15 Sublime Gardens that Prove the French Grow them Best
By Lyn Parry
Few countries have mastered gardening as supremely as France. Blessed with a moderate climate, the French have created the best examples of seemingly every planting style over the centuries, from regal formality to landscapes designed to give an impression of wildness. Visitors who don't set foot into a few of the country's transporting jardins miss out on experiencing one of France's magnificent obsessions. And since the best spots are one of a kind, there are good reasons for strolling throuh as many as possible.
Fondation Monet, Giverny
The house and garden where Claude Monet lived and painted starting in 1883 attract art lovers and those with green thumbs alike. Monet was particularly proud of the place, calling it "my most beautiful masterpiece." Depending on the season, there's a riot of colors from simple country posies as well as rare exotic blooms. At the property's southwest corner, a tunnel under a road leads from the Clos Normand to the Water Lily Garden—familiar from so many Monet paintings—where banks are planted with rhododendrons, azaleas, climbing roses, and tree peonies. In the spring, the green, wooden Japanese bridge is draped with mauve wisteria. After the artist's death in 1926 the garden deteriorated, but it was finally restored in the '70s, thanks mostly to donations from generous Americans. To avoid crowds in the peak summer months, show up early in the morning.
Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat
Turning off the Rivièra’s Basse Corniche, the road spins around the Cap Ferrat headland. At its tip sits the pink-and-white Belle Epoque villa of Ephrussi de Rothschild, with 17 acres (7 hectares) of gardens with spectacular views of the coast. The rooms of the neo-Venetian mansion can be toured, but the highlight is the landscaped domain outside. There are seven themed gardens: Spanish, Japanese, Florentine, formal French, stone, rose, and the exotic—with cacti and palms, musical fountains, ancient blooms, and ivy-covered statuary. Each year in early May, a rose festival is held.
Jardin Exotique de Monaco
Surrounded by France, the 499-acre principality of Monaco is a logical part of any visit to the region. A steep 30-minute walk from the palace there leads to Monaco’s Exotic Garden. Planted in 1933, the garden showcases more than 6,000 species of cacti and other succulents growing along perilous slopes and nurtured by the Mediterranean climate. Flowering year-round, the spot contains remarkable species from Africa and Latin America—from the aloe plants of Cape Town to the giant agaves of Mexico. Crisscrossed by winding paths, footbridges, pergolas, and canopies of greenery, the climb through the gardens, attractive in itself, is rewarded at the top with a stunning sea vista over Monte Carlo's famous yachts.
Jardin Botanique du Val Rahmeh, Menton
The Val Rahmeh Botanical Gardens, situated east of Menton, has a much-prized variety of flora. The garden was established in 1905 by Lord Radcliffe, the former governor of Malta, who with his wife Rahmeh enjoyed collecting tropical fruit plants. Later, in the 1950s, the property was expanded to include a pond and a collection of tropical and subtropical plants from Japan and South America, in particular edible species such as lemons, bananas, and dates. Today managed by the local Natural History Museum, the garden features such highlights as the small Toromiro tree (a species that has since disappeared from Easter Island) as well as 400-year-old olive trees, rare exotic plants, spices, and herbs.
Serre de la Madone, Gorbio
Gentleman gardener Major Lawrence Johnston chose the perfect microclimate for his Serre de la Madone at Gorbio, a seaside village, 6 miles (10 km) from Menton, on the coast at the border with Italy. From 1919 to 1939, Johnston roamed far-flung lands collecting exotica that he laid out on his hillside spread—terraces featuring fountains, pools, parterres, pergolas, and statues. The gardens were neglected after his death, but now they're carefully maintained by the municipality.
Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire
About 124 miles (200 km) from Paris, the 16th-century Château Chaumont towers above the river Loire. Because this feudal-style château was never actually tested in battle, its turreted towers stand intact. Fabled owners have included Catherine de’ Medici and noblewoman Diane de Poitiers. The park, covering around 79 acres (32 hectares), was landscaped in 1884 by Achille Duchêne to resemble an English country garden. Each year from April to September the domain, gardens, and outbuildings host an International Garden Festival, a famed showcase for trendsetting landscapers, architects, and set designers.
Les Jardins du Manoir d’Eyrignac, Salignac-Eyvigues
The Eyrignac Manoir gardens are near Sarlat in the Dordogne. It took owner Gilles Sermadiras and his son over 40 years to restore these grounds, which had deteriorated into an overgrown wilderness. Today the gardens blend the classical structure of formal French landscaping with the free-spirited Italian Renaissance style of lawns and mature trees. The look is out of another century, showcasing topiaries and symmetrical parterres—one of the finest is the Hornbeam walk, a geometrical masterpiece of trimmed yew and hornbeam. Among a tapestry of green hues, the flowers of the white and meadow gardens add a welcome splash of color.
