The French Riviera Feature

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Menton's Magnificent Gardens

The French Riviera is famed for its grand villas and even grander gardens built by Victorian dukes, Spanish exiles, Belgian royals, and American blue bloods. Although its hothouse crescent blooms everywhere with palm and lemon trees and jungle flowers, nowhere else does it bloom so extravagantly as in Menton, famous for its temperate climes and 24-karat sun.

Menton attracted a great share of wealthy hobbyists during the 1920s and 1930s, including Major Lawrence Johnston, a gentleman gardener best known for his Cotswolds wonderland, Hidcote Manor. Fair-haired and blue-eyed, this gentle American wound up buying a choice estate in the village of Gorbio—one of the loveliest of all perched seaside villages, set 10 km (6 miles) west of Menton—and spent two decades making the Serre de la Madone one of the horticultural masterpieces of the coast. He brought back exotica from his many trips to South Africa, Mexico, and China, and planted them in a series of terraces, accented by little pools, vistas, and stone steps. Although most of his creeping plumbago, pink belladonna, and night-flowering cacti are now gone, his garden has been reopened by the municipality. Car facilities are very limited but the garden can also be reached from Menton via bus No. 7 (get off at Mers et Monts stop).

Back in Menton, green-thumbers will also want to visit the town's Jardin Botanique, the Val Rahmeh Botanical Garden (Av. St-Jacques 04–93–35–86–72 Closed Tues. €6), planted by Maybud Campbell in the 1910s, much prized by connoisseurs, bursting with rare ornamentals and subtropical plants, and adorned with water-lily pools and fountains.

The tourist office can also give you directions to other gardens around Menton, including the Fontana Rosa, the Villa Maria Serena, and the Villa Les Colombières.

Serre de la Madone: 74 rte. de Gorbio 04–93–57–73–90 www.serredelamadone.com €8 for Serre Apr.–Oct., Tues.–Sun. 10–6; Dec.–Mar., Tues.–Sun. 10–5.

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