The penultimate part of Robert Elson's 1927 book dealing with indoor and outdoor amusements and of course gaming. There is a good description of a Gala dinner which has the authentic 1920s tone:
"A gala dinner may be ...a more elaborate entertainment indistinguishable from a fête, the room being decorated for the occasion–sometimes in a really artistic manner–and a good programme of show-turns provided. There are sure to be surprises–toys to make noises with, balloons, etc. The peculiarity of surprises is that they are always the same. Occasionally really attractive gifts are distributed, or prizes given in connection with dancing or a tombola (raffle). If you are in an appropriately happy-go-lucky mood, a gala is usually quite enjoyable. It is good to play the fool sometimes, pelting and being pelted by the occupants of neighboring tables with little coloured balls, and trying to hit people at a distance with harmless projectiles. Also, you never know what may come of it. A happily-married lady of my acquaintance first made her existence known to her husband by hitting him on the ear with a flying sausage; he asked her to dance, and the thing was as good as done."
Such goings on would have been vieux jeu by the 1940s. Interestingly many fetes described have gone - The Venetian Fete at Cannes has been replaced by a film festival, car shows and uphill car racing at Monte Carlo has become the Rally, but the Burning of the Boat still goes on and the Battle of Flowers - so all is not lost.
Whether they gamble or not, most of the visitors to the principal places spend a considerable portion of their time after sunset in the local casino. It takes the place of a club, and offers more entertainment. After a fine day one goes there to read the papers and the latest news posted up in the day's telegrams; to have tea, listen to music, and dance or watch the dancers; one makes acquaintances, whom very often one never sees elsewhere, but who may be found regularly in the same place in the hall or reading-room at the same hour. There are, in addition, of course, more formal entertainments–concerts, theatrical performances, variety shows, ballet, etc.
I have given examples of these charges in the Appendix.
The most popular entertainments are those given at dance-teas, and as I have frequently alluded to them I shall describe a typical item.
The band stops. The couples on the floor, never satiated, clap their hands. The reply is a long roll from the drum–trrh-rh-rh-rh-rh-rh-trrrhh! They filter back to their seats. The floor cleared, the lights go down, and by a signal from a maître d'hôtel the waiters are immobilised. There is a pause.
The music strikes up, and from somewhere in the region of the service-room a figure emerges into a spot-light manipulated from above. Youthful or not, she is attractively made up and charmingly dressed. A few steps, perhaps a turn or two round the floor, and she is joined by a young man. He may be athletic-looking or slim and boyish, but he is always in evening dress and often made up as if for the stage. They dance, gracefully, fantastically, or gymnastically, according to their bent; in unison, or together. The steps are frequently an elaboration of the latest fad, such as, last season, the charleston or black-bottom; in any case they are intricate enough to bewilder the eye. The culmination usually takes the form throwing the girl up and carrying her around; incidentally the ladies get new ideas as to underclothing. Something like this is the staple of all such entertainments, whether given in the afternoon or evening.
Next in the favour of visitors I should put music. In opera Monte Carlo ranks first. The resources of the Casino enable it to secure better artists and to produce grand opera in a manner which cannot be achieved elsewhere; it commands the services of a first-class director, M. Gunsbourg, several good conductors, and a really adequate orchestra. First productions are not uncommon, and new works are given each season. In this respect Monte Carlo keeps up its tradition. I should put Cannes second and Nice a bad Third, the programmes and performances at the Municipal Opera House leaving a good deal to be desired. Seats are usually frs. 20 or frs. 40.
In light opera there is not much difference, the same company usually appearing at different places along the coast; this is also the case as to other kinds of theatrical entertainments–comedy, revue, etc.
Spectacular shows such as are given by the Paris music-halls, with their carefully-picked nude figurantes, do not come our way, except on the screen.
Ballet forms an item in the programmes all along the Riviera. M. Diaghilef's company has given two seasons every winter for some years past, one early and one late, the popularity of which shows no signs of diminishing; other companies also appear, some of them quite good, and star-artists in stage-dancing make occasional special visits.
The ranking as for opera holds good, on the whole, as to concerts. Perhaps more world-known artists may appear in Nice or Cannes, but the opportunities of hearing good music are far more numerous in Monte Carlo, and my impression is that the general level higher.
