In real estate the mantra is location, location, location! I actually believe this can be a factor in the success of a garden, too. I have visited gardens on busy roads where the noise and pollution has dulled the experience. On the other hand, I have visited gardens in an idyllic setting, and this has enhanced the enjoyment, indeed thrill of the visit.
A garden in the second category is the one at Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, near Nice, on the Côte d’Azur of France. As one drives toward the villa the road winds up almost to heaven, and as one looks down the Mediterranean shimmers below. Here position certainly heightens the experience!
The actual entrance to the villa is modest, but after one has ascended even higher, one reaches the shop and entrance and the beauty of the garden begins to reveal itself.
We visited on a Saturday, and the whole garden was abuzz with florists. It would become obvious that the wedding of wealthy Italian families was to take place, so the garden had to be suitably dressed.
In the courtyard in front of the grand rose-coloured Venetian palace that the villa is, there were massive arrangements of white flowers in decorative urns. Even the columns in this area, and beyond, were festooned with a cornucopia of white flowers and myriad lush green leaves.
Included in the 15 Euro admission fee is the entrance to the house, which we skirted around, as the garden was what we had come to see. We did find time to sit in the garden café for a simple lunch. Here, we were surrounded by a border of pink and red impatiens, and ivy-covered walls punctuated with arched windows. The view toward the sea, especially on this sunny day, was breathtaking, particularly framed by the ancient olive trees!
After lunch we started to wander down the path, which leads to all the different garden rooms. As you walk along, the impending wedding was already having an impact on what we saw.
Wherever there was a climber on a wall or fence, hundreds of roses, white, green, and softest shell pink, had been threaded into the leaves, with each bloom in oasis foam to keep them fresh.
One of the first garden elements we passed was a grand staircase, in the Sèvre garden, that was adorned with acres of glossy leaves, more roses, but also white carnations, lisianthus and other blooms. The affect of the flowers was almost like snow on the railing, it was so dense! Feathery asparagus fern also got quite a work out.
Just below the staircase, there was a grotto with a small baroque fountain. Here again the florists had been embellishing the space. The large water lily pads hosted white dahlia flowers, and every nook and cranny of the grotto was planted with hydrangeas with green and white flowers.
Although it was easy to work out what had been added to the garden, it was sometimes hard to know how much it affected our response to it. For example, the large heavily carved marble pots throughout the garden were partially hidden by the floral displays that filled them. I wondered whether they were normally empty or were filled with potted plants?
Beyond the Sèvre garden there is the Spanish Garden, fairly formal, but in the shadow, both literally and figuratively, of the French garden above it. However, it does have attractive columns framing it.
The French garden is the main event behind the house, and the focus of its view. It was also where the Italian wedding was to take place, so this area was the most heavily laden with any white flower available. Sadly the addition was not necessarily attractive. It was as though the florists felt the more they threw at the space the better it would look – not true.
It is worth noting that Baronesse Béatrice de Rothschild, the woman is responsible for the construction of the house and garden, designed the French garden to be like the deck of the Isle de France ocean liner, especially as when it was viewed you can see water on both sides like a ship.
Even the main canal in the French Garden was awash with floating flower arrangements, and the famous articulated fountains were turned off while the florists paddled around in the water.
At the end of the French garden, what Béatrice called the bow of the ship, there is a gentle stepped rise up to the bronze-domed Temple of Love, with a lovely classical statue in its centre. There is even a gentle flow of water down to the main canal from the temple, framed by groundcover pink begonia. The sound of water a lovely addition to what one could see.
Beyond the French Garden, on the left hand side, clinging to the side of the hill is the Provencal Garden, with lavender, rosemary and agapanthus as understory for old olive and cypress trees.
As the garden turns around to the right, at the farthest point from the house, the Rose Garden fills the hillside. At its highest point a simple gazebo gives the area a focus, and a place to sit and contemplate the roses and the sea beyond.
Further around, there is the Exotic Garden, full of the expected succulents, cacti, cycads, palms, ginger, and bamboo, but there is even a handsome Australian flame tree growing proudly in the mix.
Wandering back toward the house from the Exotic Garden we came across the Japanese and Stone Gardens. The Japanese Garden was created by a Japanese designer, Professor Shigeo Fukahara, and is predictably full of plants such as azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias. Predictable perhaps, but nonetheless beautifully arranged, amid traditional Japanese garden ornaments.
The walls of the nearby Stone Garden are covered with dwarf creeping fig. This acts as a backdrop for the fragments of buildings such as arches and columns that are the main feature of this area.
This garden was a delight to visit. It was well cared for and plants were all in excellent health. We were lucky with the weather perhaps, sunny but still, but this garden would be a delight at most times of year.
As we wandered down the drive I was reminded of one of the tests of whether a garden worked – would you want to own it. Without doubt, I would enjoy the challenge and beauty of this garden, and I admire the woman who created it.
All photos by Edward Ohanessian