Carole loves gardening. Flowers, plants, soil, she loves nothing more than digging her hands into some dirt and helping things grow. Our house in Nashville, where we lived for almost twenty years, had almost an acre of land. She planted numerous little gardens around the house and loved to take care of the property and landscapes. One of the most difficult aspects of moving to France for her has been the lack of a “yard.” We live in an apartment now and we have no yard or garden. We do have a small terrace, which was one of her absolute requirements in finding a place to live here. She has filled up this little terrace with all kinds of flowering plants and it really looks beautiful. It’s not the same as a nice garden, of course, but it’s as close as she can get to that here in this apartment.
We make it a point to search out and find gardens here in the south of France which we can visit and explore. There are plenty to be found and we’ve been to quite a few of them. Last winter we made our first trip to the Villa and Gardens Ephrussi de Rothschild on Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. It was quite beautiful, even in December, but knew that we wanted to come back again in the spring when the gardens would be in full bloom. This week we returned with our friend Gloria for another visit and we were not disappointed. There is so much to take in, so much to see, so much to explore and so much history to absorb. This huge pink villa and the expansive gardens are truly one of the “must see” destinations on the Côte d’Azur.
[more info after the photo gallery]
A Little History
Baroness Béatrice de Rothschild liked to call her estate on Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat “Villa Île-de-France,” after a trip she took on a famous cruise ship of the same name. Built on a high point of land near the top of the Cap Ferrat, the estate was conceived and constructed to resemble the deck of a ship. Standing at the villa’s loggia (a second floor covered balcony) one is able to view the ocean on both sides, just as one would on a huge ocean liner, with the French Garden stretching out before you like the stern of a ship.
Béatrice was born into the Rothschild banking family in 1864 and at the age of 19 she married the French banker Maurice Ephrussi. They separated after twenty years of marriage, due in part to her husband’s addiction to gambling (oh, and the fact that he gave her syphilis). Shortly after their separation Béatrice discovered Cap Ferrat. In these early years of the 1900s the Côte d’Azur had become a favorite vacation spot for European high society. Béatrice purchased 17 acres of land and began the five year process of building her villa. The rough and wild terrain, really nothing more than a large rock with a small mule trail, was dynamited and leveled, tons of earth was transported in and construction began. Béatrice insisted that most everything be painted pink, her favorite color.
Béatrice filled the estate with a tremendous amount of art and cultural treasures, almost all of which still remain on display. She was raised in the midst of great works of art from around the world, her father being a great art collector. It is from him that she inherited the desire to collect art and to surround herself with it in her various homes. Throughout the villa one finds an amazing collection of antique furniture, paintings, sculptures, tapestry and other objects of art, including one of the most prized collections of rare porcelain in the world. The gardens are full of statues, sculptures, icons, architectural remains and more.
In reality, Béatrice spent very little time at this “dream” villa, coming here mostly for visits in the winter, instead choosing to spend the majority of her days at her mansion in Paris or a residence in Deauville. When her husband (who she never divorced) died in 1916 she abandoned the property altogether.
When Béatrice died in Switzerland in 1934 she bequeathed the villa, the gardens and all its collections of art to the French Académie des Beaux Arts. The estate was first opened as a museum in 1937 but was quickly forced to close at the start of the Second World War when Cap-Ferrat was evacuated and mined. The villa and gardens were abandoned for over two years. It fell into disarray for a time but was restored to much of its former glory when the war ended. It wasn’t until 1960 that it began to fully function again. In the 1990s it was entrusted to the care and oversight of Culturespaces (a French organization which manages several other historical sites in France).
It’s hard to know where to start when visiting the estate because there really is a lot to see. I suggest you start with the gardens and then make your way around to the villa itself. Classified by the French Ministry of Culture as one of the “Notable Gardens of France,” there are a total of nine “themed” gardens on the property with seven smaller ones arranged in a line on the west side and then two larger ones situated next to each other on the eastern side.
You can walk through the seven small gardens from the north end of the estate to the south and then back through the two large gardens, making a little loop. There are numerous levels to each of the gardens with small paths running parallel to each other other along the length of the property. Everywhere you look are statues, columns, fountains, gargoyles, bas-reliefs, pools and small staircases. It’s quite an adventure roaming in and out, up and down, back and forth through the huge variety of trees, plants and flowers.