As to the cinema, there is nothing to be said – films being the same everywhere – except that as the block-booking system does not obtain in France, it is frequently possible to see new productions before they are shown to the public in England–or even in America. Smoking is usually not allowed. A good seat can usually be obtained for between frs. 5 and frs. I0.
Hotels and restaurants frequently advertise diners fleuris, gala dinners, and fêtes de nuit. A diner fleuri means nothing but a few extra flowers on the tables, a special menu, and perhaps a couple of exhibition dances. A gala dinner may be anything between this and a much more elaborate entertainment indistinguishable from a fête, the room being decorated for the occasion–sometimes in a really artistic manner–and a good programme of show-turns provided. There are sure to be surprises–toys to make noises with, balloons, etc. The peculiarity of surprises is that they are always the same. Occasionally really attractive gifts are distributed, or prizes given in connection with dancing or a tombola (raffle). If you are in an appropriately happy-go-lucky mood, a gala is usually quite enjoyable. It is good to play the fool sometimes, pelting and being pelted by the occupants of neighbouring tables with little coloured balls, and trying to hit people at a distance with harmless projectiles. Also, you never know what may come of it. A happily-married lady of my acquaintance first made her existence known to her husband by hitting him on the ear with a flying sausage; he asked her to dance, and the thing was as good as done.
I always reckon that the actual cost will be at least twice the fixed price.
The principal amusement is dancing, as everywhere, and the opportunities for it are at tea-time and after inner in most of the leading hotels and restaurants, always in casinos, and at some cabarets, which open from four o'clock in the afternoon. Attractions are frequently provided. A popular one is the roulette dance: numbers painted on the floor are reproduced on a hanging wheel which is made to revolve; when it stops the band and the dancers stop, and a prize goes to the couple on the number indicated by a fixed pointer above the wheel. There are also gala teas, with special decorations, and sometimes a special entertainment.
Fixed prices for dance-teas vary from frs. 10 where there is no entertainment to frs. 25 for gala occasions. The actual cost may be from half as much again to twice as much.
At most of the hotels and restaurants where dancing is a special feature there are professional dancers, male and female. From what I am told, it would appear that ladies dance a great deal more with professionals when they are on the Riviera than they would do at home–just as many people gamble who would not dream of doing so in England. One reason, no doubt, is that so many are manless, and it is dull watching all the time when you like dancing. Besides, your toes itch. Personally, I see no harm in the practice, though I have heard it condemned by dancing-men, especially of the younger generation. But I have never heard a lone man condemned for dancing with the girl-professionals, some of whom are quite pretty and attractive. The rule as to paying those people, laid down by the maître d'hôtel at one of the leading restaurants, is that if you are invited to dance you need not pay for the first time unless you accept a subsequent invitation: then the proper thing is 10 francs a dance, with a maximum of 50. If you take the initiative and ask a professional to dance, you pay in any case.
Very often the men run a class, usually elsewhere, and give private lessons for which from 50 to 150 francs an hour is charged according to their standing and popularity. The class charges vary from frs. 100 to frs. 150 for five lessons.
There are also special dances at casinos and elsewhere. When evening dress is to be worn, these are advertised as bals; when fancy dress, as bals masqués or veglioni. The regulations as to the latter are sometimes rather fussy, but if you wish to go it is well to make yourself acquainted with them, because otherwise you may be refused admission in spite of the fact that you have paid for a ticket. The simplest form of fancy dress is a domino and a loup (mask), the first of which can be hired for about 20 or 30 francs and the latter purchased for a few francs, either at the cloakroom or beforehand at a shop – which is generally cheaper. When dominoes are barred, a suitable fancy dress must be hired or improvised beforehand. Men can manage all right with a sash and couple of scarves–twist one round your head–wearing a tennis-shirt with the sleeves rolled up and ordinary evening trousers. Say you are a Welsh brigand– the maître des cérémonies won't know any better. More ingenuity is necessary for the ladies, because they want to look well; one dodge is to wear something becoming but out of the fashion, such as a fanciful head-dress. Money, of course, will solve all these difficulties; nearly all the departmental stores stock fancy dresses. The regulations sometimes leave only a very narrow range of choice, especially at Nice in connection with the carnival balls. A particular colour is prescribed–white, pink, or blue. This leads to mistakes when everybody is masked. A charming little hand was laid on my arm one night at the Opera–where these dances are held–and a pair of rosy lips, addressing me as Charles, confided that the tall man over there had been following their slim owner about. When I expressed my regret that Fate had denied me the honour of being Charles, the bright dark eyes looked frightened and the lady fled. But perhaps there wasn't any Charles.
