American Independence at the Extraordinary Domaine la Dilecta

The French Riviera is renowned for its rambling estates and sumptuous villas.  Take Domaine la Dilecta.  So grand is this 10-bedroom, 10-bathroom, 19,375 square-foot (1,800 square-meter) residence and its 4.5-hectare park, it deserves the designation of Domaine.

Domaine la Dilecta has intrigued me, more any than others, since my family began coming to Cap d’Antibes in 2005.  Part of it is proximity.  There’s something enthralling about the place just up the road, the one you stumble on during an innocent tour of your neighbourhood.

I first stumbled on Domaine la Dilecta while biking through the Cap d’Antibes.
I first stumbled on Domaine la Dilecta while biking through the Cap d’Antibes.

I happened upon Domaine la Dilecta in this way, while biking the winding roads just behind Bellevue, navigating their circuit enclosed by high shrubs and fences on both sides, all the time climbing toward Cap d’Antibes’ working lighthouse.  But at one crossroads, the fences came to an abrupt halt.  Smack in front of me stood a crescent of 12-foot, black-iron spears with golden tips.  Their rods formed an artful fence fitted with golden lettering announcing, with determined majesty, the entrance to Domaine la Dilecta.

The estate’s downright grandeur is the other part that has kept me bewitched.  Peering between the black iron posts, the size of this single property on the Cap d’Antibes is truly breathtaking.  I could spy (and by the obviously-placed security camera, I was certainly spied upon) the sprawling residence, an exquisite example of 1920s, boxy architecture painted Mediterranean white, set nobly within a verdant, English lawn (or more precisely, an expansive park) at the end of a long, winding drive.

Next door, the Aga Khan’s former residence was set to receive more than the government-approved, minor facelift.
Next door, the Aga Khan’s former residence was set to receive more than the government-approved, minor facelift.

Rumour has it that an Italian family has owned this estate since the 1940s, which I’m guessing means they got it for a decent price just after the war.  Right next door to the Domaine is the Aga Khan’s former residence – now a famous ruin after one Russian oligarch tried to “improve” it (i.e., to grotesquely enlarge it, so the estate agents’ rumours go), when the mairie put the kibosh on unapproved works.  The property has remained vacant ever since, gaping chunks blown out of its beautiful, stone bones, its grounds growing wild for six years and counting.  Neighbours like this only enhance the mystique surrounding life at the top of the Cap.

In the past, I’ve parked my bike outside Domaine la Dilecta to photograph her and her imposing entryway.  But all that changed with some vague invitation on the Fourth of July.

Our Austrian neighbours here invited this Canadian-American family to a party on Monday night.  The fact that Monday was the 4th, as in the Fourth of July, was hardly part of the invitation.  The Austrians insisted we must meet their good friends the Pritzkers, who rent out the delectable Domaine la Dilecta for the summer.  The Pritzkers were – as many Americans would know – scions of a storied, fellow American family.

Naturally, we accepted.  Putting two and two together, I thought about wearing red, white and blue to the event – but Philippe encouraged me into teal and pink, something sleeveless and silky and precisely Côte d’Azur.

At 7:50 p.m. sharp, on an oddly drizzly July evening, Philippe, six-year-old Lolo and I link up with a small convoy of black vehicles emerging from the Austrians’ home.  We wipe sprinkles of rain from our windscreens as the parade weaves upward toward the Domaine.

This time, the first time for me, Dilecta’s black iron gates open.  Our parade sweeps up the long drive to reach the magnificent, white residence.  At the same time, caterers run tables and chairs from a poolside marquee into the main house.  The weather has prompted last-minute changes.

The fleet deposits our brigade at Domaine la Dilecta’s doorway, adults and children in about equal number.  Our Austrian neighbour is there, glittering in chunky bijoux, frizzy hair running wild down her back.  The Pritzkers, I learn, charged her with populating their party.

“I’ve brought 23 people!” she says proudly.  Her friends are Swiss and Norweigian, British and Austrian and – thanks to our threesome on this US holiday – Canadian and American.  Plenty of sequins populate the entry hall, but there are no red-and-white stripes or blue stars to be found.

Lolo maintains her usual, 45-second routine of shyness, hiding behind my legs.  Then she bounds off full-throttle with a troop of six-to-nine-year-old girls.  They gallop freely through the stately Domaine la Dilecta like it’s Cinderella’s Castle at Disneyworld, each room an open invitation to be explored.  Lolo darts back into view momentarily wearing a blue, sparkly top hat.  She’s headed to the disco cave, she tells me, and disappears again.

