March 25, 2009
Menton, Grasse, Cap Ferrat……. plenty of places along the Côte d’Azur are famous as horticultural destinations. You don’t hear much about the gardens of Monte Carlo, though. Or about Monte Carlo, these days, at all. The romantic destination of gangsters and grannies seems to have lost its identity in the more business-like Monaco.
Tiny as it is, squeezed between cliffs and the Mediterranean, the principality seems too thickly planted with tower blocks to offer gardeners a chance. It is, on the other hand, one of the richest towns on earth, prinked up and garnished with flowers in all seasons, its streets swept day and night, its trees pruned with extreme daring (‘élagage acrobatique’ boasts one firm of arborists); no trouble too much; no shortage of labour. And its climate, sun-baked and sheltered from all but east winds, with spring in early March, positively provokes planting. Such full-dress public outbreaks as the gardens of Casino Square push gardenesque style to the limit, with the emphasis on palm trees.
There are two gardens, though, that are worth the detour and speak in garden languages about as distinct as they can be. The Jardin Exotique, clinging to the cliff tops as you come into town from Nice, is the prickliest display of xerophytes this side of Arizona, and in balmy, tranquil, seductive and oriental contrast, the other end of town on the way to Menton, is the Jardin Japonais.
The idea of cultivating cactus, and everything else rebarbative, on ledges and in niches in vertical bare rock, came to the same scientific prince as the oceanographic museum which is Monaco’s pride. His local gardener contrived a network of paths, steps and terraces that scale several hundred feet of rock fantastically eroded by the wind. Where the rock was missing, or not fantastic enough, he made artificial outcrops and overhangs.
For barriers and handrails to the knee-trembling paths he used concrete loggery. (I search in vain for a name for the faux-branch- and-twig-in-cement idiom). A more arid, exposed and uncomfortable site it is hard to imagine. And yet it is beautiful. It is wrapped, draped and studded with formidable plants in the peak of health; vegetable dinosaurs, scaly, armour-plated and above all prickly. They shoot, slither, squirm and threaten, light up with orange daisies or scarlet truncheons or suddenly rocket up twenty foot white plumes. It is brutalist botany; the principles of plant life spelt out in angry uncompromising terms. You couldn’t fail to be fascinated.
The Japanese Garden is more recent; part of the décor of a pampered and profitable beachfront, secluded behind tile-topped walls, demure, formal, teetering on the edge of tweeness and yet so disciplined, so precisely mannered that you surrender.
It is big enough to live its own life, even under tower blocks, and even beside the sea.
The day I first saw it the sea was furious. The Levante was tormenting it, whipping white horses out of sunlit sapphire rollers, flashing as they charged, bursting in silver explosions on the breakwaters and rocks. All right: that was an aberration. Water means tranquillity in the Kyoto code. To watch the racing waves, though, beyond the protecting wall and between the sculpted pines, only intensified the sense of courtly privilege, where brilliant carp navigate tiny stone islands and raked gravel represents an ocean. Camellias are absurdly luscious; maples fine-filigreed as lace.
Both these gardens, it occurred to me, however different in purpose and intention, are essays in stone. Rocks, the feelings they evoke and the conditions they impose, are at the heart of them both.