Postcard from the French Riviera

HMMA Secretary and garden writer, George Hoad AM, is continuing his sojourn visiting gardens and landscapes in Europe. He reports from the French Riviera for HMAA where he visited gardens and took in the excitement of the International Rose Festival in Grasse. George continues his travel story.

The French Riviera certainly lives up to its claim of a good climate, beautiful beaches, picturesque medieval villages, azure blue waters and the reason I was there, impressive gardens. I travelled r from England with a group of eight gardeners, including our guide, to spend a week visiting interesting private and public gardens. We were based at a hotel in central Nice, which was great for exploring the old town and enjoying a relaxing coffee (along with an obligatory apple tart of course) in any of the little cafes that grace the town.

The highlight of the week was undoubtedly a visit to the magnificent ‘Ephrussi de Rothschild’, built by Baroness de Rothschild between 1907 and 1912. The villa contains priceless treasures, some owned by Marie-Antoinette, alongside tapestries, furniture, and cabinets of exquisite Sèvres porcelain from the 18th and 19th centuries.

The view of the gardens from the villa’s upstairs terrace is breathtaking in its design and location. The formal layout contains fountains, ponds, trees and colourful bedding and the villa is surrounded by nine separate themed gardens.

Another highlight was a visit to Lawrence Johnston’s ‘Serre de la Madone’ at Menton near Nice. Johnston’s other great garden was ‘Hidcote’, which I had visited in the Cotswolds the week before. Created between 1924 and 1939, Johnston lavished huge amounts of money on his French garden, collecting rare plants and species from all over the world. He returned after WW2 and lived there, entertaining his friends on a grand scale until his death in 1958.

The garden was then neglected for decades but is now undergoing a sensitive restoration. Much of the garden has a wild unkept feel but the ‘presence’ of the master plantsman is evident everywhere. What a thrill to have walked in his footsteps.

We also visited the world famous ‘La Mortola’ or the Hanbury Botanical Garden just over the border into Italy. Set over nine hectares on a steep slope taking you down to the sea, the garden is planted out with Mediterranean loving plants, with a large Australian section.

The garden was started by Sir Thomas Hanbury in 1867 and contains a magnificent pergola that runs almost the width of the gardens which also features exotic fruits, orchards, succulents, palms, olives and much more. I particularly enjoyed the perfumed flower gardens around the stately villa.

Apart from several other notable gardens, we also visited historic medieval villages perched high in the surrounding hills. St Paul de Vence was a particular favourite, offering stunning views down to the sea from the impressive town ramparts. This picturesque village has been a haven for artists including Picasso and Marc Chagall, who is buried in the local cemetery. Well worth the walk up the hill! Another hilltop village well worth the walk was Eze, with its fabulous succulent and cacti ‘Jardin Exotique d’Èze’, set in the ruins of an ancient castle overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

The week also included a visit to the International Rose Festival in Grasse and a quick trip into Monaco, which is preparing for ‘that big car race’. All in all, a fantastic week, which I finished off by enjoying a bowl of onion soup and fries – the French is a given.

George Hoad AM

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