By Frank Mitzel.
Crossing over the border from Italy, we travel west along the Mediterranean seacoast and arrive at the Côte d' Azur in southeastern France. This is one of the few areas of the world with a climate and growing conditions similar to what we have in San Diego County.
In the later part of the 1980's, I was fortunate enough to visit this beautiful, amazing area several times in the months of June and October (the best months to visit), staying at a friend's villa on the ocean in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. Every morning after breakfast, we would take the short ten-minute walk down to the port, buy a copy of the international newspaper, and stroll along the docks admiring the yachts.
When we weren't entertaining guests from around the world at the villa (staffed by two maids, a butler, and a French chef), we were motoring along the Grande Corniche and Basse Corniche, dining at Michelin-starred restaurants, antiquing, and playing baccarat at the Monte Carlo Casino. I know - it was a tough life, but somebody had to do it.
Compared to many gardens found elsewhere in France, all of the gardens in the south of France are relatively new, but nonetheless they are definitely worth visiting. Starting at the eastern end of the coast, Jardin Botanique et Exotique Val Rahmeh was designed in 1925 as an English garden by the retired governor of Malta, Lord Percy Radcliffe. Set on the slopes above the port, the villa has gorgeous views of the sea. You will find large Canary Island date palms (Phoenix canariensis) leading to the formal parterre gardens of gravel paths and manicured hedges. The Jardin, which is a research center for Mediterranean plants managed by the French Museum of Natural History, has everything from lily ponds, birds-of-paradise, citrus trees and bamboo, to a greenhouse of rare exotic plants.
Traveling a little further west, just east of Menton and close to the Italian border, is le Clos du Peyronnet. Designed as a formal garden by Humphrey Waterfield in 1915, it retains its original style with multi-terraced slopes, water pools, stone pillars, vine-laden pergolas, and meandering paths overflowing with exotic flowers and foliage. The garden is open by appointment only, but if you contact them in advance, and let them know you are a garden enthusiast, you will be welcomed.
Heading further west, slightly to the west of the center of Monte Carlo, you will find the Jardin Exotique de Monaco founded by Prince Albert I. This garden is dedicated exclusively to a vast variety of high-quality rare succulents and drought tolerant plants. Like our succulent gardens in San Diego, this one is in full glory during the winter, but be sure to include a visit any time of the year that you are in the area.
Continuing west along the coast, five miles east of Nice on the peninsula of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, we find the magnificent Villa et Jardins Ephrussi de Rothschild. This pink colored villa and its garden is an absolute stunner and a must-see on your bucket list. The villa was built starting in 1905 by Beatrix de Rothschild. Laid out with a formal design that takes advantage of glorious views of the sea, you will find seven distinctly different nationally themed gardens: Spanish, Italian, Japanese, English, etc.
A large formal lily pond at the center of the garden is surrounded by mature palm and evergreen trees, citrus groves, rose beds, and assorted grand statuary. Be sure to arrive in the morning, and then enjoy a light lunch dining al fresco at the villa restaurant. If you only visit one garden on your trip to the French Riviera, be sure this is it.
If you get adventuresome while staying in Nice, Antibes, Cannes, etc. and if you're like me and your garden bug forces you to explore all the gardens on the planet, then by all means take a day trip west along the coast to visit two more gardens. What the heck?
Both Parc Saint-Bernard in Hyères, east of Toulon, and Parc Borély, south of central Marseille, are open daily throughout the year. Parc Saint-Bernard is a unique modernist-style garden, laid out in a geometric pattern and created not for walking, but rather for viewing from the villa's windows or terrace. Square sections of vividly colored mosaics, water pools, globe-shaped box shrubs, and tulip beds are features of this highly unconventional garden.
Parc Borély is a Mediterranean-style public garden backing up to mountains around Marseille. Mature and unusual specimen trees, a large rose garden, grotto, statuary and pool complete this scenic garden along the blue Mediterranean Sea.
In March, we will continue our garden travel series into other parts of France. The previous five articles in this series are Gardens of Northern Italy Near Lake Como, Gardens of Northern Italy Near Venice, Gardens Around Florence, Gardens around Pisa, and Gardens Around Rome.