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HOW DID I END UP IN MENTON, France, of all possible places I could have roosted for two unplanned nights between Nice and Milan? It was a default decision, but I’m not sorry. Candy-colored Menton was a treat.
My original thoughts were Lyon, France, or Turin, Italy; either could have kept me busy for two days. But friends said they found Turin ‘boring,’ and the weather had finally turned good in the South of France (sunny and 60). I wasn’t ready to leave the coast. And I was curious to see whether Menton still resembles the town in the vintage hand-colored souvenir photo I have on my dining room wall back in Brooklyn. (It does.)
So I made a reservation at the Hotel Napoléon, below (the kind of design-y boutique hotel I wasn’t able to find in Nice), took a half-hour train ride from Nice Thursday morning, and got off in this small city in France’s southeastern-most corner, practically on the Italian border.
At the corner of the block, next to the hotel, below, a 16th century chapel remains.
Menton has a uniquely warm microclimate and therefore an abundance of famous gardens, many open to the public. “Are you doing all the gardens?” a British traveler asked me at the exotic botanical garden Val Rahmeh, part of France’s National Museum of Natural History, as I followed numbered signs from bamboo glade to lemon grove. It was a logical question. The garden-visit options in and around Menton number about a dozen, including Serre de la Madone, an English garden transported to the Cote d’Azur by Lawrence Johnson (of Hidcote fame), and Hanbury, a 22-acre garden in nearby Ventimiglia, Italy, that would have required a day I didn’t have. Anyway, I adored Val Rahmeh. Below, a taste of what there is to see.
High on my list for Menton was the Jean Cocteau Museum, opened in 2011, and the Salle des Mariages (marriage chamber) at the Hotel de Ville (Town Hall), below, whose walls and ceilings Cocteau exuberantly decorated in 1958. The multi-disciplinary artist loved the city, and I love the graphics, expressiveness and originality of his drawings and his campy films, on loop at the museum.
As soon as I got to my room at the Napoléon, below, I decided to linger for two whole nights in Menton. Built in 1962 and renovated to a high standard with a modern-art theme, the hotel had heretofore unimagined luxuries like a rain head walk-in shower, free water and juices in the minibar, a swimming pool I didn’t use, my own miniscule balcony with a sideways sea view, three separate passwords for my three devices, a room safe that actually fit a laptop, a TV with 6 or 8 English-language channels I didn’t watch, and room service (this was the first hotel I’ve been in with a real bar and restaurant downstairs). Although the place looks like it could be in South Beach and should be populated with beautiful young people, most of the hotel’s guests were part of an elderly British tour group.
My one disappointment in Menton, and the South of France in general, has been the food. I’ve slacked on restaurant research and have just taken my chances. My big meal of the day has been a casual lunch at an outdoor café or creperie. So I’m leaving France with just one great food memory: the late-night fish meal in the bar at Collioure. I can’t believe I didn’t have a good salad Niçoise in Nice!
Menton was restful, though somehow I clocked 14,000 steps (approximately 7 miles) on my iPhone’s pedometer each day. Today, my feet get a break. I’m on a high-speed train to Milan (just under four hours) as I write this, sharing a 1st class compartment with five Italian women, four of a certain age buried in newspapers or tabloid magazines, and one young thing with closed eyes and earbuds.
The day is gray, the scenery so far uninspiring. It seems that many of Europe’s high-speed trains run on newly-built track that goes through industrial areas; I’ve seen a fair number of warehouses, electrical towers, and smoke-belching factories. I’m planning to do at least one post on European train stations and the experience of rail travel in Europe, but I’ll say just this for now: the efficiency is stupendous, but the romance is gone.
FROM NICE LAST TUESDAY, when clouds reigned, I took a half-hour bus ride up into the hills above the coast (itself worth it for the views). I was headed to Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, where the Baroness Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild, between 1905 and 1912, built a fanciful pink villa overlooking the Mediterranean, surrounded by a series of thematic gardens. They are spectacularly beautiful, as are the views of the sea.
I made short work of the villa, full of Sèvres procelain, Gobelins tapestries and Old Master paintings; I was too eager to be outside. But the audioguide filled me in Béatrice’s early marriage to an associate of her father’s, the banker Alphonse de Rothschild; their eventual separation; and how, after the creation of these artful and enduring gardens, she spent the last decades of her life gambling at Monaco.
But that’s neither here nor there. The gardens are very much here (thanks in part to Culturespaces, the French equivalent of Britain’s National Trust), and available to visit year-round. There’s an atmospheric tea room that shares the villa’s decor and vistas, so no worries about lunch.
There’s a Spanish garden, below…
and a Florentine garden, below, both of which instantly evoked those places for me.
There’s also small Japanese garden; an Exotic or cactus garden, with specimens I had never seen; a Rose garden, barren at this time of year; a wild Provencal garden that was the least structured of them; and the more formal French garden nearest the villa, which contains music fountains that spew water and Mozart every twenty minutes.
