Menton - Botanical beauty and floral wealth, from hillside fields of scented lavender to ornately landscaped Belle Epoque gardens, rival the sand, sea, sky, sun and sex as symbols of the Cote d'Azur. Indeed, almost everyone seems to have their heads, and their hands, in the soil.
The Cistercian monks on the Saint Honorat island off Cannes have "planted" signs that encourage visitors to "Respect Our Plantations" and Auguste Renoir's estate in Cagnes-sur-Mer is renowned for its splendid olive grove. The Princess Grace Rose Garden in Monaco contains more than 5,500 different rose bushes, one of the best views on the Riviera is from the Exotic Garden in Eze, and Menton confidently contends that the "city is a garden."
Brilliantly colored cut flowers, including carnations that were introduced to the area in 1870, are sold daily at the Cours Saleya in Nice and horticultural research is conducted at the Parc Thuret on the Cap d'Antibes. Grasse, the capital of the area's perfume industry, is literally a sweet-smelling city that will get a tourism boost in 2007 from the film "Perfume."
And annual festivals like the "Battle of the Flowers" processions featuring flower-bedecked floats in Nice, the Rose Festival in Grasse and the Lemon Festival in Menton -- are omnipresent. Eight cities on the 130-kilometer Route du Mimosa, including Mandelieu-La Napoule, have parades and events saluting the popular yellow mimosa plant when it blossoms between January and March.
But it is the fantasy-filled Belle Epoque gardens, often punctuated with fountains and statues amidst ornate estates like the Villa Kerylos in Beaulieu-sur-Mer, which attract most horticultural-minded visitors. Many are part of The Garden Route of the Riviera that now includes some sixty different gardens to cities like Beausoleil and Menton, which offer guided garden tours.
Foreigners, particularly the English who discovered the climatic virtues of the Riviera in the 18th century, are credited with both introducing a number of exotic species and developing many Belle Epoque gardens. Foreign botanists, businessmen, landscape artists, novelists and painters created about one third of the gardens that began to flourish during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Sir Lawrence Johnston, the renowned landscaper who created Hidcote Manor in England, laid out the Serre de la Madone garden in Menton between 1919 and 1939. The nearby Fontana Rosa garden was designed in the 1920 by Spanish novelist Vicente Blasco-Ibanez.
Menton, often called the "Pearl of France, was the hot bed of European aristocracy in the 19th century and the site for the design of superb gardens and cultivation of exotic plants that now fill the gardens of Maria Serena, Val Rameh and Les Colombières. There is an important collection of palm trees at Maria Serena; a stunning example of the Sophora Toromiro, the mythical tree from Easter Island, at Val Rameh, which was purchased by Lord Radcliffe at the beginning of the 19th century; and a "water stairways" at Le Clos du Peyronnet laid out by Humphrey Waterfield.
One not-to-miss Belle Epoque garden is on the grounds of the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, an architectural "folie" inspired by renaissance residences in Venice and Florence, on St Jean Cap Ferrat. Its seven gardens were developed with Spanish, Florentine, Japanese, Provencal, Oriental, exotic and classical "à la française" inspiration.
Nearby Beausoleil, which celebrated the centennial of its founding in 2004, has created a Belle Epoque circuit that includes a visit to the two-story 900-square meter Riviera Palace Winter Garden. Built between 1898 and 1903 on the hillside dominating the town, it is attributed to Gustave Eiffel.
Meanwhile the twenty-five acre Villa Eilen Roc in Antibes, which was designed in 1867 by Charles Garnier, the architect of the opera houses in Paris and Monaco, features an extraordinary variety of trees. And the Villa Fort France gardens in Grasse, created in 1935 by British author Lady Fortescue, include five hundred species of plants and trees typical of the region. Indeed many gardens developed during the early 20th century are a mélange of imported species and local cypresses, olives, palms and roses.
If the Belle Epoque gardening scene seems too overwhelming, Monaco's sculpture-filled gardens and its well-known Jardin Exotique, which has 6,000 different varieties of semi-desert flora, have been complemented by an exceptional Japanese Garden. The Phoenix Park in Nice, one of the world's largest greenhouses, has a score of gardens with specific themes that recreate seven different tropical or sub-tropical climates. And there are even bonsai classes at the Bonsai Arboretum in Biot.
Sidebar: Getting Around The Gardens
Information about the route de Mimosa can be found at www.ot-mandelieu.fr (Email: email@example.com) or by calling the Mandelieu tourist office (Tel: 04 92 97 99 27).
The Alpes Maritimes General Counsel publishes a practical guide in English entitled "The Garden Route of the Riviera" that is available at most tourist offices.
Information regarding Beausoleil's "Belle Epoque" circuit may be obtained from the Beausoleil Office Municipal de Tourisme (Tel: 04 93 78 01 55 - Email: firstname.lastname@example.org) - Website: www.beausoleil-tourisme.com).
The Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild may be contacted at www.villa-ephrussi.com, by email (email@example.com) or by telephone (04 93 01 45 90).
The Service du Patrimoine de Menton, which provides "Heritage Passports" for garden visits, may be contacted by telephone (04 92 10 33 66) or through the Tourism Office. (Website: www.villedementon.com - Email: firstname.lastname@example.org - Tel: 04 92 41 76 80).
This article is copyrighted by Joel Stratte-McClure.