Dances of this kind are generally well attended, except at Monte Carlo, where for some reason they don't go. Cabaret entertainments are generally on the lines already described. Occasionally one may strike a novelty, such as the clever little "negro" troupe which toured along the Riviera last season. As to the cost, if you drop in for an hour or so and limit the quantity of champagne to half a bottle each, you should get off with £1 apiece; but the atmosphere is productive of that just-another bottle-spirit, and I always reckon that it may be twice as much.
In all the principal places there are dancings–supper-bars with a piano and a tiny floor. In these you are not expected to order champagne, but your company is mostly mixed–or hardly mixed except for yourself.
Outdoor Entertainments and Pastimes
This is also the time for the battles of flowers, in while those on the stands can play a larger part, although again it is much livelier to be really in it–not necessarily an expensive matter if anybody has a motor-car, or a few club together for a carriage. It doesn't matter in the least how many you cram into it–the more the merrier. In the case of the car, you need an innocent to drive; nobody who has ever taken that job will do it again willingly.
Elsewhere, except perhaps at Cannes, the visitors take so little part in these festivities that the show is apt to be rather feeble. But they may be quite enjoyable, given a fine day, especially in the case of the Naval Battle of Flowers at Villfranche when there are warships in the harbour. Some generally happen to arrive a day or two before–perhaps the officers could tell why. Anyhow, they turn out their boats in great style, and as the girls are by no means backward in coming forward, things are sometimes very lively. The officers of the Chasseurs Alpins stationed in the district are generally conspicuous at all these festivities, and as they are very smart men, that helps.
The dog-shows always attract a crowd. Whether most of the people come to see the dogs of the clothes of some of their fair owners, I do not pretend to judge; at Cannes, or even at Monte Carlo, it might be the latter. The general standard of the exhibits is not high, despite a firm conviction to the contrary at the other end of the string; but there are always good Pekinese and Alsatians, also specimens of Continental breeds not commonly known in England. One of the ways of bringing a breed into fashion is to show it on the Riviera.
The motor shows are chiefly interesting for the body-work shown by some of the Italian firms, and the artistic fittings which make the interiors of the high-priced British cars look like a workhouse-room by comparison. Considerable crowds turn out to see the hill-climbing competitions, to which the hairpin bends characteristic of the mountain - roads lend something of the thrill of the bull-ring.
But for the fact that it falls just when most of the visitors are going home, the Horse Show at Nice would be one of the principal events of the season. The dexterity of both the horses and their riders–who are of many nationalities – in negotiating apparently impossible obstacles, is an eye-opener, and it is a melancholy fact that the British cavalry officers do not shine by comparison, any more than they do at Olympia.
As a night spectacle, the Venetian fête at Cannes bears away the palm. The strings of fantastically-decorated and illuminated boats, winding in and out on the dark water of the harbour, with the Mont du Chevalier lit by coloured fires in the background, are extraordinarily beautiful. Next I should put the illuminations and firework exhibitions at Monte Carlo. The configuration of the bay lends itself admirably to such displays, on which a great deal of money is lavished. From the terraces–there are three levels–or the Avenue de Monte Carlo (the road which mounts the hill on the near side of the harbour) several thousand people can obtain a perfect view. The fireworks, which are discharged on the sea-end of the Rock, surpass in artistry anything I ever saw elsewhere; the French have a genius for harmonising colours. The display usually ends in a river of fire which appears to pour itself into the sea, the hues melting into each other. It is an unforgettable sight.
