‘I think this calls for something really special.’ Edward had a gleam in his eye. ‘Maybe ‘special’ like lunch at the Grand Palais?’
Caroline shrieked, stood on tiptoe and gave him a kiss. Jill, who had got as far as the bottom of the stairs, gave another whoop.
‘The Grand Palais? Is that that pink thingy on the cliff with the fifty-foot gates? Will we get in? Do you have to bribe the chef? Caro, what are you going to wear?’
Extract from ‘Hot Basque’
In the ‘French Summer Novels’ the Hôtel du Palais*, sometimes referred to as ‘le Grand Palais’, makes a star appearance. This amazing building is the perfect romantic symbol. The original construction, the Villa Eugénie, was commissioned in 1854 by Napoléon III, Emperor of France, as a love token for his Spanish-born bride, Eugénie. From the windows of this summer residence, built in the shape of an E, she could look out towards the Pyrenees and her native country. The yearly visits of the royal couple and their entourage would shape the destiny of Biarritz, transforming it from a little-known fishing village to the ‘The Queen of Resorts and the Resort of Kings.’ **
María Eugenia Ignacia Agustina de Palafox-Portocarrero de Guzmán y Kirkpatrick was born in Spain in 1826. Did she ever dream that that her romantic destiny was to become Empress of France? That one day she would be introduced to Louis Napoléon Bonaparte, that he would be struck by a coup de foudre, and that, after a two-year courtship involving some fancy footwork on the part of the heroine, she would finally get her man?
But the royal couple’s life together was not without its ups and downs. Napoléon was an unabashed Don Juan with an impressive list of mistresses. ‘L’empereur était volage…un incorrigible séducteur’, according to his biographers. Flighty, an inveterate seducer with an insatiable appetite for his ‘little distractions’, he reportedly said “It is usually the man who attacks. Personally, I defend myself, and I often capitulate.’
When Eugénie first appeared on the scene the beau monde was divided. Her detractors called her a ‘jumped up Spaniard’, ‘an ambitious adventuress’, while her supporters praised her ‘graciousness’ her ‘Spanish vivacity’ and striking beauty. What she thought about her poor husband having to beat off hordes of lovestruck women has gone on record when, at a famous soirée, he disappeared with a certain Mme de Castiglione. Seeing him return looking somewhat rumpled, Eugénie is said to have flown into a rage and heaped coals of wrath upon his head before the assembled guests. ***
No wonder he had to shower her with love tokens.
‘As the barrier swung upwards, Jill clutched Caroline’s hand
The taxi dropped them in front of the imposing entrance.
Caroline smiled at the look on Jill’s face as they stepped inside the foyer. She bet she’d looked exactly the same one year ago, when they first came for cocktails.
Le Grand Palais. Its interior breathed luxury, elegance and refinery. The opulent belle époque decor was so packed with tiny details, carvings, mouldings, delicate traceries of goldleaf that it could have been overwhelming. But the romantic history of the palace made everything seem quite fitting. A gift from an Emperor to his beloved, it was perfect. Marble pillars, magnificent teardrop chandeliers suspended from lofty ceilings, glittering fractals of light reflected from dozens of mirrors, all transported the beholder back to a vanished world.
‘I’m in a Renoir painting,’ said Jill. ‘Really. Do you know that one, Caro…’Dance in the City’, there’s this woman in a beautiful white satin ballgown and long white gloves, dancing with this bloke…a dark handsome stranger, a bit like Antoine now I think of it…’
Caroline nodded. It was easy to imagine a sea of dancers waltzing through the magnificent salons, across the shining floors, past the painted frescoes, pausing to chat among the palm trees and flowers. Easy to succumb to the magic, and dream.’
Empress Eugénie wearing a gown designed by Charles Frederic Worth
In the portrait on the left Eugénie is wearing a gown by the father of haute couture, Charles Worth. She became his most famous client, launching a new vogue in fashion. Seeing her dresses, fashionistas in Europe and America would order la tournure, or bustle, when visiting their dressmaker: the era of the crinoline was over.
And modern fashionistas? For their chic lunch date, Caroline wears a dress of ‘vivid scarlet’. It was ‘fitted, emphasising her small round breasts and tiny waist. High-necked, and plain except for ruched cap sleeves.’ Jill wears ‘a dress in black and white georgette, the sleeves and low neckline picked out in satin which threw Jill’s velvety skin into relief. It fell semi-fitted to a slightly flared hemline, just above the knee. The bold black and white vertical stripes drew attention to her voluptuous bosom and flat stomach.’
Will hot Basque Antoine be impressed?
‘Ah, Irish. You are more beautiful zan last night. And last night you were very very beautiful.’
Aaah. Some men know just what to say to women.
Of course there’s no way our fictional heroines could have rivalled Eugénie in terms of jewelry. The Empress had a stupendous collection which included the famous Pelegrina pearl, another gift from Napoléon (what had he done?), reputed to be the most perfect pearl in the world. As part of its legend, it became famous once more in 1969, playing a role in a love story that thrilled fans everywhere when Richard Burton bought it for Elizabeth Taylor as a Valentine’s Day gift. (Actually, she lost it, and only after searching the room frantically for the priceless bauble did she recover it–from the mouth of one her Pekingese dogs…)
‘Shaded from the sun by a vast awning, the terrace seemed to overhang the sea, so close that you could almost dive in…. below, in a panoramic sweep, the Atlantic spread before them, filling the graceful curve of the bay as far as the opposite promontory.
On their visit last summer they had chosen the house cocktails, the Emperor and the Empress. Caroline remembered sharing complicit looks with Edward, their relationship was just starting to blossom, she had been filled with unbearable happiness.
‘Good,’ said Antoine, ‘Emperors and Empresses for one day. Let us dream.’
He may not have the Peregrina pearl up his sleeve, but he’s got the sexiest French accent, not to mention other assets, as Jill soon finds out…
To raise a toast to all romantic dreamers, ‘Hot Basque’ is on special offer at $ 0.99, £0.79 and €0.99 (from 26th May, limited time only)
- * http://www.hotel-du-palais.com/
- **for more about Biarritz see my blog post February 2015, ‘Biarritz’.
- ***‘Les Couples Royaux dans l’Histoire’ Jean-François Solnon, Broché.