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Along the routes of the books, The Grasse Diary and On the Banks of the Seine

By Vasily Zubakin, Ph.d in Economics, a writer

A Pere Bouttau restaurant

Galina Kuznetsova’s The Grasse Diary several times mentions I. A. Bunin’s visits to Chez Bouttau Restaurant in Nice. On 2nd May 1928 Mark Aldanov brought the writer there. “The small restaurant is underground, situated in a maze of streets as narrow as corridors. The entrance is through the kitchen. The owner sings affectedly – they call him pere Bouttau; it is written on the menu that the eatery is sixty years old. Only Mark Alexandrovich dined, while we ate asparagus and drank rose wine. We talked about literature and young writers.”

Apparently, they liked the place, and daily breakfasts with Aldanov at Chez Bouttau Restaurant began.

Again, we find the description of Chez Bouttau Restaurant in an entry dated 24th May, when Bunin and Kuznetsova arrived in Nice. “The owner, pere Bouttau, is certainly a rogue. He is overly familiar with clients in a feigned manner, with his jokes. It’s cheap, but food is served on such tiny plates that Ivan Alexeevich always ordered everything twice. He convinced himself that they cooked well and that he could only eat there, though their pasta was undercooked more than once, for which everyone would have had a good talking-to at home. Aldanov once suffered for two days after choking on a small bone of a nasty little fish.”

After this description Kuznetsova’s authority is instantly undermined in the eyes of readers: the correct way of serving al dente (from Italian: “to the tooth”) pasta is underdone. And pere Bouttau was undoubtedly right.

Two years passed, and Chez Bouttau Restaurant moved to a new place, and on 15th October 1930 Kuznetsova gave a detailed description of the menu: “I ate flounder and mussels, and I. A. – octopus in sauce, some small fried fish, gigot and veal with peas. All this was served on small plates, and everything was delicious. For dessert we had pears and grapes and rust-coloured, insipid coffee – they can’t make it. Pere Bouttau has aged slightly and seemed sad since his move to a new place. ‘He has more chores!’ We decided.”

After such a description readers will definitely want to find this restaurant and repeat “Bunin’s breakfast”, but the internet gives nothing on the request: “Nice, Chez Bouttau Restaurant” in either Russian or French. Fortunately, Kuznetsova left some clues in the text of her memoirs: “…in the old town, on the corner of the street with the magnificent name Colonna-d’Istria. The door of this Provencal restaurant is old, made of walnut and covered on the inside with red cloth, with a carved handle, which opens straight onto a small market square near the old church.”

After such clear descriptions the task of finding the restaurant becomes easier, albeit problems remain: Rue Colonna-d’Istria runs past only one church – the Cathedral of St Reparata, but there are no restaurants on the corners of the street closest to it. And Rossetti Square next to the cathedral is not a market square, it sells only ice-cream (including, unusually, tomato, rosemary, lavender, thyme and basil flavour). Maybe Kuznetsova’s memory failed?!

A long walk through all the restaurants around the cathedral and on Rossetti Square was finally crowned with success: I came across an old carved door – unpainted, darkened, most likely decorative and tightly closed. And beside it was the modern door of Le Romarin (“Rosemary”) Restaurant.

Luck was waiting for me inside: on the wall under the glass hung the menu of Chez Bouttau Restaurant – handwritten and on yellowed paper. So, it was the very restaurant that I. A. Bunin used to visit. The interior, including the wooden beams (which had turned black) of the ceiling, corresponded to the description in The Grasse Diary.

This discovery was made by the author ten years ago, and in 2022 Rene Guerra, a well-known collector and researcher of Russian art abroad, became interested in this “discovery”. The idea appeared to visit Le Romarin Restaurant and try to repeat Bunin’s Breakfast.

The first thing that alerted us was the absence of the old carved walnut door; instead, there was a new modern door. Our apprehension was justified: inside there was a modern interior with an abundance of plastic, and the old menu of Chez Bouttau Restaurant had disappeared from the wall! There was puzzlement in Rene’s eyes: “Where are we now? What did Bunin have to do with it?!”