When you arrive at the estate you should be provided with a small map of the grounds, so make sure to grab one of these. From the entrance make your way over to the start of the “garden tour” which begins at the northwest corner of the property with the Sèvres Gaden.
The Sèvres Garden
Le Jardin de Sèvres sits right next to the villa and a small “Tea Room”which is open on weekends in the winter. It’s a lovely introduction to the estate featuring a wide variety of plants, wide paths, a long pool, a horseshoe shaped staircase covered in ivy and some fantastic views of the Bay of Villefrance-sur-Mer.
The Spanish Garden
Le Jardin Espagnol takes the form of a covered patio and features a shaded courtyard and fountain, aromatic plants, a Gallo-Roman bench and Catalan amphorae (ceramic containers with a pointed bottom). A narrow channel of water is surrounded by datura, arum lilies, honeysuckle, Mediterranean pomegranate trees and birds of paradise. Around the ponds you’ll find papyrus from Egypt and the “Swiss-cheese plant,” Monstera deliciosa, with its huge perforated leaves.
The Florentine Garden
Le Jardin Florentin has a grand, horseshoe shaped stairway surrounding a small niche containing a marble angel. Philodendrons and water hyacinths grow alongside a grotto and a marble statue of young boy. There’s a mosaic paved balcony which hangs over the sea providing more fantastic views of Villefranche-sur-Mer.
The Stone Garden
In Le Jardin Lapidaire you’ll find a large assortment of various gargoyles, columns, statues, arches, bas-reliefs, canopies and other remnants of ancient and medieval buildings, both civil and religious. They come from a wide range of diverse origins and eras. Mostly these are pieces of art that Béatrice could not find a place for inside the villa and so they came to adorn the garden. Azaleas, Japanese camellias, rhododendrons, fuchsias and solandras are just some of the many plants featured in this section.
The Japanese Garden
Le Jardin Japonais features a little wooden bridge, lanterns, basins and a small pavilion reflecting centuries of Japanese culture and tradition. Also known as “Cho-Seki-Tei” (“garden where one can calmly listen to the pleasant sound of the waves at twilight”), this garden is full of water and creates its own little “zen” world in the midst of everything else. It was designed and created by Professor Shigeo Fukuhara and was recently restored in 2016.
The Exotic Garden
Le Jardin Exotique is full of cactus of all types of sizes as well as other rare succulent plants. It was once known as the “Mexican Garden,” and was nearly lost in 1985 when heavy frosts descended on the region, quite rare in this part of southern France. You’ll find various species of agave, some with smooth leaves, some with prickles, many of which have grown to be quite large. Full of steep and winding paths, there are aloes, echinocatus, barbary figs and more.
The Rose Garden
For some Le Roseraie is the highlight of the gardens. At the top of a hill a small hexagonal temple with a large statue surrounded by marble columns overlooks a huge field of rose bushes, Béatrice’s favorite flower. Pink, as you might imagine, is the predominant color. Over a hundred varieties of roses, even one bearing the name of Béatrice, create a very special corner of the estate. From May to July, when the flowers are in full bloom, the fragrances rise towards the sky and fill the air with a magical scent.
The Provençal Garden
The first of the two large gardens on the east side of the estate is Le Jardin Provençal. Containing mostly plants native to Provence, it’s a large, expansive plot with numerous trails running through it. Olive and pine trees border the paths along with lavender and agapanthus.
The French Garden
Le Jardin à la Francaise is the largest, most prominent garden on the estate, the crown jewel if you will, and it sits directly in front of the villa. A small terrace sits next to the building and beyond this is a large “park” with palm trees, fountains, statues, ponds and a long basin. At the far end of the park, the “bow” of the ship, is a hill with a replica of the Temple of Love at the Petit Trianon place in Vesailles. Surrounded by cypress trees, water flows from the temple down a long stepped basin that eventually ends in a large pool with fountains.
Olive trees, cypress hedges, Palm trees and Aleppo pines mix with large Italian Renaissance urns, flame topped vases, flowerbeds and lawns to create a mystical scene. Classical music is often played and the various fountains react in time to the music, spraying water high into the air in a sort of aquatic ballet.
