She wanted her home to be a paradise on earth. To the baroness this meant erecting a pink frosted mansion with multiple gardens that overlooked the rough-hewn beauty of the Cap Ferrat coast in France. I am here to see what paradise might look like and because I have a fascination for historic houses. To me they are windows into the past, a chance to pull back the curtain and discover how someone else lived and loved. It is obvious that Baroness Beatrice Ephrussi loved the French Riviera because she bought this bit of heaven (cobalt sea, cerulean sky, and sun-tinted cliffs) right out from under the Belgian king’s nose in 1906. It is also obvious that she had an eye for Louis XVI furniture and the works of Jean Fragonard. Yet, as I traipse through her marble Italianate patio and her chinoiserie boudoir I wonder:
“what makes a place a home?”
Is a home where you build a house? Can every house be considered a home? Literally speaking “home” defines a roof over one’s head, but the word has as many connotations as there are types of dwellings. I have seen château homes, modular homes, thatched hut homes, and even corrugated tin-roofed shanty homes. Home for some is where they grew up as a child, for others it is where they are raising their own children. Home can be where the loved ones roost, or where they put you when no one else wants to take care of you. Prowling through the Côte d’Azur, I have found places to sleep and wardrobes for my suitcase, but never felt at home. In attempting to create something resembling a home in this region, I have been subsuming my hotel stays with other options such as farmhouses, cottages, and local apartments. Whilst temporary, these abodes have given me a sense of comfort and being one of the locals: an impression of home yet never my home.
For Beatrice Ephrussi, home was perhaps where she could use her extravagant wealth to accumulate the best of everything: furniture, miniature porcelain, and flawless scenery. Was she happy here? Did she return to this mansion with her palms tingling in anticipation? Was the house more than a stopover on her summer tour? I cannot know the answers to these questions by simply examine Madame Ephrussi’s villa. There is only so much the Marie Antoinette escritoire, Savonnerie carpets, and Meissen chandelier can tell me. I realize as I pass from the château interior out onto the multi-tiered garden that this house reveals more about me than about Beatrice. I am neither an admirer of porcelain monkeys nor blushing facades. I am more at ease among the heat-faded olive trees and whispering Aleppo pines in her gardens than in the company of her lacquer chest and monogrammed screens. I am soothed by the blooming Philodendrons and uplifted by the fragrant pomegranate trees as I walk up the stairs to her airy folly. I am protected in the embrace of undergrowth and broken arch work. After crossing myriad pathways I discover the tranquil melody of a fountain in a hidden grotto of stone and ferns.
“I rest upon the cool bench while time stops and I hear nothing but the gurgle and drip of falling water. I have come home.”
As a wanderer and someone who has a passion for travel, I have often pondered whether I can ever feel at home anywhere. The newness of a place, the fact that it is unlike the previous place I stayed is what attracts me to a traveler’s life. Can someone like me, who has no longing for roots, ever say about a destination, “This is home?” Home for me is far beyond four walls and a curated collection of beloved items. It is more than comfortable furniture, more than a feeling of belonging, more than the house of my ancestors. My home is where I am at peace with my surroundings. My home is where I can be alone without loneliness. My home is where I feel unencumbered. A space which gives me a sense of who I am is a place I can call home, so for this reason I carry my home with me wherever I go. There is no place like home.
Madame Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild was an avid collector of Louis XV and Louis XVI style furniture, but she also acquired for her Cap Ferrat villa times personally belonging to the French sovereigns. These include a writing table and a monogrammed fire screen which were used by Marie Antoinette, a carpet commissioned by Louis XIV, and antique urns belonging to Louis XV and his mistress Madame de Pompadour.
Gardens such as the one at Villa Ephrussi inspire painters and poets. See what gardens inspire us in our journal: On Garden Paths.