Les Colombières: Ferdinand Bac’s house-and-garden masterpiece on the Riviera

A century after its seven-year creation by artist Ferdinand Buck, the magnificent Colombière cliff-top garden in Menton, France’s Alpes-Maritimes department, has been brilliantly restored, according to Catherine Bradley-Hole. Photos by Will Price for Country Life.

Ah, the French Riviera. A legendary place where fragrant pines and silvery olive trees bask on the rocky slopes of the hills descending to the sea. This fortunate corner of the Mediterranean coast looks south into the shimmering blue waters that have long earned the nickname the Côte d’Azur.

Ever since the railroads reached the south in the 1860s, people from cooler northern climates have been drawn to the Riviera. Initially, they only came to winter camps to escape the cold, foggy air, and the dangers of tuberculosis. The clean, pine-scented air of the south and the prospect of sunny days followed by casino nights attracted residents. beautiful world era of the Belle epoch. Royal patronage through Queen Victoria from the 1880s cemented the Riviera’s fashionable status, and low land prices in the early days sparked a real estate boom for new villas set in lush gardens, among ancient pine forests and olive groves.

With decades on both sides of World War I, it’s hard to overstate the parallel importance of horticulture in this region. Here are just a few of the greats: Since 1905, Charlotte de Rothschild has transformed 17 acres of prime real estate atop a hilltop on the Cap Ferrat range into a series of wonderful themed gardens at Villa Ile de France (now known as Villa Ephrussi de France). Rothschild).

At the same time, the great plant connoisseur and sponsor of botanical research, Ellen Wilmott, invested most of her considerable wealth in Villa Boccanegra, near Menton and the Italian border. Since 1922, the former Duchess of Marlborough, Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan, has likened her terraced and stairway gardens on the steep hillsides of Eze, east of Nice, to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. And every November since 1924, Lawrence Johnston has left the icy, windswept northern Cotswolds and his lovely garden at the Hidcote estate to grow a range of more delicate plants in his beloved Serre de la Madon villa in the hills beyond Menton.

The Allée des Jarres follows an easy ascending route at the top of the garden. Le Colombière, France. Filmed by Will Price for Country Life.

Menton was (and is) especially loved by the English, but they were by no means the only creators of large gardens during this period. In 1919, Émile and Caroline Ladan-Bocairy from Compiègne in northern France asked their friend, the Franco-German illustrator, designer and writer Ferdinand Baq (1859–1952), to find them winter accommodation in the south. He purchased something of great potential for them: a two-story, simple 18th-century farmhouse nestled in seven hectares (just over 17 acres) of olive orchards, cliffs, and ravines, high on a southwest-facing hill. in Garavan, overlooking the picturesque old town of Menton and the sheltered harbour.

The Frankin-Bokairs gave Baku free rein to transform the small house into a large and elegant neoclassical villa and create gardens from olive orchards. Almost immediately he became a local architect, decorator and landscape designer, living on the site from 1920 as the house was remodeled, enlarged and decorated by him personally. Buck covered each interior wall with imaginary scenes reminiscent of theatrical scenery, many of which were themes of a Mediterranean landscape or references to classical mythology. Homer’s Garden, a sun-trap courtyard designed in the form of a Roman peristyle in the western part of the house, is decorated with scenes from Odyssey on its enclosing walls.

Immediately to the west of the neoclassical Baca Villa, he created a sunbathing trap-yard modeled on the Roman peristyle. Its enclosing walls are decorated with scenes from Homer’s Odyssey. Le Colombière, France. Filmed by Will Price for Country Life.

For the main garden, Buck worked in harmony with the uneven slopes of the ground, using characteristic old olives and pines that provide a veil of mystery and a shimmer of light and shadow. To these, he added slender Italian cypresses, which in adulthood create focused views and dark exclamation points in the landscape, as well as reinforcing a sense of insularity. He laid paths and stairs lined with hedges, which are not always interconnected, but which offer routes that gradually lead you up the hill and east, ending up along the impressive cliffside path known as Orpheus’ Walk. The recommended itinerary will take you around the hotel through 25 different sights – sculptures, loggias, clearings overlooking the sea and even a mausoleum. Echoing home, the sights hint at ancient history and mythology.

