20 JUN 2019: Some hotels are so iconic they are a destination. Such is the case with the Negresco Hotel, listed as a National Historic Building of France in 2003. It overlooks the famous Promenade des Anglais in Nice at one of the most beautiful points of view on the Bay of Angels. The Negresco’s 6,200 piece art collection on full display throughout the hotel is a mosaic of classical and contemporary spanning five centuries of art. The hotel’s future however is uncertain.

Jeanne Augier, the heirless matriarch of the palatial Negresco who ran the pink-domed Riviera landmark for 60 years died this past January at the age of 95. The death of the queen of “the Eiffel Tower of Nice” was seen as the end of an era. She inherited the hotel from her father in 1957 and built it up into a favourite with the Cote d'Azur glitterati. It’s named after its Romanian-born founder Henri Negresco who opened it in 1913.

Under Augier’s patronage the Negresco became a legend welcoming stars from the Beatles to Liz Taylor to Picasso and Salvador Dali. Elton John featured the hotel in the video for his hit “I'm Still Standing”. Montserrat Caballe spent 500 nights there. It was Augier they all came to see. She counted Chagall and Cocteau as friends.

In 2009 she bequeathed the ownership of building, its profits and its artworks to a charity foundation devoted to animals and the poor to try to ward off international hotel chains and foreign buyers when she died. Her art includes works of Dali, Rigaud, Boucher and a giant yellow statue of a woman by Niki De Saint Phalle.

However, the commercial side of the business is under legal protection and no one knows (or at least no one is telling) who will carry it forward. The hotel employees I talked with did not know what the future brings.

“Madame”, as she was called by her employees, lived on the sixth floor with her beloved cats and dogs. (The Negresco admitted guests’ pets too including Salvador Dali’s cheetah.) Her 97-percent stake in the hotel, which is profitable, was valued at between €300 and €400 million ($450 to $600 million) in 2016, excluding the art and the furniture.

She had numerous suitors for possession of the hotel over the years. One story the staff likes to tell is how Bill Gates offered her a blank cheque for the hotel to which she retorted, “You are not rich enough”.

An activist for the welfare of the disabled, people in difficulty and an animal lover who campaigned against bullfighting, she tasked her fund with “easing animal and human suffering”.

While the succession of the 124 room Nice palace is complicated, the hotel carries on. It’s been undergoing renovations and the room we had was freshly redone. Our view of the Bay of Angels from our balcony was magnificent.

The casual restaurant the Rotonde Brasserie has been totally revived in collaboration with Studio Marc Hertrich & Nicolas Adnet. While they kept elements of the animal carrousel design (e.g. the white horses) imagined by Madame Augier in 1984, I’m not sure if she would have loved how they eliminated most of the carrousel animal figures for a more modern and sleeker look.

Helming the kitchen at the hotel since August 2018 is Michelin-starred Chef and MOF (French worker of the year), Virginie Basselot, the first time that a woman has donned the Executive Chef’s hat at the Negresco. She’s also responsible for the hotel’s two-star Michelin restaurant, The Chantecler.

Dining at The Chantecler with sumptuous woodwork and tapestries dating back to 1751, is beautiful experience. We picked the €150 ($225) per person surprize menu and were treated to such delicious dishes as duck foie gras confit, sea bass and oyster tartar with caviar from Sologne, roasted veal sweetbread with capers and a rich dark chocolate, mango and chili pepper dessert creation.

It’s clear despite the uncertainty, the staff at the hotel are staying calm and carrying on Madame’s legacy. www.hotel-negresco-nice.com/en

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Margaret Swaine

Margaret is a nationally published wine, spirits, food and travel writer, who has authored thousands of articles on these subjects for magazines and newspapers.

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