France in spring
An armchair cruise this week to Van Gogh’s last poppy fields, a vertiginous cactus garden above the Riviera and the extravagant Villa Ephrussi Rothschild at St Jean Cap Ferat (even the address is over the top!). These are a few highlights of our recent tour of France, led by Peter Whitehead. Here’s what Peter had to say:
“What are the words of that song? “I love Paris in the springtime.” And we did, though the weather was a bit iffy. There was a storm brewing over the chateau Vaux le Vicomte when we visited which only served to make the place even more intimidating and impressive, and it was downright wet at Monet’s Garden at Giverny.
After five nights in Paris we travelled south to Avignon – and slightly warmer weather. And that meant roses, to everyone’s delight. Slender cypress pines made dark green exclamation marks in a countryside where valerian and brilliant red poppies were in full flower. A favourite town in this picturesque area was St Remy where a feature is the Saint-Paul Asylum museum and gardens. This is where Van Gogh spent his last years. This is it, set in a field of poppies.
Aix-en-Provence was our third stop and we were in the centre of a lively and bustling university town. I’ve written already about our successful visit to the amazing La Louve garden in Bonnieux. It was a favourite.
Our last stop was Nice on the Cote d’Azur – and what a great place to end up! It’s a sophisticated city in a perfect setting with the Promenade des Anglais stretching for kilometres along the sea front and fascinating narrow lanes twisting through the old town. A trip along the coast to Monte Carlo took us to the extraordinary Jardins Exotique, which clings to the cliff-face above Monaco. The massive cacti and succulents are cleverly planted on narrow terraces with irresistible views of the Riviera beneath.
To cap off a wonderful tour we saved the best til last – the Villa Ephrussi Rothschild at St Jean Cap Ferat. Cap Ferat was the place that Europe’s elite chose to spend the winters during the Belle Epoque. Baroness Beatrice Ephrussi Rothschild bought the land in 1905, disappointing her neighbour King Leopold of Belgium who fancied expanding his grounds. It was an idyllic location with great views out to sea and Beatrice imagined the garden as a grand ocean liner, with the main garden being the deck. She was the captain of all she surveyed, and could look down from the loggia of the house to her team of 30 gardeners all decked out in uniform, complete with berets topped with red pompoms.
We toured the exquisite house (the Baroness was a great collector), and were enticed by glimpses of the gardens through the shuttered windows. A rambling and leisurely route took us through the gardens, each one designed in a different style so that the walk is like a transatlantic cruise! We dropped anchor at the hexagonal temple which looks back to the rose-pink villa down a cascading water rill. Formal long water ponds are bordered by pink impatiens, roses and geraniums. Pink was the Baroness’ colour. She aways wore it – from the tip of pink silk parasol to the toes of her kidskin boots, and even her crocodile skin handbag. Her hair turned white while she was still in her 20s and people commented that she looked like a blossom – dressed all in pink, crowned with white.
The fountains are choreographed to play in time to various pieces of orchestral music. It was great fun to see and hear this amazing show – and to have it mostly to ourselves, thank to the clever timing of our driver Remy and guide Huguette. It was a perfect end to a wonderful trip.
I’m keen to hear what my fellow travellers have to say about what we saw and loved. To finish off, here’s our group, under a magnificent Chionanthus retusus in full bloom in the always-lovely Jardins des Plantes in Paris.”
Photos: Peter Whitehead