In May we found ourselves, once again, sailing into the port of Le Havre, France. On previous occasions we had toured the D Day beaches, and rented a car to visit Claude Monet's garden at Giverny and the town of Honfleur. This time our plan was to go to the gardens at D'Étretat just a few miles up the coast. Years ago it was easy to pick up a car in the port but Covid disrupted cruise travel and now the car rental was somewhere in town. We had to walk outside the port gates to call for an Uber. Thank goodness David was carrying a copy of his passport because that was the only ID they would accept. And thank goodness for Apple maps to get us out of the town and on our way north to the Alabaster Coast. Of course I was familiar with the White Cliffs on the English side of the channel but was not aware that on the French side were similar cliffs, all part of the same geological formation.
The Alabaster Coast with The Porte d'Aval, and Aiguille de Betral.
We arrived in the town of Etretat following directions to the gardens. I was forewarned there was no parking at the garden and that we could park at the station and walk 15 minutes up the hill to the garden. Or we could walk from the town which lies at the foot of the cliffs. We parked at the station where about half a dozen cars were parked and the first of many French parking meters to challenge us. There was a stiff, chilly wind blowing on the station hill so it was a relief to turn into the road that went up to the garden. No sign posts of any kind only Apple maps. We were later to find that signs are not a strong point of theirs in Europe.
It was quite a hike up the hill and once we rounded the corner reaching
the top of the hill we were hit with the full force of those cliff-top
winds.I t was quite a relief to pass through the gate and into the shelter of the garden.
The town of Étretat became popular with Parisians in the early 1900s with the building of hotels and casinos. In 1905 the actress Madame Thébault chose to build a villa, not in the town but high up on the top of the cliff. She called the house Villa Roxelene. You can see how open and barren the windswept cliff-top is although it appears by the time this photograph was taken there is quite a growth of vegetation around the house.
The first of many trees was planted starting in 1905 which created a shelter-belt from the cliff-top winds. Some of the remaining trees are over 100 years old. I'm not sure what else was done to make a garden but by 2015 there were only fragments of the original garden remaining. Alexandre Grivko, a landscape architect conceived a contemporary garden that would pay homage to the location. Within 2 years he had transformed the garden to one which looked as though it had been there for 100 years. He used the principles of Le Nôtre limiting the number of species in the garden. The garden opened to the public in 2017.
No piece of art could represent those winds better than this one.
The fact that many of the original trees remain must have helped enormously when the new garden was laid out as well as determining the location of gardens spaces. There are seven named gardens. Jardin Avatar, Jarin Émotions, Jardin Impression, Jardin d'Aval, Jardin Zen and Jardin La Manche.
Unsure of which pathway to take we found ourselves ascending into the Jardin d'Amont to the highest point in the garden. Beneath us lay this most amazing topiary garden.
The whole of D'étretat is a garden of magnificent clipped topiary. A testament to the designer and to those who care for the plants. You can imagine the incredibly labor intensive work to keep all the plants trim as well as healthy. Although not all the topiary is box I wonder about the risk of them becoming infected with box blight. They are not averse to have gardeners working in the garden when visitors are present although it appears that by May most of the clipping was done and everything was perfection itself.
The gardeners can access the hedges by a wooden walkway between the plants. Even so the smoothness of all the cutting was amazing. What is their secret?
Despite the beautiful topiary this is a garden that requires artwork. Sometimes I find on visiting gardens that the art pieces bear no relationship to the plantings. Although we found that the majority of the art pieces fit well with the topiary, the artistic descriptions of what they represent was totally lost on both of us. For instance, the Jardin Emotions represented the oyster beds that lie/lay beneath the cliffs and the large round polyester resin heads showing a variety of emotions representing the mood of the ocean. The emotions are easy to see and I did think they added a fun element to the garden. I wonder if many people who visit feel the same way we did about the art of Samuel Salcedo.
These heads do look as though they are floating contentedly in the frothy sea.
One of my favorite gardens was the Jardin d'Aval. The Alice in Wonderland garden. I liked it for the 10 metre long solid oak table carved from a single block. We sat here for a while waiting to have the garden to ourselves and taking in the topiary flowers and gorgeous slipper orchids.
Madame Thebault loved orchids and although this is not a garden of flowers there was one bed of these gorgeous lady-slipper orchids, Cypripedium.
There are topiary flowers.
And topiary archway which echo the cliffs below.
In the Zen garden there was some strange sound effects which we couldn't make head nor tail of. I think it may have been Japanese. It was just a little weird. But the spinning spindles did add something to what would just be a rather ordinary forest area. White azaleas bloom here in early spring.
What they represented was a little more difficult for us to understand. I later found that the spindles represented the sound waves of the word 'art' when uttered in different languages. I would never have known.
One or two wooden carvings were scattered around the garden but by far the most impressive woodwork was of the settee and chair.
We took the opportunity to rest here for a while before heading down the cliff path to the town.
There were lots of cliff walkers and the town was very busy. Being a Sunday the restaurants were packed . We walked back through town to the car and headed back to Le Havre. We were both glad to have taken the time to visit the garden and it should be on everyone's list of gardens to visit when in this part of Normandy.