Paradise Regained: Revisiting La Colombe d’Or In St.-Paul-de-Vence, France

June 28, 2012; at La Colombe d’Or, St.-Paul-de-Vence:

Conjunction of memory and moment: Nineteen summers ago I sat in this limestone-terraced restaurant in the medieval marvel of St.-Paul-de-Vence, experiencing a time-stopping, life-enlarging afternoon that has become iconic for me. Now I am back, my journal opened to a page as white as the brilliant sunlight that splashes over everything here, and then to a much earlier page, all blue scribbles and a fading blush of Provencal wine.

I am ensconced under a white parasol at a red bouquet-brightened table, looking out on a somnolent scene of green hills and straw-colored houses with terra-cotta roofs.

I have just finished a truffle salad – so redolent I felt transported before taking even a bite – and now I’m sipping a chilled vin rosé, eating buttery bites of crusty-tender baguette, and sliding ineluctably into heaven once again.

I feel like I’m in a Matisse canvas – bright white flagstones and sun umbrellas, green hills, red roofs, blue sea and sky. Then the sun dapples and it’s an Impressionist scene, a Renoir moment as the maitre d’ ceremoniously ushers diners to their tables and they exclaim at seeing old friends – “You’re here! Yes, you too!” – kiss-kiss, take their seats, and sigh. The rosé flows, and time slows.

The waiter appears and – just as nineteen years before – places before me with a flourish an artful platter of grilled sea bream, dauraude royale.

Bon appétit, monsieur,” he kindly purrs, and pours some more wine.

Around me is a symphony of sounds: the clink of silverware on china, the splash of wine into glasses, the mellifluous laughter and multilingual chatter of diners in summery clothes.

An American family of three sits at the table in front of me, and I lean forward to recommend the truffle salad. They are from Napa Valley, it turns out, an hour’s drive from my home, and we exclaim at the wonder of meeting people so close so far away – and the sheer joy of sharing such a singular place on such a singular day.

The family to my left joins the conversation. They are from Newport Beach, in southern California, and have made the pilgrimage here from a cruise ship docked in Monaco for the day. Soon a woman appears at my shoulder, smiling. “Ojai,” she says, and then from the table behind me, a voice trills, “San Francisco!”We are all caught up in a buoyant bubble of bonté and bonhomie – a celebration of life’s bounty and of our own good fortune to be sharing it on this sun-dappled summer terrace in the middle of one of the most blessed places on Earth.

I take another sip of rosé, savor the perfect daurade with green beans and watch the choreography unfold – a ballet of white-shirted waiters bearing bottles and platters, the maitre d’ surveying the scene, calls for flutes of Champagne here, moans over delicate bowls of luscious red framboises there, kiss-kiss and sit and sigh.

To my right is a vibrant Leger mural, wrought into a section of the terrace’s streetside wall. And as I have just reaffirmed on a rambling restroom detour, the rustic interior rooms here still house an astonishment of modern masterpieces – canvases by Picasso, Dubuffet, Dufy, Miro, Chagall, Picasso, Braque, and Matisse, among many others, all given by the artists when they were still struggling unknowns to the generous and perspicacious owner, the late Paul Roux, in lieu of payment.

This place is an enchanted little world, I think – reluctant to take fork to fish, reluctant even to move, wanting to hold and savor this moment forever.

Awaiting me, I know, is a medieval meander through the cobbled alleys of St.-Paul; an espresso at the Cafe de la Place, where I will watch local gentlemen enact their afternoon rite of pétanque; and then a serene stop at the exquisite Chapelle Folon, which had not even existed nineteen summers before.

Some things change, and some things stay the same.

But for now the world is wondrously reduced to this: the sunlight catching in the canopy of branches above and blessing the hills beyond, the murmuring music of the diners behind me, the perfume of the flowers mingling with the scents of the chef’s seasonings, the exuberant atmosphere of artwork all around, the cobbled stones beneath me, the fish and bread before me, the wine as red as the flowers, the tablecloth as white as the parasol; an ineffable moment of ease and artfulness, a soul-fulfilling scene of life lived to the full.

The platter of now absent daurade has been whisked away and replaced with an ebullient bowl of fulsome framboises. Slowly, dreamily, the California fan club rises, smiles, waves, exchanges cards, prepares to go their own way – and the afternoon shimmers and sighs, as ephemeral and endless as this last glass of rosé I raise in my hand, in toast to the marriage of memory and moment in this blessed land.