If you want to feel, even briefly, how it would be to live in one of the exclusive properties on the Cote d’Azur, then you must visit the Villa Ephrussi on Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat where you are free to explore the house and gardens at your leisure. Envisioned according to the exacting standards of Baroness Beatrice de Rothschild-Ephrussi (1864-1934) in the early twentieth century, it remains one of the most remarkable villas on the Riviera.
The daughter of the fabulously wealthy banker, Alphonse James de Rothschild, Beatrice was married at nineteen to a friend of her parents, Maurice Ephrussi. A compulsive gambler, Maurice and Beatrice spent part of each year in her villa in Monaco until Maurice’s staggering gambling debts (he owed the equivalent of 30 million Euros at the time) forced Beatrice, with the support of her family, to sue for and receive a divorce in 1904. Shortly after, in 1905, her father died leaving his huge fortune to her. It was then that she fell in love with and purchased the parcel of land on Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat that is now home to her villa.
The land she bought was a rocky, inhospitable site, far from the lushly verdant garden you see today. Achille Duchene, a French landscape architect, was hired to remedy this and design the gardens. Dynamiting the rock and replacing the barren terrain with huge quantities of dirt, he created a garden where a variety of plants thrive. Today there are nine gardens, the most prominent being the formal French garden directly behind the villa with a long reflecting pool fed by water that cascades from the “Temple of Love” down a series of steps.
When you stand on the upper story terrace overlooking the formal garden, don’t be surprised that you feel as though you’re standing on the prow of a ship, glimpses of the Mediterranean on either side. Beatrice planned the vista to look that way. In fact, the other name for the villa is “Isle de France” referring to a ship on which Beatrice took a memorable voyage. To increase the nautical theme, she even had her gardeners dress in sailor suits as they worked on the gardens.
Beatrice wasn’t the easiest client to please and she went through more than fifteen architects before finally choosing Jacques Marcel Aubertin whose design perfectly matched her vision. Construction of the Italianate villa began in 1907 and was completed in 1912. Beatrice used this as her winter residence until shortly before her death when she donated the villa, its contents and the gardens to the Académie des Beaux Arts and Institut de France. Like her father, Beatrice was an avid collector of art and objets d’art, much of which is on display in the Villa, including a huge collection of porcelain as well as old master paintings, sculpture, clothing and furniture.
Abandoned during WWII, the villa and its long neglected gardens were brought back to life after the war. It was at this time that the villa, once painted yellow, was painted the pale pink color you see today.
Take your time exploring the villa (the audio tour is full of information) as well as the gardens. If you’re lucky, you might find actors portraying Beatrice and her guests as they would have dressed in the Belle Époque.