A Surreptitious Visit to the Glorious Fontana Rosa Garden
Public servants in France do make mistakes – which is why we had 20 glorious minutes discovering this garden on our own!
The glorious 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.
It is, however, also closed for most of the time, only opening on Sundays for an hour and a half from 10.30 a.m., and only as part of a guided tour.
Well, if have you ever been on a French guided tour through anything, French tour guides read all of the information in excruciating details that could suck out whatever passion and excitement you might have visiting a lush garden.
Lucky us! 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.
The glorious 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. You might not have heard of him, but not to worry. He was 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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You can still occasionally watch the only film made from one of his books, the 1941 version of Blood and Sand starring Tyrone Power and Rita Hayworth. (Most recently (1989), it was filmed with Sharon Stone.)
Because Blasco Ibanez loved books, his garden is dedicated to his favourite writers: Dickens, Balzac and Cervantes.
But he loved movies just as much and had a projector room in his villa 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.
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.
He introduced many non-native species of trees and bushes, which gives the place its green and lush feeling …
… while creating most of the garden furniture and ornaments in the architectural idiom of southern Spain – with its influences of Moorish tastes and customs.
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.
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 of the glorious Fontana Rosa Garden!