Visit the Most Famous Garden on the Riviera

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The Fontana Rosa

Forget what the French Government wants you to believe: public servants do make mistakes – which is why we were given 20 glorious minutes to explore this wonderful place on our own

The whole point of this blog is to tell you about hikes and urban walks so you can do them yourselves. Not so with today’s “adventure for beginners”: it is unrepeatable, up to a point, so you better read on because this may be your best opportunity ever to get a closer impression of one of the most famous gardens in France.

"inside Fontana Rosa Most Famous Garden on the Riviera"

The Fontana Rosa Garden just outside of Menton – on the French Riviera coast, a few hundred meters before the Italian Border – is truly legendary: lush, beautiful, haunted.

Unfortunately, however, it is also closed for most of the time. They only open it on Sundays for an hour and a half from 10.30 a.m., and – the real problem – you can visit it only as part of a guided tour.

"entrance gate of Fontana Rosa Most Famous Garden on the Riviera"

Why is this a problem? Well, have you ever been on a French guided tour through anything? Somewhere on one of your trips, you may have come across a German information panel; you know, those boards where they tell you everything you never wanted to know – in excruciating detail – about the biology of a forest or the geological history of this mountain or that cliff?

French tour guides read all of that out with all the apparent passion and excitement of a speaking clock. German guides think you are as fascinated by these bits of information as they are themselves. French guides know you are not but carry on regardless, out of sheer sadism. Or to show you who is boss. Or, come to think of it, both.

Otherwise, we would have gone long ago to visit the Fontana Rosa (we live almost literally around the corner), but as it was we never did. And then, on a recent walk through the area, we found the gates to the complex open. We walked inside, expecting to immediately run into somebody who would shoo us away, but there was nobody. Not a living soul. We could not quite believe our luck.

"part of the garden inside Fontana Rosa, Menton"

The Fontana Rosa Garden was laid out by the owner of the villa, a Spanish writer called Vicente Blasco Ibanez, at the height of his fame which was considerable. Don’t worry if you have never heard anything about him. He was extremely popular between the two World Wars, but his fame faded soon. Greta Garbo played in two films based on his works, Rudolph Valentino in 2 others (including The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Blasco Ibanez’s most famous novel).

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The only film made from one of his books that you can still watch occasionally, on TV at 3 a.m., is the 1941 version of Blood and Sand starring Tyrone Power and Rita Hayworth (the novel was filmed many times, most recently in 1989 with Sharon Stone as the belle dame sans merci – only to sink without a trace).

Blasco Ibanez loved books – his garden is dedicated to his favourite writers: Dickens, Balzac and Cervantes – but he loved the movies just as much and had a projector room in his villa (this was the 1920s, lest we forget) …

"the villa Fontana Rosa in Menton"

… and even directed early versions of his works himself. Unlike many pulp fiction writers, he was a true intellectual, a political columnist and left-wing anti-monarchist, which is why he had to leave his native Spain and seek exile in France. In a way, it was a fascinating career: imagine Susan Sontag or Jean-Paul Sartre writing potboiling airport novels, totally without irony.

Far away from the politics of his home country, to which he had dedicated the first part of his writing career (he started popular writing fiction only in his 40s), Blasco Ibanez spent most of his time and energy on his villa and, chiefly, his garden.

"the spendour of Fontana Rosa Most Famous Garden on the Riviera"

He introduced many non-native species of trees and bushes, which gives the place its green and lush feeling …

"mosaic tiled bench inside the Fontana Rosa Most Famous Garden on the Riviera"

… while creating most of the garden furniture and ornaments in the architectural idiom of southern Spain – with its influences of Moorish tastes and customs.

"a mosaic tiled bench inside the gardens of the Fontana Rosa in Menton"

After his death in 1928, villa and garden were neglected and rather quickly turned into a wilderness, thanks to Menton’s generous climate. The City of Menton took over the property only relatively recently, so you must bear in mind that the Fontana Rosa, now the most famous garden on the Riviera, is an ongoing project rather than the finished or fully restored article.

