Riviera chic? Who needs it? In a bright white Côte d’Azur restaurant, among a well-heeled crowd – all soft tans, designer shades and pastel linens – my wife is sucking a ping pong ball onto a length of garden hose. Five minutes later, upping the indignity, she dons swimming goggles and plunges her face in a bowl of water, humming loudly as she exhales through her mouth and nose. Other guests are sipping bubbles; my wife is blowing them.
It’s not elegant, but it works wonders for the breathing. After lunch, for the first time in her life, she executes a near-perfect crawl, exhaling underwater, inhaling on both sides – another tick in the box for swimming coach, Pierre Gruneberg. He has never had a failure since devising his salad-bowl training tactic in 1953. Correct breathing, he stresses, is the sport’s essential foundation: ‘Without it, you’re like a car without petrol.’ The mantra has held true over the 66 years he has taught in one of the world’s most beautiful classrooms – Club Dauphin’s oceanfront pool at the Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat.
Now 88, he remains a lithe, charming presence: a glowing advertisement for a life of sun-kissed fresh air that still blends summers on the Mediterranean coast with winters ski guiding in Courchevel. It makes him a walking, talking, swimming link to the golden era of the Riviera when he mingled with Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau (‘an incredibly interesting, funny man’) and W Somerset Maugham, who ‘stuttered a lot but was very good company’. He met Aristotle Onassis and taught the Shah of Iran’s wife, along with the children of David Niven, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Charlie Chaplin: ‘a charming man who loved to joke – he told me that, much to his regret, his daughter had fallen desperately in love with me.’
Over the decades, he has coached, swum alongside or simply hung out with the kind of A-list crowd gossip columnists can only dream about. Hollywood supplied Liz Taylor, Robert Redford and Robin Williams, whom Pierre accompanied in the sea to reassure him there were no sharks. Rock royalty ranged from Bono, whose children were pupils, to Tina Turner – her Buddhist chanting helped her breathing – and Paul McCartney ‘who was a little afraid of jellyfish in the Mediterranean so liked me to be with him, right by his side.’
Naturally, in so glamorous a destination, there have also been fashion icons. Ralph Lauren worked on his breathing in the sea rather than the salad bowl (‘his bubbles showed he wasn’t exhaling properly, it greatly improved his swimming’), while Domenico Dolce provided a scene worthy of Zoolander. ‘He was terrified of water,’ recalls Pierre. ‘I started by putting a drop on my finger and rubbing it on his nose. It took two or three hours before we could use the salad bowl. By the end he was jumping in the pool.’
More recently, tech titans have appeared on the swim coach’s radar. Jimmy Iovine, former head of Apple music, hadn’t had a dip in 55 years. ‘Within hours I had my foot on him in the bottom of the pool,’ he recalls. ‘Now he swims in LA every day.’ Another young guest was keener to discuss his internet start-up than finesse his stroke. ‘I didn’t understand a word he said,’ recalls Pierre. ‘Only later did I realise it was Mark Zuckerberg.’
Many of his encounters are recorded through sketches and messages in his Livre d’Or (Golden Book). Flicking through the pages, I find Picasso’s drawings of a dove and goat, Cocteau’s fish, and Chaplin’s self-portrait. A cartoon by Cabu, later killed in the Charlie Hebdo attack, shows a Russian head being held down in the salad bowl.
Away from Club Dauphin’s pool – built in 1939 by an Italian spy posing as an architect – Gruneberg has skied with Brigitte Bardot and, as a trained physiotherapist who accompanied France’s 1956 Olympic team, has massaged Elton John and President George Bush. Despite forging many lasting friendships with his stellar clientele, however, he remains nonchalant about fame and wealth. ‘All men in trunks look identical, you can’t spot any social differences.’ His two wives, both of whom he met while teaching, remain his most memorable pupils. ‘Of course, they changed my life.’
Perhaps, having patented his salad bowl coaching technique, the octogenarian may now consider bottling the elixir of his fabulously rude health. His regular summer ritual will surely be an ingredient. Every morning since 1950 – apart from two years of national service – when the young blonde lifeguard first took up his post, having hitch-hiked from Paris to Nice and walked the final nine miles, he has swum a daily kilometre in the Mediterranean.
If it’s good enough for Pierre, it’s good enough for me, particularly having gorged on Yoric Tièche’s Michelin-starred, five-course ‘Grand Bleu’ menu the night before. Razor clams, tourteau crab symphony and grilled red mullet may have originated in the brine but I fear they’ll do little for my buoyancy.
Rising early, when the Côte d’Azur’s speedboats and floating gin palaces are yet to wake, I slip into the Prussian-blue sea, fighting a punchy swell that surges onto jagged rocks at the tip of Cap Ferrat’s peninsula. Breathing to the right, as recommended by Pierre, I look up to the belle époque Grand-Hôtel, its dazzling white wings outstretched as if embracing the horizon.
After passing some of Europe’s priciest villas and rounding the headland beneath the octagonal white-stoned lighthouse, I turn back. I’m now pushing against the current flowing into the Bay of Villefranche. After 30 increasingly tiring minutes, I step back onto dry land beneath Club Dauphin. It’s a decent workout. How on earth does Pierre still do this every morning?
‘Yes, it has helped me stay healthy,’ he agrees, over a light poolside lunch, ‘alongside skiing, not smoking or drinking, and being in love most of my life. I’ll never retire. I’ll probably take my last breath on the ski slope or, one day, I’ll not make it back from the lighthouse – the best ending.’
The Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat has doubles from £350 a night. Swimming lessons with Pierre Gruneberg cost £115pp per hour; fourseasons.com/capferrat