It must be said here that in the final years of her life Galina Kuznetsova communicated a lot with the young Slavist Guerra and bequeathed her library and archive to him, so our visit to the restaurant, described in detail in The Grasse Diary, was not just a lunch in the old town…

Fortunately, an elderly barman with a grey moustache confirmed that there used to be both the walnut door and the old menu under the glass and it was the very restaurant that used to be called Chez Bouttau Restaurant ninety years before. When asked, “Where is everything that was here ten years ago?”, he replied, “Repair, gentlemen! Modern interior!”

The Russian House in Juan-les-Pins

Little is known about I. A. Bunin’s first trip to Juan-les-Pins in March– June 1947. From V. N. Bunina’s correspondence with M. S. Tsetlina you can learn about poor nutrition, Bunin’s illness and communication with Aldanov and Teffi who called on him. Due to lack of funds the writer travelled alone, without Vera Nikolaevna, and this, along with the illness, caused additional discomfort. Therefore, the duration of his stay at the resort was a little longer than two months.

The second (1947-1948) and subsequent (1949-1950) visits with Vera Nikolaevna were longer, and we learn more about them mainly from Irina Odoevtseva’s memoirs.

Odoevtseva’s books, On the Banks of the Neva and On the Banks of the Seine, are a real encyclopaedia of the lives of Silver Age representatives. It so happened that between 1947 and 1950 Odoevtseva and her husband, the poet Georgy Ivanov, lived literally next door to the Bunins.

Handwritten menu of Chez Bouttau Restaurant in 1932

Bunin first met Odoevtseva in 1926 at the birthday party of B. K. Zaitsev, though earlier, following the publication of the debut short story, The Falling Star (earlier there was only poetry), Ivan Alexeevich had sent a postcard with a very commendable review to the editorial office of the Zveno newspaper. In the late 1920s and in the 1930s Odoevtseva met with I. A. and V. N. Bunin and Galina Kuznetsova more than once in Paris, but just three years of life literally next door in Juan-les-Pins led to the creation of reminiscences that are not inferior in depth and thoroughness of descriptions to the famous Grasse Diaries.

In 1947 Bunin was seventy-seven, and Odoevtseva was fifty-two; their meeting place was Juan–les–Pins, a seaside resort in the suburbs of Antibes, halfway between Nice and Cannes. Juan-les-Pins appeared in the late nineteenth century and became known only in the 1920s thanks to American investors who built hotels and casinos, and writers such as Fitzgerald and Hemingway (for example, the characters of the novel, Tender Is the Night, live here).

In the late 1940s an inexpensive holiday home called the Russian House was situated in the town: not on the coast with luxury hotels, but among low homes on Fournel Hill, fenced off from the resort part by a high railway embankment.

The villa was surrounded by a garden with a Lebanese cedar, palm trees and olive trees. Emigres from Russia of various political views lived in two living floors above the living-room, the dining-room and the kitchen: from the monarchist (as he called himself) Georgy Ivanov to the left-wing writers Arkady Rumanov and Augusta Damanskaya.

The house was run by V. F. Rogovsky, a former Socialist revolutionary and a delegate of the All-Russian Constituent Assembly, who resided in Nice permanently and performed his duties carelessly. Staff theft was common in the house, it was dirty and there were even bedbugs and fleas. Later, Rogovsky was replaced by V. M. Doria (Pogrebinskaya) – and everything went well: during the second and third visits V. N. Bunina didn’t complain in her letters and diaries about the quality of food and care in the Russian House.

Bunin had a severe chronic disease called emphysema, and one of the best émigré doctors, B. N. Belyayev, worked in the Russian House (in addition, he was a writer who published his work under the penname Shcherbitsky). The climate of Juan-les-Pins with its pines (“pin” translates as “pine”), coupled with the medical control of Belyayev, helped I. A. Bunin maintain his health, which is why prolonged trips to the Russian House took place between 1947 and 1950.

