Little Africa Posted on May 5, 2010

I’m lucky enough (and that’s very lucky) to be intimately engaged with a garden on the Riviera. More precisely, looking down on the Riviera from a hillside called La Petite Afrique. In this mildest of climates, sheltered by the Alps and insulated by the sea, this plunging slope, below vertical limestone cliffs is the one to be compared with Africa.

We started work on the ancient terraces five years ago. They were originally farmed for olives and vines, and latterly, when the railway was laid along the route of the Roman Via Aurelia, for early flowers for the markets of Lyon and Paris. There are still flower-fields terraced up the hills at Villefranche, and many plastic tunnels once you cross the Italian border. Beaulieu-sur-Mer has no terraces wide enough; it was colonized as a fishing village by the late Victorian English. Prime Minister Salisbury had a villa here, the Duke of Connaught helped to build the Anglican church; there may be a reconquista by the French one day, but it hasn’t happened yet.

We have parts of the four top-most terraces before it becomes a steep scrub of Aleppo pines and wild olives, then cliffs. Across the bay, 500 feet below, we look down on the eastern cape of Cap Ferrat. From the western end of the top terrace the view takes in the whole garden, the cliffs above and the bluffs leading to Cap d’Ail and Monte Carlo, crowned by three perilously perched castles you only notice at night, when they are disneyfied by floodlights.

The terrace rises in steep steps to the western end, backed by high stone walls. We have given each step a corresponding cascade, so you walk up to follow the glinting water-spouts to their source under a monster olive tree. This is where the gazebo offers you the full view, after you have reached a platform of orange and lemon trees and another more severely furnished with a box parterre under an umbrella pine. The sea is hidden, until you reach the top, behind an iron pergola of roses and grape vines.

Then looking back you see that the uppermost terrace, or the central hundred feet of it, is a tunnel of grape vines and a wisteria, a cutting from one on Cap Ferrat that covers a quarter of an acre with flower-streamers that start above your head and almost reach the ground.

On this visit we were not lucky with the weather. The cold wet blast that had hit England two days before followed us there. There was plenty to do, weeding and trimming and planning future planting, but none of that contemplative lazing such pampered gardens are supposed to be for.

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