Some of the annual local celebrations have features of interest for strangers, as when Monaco commemorates her patron saint, Sainte Dévote. The relics, enclosed in a gold casket, are carried in procession from the cathedral on the Rock down the old fortified way which was formerly the only means of access to the town, and thence to the chapel under the railway arch, supposed to be on the spot where the saint landed after being shipwrecked in A.D. 854. Surrounded by a crowd of local notabilities and ecclesiastics in gorgeous vestments, the Bishop of Monaco blesses the sea. In the evening there is a religious ceremony still older in origin. This is the Burning of the Boat, formerly a sacrifice to the god of the sea; it was probably instituted by the Greeks in honour of Poseidon. A specially picturesque feature is the preliminary torchlight procession down the modern road which slants from the top of the Rock at the sea-end to the foot of the fortified way; the effect, seen from the terrace across the harbour, is very striking. Another curious old custom at Monaco is the Procession of the Christ Mort on the eve of Good Friday. The image of the dead Christ–ragged auburn hair resting on a black and silver cushion, a tiny emaciated body in a loincloth, the sickly white face twisted in an agonised grin, the feet bespattered with blood–is carried on a bier from the Chapelle des Pénitents to the cathedral, in the midst of a procession of clergy, figures dressed to represent the three Marys, St. Veronica with the sacred handkerchief, St. Simon the Cyrenean carrying a huge cross, boys bearing emblems on cushions–the crown of thorns, a miniature spear, a sponge stained dark red–and representatives of the religious orders, mostly habited in black, together with lantern-bearers, etc. The cortège is a weird sight as it winds through the narrow streets, across which people at opposite windows could almost shake hands. Many of the window-sills are decorated with flowers, candles, and an image. A silent crowd fills the Place du Palais, and in a loggia in the front of the palace is His Most Serene Highness Prince Louis, surrounded by his family. The Princess lifts up one of the grandchildren to see the dead Saviour, and a murmur goes through the crowd like the rustling of a forest in a gale; the people do not cheer because of the occasion.
Other local celebrations are of a more cheerful character, such as the Provençal fête at Le Cannet, the one at Vence, and the quaint mediæval festivity at St. Agnès on St. Joseph's day. The first and last are especially worth seeing.
Comparatively few of the visitors bathe. There is nothing against it; the water is rarely colder than it often is on the English coasts in summer, and there are bathing establishments open at all places of any size. The best time is as soon as the sun is sufficiently high to have warmed the air; later, the wind is more likely to be felt. But the photographs which appear in publicity booklet, and occasionally find their way into the illustrated papers, of a crowd of people bathing–"The Riviera in January"–are either faked, or taken when there is a swimming competition, and the hardy natives, many of whom do bathe all the year round as far as their opportunities permit, turn out in force.
The most unlikely people walk. Middle-aged men who don't sleep well calm their nerves by long tramps–it really is worth remembering that the air high up and away from the coast has a sedative effect. Women who were dancing all evening, perhaps till the small hours, turn out cheerfully at ten o'clock with lunch-parcels and disappear into the hills, not to return until five or six. It is refreshing to get away from over-civilisation sometimes, to climb a hill-side by a cobbled path with the sun beating on your back–a most effective cure for gout; to fill your lungs with fine thin air; to snuff the smell of the south as you pass the shanties of propriétaires – the hardworking agriculturalists who were the backbone of French prosperity–a smell compounded of warm dust and woodsmoke. The walls of their vineyards are pink with valerian, and you can pick the wild herbs that grow freely beside the path, crush a sprig or two between your fingers for the aromatic savour–rosemary, thyme, marjoram, and lavendar, which the country people call St.-Jean-Pleure. As you mount between the grey-green foliage of the olive-trees on the lower slopes you catch glimpses of the rich verdure of the valleys, brightened by the gold of lemons and oranges, until you emerge on to a pine-dotted ridge gay with yellow broom, and a vista of mountain-peaks spreads before you. You may meet the Rolls-Royce of the country, the patient little donkey, so often looking much better fed and cared for than his owner; and if you venture on a greeting, you will receive a friendly "Buon gior'" in the high singing voice of the mountain-bred. If you don't eat the hard-boiled eggs and sandwiches the head-waiter gave you with a hearty appetite, and feel thankful you are alive to enjoy them up there, you had better have stayed at home.
Perhaps, if you are well above the sea at the hour of sunset, and the moon is high in the south-east, you may see something you will not quickly forget. For a few minutes after the sun disappears the atmosphere is sometimes blood-red; it is like being in the heart of a ruby; and as the glow fades, the moon turns it into a purple haze:
"A light that never was on sea or land."