The window of Irina Odoevtseva and Georgy Ivanov’s room in the building of the former Russian House holiday home in Juan-les-Pins

In the first months of autumn 1947 Bunin did not leave his rooms, and not only because of the forty-nine steps of the stairs and his illnesses: he had some depression because of the scandal after his disaffiliation from the Union of Writers of Russia and many other reasons. The Russian émigré writers split into the “friends of the USSR” and its opponents. Bunin, who had refused to return to the USSR, was admired by Nadezhda Teffi: “What have you lost by refusing to go? What have you thrown in the face of the Soviets? Millions, fame and all the blessings of life. A square and a metro station decorated with malachite would immediately have been named after you, you would have had a dacha in the Crimea, a car and personal servants. Just think! – a writer, an academician, a Nobel Prize winner –worldwide renown! And you have thrown everything in their face. I can’t think of anyone else capable of such a gesture.”

Gradually Ivan Alexeevich got better. Vera Nikolaevna’s care (despite poor food and cold – “150 francs a day goes on firewood for the fireplace!”) yielded good results, and daily communication began – visiting G. Ivanov and I. Odoevtseva next door; many hours of conversations with them were described in detail in the book, On the Banks of the Seine.

Work at a writing-table, walks in the garden and occasionally to the distant seashore (beyond the railway!) were Bunin’s daily routine in those years in Juan-les-Pins.

The Bunins’ social circles in Juan-les-Pins, apart from G. Ivanov and I. Odoevtseva, included Mark Aldanov, who lived in Nice, the engineer A. P. Klyagin, M. Baltrushaitis, E. Tauber and others who sometimes dropped in.

Among the most unique “social events” were Easter pancakes described by Odoevtseva; a reception at le Negresco Hotel for the Russian House; lastly, in 1950 the Russian House itself hosted a charity lunch for the poor (“twenty-six people, snacks with vodka, herring, eggs, potatoes, borscht with meat, sausages and salo, veal rissoles with carrots and béchamel sauce, two oranges for each person and wine”). Proper management of V.M. Doria yielded fruits!

Unfortunately, in correspondence and memoirs no one ever indicated the address of the Russian House; my search query “Russian House of Juan-les-Pins” did not give any address in either Russian or French, so I had to take the book, On the Banks of the Seine, and go in search of it…

The first clue in Odoevtseva’s book is that on the way to the sea you should go over a railway embankment. So the southern, coastal, part of Juan-les-Pins was ruled out, and additional hope appeared: in the southern part there were almost no villas left in the early twentieth century –the whole area was built up with plain five-nine-storeyed modern houses; in the northern part many villas remained.

The second clue is in one of V. N. Bunina’s letters to Teffi: “Here we are again in the Fournem exile.” Clearly, it is an error in deciphering the handwritten text! In the northern part of Juan-les-Pins there is Fournel Hill; therefore, I decided to look in this area.

The third clue – again from Odoevtseva’s book – is a large garden around the villa; with the help of satellite images several villas with gardens were found on the Google map.

The fourth clue from the same book was an indication of the second living floor (the ground floor is for utilities), which means that the villa should be three–storeyed viewed from outside.

Overall view of the prison in Grasse

A walking expedition took a whole day. Only one such villa was found at 4 Avenue Pierre Curie, with an ATSCAF sign. It turned out to be a twenty-two–room hotel, part of the network of the Tourist, Sports and Cultural Association of Financial Administrations – similar to the trade union of financiers in France, or more precisely, retired financiers.

Doubts remained till the moment I entered the building: an ancient forged metal octagonal lamp that looked absolutely Russian hung in the lobby! The young hotel administrator did not know all the history of the villa but confirmed that the lamp had remained from the previous owners and had been preserved during reconstruction in the 1980s, when a modern-style building was added to the main building (to the north wall, where there were windows of the rooms of I. A. and V. N. Bunin). The facade remained the same, as well as the eastern windows, where Ivan Alexeevich would often come and sit for a long time by Ivanov and Odoevtseva’s window to admire the snow-capped peaks of the Alps on the horizon…

The discovery was made at Easter and celebrated in the villa garden with symbolic pancakes according to Bunin’s recipe: butter is spread on a pancake, then caviar over it, then sour cream and a second pancake on top. Siberian salmon caviar was brought from Moscow, sour cream (with difficulty) was bought at a supermarket, and pancakes had to be made from thin Armenian lavash from the same supermarket…

Today at Easter it is no longer possible to get into Bunin’s garden: in 2020 an investment tender was announced, and the villa with its garden was divided into fourteen apartments provided that the historical appearance of the building and the main trees in the garden are preserved. Now you can’t get into the garden –most of it has become a carpark for apartment owners, and the former Russian House building can only be seen through a fence, but the address remains the same: 4 Avenue Pierre Curie.

