One of the most romantic figures in recent French history was Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of the children’s classic Le Petit Prince and a legendary pilot who flew the first commercial mail flights from France to Spain, Africa and South America for Aéropostale. During those heady early days of flight, which he lyrically described in Southern Mail, Night Flight and Wind, Sand and Stars, Saint-Exupéry and fellow pilots Jean Mermoz and Henri Guillemet were based in the Hôtel Le Grand Balcon in Toulouse, and many a tale was told about the three adventurous aviators dancing the tango in the hotel’s dining room and carrying their lady loves up the stairs so that too many footsteps would not be overheard by the hotel’s three spinster owners.
Now the Grand Balcon has been completely renovated by architect and designer Jean-Philippe Nuel, transformed into sleek and handsome contemporary style using stainless steel, leather and tile in a nearly monochromatic color scheme of grays and white. But Saint-Exupéry’s poetic world of flight is evoked everywhere, with videos and photos of planes in flight, clouds and skyscapes on ceilings and walls and floating, transparent white voile curtains. Big black-and-white photos of the Aéropostale pilots fill a wall of the bar.
Only the entrance remains the same, with its original multicolored mosaic tile floor. In Saint-Exupéry’s Room 32, almost nothing was left of the 1930s decor but the toilet facilities, hidden in a corner behind a folding screen—a common feature of the times. But with the help of Toulouse antique dealer Isabelle Klein, Nuel has redesigned the room as it might have been when Saint-Exupéry lived there: marble fireplace, parquet floors, old-fashioned black metal bedstead, quilted satin bedspread, patterned wallpaper, floral drapes and a simple Art Deco wooden desk. The Little Prince would feel quite at home.
8 rue Romiguières, Toulouse, 05.34.25.44.09. website
Originally published in the October 2009 issue of France Today.
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