Meanwhile, the adults congregate in the Domaine’s salon, an airy room paved in black-and-white-checkered, marble flooring and graced by an oversized marble fireplace.  I weave between the other foreigners trying to determine how they, like us, have ended up in the Domaine tonight.

But I want to be a child!  I want to run through the rooms and halls of Domaine la Dilecta to see her splendor rather than being cooped up in a single, though spacious and justly grand, sitting room with arching windows over an undulating, green lawn.

A mother has a right to check up on her six-year-old daughter, right?  Especially one that’s gone off to a “disco cage” (which is – I swear – how I heard it from my sweet, baby child’s tongue)?

Younger guests enjoy their own dining room.
Younger guests enjoy their own dining room.

Vigilant mommy trots off to discover Domaine la Dilecta’s library, its wood-paneled walls decorated with frescos and intricate carvings.  She finds a dining room with an enormous, crystal chandelier and walls covered by mirrors that are mounted with rows of vibrantly coloured plates.  Vigilant mommy works out that the handle on an antique-mirrored wall in the hallway leads to a hidden bathroom.  She dodges caterers in a utilitarian butler’s pantry and goes in search of the disco cage, a musty building across the back driveway complete with black lights, full bar and leopard-motif carpeting.  (Here, I find my daughter dancing to rock music, quite innocently.)

I’m not meant to be playing nanny, I know.  Reluctantly at first, I return to mingle with the sequins – and to work out this enigma of Independence Day on the Cap.  Does anyone here but me (and my long-suffering Canadian husband) realize today’s a Big Holiday?  Earlier today, Yankee greetings flew into me via email from Ohio and Colorado, from England and up the road in Biot.  In London, a 10-foot statue of Ronald Reagan was unveiled outside the US Embassy.

The Fourth of July, I am quite sure, remains a major holiday.  But here, the only evidence I find of red-white-and-blueness are a few little girls running around in blue, sparkly top hats.  I strike up conversation with a Brit.  I ask him, isn’t this the day the Brits like to call “British Thanksgiving”?  But conversation drifts away from any notion about the sort of independence that’s celebrated on the First by Canadians, the Fourteenth by the French and – does anyone realize it? – on the Fourth by the Americans!

At the dinner buffet table I catch up with my fellow American host.  It’s a marvelous party, I say to Mr Pritzker.  Tell me:  Monday night is honestly as good a night as any to throw a party, but is this party meant to coincide with the Fourth of July?

The evening’s red, white and blue, it turns out, is out in the marquee by the pool house.  Yes, whether anyone else realizes it, this is meant to be an American Independence Day celebration!  And at that moment, it’s as if every other Yank at Domaine la Dilecta emerges from the gorgeous woodwork in one fell swoop.  Philippe and I share a dinner table with the Pritzkers’ American houseguests.

“To the Fourth of July!” we say, chinking our French glasses filled with Austrian wine in the royal splendor owned by the Italians.

Suddenly, not far away, fireworks explode outside Domaine la Dilecta’s arched windows.  We drift into the humid, nighttime air – the Americans, Canadians, Austrians, English, Swiss and Norwegians alike – and spread along the graceful terrace.  An expansive pool and fully equipped pool house is situated to one side of the grounds; the black, iron entry gates lie miles off in the other direction.  But our eyes are directed over the rolling greens, above a mask of surrounding trees and into the nighttime sky.

“Just on time!”  Mr Pritzker announces with grandiose and comic charm.

Fireworks on the Fourth surely would’ve been included for guests of the renowned Hôtel du Cap.
Fireworks on the Fourth surely would’ve been included for guests of the renowned Hôtel du Cap.

Truth be told, the fireworks are probably going off at water’s edge for clients of the opulent Hôtel du Cap.  Or maybe, if I have my directions confused, it’s an extravagant Russian celebration emanating from Roman Abramovich’s Château de la Croë.  Or quite possibly, these fireworks are part of some festival d’art pyrotechnique, one of an endless stream of firework shows, usually set to musical scores, that sparkle and pop along the Côte d’Azur during the celebrated summertime.

But who cares whether these fireworks are French or Russian or the glittering backdrop to some Wagnerian aria.  For this single moment, we pretend the celebration is just for us, a small band of Americans who, sprinkled among the world, populates Domaine la Dilecta on the Fourth of July.  Rarely do I feel so patriotic as when I celebrate an American holiday on foreign land!

The fireworks end and we head indoors.  The caterers are collecting plates and setting the tables for dessert.  Now – finally – evidence of the evening’s intent comes to light.

On the tables are paper dessert napkins.  They’re red, white and blue – and in the design of the good, ol’ stars and stripes.

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