After you’ve finished visiting the gardens make your way around to the front of the villa where the entrance lies. Designed by the French architect Jacques-Marcel Aubertin, along with Aaron Messiah, the villa was built between 1907 and 1912. Béatrice was a demanding client and eight different full-sized models were constructed of the villa before she was satisfied. As the real construction began, some completed sections that didn’t live up to her expectations were simply demolished and the work began again.
The northern façade is comprised of four parts: a staircase tower, a low porticoed wing, an entrance porch and an internal staircase bay. Just in front of the entrance way sits a Venetian well made from Verona marble and wrought iron. The southern façade is by far the most famous view of the villa. Purposefully symmetrical and designed on a grander scale than the northern façade the frames in the bays and the pilasters from a strict geometric network. Italian in its design, it uses red Verona marble, white Carrara marble and a light grey marble as well. Italian craftsmen provided photographs and casts which were used to create highly accurate reproductions from the Italian school of architecture.
There are two levels of the villa open to visitors, the first floor (ground level) and the second floor. When you first enter you will find yourself in the huge, spacious Patio where Béatrice welcomed visitors and held receptions. Inspired by the villas of the Italian Renaissance, the room is surrounded by pink pillars supporting arches of Verona marble. A suspended ceiling, once decorated with a painted sky, hangs over the spacious area which is decorated with items from churches and convents.
As you make your way through the rooms on this level you can’t help but be astonished with the overwhelming amount of beautiful decorations, furniture, carpets and art. The Great Reception Room and The Lesser Reception Room are magnificent examples of 18th century elegance and luxury.
The ground floor was Béatrice’s “home” and it is here that you will find her Bedroom and Boudoir. Sumptuous furniture decorates both rooms, including a small chair for her dog. A large “rotunda” lies next to her bedroom with bay windows that look out over the Bay of Villefranche-sur-Mer. You’ll find several rooms containing her wardrobe and other examples of the clothing from the time period. An extravagant bathroom and an opulent dining room round out this level of rooms.
Be sure not to miss the Porcelain Salon where a world-famous collection of porcelain (mostly from the Vincennes factory) now resides. You’ll find plates, vases, dishes, small statuettes, clocks, urns and much more to see here, all hand painted with amazing details and features.
On the second floor of the villa we find the “guest” rooms where visitors stayed. These rooms now all have themes and include The Chinese Salon (featuring an amazing collection of rose quartz carvings), The Blue Room, The Fragonard Salon, The Monkey Salon (Béatrice had two pet monkeys!), The Tapestry Salon, The Meissen Porcelain Salon, The Directoire Room and more. Each of them is full of precious artifacts and works of art. I moved from each room to the next thinking, “Wow, what could top this?” and then the next room would do exactly that. It’s an amazing experience to look upon all this beauty in one place.
I especially loved The Loggia. This balcony offers a magnificent view over the estate. In front of you is the French Garden, to the left the Bay of Fourmis and to the right the lower gardens and the Bay of Villefrance-sur-Mer. Absolutely stunning, may favorite view on the entire estate.
If you visit the Villa et Jardins Ephrussi de Rothschild make sure to give yourself plenty of time. This is not a place that you want to stop in for a quick “look-see.” We were there for almost four hours and I still felt like there was a lot I didn’t get to see. Plan on spending an entire morning or afternoon to really explore and dig into this magnificent estate.
There is a small gift shop you can visit when you are leaving.
The museum is open every day of the year. In July and August (the peak season) it is open every day from 10:00AM to 7:00PM. From February to June and September to October it is open every day from 10:00AM to 6:00PM. From November to January it is open from Monday to Friday from 2:00PM to 6:00PM and on weekends and holidays from 10:00AM to 6:00PM.
Admission is 15€ for adults. There are reduced rates for seniors (14€), students (12€) and children (10€), as well as a family rate (44€). Children under 7 are free. You can buy tickets online at their website (recommended) or also at FNAC, Carrefour, Géant and some other popular stores.
There is an excellent iPhone and Android app which you can download for free and which will provide audio commentary throughout the estate, both for the villa and the gardens. I would highly recommend it (it’s free!) as it provides a lot of information that we found very interesting.