French Mediterranean gardens: a garden tour across southern France – part 3

Ronnie_Hess-French_Mediterranean_Gardens_3-e-MyFrenchLife™Bienvenue à bord! In my third and final installment, we’re continuing our journey aboard a virtual tour bus on our exploration of some renowned French Mediterranean gardens.

In this last visit, along the Côte d’Azur, we’re stepping briefly out of France to take a walk through Le Jardin Exotique de Monaco, then back into l’Hexagone for a stroll in the Villa and Jardins Ephrussi de Rothschild at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. Both spots provide breathtaking views of the Mediterranean Sea.

A small step outside of FranceRonnie_Hess-French_Mediterranean_Gardens_3-c-MyFrenchLife™, Mediterranean Gardens

Monaco’s Exotic Garden, for me, is an unexpected show-stopper. It’s a vertical garden built steeply into a cliff above the principality’s port (the cliff side provides good drainage for the plants).

A meandering stone path leads visitors through the garden and one is tempted to linger. But there’s much to see and it’s good to pace oneself, especially at midday.

Opened to the public in 1933 but enlarged considerably since then, the garden is home to hundreds of species of succulents – cacti and agave, aloe and euphorbia. The plants are considered exotic because they are for the most part non-native species brought here from far-away dry zones.

The thorny, leathery or sometimes fuzzy plants, originating from the southwestern US, Central and South America, South Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, adapt well to water-challenged areas such as the Mediterranean by storing water in their stems.

Since the flowering periods of the plants vary, the garden can be magnificent most of the year.


A French Mediterranean garden with its toe in the sea

Our next stop is just a few minutes away on a peninsula or cape jutting into the Mediterranean, at the narrowest part of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. Unlike Le Jardin Exotique, everything at the Ephrussi de Rothschild Gardens is horizontal, not vertical, except perhaps for the spouting fountains and the Italian-styled villa.

A delight among French Mediterranean gardens is the pink palace-by-the-sea, built at the beginning of the 20th century for Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild. She was the daughter of the banker and major art collector, Baron Alphonse de Rothschild. Her husband, Maurice Ephrussi, was a ne’er-do-well, and the money for the estate certainly did not come from him.

Ronnie_Hess-French_Mediterranean_Gardens_3-b-MyFrenchLife™, Mediterranean Gardens, Villa

The palace became her retreat from a bad marriage, which ended in divorce. Before she died in 1934, the baroness left the estate to the Académie des Beaux-Arts Institut de France.

Like Le Jardin Exotique, the Ephrussi de Rothschild Gardens is a botanical theme park. But instead of succulents from around the world, the estate features a series of small ‘global’ villages within the larger one.

There are nine sections, including Spanish, Florentine, Japanese and French. There are also stone and rose gardens as well. Plants here, too, have varying flowering times, making this a garden for all seasons.

I prefer the shaded calm and intimacy of the Japanese space, but who wouldn’t be taken in by the out-in-the-open classical French garden, with all its symmetry and fanfare, its piped in classical music along with the jets d’eau?

My real tour was under the auspices of the Mediterranean Garden Society. If the subject is of interest, please take a look at the MGS’s webpage as well as the books mentioned in my first two articles.

Ronnie_Hess-French_Mediterranean_Gardens_3-d-MyFrenchLife™, Mediterranean Gardens

What impressions are you left with after this abbreviated tour? Which is your favourite of the French Mediterranean gardens? Join the discussion below, or on Twitter @MaVieFrancaise.

Read more about French Mediterranean gardens…
Part 1 // Part 2

All images © Ronnie Hess

About the Contributor

Ronnie Hess

“I’ve had a long and passionate interest in France and especially French food. An American now based in Madison, WI, I’ve lived and worked in Paris as a reporter for CBS News and in Burgundy as a teacher. I’m the author of Eat Smart in France and Eat Smart in Portugal, both culinary travel guides. See my web page for further information.”

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