Gardens are a part of the Riviera scenery like yachts, open-top sports cars and deposed government officials from corrupt cleptocracies. Unlike the mountains and the sea, they have not always been there but have become so much part of the cultural landscape that nobody remembers or can even imagine a time when they were not.
The history of the Riviera gardens goes back all the way to the “stone age” of the region in the mid 19th century when the first wave of Northern visitors – the oligarchs of their day – planted tropical species on the land around their homes.
From there, these plants spread quickly and widely – so widely in fact that they pretty much make up the face of today’s coastal landscape. All the “iconic” plants that you will readily associate with the Riviera were actually imported less than 200 years ago: the mimosa, the bougainvillea and even the palm trees (from Australia, Asia and Africa respectively).
Some of the 100 or so public gardens in the region count among its top tourist attractions, and we have featured them more than once on these pages, here and here. So it may come as a surprise that the first French Riviera Garden Festival is only now being celebrated across the region from 1 April to 1 May 2017. But there you are.
Where to See the First French Riviera Garden Festival
The “Festival des Jardins” comprises a large number of activities (see here for a full programme) but is centered around the “beauty contest” of ten new and purpose-built gardens in five towns (Grasse, Cannes, Antibes, Nice and Menton) that are vying for a top prize of EUR 10,000.
Professional landscape designers have been requested to illustrate the event’s official theme (“The Awakening of the Senses”) through “creative and original”, but also “educational” designs that are meant to highlight responses to urbanisation and climate change. The gardens have a maximum size of 200 square metres and are always arranged in pairs, opposite each other in an existing public garden that belongs to the competing city.
A jury featuring experts, journalists and the actress Julie Depardieu (yes, the daughter) was scheduled to visit all exhibits on 1 and 2 April and determine its choice immediately after. In other words: we have a winner already but will only be told “in due course”, as the official programme says.
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So, let’s have a look what is on show, proceeding from West to East and starting our survey at the Jardins Fragonard in the heart of Grasse.
Local history – Grasse styles itself (with some justification) as the “perfume capital of the world” – has provided the inspiration for Cyril Caminotto’s “Natural Fragrances” arrangement of plants and perfume-making equipment …
… which comes across as part garden, part modern sculpture.
The scene has been sub-divided into three zones, which stand for the three notes of a perfume (top, middle and base) that shape the “fragrance pyramid” (qv: the frequency of triangular shapes in the arrangement).
The attractively arranged perfume funnels, bottles and tubes contrast intruiguingly with the subtropical lushness around them, but overall, the concept is perhaps a little too cleverly thought out. There is, after all, only so much that you can express by arranging plants and flowers.
On the far side of the garden, Jean-Laurent Laurenzia has used his exhibit (“Dansité”) to evoke the patterns and rhythms of a dance …
… and as a theatre for the reconciliation of body and soul.
Or, in the words of the official catalogue: “Not only is danse an attachment to the earth and the expression of the truth of being, but the body that performs it filters this conduit of energy through to the soul.” Now you know.
Off then to Cannes (take bus no. 600 around the corner), where – in the gardens of the Villa Rothschild, a ten-minute walk from the town centre – Nicolas Besse and Pauline Gillet have set up a dining table like no other for their “Le Banquet” …
… complete with menus and a guest book where visitors can leave behind their favourite recipes from the Mediterranean’s “edible gardens”.
“Eating nature”: it’s a clever idea, perhaps not the most original in the contest, but it has been imaginatively staged, and “Le Banquet” provides a sumptously arranged optical feast which perfectly complements the vista of the equally sumptuous Villa Rothschild.
At the bottom of the same garden, David Simonson and Jules Lefrère have set up their “Garden of the Sixth Extinction”, which – in short – is meant to tell the tale of mankind’s troubled relationship with the natural environment. (The official programme has a far more detailed explanation of which element symbolizes what in the design.)
Half a dozen roughly hewn figures, vaguely reminiscent of Easter Island statues, are assembled in a circle around a small pond, surrounded by rocks and primitive vegetation. The scene has a quiet dignity and monumental grandeur (despite its relatively small scale), so there is quite a lot to like even if you don’t care much for the didacticism of it all.
Have we seen the winner already? Let’s not be unduly rash and withhold our judgement until we have had a look at the remaining contestants in Antibes, Nice and Menton – which is where we will be heading for next week’s post.