La Bambouseraie en Cévennes
Although bamboo is the showstopper—there are more than 200 varieties—you'll also find many other plants to admire here. Among trees of astonishing size and longevity are sequoias, gingko bilobas, magnolias, and camellias. The gardens, which stretch over 30 acres (12 hectares) about a 15-minute drive west of Alès in southeastern France, unfurl to reveal treats such as an aquatic garden, a Laotian village, a Japanese garden, a maze, ponds, greenhouses—and of course, the bambouseraie, or bamboo garden. The most fun way to get there is to take the steam train from nearby Anduze.
Parc Oriental de Maulévrier, Maulévrier
An inspirational Asian-themed garden near the town of Cholet in the Loire Valley, Parc Oriental de Maulévrier was created by architect Alexandre Marcel during a time in the 20th century when all things Eastern were considered highly fashionable. The parc, which is in tip-top shape, holds the distinction of being the largest Edo Period Japanese-style garden in Europe. Water is an important feature; at the center of things, there's a lake flowing from west to east, symbolizing life. The Torii bridge, temples, stone lanterns, statues, and around 400 varieties of flowers and plants add to the effect.
Terra Botanica, Angers
This plant-themed amusement park in Angers is a hybrid between a natural history museum and a carnival. Expect attractions you would find in a theme park: a "4D" cinema, rides (in a boat, pedaling an aerial walnut, a helium balloon ride), and games. It’s an ambitious mix covering all aspects of plant life, sometimes seriously—note the misty greenhouse with 2,000 orchid species, Asian paddy fields, medicinal and kitchen gardens, and the rose garden containing over 500 bushes. This horticultural experience is unrepeatable anywhere else and it's huge, so allow plenty of time.
Jardin de Saint Adrien, Servian
The Jardin de Saint-Adrien was planted in a former basalt quarry in the southern town of Servian in the Hérault department of Languedoc Roussillon. Its star attraction is a large lake planted with agaves and aquatic plants such as water lilies, watermilfoil, and rushes, and to complete the aquatic ecosystem, fish such as koi and grass carp have been introduced. Statues and sculptures greet you at every turn—the most impressive of which is the Fontaine de Philia, Greek goddess of friendship, which depicts a reclining young girl with tendrils of vegetation as hair.
Domaine du Rayol, Rayol-Canadel-sur-Mer
The Domaine du Rayol, an hour's drive from St-Tropez, presents an overview of Mediterranean-friendly plant life from around the world: Mexico to Chile, California to Australia. The original gardens were planted in 1910 by Paris banker Alfred Courmes, who also built the Art Nouveau villa and pergola. In 1989, new zones for New Zealand, Asiatic, and Mexican botany were added. There's a surprising variety of vegetation, and because this is the Côte d'Azur, spectacular coastline views. In summer, you can discover the local fauna and flora in an underwater garden using a borrowed snorkel and flipper set.
Les Jardins de Kerdalo, Tredarzec
The Gardens of Kerdalo nestle in a wooded valley in Finistère, Brittany. Designed in 1965 by artist Prince Peter Wolkonsky, the garden is considered by many the best created in Europe since the Second World War. The major attractions: rhododendrons, azaleas, acers, a wisteria-draped pergola, a grotto and mosaic hidden behind giant gunnera, and a formal French garden with four dazzlingly colorful zones. Today, Wolkonsky’s daughter Isabelle carries on the artist’s dream, tending to some 9,000 species growing around the beautiful stone manor house.
Jardin des Cinq Sens, Yvoire
In the heart of Yvoire, a medieval village on Lake Geneva, the former kitchen garden of a castle has become the Garden of Five Senses. Walking through it, you're encouraged to smell, touch, contemplate, listen, and even taste. Inspired by the Middle Ages, the gardens are planted with medicinal and aromatic herbs, fruit trees, and roses accented with aviaries and fountains. The kitchen garden features 1,300 different varieties, among them some rare, forgotten vegetables such as the Noire de Montagne Suisse potato, Bressane lettuce, and the yellow bean of Annecy.
Jardin Botanique de la Villa Thuret, Antibes Juan-les-Pins
Just a short walk from Antibes’ beach is this antipodean botanical wonder on the grounds of Villa Thuret. Founded in 1857 by botanist Gustave Thuret, it specializes in rare, exotic plants from faraway places such as the Canary Islands, South Africa, and New Zealand. The National Institute of Botanical Research tends to a vast collection of some 2,500 species—demonstrating perfectly how ornamental flora can be grown in the balmy climate of Antibes.