"parts of renovation inside the Fontana Rosa Most Famous Garden on the Riviera"

After we were left to explore the place for about 20 minutes, a car drove through the gates, with a very angry lady inside. I suspect she had driven away to buy something against a headache (or a foul mood), not locking the gate behind here because she expected to be back within a couple of minutes – or a similarly short time which, for whatever reason, had quickly turned into something much longer. At any rate, she had left the store unminded. Now it was all our fault, of course. She gave us a look as though we had committed an unspeakable crime, like ridiculing Napoleon (or guided tours through French museums) or daring to question the First Commandment Of French Public Life (“The public servant is always right”).

But it was worth it. Yes: we would do it again if given the chance. Which we will probably never get. And neither, in all probability, will you: one more reason to cherish these pictures.

"inside the Fontana Rosa Most Famous Garden on the Riviera"

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16 comments to Visit the Most Famous Garden on the Riviera

  • Most times, Emiel, I find guides overcompensate for the lack of things they can say about a place. Very few can admit that there’s not that much significance to a place.

  • Yes, Miranda, it is a very beautiful garden, and you can imagine how wonderful it must have been before it fell into disrepair.

  • Not at all, Jody! We certainly didn’t feel bad about upsetting her. It was simply her own neglectful fault which we took advantage of.

  • I love your storytelling! Guides can be helpful sometimes, but most of the times we also feel to explore sites by ourselves. we don’t mind if we miss out on every nitty gritty detail of a place. You can’t remember it anyway. It’s the atmosphere your remember, they way you felt when entering a place… that’s important.

  • I could spend days in this garden – the colours, tiling and vegetation is stunning. Now I want to see if any of Vicente Blasco Ibanez books have been translated. Thanks for sharing.

  • Is it wrong that I’m glad you upset the caretaker? I was surprised by the amount of tile in the garden. To me that’s more a Spanish or Moroccan thing, but I guess it’s also part of the decor in the south of France. How lucky you were able to get such a private visit!

  • You are gutsy, Meg! Good on you! If that’s what it takes to get to see what you came for, just do it!

  • Glad to have introduced you to a new site, Marc. And thanks for dropping by!

  • So true, Leigh. One would think this garden would be a pride and joy of the town. But not much is heard about it in terms of promotion. And they really should consider opening it to the public more often than just for a few hours on a Sunday.

  • It is, Nathalie. It’s so quiet there but only because nobody is allowed in during week days!

  • Amazing!! I hate places which only let you explore with a tour guide – so awesome that you managed 20 minutes by yourselves in this place!! And totally alone – what an awesome day! Reminds me of the time we went to Oxford and they weren’t letting tourists into the University grounds because it was orientation week for students. I swung my backpack over one shoulder, grabbed some books and just walked straight past the guard like I was meant to be there lol so I got to see Oxford University while the rest of my day tour didn’t :D

  • Great post. I have been to Menton and went to Italy several times and I never get to see the gardens. Next time, It surely is on my list to must visit in Menton. Thanks for the post.

  • Interesting it was so close but you never stepped foot in it. Most gardeners I know are people who love to share so what a shame this gorgeous beauty of a garden isn’t shared on a regular basis. Thanks for the tour.

  • The Fontana Rosa looks like a colourful oasis, thanks for introducing us to this beautiful garden.

  • Marcia, I would like to think it’s haunted by Blasco-Ibanez’s favourite authors.

  • I can just imagine how angry she was, how dare you? But what incredible luck, Michael & Marlys!
    Sr. Blasco Ibanez has created an incredible masterpiece. I hope the French government finishes its restoration soon and makes it open to the public on a regular basis. In the meantime, thanks for risking the wrath of the French public servant to bring us these spectacular photos. Now, did you also say it was haunted?? Who by?

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