‘GRANDEUR’ is not a word I pull out very often, but it certainly applies to Untermyer Park in Westchester County. Who knew? I didn’t know, until recently, that there’s a lavish, beautifully designed, meticulously maintained historic garden in Yonkers, on property once owned Samuel Untermyer, a prominent New York lawyer, and his wife Minnie. They bought a 99-room pile called Greystone, and the riverfront acreage surrounding it, from Samuel J. Tilden in 1899. The house is long gone and won’t be coming back, but the splendiferous gardens, happily, have.
In 1915, Untermyer hired William Welles Boswoth, a Beaux Arts-trained landscape designer, who proceeded to create a 3-1/2-acre walled garden based on the Indo-Persian ‘paradise garden’ model, with Neoclassical elements like a Corinthian temple with a mosaic floor, a dramatic flight of steps down to the river inspired by the Villa d’Este near Lake Como, and a Romantic folly, the Temple of Love, on a promontory overlooking the Hudson.
The park opened to the public about three years ago, after decades of neglect. The last weekend in October, I visited with my friend Mary-Liz Campbell, a Rye, NY-based landscape designer. Not only in trees, but in berry-full shrubs and bountiful container plantings, we found all the autumn color that seems to have gone missing in NYC this season.
A great deal has been accomplished in a few years, but there’s still lots of clearing and planting to be done in the outer reaches of the site. Go here, to Margaret Roach’s indispensable blog, A Way to Garden, for an in-depth interview with Timothy Tilghman, Untermyer’s first full-time gardener in 75 years (!)
Untermyer Park is open 7AM-sunset, year round.
IT BEGAN when my daughter moved into a Prospect Heights brownstone with a struggling pine tree in a barrel out front. Each time I visited, I eyed the dead branches, wishing I could take a pruner to the thing and tidy it up. One day, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I told her, “I’m going to prune that pine. If your landlord says anything, tell him your mother is an itinerant urban gardener who goes around pruning people’s shrubs unbidden.”
While my East Hampton house is rented out, I’ve been getting my gardening jollies catching up on maintenance in the yards of my buildings in Boerum Hill and Cobble Hill. I ride around with a wooden box of garden tools in the back of my car — a hand rake, lopper, pruner, shovel, gloves, trash bags. When the urge to garden strikes, I’m ready. But I can see how this could get out of hand. Last week, I was walking along a Park Slope sidewalk and saw a lovely Japanese maple in a cobalt pot in someone’s front yard. It was full of weeds. My fingers itched to reach over the iron fence and pull them out, but I restrained myself. One recent morning, in Philadelphia to visit my son, I went out in my pajamas at 7AM and pulled 2-foot-tall weeds out of cracks in the sidewalk in front of his building … and the building next door.
Soon, I’ll have my half-acre to play with. In the meantime, I stealth-garden on other people’s property and enjoy what they’re doing with their window boxes, tree pits and containers. They’re doing a lot; it’s an encouraging sign of the times.
Below: March of the pots, a trend I’ve spotted this year for the first time. This is good news. In decades past, they might well have been stolen.
Above: Window box explosion in Philadelphia’s Queen Village neighborhood. Below: Ivy and seasonal containers decorate a carriage house in Old Kensington.
Below: Orange cosmos and white gaura have burst through the iron fence around this apartment building in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, seeding themselves in cracks in the sidewalk.
Below: A proudly tended Brooklyn tree pit with petunias and variegated hosta.
DON’T YOU JUST HATE when a blogger starts off a post by apologizing for a long silence, then runs down a list of excuses ranging from being busy with ‘real’ work to computer and/or camera troubles? I mean, like, who cares? Just get on with it.
This hypothetical blogger could have other issues as well. Sheer laziness, perhaps. Concern that people are sick of seeing photos of the same old place again and again (and who could blame them?) Or simply living life instead of blogging about it, which may be a good thing.
For the record: the month just passed was a productive one at The Hole (a friend’s suggestion for a name for my new house, borrowed partly from the name of the road it’s on, and in the absence of anything less pejorative, or anything else at all, I’m growing to like it). I busied myself with small improvements to house and garden, prepping for my July renters — installing a washer/dryer, planning for a new deck come August, hanging pictures on the walls.
The great room, below, is kind of great.
The living/sitting/dining room, below, looks pretty much the same…
as does the kitchen…
The master bedroom is shaping up.
The guest room is rather sweet (and extremely difficult to photograph).
Out in the yard, the vegetable beds remain unplanted, the shed unrenovated. Though I do have a spectacular weed…a verbascum taller than I am.
I’ve done a bit of planting, not a lot; that will come in the fall. I discovered a local couple who sells hosta and ferns — big healthy ones — for $3 and $5, out of their backyard. Who says the Hamptons is a rip-off? For me, being able to grow hostas at all, thanks to a 6′ tall stockade fence the deer have yet to breach, is a remarkable thing.
I’m in Brooklyn for July, with a planned return trip to Rancho La Puerta (my 12th, I think) mid-month. It’s all good, and I’ll make no excuses for that.