What is wrong with modern Grasse?

100 years ago, when Ivan Bunin took up residence in Grasse, it was a prestigious town that attracted aristocrats, writers and actors. The distance from the coast created the opportunity for secluded recreation and conditions for creative work, with Cannes and Nice nearby – about a dozen miles away. The famous Route Napoleon passes through Grasse: after landing on 1st March 1815 in the bay of Golfe Juan with an army of 1,200 men, Napoleon proceeded to Grasse, passed through the mountains to Grenoble and then entered Paris triumphantly. The Emperor’s daughter, Princess Pauline Bonaparte-Borghese, Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, King Albert of Belgium, Baroness Alice de Rothschild, H.G. Wells, Edith Piaf and Gerard Philipe – many celebrities lived here.

Most tourists know Grasse as the perfume capital of the world and visit the factories of fine perfumes that have become museums; Patrick Süskind‘s novel, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, and a wonderful film based on this book contributed to popularizing Grasse.

Fans of Ivan Bunin’s work come with the book The Grasse Diary in their hands and look for the Belvedere, Jeanette and Mont Fleury villas, bringing flowers to the monument to the writer in the Gardens of Princess Pauline, climbing the mountains along the Route Napoleon.

The author of this article managed to get a persimmon fruit from an ancient tree in one of these villas: he dreamed of growing such a tree, but the fruit turned out to be without seeds…

Unfortunately, in the last two decades Russian visitors to Grasse have noticed obvious changes: once you swerve from the “perfume” route in the town centre, you suddenly find yourself in an environment typical of large French cities: ethnic music and dirty streets, with specific people looking at tourists with interest. A feeling of discomfort in the streets of old Grasse does not leave tourists who come there from Nice, Antibes or Cannes. The available statistics show a sharp increase in the population over the past twenty years and the unemployment rate is twice as high as in France in general, which is not the case in other towns of a similar size in the region.

What is the reason for the degradation of the former luxury resort town? Let’s put forward a hypothesis that may seem unexpected, but at least it’s worth discussing it.

In 1992 a modern prison, the largest in Southeastern France, was built above Grasse, a few miles further down the Route Napoleon.

It should be noted that, according to superhuman French law, the accused can have at least three visits a week, and convicts – at least one visit a week (!).Once the prison in Grasse was opened, numerous relatives and friends of prisoners immediately appeared, and given the fact that no less than 600 people live in the prison permanently, the population of Grasse has increased by several thousand people (the spouses, children and parents of inmates). In addition, some of those released from prison continue to live in the town, where their family members who constantly visited the prison have already settled nearby. Considering the cultural and ethnic structure of crime, a corresponding change in the cultural and ethnic structure of the population of Grasse began…

An additional impetus to this process was given by the reopening of the railway station of Grasse in 2005 (it was closed in 1944) – now the town has become even more accessible to those who visit prisoners here.

The most famous prisoner was the actor Samy Naceri from the popular film Taxi; after his release he starred in Russia too. In 2007 another prisoner escaped from this prison just like in an action film – by helicopter; now the prison can’t be seen on Google maps, and on satellite images the location of the prison is blurred.

The changing population structure of the town, which is becoming more accessible to families of prisoners, makes investments in prestigious real estate less attractive (neighbours matter!).

It should be said that the town council of Grasse is making serious efforts to change the situation: there are various social and investment programmes, the tourism business is being stimulated (for example, in 2022 and 2023 all the central streets and squares were decorated with interesting installations in the form of many pink umbrellas).

We hope that one day the town in which Ivan Bunin lived for over twenty years will restore its former glory and prestige.

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