By Jim Bishop.
I first became aware of the Jardin Exotique from the 1990s TV show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, hosted by Robin Leach. Perhaps you recall the show that gave a voyeuristic look at extravagant lifestyles. It was a bit over the top and I used to refer to it as Lifestyles of the Sick and Shameless. The show often featured locations on the French Riviera and one show included an incredible succulent garden perched on cliffs high above the Mediterranean Sea. The garden has been on my bucket list of gardens to visit ever since. This past June, I had an opportunity to visit when spending a couple of days in nearby Nice, France.
I hired a driver to take me from Nice to Èze. Unfortunately, my driver was from Eastern Europe and knew little about the garden. Still, the drive along the coast is spectacular with some of the most beautiful scenery and expensive properties in the world. From the drop-off point below Èze, you walk up a steep hill before reaching the restored medieval pedestrian-only village. The village itself is worth seeing with its limestone buildings, red tiled roofs, and cobblestone walkways. Perched on one side of the hill sits a lovely church with bells that toll every fifteen minutes. Luckily, I arrived early in the morning before the countless shops were open and the throngs of tourists arrived, so I mostly had the town to myself.
You spiral upward through the village before reaching the garden at the top of the hill. The garden entrance is through a small unimposing tollbooth set at the top of steep stairs. Started after World War II, the garden was a collaboration between André Gianton, the mayor of Èze at the time, and Jean Gastaud, who had created the Exotic Garden in nearby Monaco. Given the steep hillside, limited access, and limestone rock, creating the garden was quite a feat and required ingenious ways to get soil and plants into the garden. However, the drop-offs on all sides ensure excellent drainage.
Native Euphorbia dendroides showing summer color above the Mediterranean Sea.
Like the village, the garden continues spiraling upward, but with much better, unobscured views. At the top of the garden there are the ruins of a medieval castle. Sitting 1400 feet above the sea, with views in all directions and easily controlled access from below, it is easy to see why this would have been a strategic location. Directly below are the red tiled village roofs set against the bright blue of the Mediterranean Sea. One hillside, too steep to develop, is covered with native Euphorbia dendroides, which unlike when grown in Southern California, turns yellow and red as it goes into summer dormancy. Behind rise the pine-covered Maritime Alps which shelter the Riviera from northern winter cold. Monaco is just to the east and to the west is the peninsula of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, home to the Rothschild estate and surrounded by countless mega yachts.
Throughout the garden are fifteen statues by Jean-Philippe Richard representing the goddesses of the earth. Their style wasn’t exactly what I would have expected in the garden, but they did add to overall ambiance. The plantings are mostly cactus, Euphorbia, aloes and succulents. Nothing considered terribly exotic by Southern California standards. However, the setting, design, and arrangement of the plants are what set the garden apart from other dry gardens and cause it to stand out in bold contrast to the surrounding landscape. Also, due to the age of the garden, some of the specimens are extremely large. It was easy to spend over an hour on a sunny morning wandering around the paths and stairways taking in the views and plantings. And of course, since I also garden on steep hill, it was inspirational to get more ideas and realize that maybe our steeply sloped site isn’t so difficult.
If you haven’t visited, I hope you will have the opportunity one day. Until then, as Robin Leach said, “Here’s to champagne wishes and caviar dreams.”