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One such attraction near the house is the Jardin de l’Obelisque, where a circular lawn surrounds a pond planted with lotus flowers. Nelumbo hazelnutfrom the center of which rises a stone obelisk. The avenue offers a magnificent view of the sea and old Menton.

You can head north from the obelisk, up the brick stairs between the dark cypresses, to reach the elegant classical loggia, which offers a magnificent view of the sea. Or head west along a straight path with an arbor to reach the oldest part of the garden, a long old carob tree that may be around 1000 years old. Hunched and hollow, without a core, but bravely putting out new shoots and branches around the perimeter, this tree was a venerable old monster when Buck painted it in 1925.

The Nymphaeum hides an elegant staircase that connects the local road. Le Colombière, France. Filmed by Will Price for Country Life.

This is the far western end of the garden, but an easy staircase between large twin terracotta jars and a continuing path lead back to its heart and main axis, a magnificent long north-south avenue of cypress that cuts the garden in two. two comfortable halves: the west side with the villa and the more well-maintained garden with its evergreen hedges of a little viburnum And Pittosporum tobira, its decorations and buildings. The east side is wilder and rockier, but also botanically more varied.

The fact that we can see all this now, 100 years after Back created it all, is wonderful. With the house and garden completed by 1924–1925, Buck remained at Le Colombière and, in fact, Incense-Bocairy and Ferdinand Buck lived the three of them together for the rest of their long lives. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s they lived most of the time in Les Colombières, which was famous among their circles and frequented. But with the outbreak of World War II and the capture of Menton by Italy, they left and did not return.

Buck (mentioned here) incorporated some of the ancient olive trees into garden seats, stairs and walkways. Le Colombière, France. Filmed by Will Price for Country Life.

During the war, Les Colombières was a military hospital and its destruction continued after that. Now, thanks to local conservation initiatives in the early 1990s and a property purchase in 1995, followed by five years of painstaking restoration by English businessman Michael Likerman and his wife Margaret, Buck’s masterpiece home and garden has been magnificently restored.

The Lickermans hired French landscape designers Arnaud Maurier and Eric Ossard to oversee the restoration of the garden. “We completely dismantled the garden and reassembled it,” says Mr. Likerman. “There was no stone upon stone; not a piece of concrete that hasn’t been redone. All this had to be done, because everything was subject to time and neglect.

Margaret Likierman (died 2018) was especially involved in outdoor work and planting rejuvenation. On the wilder, more wooded east side of the garden, where the ground drops steeply under Orpheus’s path up the side of the cliff, a series of dry-stone-walled terraces were used by horticulturists in Buck’s time to grow cut flowers for the local market. It also houses one of the original columbière (dovecotes) will be found. Margaret planted the terraces with species from all over the world suitable for hot and dry conditions. Three young dragon trees can be found here (Dracaena Draco), Seville oranges, Mexican marigolds (Lemon marigolds), several Australian bottle trees (Brachychiton spp.), South African Clivia, Macronesian Aeonium and more in an ongoing experimental collection. Thus, we see in Les Colombières not only an exemplary restoration of a unique property, but also a new interest in the garden at the beginning of its second century.

Join Country Life on a tour of Les Colombières

The charm of the French Riviera has long been recognized by garden lovers the world over. British travelers, in particular, were fascinated by the exotic scents and flowers, as well as the favorable climate, and many of them settled here to create unusual gardens.

The wilder east side offers panoramic sea views. Le Colombière, France. Filmed by Will Price for Country Life.

During this exclusive tour, you will have the opportunity to visit some of these wonderful gardens such as Colombière, Villa Boccanegra and Serre de la Madon, as well as breathtaking contemporary masterpieces, including two private gardens designed by James Basson, who will join visit us for a day to show us your work.

The tour will be led by former rural life Gardens Editor Katherine Bradley-Hole, under the guidance of horticultural expert Kirsty Fergusson. We will spend the first two nights in the comfortable Maybourne Riviera, a magnificent hotel located on the rocky peninsula of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, and then we will spend two nights in the castle of Saint-Martin, located on the tops of the hills of Vence. magnificent panoramic view of the interior of the Riviera.

The tour price starts from £5,590 including accommodation, transfers and excursions, as well as flights from Heathrow. Contact Boxwood Tours, 1 West Street, Buckingham for details; 01341 241717; www.boxwoodtours.co.uk

Charles Quest-Ritson visits the best English garden on the French Riviera. Photos by Claire Takach.

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