When I was young there was a movie in which the principals, a boy and a girl, ran off together to an incredibly romantic village that became the scene of a steamy yet poignant romance. It was one of those whipped-cream episodes that tug at the heart and make for misty-eyed audiences. It slips my mind whether the story took place in Italy or France or some other dreamy destination, but I do recall that in the end, alas, the couple went their separate ways. This was the way films were made when I was young: Love stories had bittersweet endings.
Since I'm a sentimentalist, the intensity of this particular affair stuck in my mind, so that when I set out to discover the rest of the world, I began compiling a list of my favorite romantic destinations. Because the list is long, I have narrowed it to an even dozen choices, and surely St. Jean-Cap Ferrat belongs on the list. A small gem on the French Riviera, it was a favorite of David Niven, the late actor. Cap Ferrat is a village that rises at water's edge, and I recall how my window in the Hotel de la Voile de'Or framed the entire scene: the harbor, the buildings with their red tile roofs and yellow shutters, and geraniums flowing from window boxes. Set serenely in the corner of Cap Ferrat is a square with half a dozen oleander trees and benches where romantics gather while shadows fall. It is a scene that stirs the heart, particularly at sunset, a time of twilight contentment.
Mornings are another matter in Cap Ferrat. In the early hours, residents of this village near Nice are awakened by church bells (the clock tower on the church tells the time and the bells ring as a reminder, on the hour and the half hour). Couples stroll beside the water while others take their places at sidewalk cafes to study the small fishing boats and handsome yachts that crowd the harbor. An old flower peddler tends her stall, and the salt air is redolent with heavenly aromas drifting from a bakery along the quay. Certain places should never be visited alone, and surely Cap Ferrat is a destination to be shared.
Then there comes to mind the village of Barbizon, which is set in a corner of the forest of Fontainebleau, 35 miles southwest of Paris. It is a gentle place where visitors take up residence in cheery inns and walk in the footsteps of such masters as Millet, Corot and Henri and Theodore Rousseau. With a population of barely 1,000, Barbizon is a favorite haunt of visitors, who drive down from Paris to dine in its inns and to picnic in the forest of Fontainebleau.
The village is particularly crowded on Sundays and especially so in summertime when the air is fragrant with flowers. Of the inns in Barbizon, the most celebrated is the Bas Breau, where Robert Louis Stevenson took up residence briefly. Even for France, the Bas Breau is something special. Rooms once occupied by artists provide shelter for the weary in a garden setting that would inspire Millet to seek out his easel and capture the scene on canvas.
Surrounded by trees and flowers, the Bas Breau is a poem, a joyous place with a garden that provides fresh vegetables for the table and flowers for the lounge. Guests dine on quail eggs, veal, lamb and Charolais beef that's served in a truffle sauce. In autumn, the menu lists venison, wild boar, woodcock, pheasant, partridge and snipe. So popular is the Bas Breau that the proprietor frequently turns away guests. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was a regular during his reign as Supreme Commander at SHAEF Headquarters in Fontainebleau; Princess Grace was another.
Across the road is another inn of great warmth, Les Pleiades, which film maker Stanley Kramer described once as "one of the most beautiful restaurants in France." Its small bar is the perfect choice for a rainy evening. When a chill settles over Barbizon, a wood fire crackles pleasantly in one corner of the room; there is the scent of flowers and the luxury of deep sofas and the relaxing notes of classical melodies that entertain guests in a dining room with walls that are hung with the paintings of Barbizon's artists. In summer, weather permitting, luncheon is served outdoors beneath a huge chestnut tree. Les Pleiades is a place to choose, \o7 cherie\f7 , only when accompanied by someone special.
Before taking leave of France, I would be remiss if I failed to mention a magnificent castle that welcomes romantics in the little village of St. Symphorien, which is only a short journey from Paris. It is there that entrepreneur Rene Traversac turned an ancient castle into a plush residence for discerning guests. Chateau d'Esclimont (circa 1543) takes in a dungeon, which has been converted into guest rooms. In a single year, Traversac spent 20 million francs repairing and remodeling Chateau d'Esclimont until now, once again, it is regarded as a showplace on the road between Rambouillet and Chartres, with a feudal presence that draws guests from every corner of the world.