When we drew your attention to some of the most beautiful “Gardens of the Riviera” a few weeks ago, we failed to mention any garden to the west of Grasse. Not because there were no gardens in this part of the world but only for the reason that we had never visited any.
Now, however, that we have strayed sufficiently far away from our base in the French-Italian borderlands of the Riviera, we are happy to report that the “far west” of this blessed coast is equally distinguished by a cornucopia of landscaped perfection.
On our recent visit to Hyères, we found at least two gardens that can rival their eastern peers. One for its artistic ambition alone – the gardens of the modernist Villa Noailles just underneath the old town’s ruined castle, now called the Parc Saint Bernard – laid out in the 1920s by the Armenian-Iranian architect Gabriel Guevrekian (later to become one of the leading designers of modern, “Imperial” Teheran) as a deliberately “Cubist” take on the ancient art of landscaping.
The other famous one comes across as even more ambitious, daring to challenge the gardens of Nice, Monaco and Menton on their own homeground of five-star-glamour. Now, it may not be unusual for a Riviera garden to be associated with a celebrity, but the Castel Saint Claire, just to the north of Hyères’s Old Town, is surely the only one that can lay a claim to not one but two famous names: it was built by a world-famous amateur archaeologist and later extended to its current size by a world-famous writer. Beat that, Serre de la Madone!
An Idyllic Garden in Hyères
One caveat, however: the visible influence of Olivier Voutier, the soldier-cum-adventurer who brought the Venus of Milo to France, mainly extends to the neo-Romanesque house that he had built on the grounds of a 16th century convent …
… while we can only guess what the gardens around it would have looked like.
There would have been quite a few classical statues, presumably, because Voutier had fought as a volunteer in the Greek war for independence, joining the nationalist rebel army as a volunteer (much like Lord Byron) and rising to the rank of colonel. His appetite for adventure satiated, he retired to Hyères at the age of 50, built himself a house and lived there for the next 30 years. He is buried in the grounds of his old mansion.
The gardens as they look today, however, are very much the work of Edith Wharton. She may not be as famous today as she was during the peak of her success in the 1920s, when she became the first woman novelist to win a Pulitzer Prize. You may not have read any of her novels, but there is a good chance that you have seen movies based on one of her works: Ethan Frome – that’s one of hers, for example (filmed with Liam Neeson in the role of the star-crossed lover), but while other of her stories were turned into movies or TV mini series (such as The Buccaneers and The House of Mirth,) by far the most famous of all Edith-Wharton-based films is The Age of Innocence, in which Martin Scorsese reveals the brutal codes of the American upper class, showing tight-lipped clans that are as ruthlessly efficient in the preservation of their interests as New Jersey’s Goodfellas.
This was a world that Edith Wharton knew well (the East Coast Patricians, that is, not the mob). She was a wealthy woman long before she became a best selling writer, and when she purchased the Castel Saint Claire in 1927, she had already spent many winters in southern France or Northern Italy and was very familiar with the local traditions in architecture as well as, above all, gardening. All of these experiences went into the design of her new garden, as intricately woven together as one of her plots.
Castel Saint Claire reflects all of these traditions, combining arches and stone walls …
… with palm trees and other succulents.
It also features benches for visitors to pause for a brief while …
… and enjoy the often spectacular views.
And, since Edith Wharton planned to spend mainly the winters there, her garden included many flowers that would blossom during this period, ensuring that there is something to enjoy all year around.
The Castel St Claire is a perfectly preserved idyll away from the hustle and bustle of Hyères, which can be quite a busy little town. House and gardens are located on your left hand side on the path that leads from the town centre to the castle at the top of the hill. Do not make the mistake of just passing by.