and brought in the brightest colours, silk wall hangings, period furniture, art - and artists. Picasso and Dali were regulars.
Chagall was a friend - "Though I didn't understand his art," she has said. "He made donkeys fly." Of Cocteau she said: "At dinner with him, I always resented the arrival of dessert because that meant the meal was almost over, and he was such a brilliant talker."
On one of my visits to the Negresco, my wife stumbled in a crowded lobby and almost felled the wife of the prime minister of China. On another, I was in the richly textured bar with Augier. She was telling me about being invited by the Shah to establish a hotel in Iran, and by Khrushchev ("he sat just over there") to sort out Intourist, the Soviet tourist agency. A woman swathed in furs approached. Augier chatted to her with charm.
"Who was that?" I asked. "A Russian countess," she said. "No idea which one. It goes in one ear and out the other."
Having batted off many purchase attempts in recent years from the likes of the Sultan of Brunei and, allegedly, Bill Gates ("You're not rich enough," she purportedly replied), Augier has established an endowment fund to ensure the Negresco's onward independence. Beneficiaries include humanitarian causes, initiatives promoting French art - and animal charities. This caused a stir a couple of years ago. "She's leaving the hotel to dogs and cats!" shouted more excitable websites. "Not really," says Pierre Couette, the hotel's full-time cultural consultant. "Animal charities come third."
Given that Augier has created and, since her husband's death in 1995, single-handedly steered one of the most distinctive hotels in the world, one might also argue that she can do what she damned well likes with her property. It has no swimming pool or, thank heavens, spa: the private beach is right opposite. It has a double Michelin-starred restaurant, a fairground-themed brasserie and a bar where the Red Army Choir once gave a private concert as a treat for Paul Augier. It has welcomed the Queen, Clint Eastwood, Ava Gardner and King Ibn Saud, who gave Augier the watch she still wears. "Jim Kerr of Simple Minds was giving interviews in there last week," the sales manager, Helene Seropian, said as we passed before the Salon Versailles.
Most of all, it is a paean of praise to deep-rooted French elegance, with its vital underscore of finely worked subversiveness. My only doubts concern the Yvaral carpets in the upstairs corridors. They are very busily numeric in design, causing mild hysteria if you've had a Richard Burton night in the bar.
Getting there Emirates has a fare to Nice from Sydney and Melbourne for about $2040 low-season return, including tax. Fly non-stop to Dubai (about 14hr) and then non-stop to Nice (7hr 30min); see emirates.com. This airfare allows you to fly via an Asian city and back from another European city. Australians do not require a visa for tourism for an accumulative stay of up to 90 days in a six-month period in the Schengen states.
Staying there Double rooms at the Negresco cost from €273 ($336) a night, including breakfast. A free exhibition on the Negresco's 100 years runs until January 5. The centenary celebrations continue until June 2013. See hotel-negresco-nice.com.