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Back off, Fritz, those sun-loungers belong to me

Published 21 May 2006
News Review
670th article

Geraldine with the Calder mobile behind her at La Colombe d'Or (Arnold Crust)

Just as I don't go to restaurants, I go to tables, I don't go to swimming pools or beaches. I go to specifically placed sun-loungers.

This is not normally a problem. A spot is identified, agreed and reserved for me by the management. Except at one of my all-time favourite hotels, La Colombe d'Or in Saint-Paul de Vence, a medieval village on a hilltop in the south of France.

Here the great impressionist artists hung out and paid for their meals with paintings. In the dining room, in what was an old farmhouse, I'm faced with art that would enrich any major museum. Important paintings by Miro, Braque, Leger, Bonnard, Matisse and Picasso. Picasso frequented La Colombe until he died.

Everyone's been to La Colombe: Orson Welles, Burt Lancaster, Rita Hayworth, Jean-Paul Sartre, Marlene Dietrich, Elton John . . . even me. The rustic terrace is one of the great eating spots in the world.

The owners are the Roux family, whom I've known for decades. Daniele has big spectacles, is a considerable artist in her own right, and views the world with wry cynicism. Her husband, Francois, adeptly serves at table and runs more or less everything.

But he's no world expert at fixing paintings on the wall. Above my usual table hung a collage by Arman, of violins stuck onto plastic. It fell with a big bang and everything broke. Seventy thousand pounds down the tubes! Francois showed me the pieces in his office. Super Glue would not have solved it. Maybe it was a plot to get me, but I wasn't there that day!

The food at La Colombe is terribly good and, unusually for the French, simple. The chef, Herve Roy, has been there 18 years. The loup de mer is the best ever, the rabbit with ratatouille and boiled potatoes is memorable, the melon and the white asparagus are better than anywhere else.

They have a multi-layered ice cream with meringue. Historic. The croissants are amazingly good. As I'm on a diet I take a little piece and then a tiny piece of the French baguette. In the old days I'd eat all of at least three items from the breakfast basket.

Now, back to the sun-loungers. The pool at La Colombe is as beautiful as any I've ever seen. There's the old farmhouse building with creeper all over it, marvellous, tall evergreens, shaped brilliantly. I don't know how they get up there to cut them. They must scaffold. At one end of the pool there's a metal mobile by Calder. It is idyllic.

Except they won't reserve sun-loungers! Even for me. So to beat the Germans I have to rise very early and throw possessions on the selected chairs. This means waiting for the attendant who puts the mattresses out around 7am, and then rushing down before the Germans beat me to it.

Rather naughtily I reserve two pairs of loungers. One at the Calder-mobile end of the pool, which gets the sun in the morning, and one the other end, which gets sun in the afternoon.

This is not as selfish as it sounds. Because I've never seen the pool full by midday. That's when I give up the loungers by the mobile, generously leaving them for someone else. I waddle to the other end, which also has shade. There Geraldine sits morning and afternoon, because she's blonde and turns into Frankenstein's monster if she's exposed to sun.

One afternoon we were sitting peacefully at the shaded end by the diving board (there's only room for eight people) when I observed - horror of horrors! - a man and a woman carrying their heavy wooden sun-loungers towards me. They plonked them in the tiny space left.

"This is now vastly overcrowded," I said icily. "You obviously have German ancestry."

The man (it turned out they were from north London) observed, "If anyone else said that I'd consider it rude but coming from you, Mr Winner, it's just normal."

His wife added, "I particularly object to your saying we have German ancestry. My family fled from Germany to avoid persecution." I was about to say, triumphantly, "I was right then, you do have German ancestry!" but decided, in the circumstances, it might be considered bad taste. So I stayed silent.

Which is more than some drunken Englishman did when I was standing just outside La Colombe. He stuck his face in mine and said, "This is a secret place. I hope you're not going to write about it in The Sun. The owners wouldn't like publicity!"

Not like publicity! It's a hotel for heaven's sake. The owners are my friends. They want customers. It's beyond belief what I have to put up with. But I bear it bravely.

Winner's letters

You were robbed! The $5 jacket you wore last week was a bad idea to begin with. The fact that you've slimmed down and can get into it is no good reason for it to see the light of day again. I could make a suggestion, but charity shops have enough problems without adding to them.
Glenda Brett-Holt, Malta

I was astonished to see, last week, how you're metamorphosing into the late, lamented Barbara Cartland. As for your jacket, you always look as if you're dressed from bits you found in a skip.
Marianne Bartram, Torquay

As a role model for the older, portly generation I'm worried you're giving out the wrong message to your followers with this new diet. We don't want you looking like Kate Moss! Why not call your book Diet Wish?
Tim Burnham Bradford-on-Avon

I'm pleased to see you've lost 2½ stone in weight. Not so pleased, though, that the head is still as big as ever.
Donna Harrington, Surrey

At Richard Corrigan's restaurant Bentley's his Goosnargh chicken was rather pink with visible blood and undercooked meat by the bones. Mr Corrigan was shown my chicken and I was told that's how it's cooked. I still couldn't eat it. A minute in the microwave would have produced a clean plate and a happy customer.
James Worrall, Warwickshire

Michael, do you want to queue for 20 minutes, order lunch, then wait for another 50 minutes without being served? When you mention this to the staff they bring your main course and starter together. The charmless manager blames the waiter, "he is new", and the kitchen, "they are busy". You can have this remarkable experience at the iconic Italian deli Valvona&Crolla in Edinburgh. Or maybe not.
Patsy Hammond, Manchester

I read in a 14th-century manuscript that two armies, one led by Winner and one by Waster, fight each other. Winner's complaint is that Waster and his supporters spend their money frivolously on "drink, good food and having a good time". What can account for Michael's genetic role reversal?
D I Hurt, Devon

Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk