On the rocky, windswept Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat peninsula of the Côte d’Azur, is a most beautiful French garden. The villa and gardens of Ephrussi de Rothschild are elegant, sophisticated and quite stunningly pretty…
I visit the Villa & Jardins Ephrussi de Rothschild on a warm, early afternoon, and few visitors are there. I drift through scented garden paths often barely seeing another soul, and keenly feeling the tranquility of the setting. Until I reach the musical fountains which burst into life without warning, every 20 minutes, reaching a jolly, splashing crescendo before receding into the water without a ripple. Great fun for kids, and big kids.
There are nine gardens on the hillside nine-acre property, overlooking the Bay of Villefranche, all with dramatically different themes but which seamlessly flow from one to the next. They range from Provencal to Japanese, Spanish and Florentine.
Built on the narrowest part of the promontory, the Ephrussi de Rothschild villa is also one of the most beautiful in the area. It contains Béatrice de Rothschild’s art collections and her personal effects, which are open to public viewing. Many rooms are preserved just as she left them, containing exquisite antiques.
History of the Villa and Jardins Ephrussi de Rothschild
A bit of background: Born in 1864, highly-intelligent Béatrice was the daughter of the banker and major art collector Baron Alphonse de Rothschild. At 19, she married Maurice Ephrussi, a Parisian banker who was a friend of her parents and 15 years her senior. The marriage was a tragedy for Béatrice, as she caught a serious illness from Maurice (no points for guessing what that was!) which prevented her from having children. Maurice, a compulsive gambler, was in debt for more than 12 million gold francs by 1904 (about 30 million euros now). The worried Rothschild family wanted him out of their daughter’s life, and took Maurice to court. They won the case and, in June 1904, after 21 years of marriage, Béatrice and Maurice were separated.
The following year, Béatrice’s father died. She inherited a vast fortune and decided to build the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild. This became her winter residence from 1912. She lived here for over 10 years, during which she divided her time between Paris, Monaco and Deauville. She was a thoroughly modern woman and slightly eccentric. Devoted to her pet dogs, she invited guests to their “wedding”. She drove her own car sometimes, played tennis, and went to boxing matches. In 1933, Béatrice bequeathed her villa and all her art collections to the Académie des Beaux-Arts. She died a year later.
The gardens came into their own after 1934. Louis Marchand, a painter, botany enthusiast and garden designer was commissioned with restoring the villa grounds. He decided to level the ground, to bring the ornamental ponds back to life and design themed gardens. In three years, he created a garden complex. During WWII, Cap Ferrat was abandoned and mined. The villa was left empty and the gardens became a wilderness. But Marchand went back in 1945 to resume his work and restored them to their pre-war splendour.
And splendid the gardens remain. The flamboyant spirit and the diverse interests of Béatrice are alive in all the features: a riot of pink roses (her favourite colour) in the French garden, an assortment of gargoyles and columns in the stone garden, the serene reflection pool of the Spanish garden, rare and prickly Provencal plants, and a grotto and grand stairway in the Florentine section After several hours of walking, even I have to sit down, and I retreat to the elegant tea room/restaurant which used to be Béatrice’s dining room. It serves light lunches and afternoon teas and pastries, although I just have tea – it’s near sunset and too close to aperitif and canapes time!
Practical Information for the Villa and Jardins Ephrussi
The Villa & Jardins Ephrussi de Rothschild are open every day, all year round from 10am-7pm on weekdays in summer, 10am-6pm on weekdays and public holidays; and reduced hours in other seasons – afternoons only in winter.
If you’re coming by train, the nearest station is Beaulieu-sur-Mer and then by bus, take lines 81 and 100.
Information for tickets, times and more on the Ephrussi de Rothschild Villa and Jardins website (English language version)
Heather Tyler is a New Zealand/Australian author, editor and blogger at tastefortravel.com.au
See also: Eze, a beautiful hill top town close to Beaulieu-sur-Mer