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This is not a book about French Gardens. It is the story of a man travelling round France visiting a few selected French gardens on the way. Owners, intrigues, affairs, marriages, feuds, thwarted ambitions and desires, the largely unnamed ordinary gardeners, wars, plots and natural disasters run through every garden older than a generation or two and fill every corner of the grander historical ones. Families marry. Gardeners are poached. Political allegiances forged and shattered. The human trail crosses from garden to garden. Th.
Simon & Schuster UK
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Arte e filosofia

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Down to earth: gardening wisdom

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First published in Great Britain by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2013


Copyright © 2013 by Monty Don

This book is copyright under the Berne Convention.

No reproduction without permission.

All rights reserved.

The right of Monty Don to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

Simon & Schuster UK Ltd

1st Floor

222 Gray’s Inn Road

London WC1X 8HB


Simon & Schuster Australia, Sydney

Simon & Schuster India, New Delhi

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-47111-457-1

Ebook ISBN: 978-1-47111-459-5

The author and publishers have made all reasonable efforts to contact copyright-holders for permission, and apologise for any omissions or errors in the form of credits given. Corrections may be made to future printings.

Typeset in the UK by M Rules

Printed and bound by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon, CR0 4YY

Dedicated to the memory

of Madame Tailleux, of Le Tholonet



1 The Road to Le Tholonet

2 Jas de Bouffan

3 Le Tholonet

4 Villa Noailles

5 Val Joanis

6 La Louve

7 Mas Benoît

8 Les Beaux

9 Arles

10 La Chassagnette

11 Nîmes

12 Monastère de Solan

13 Cévennes

14 La Bambouseraie

15 Les Sambucs

16 Dordogne

17 Auvergne

18 La Vallée

19 Prieuré Notre-Dame d’Orsan

20 Chenonceau

21 Villandry

22 Le Château du Gros Chesnay

23 Courances

24 Vaux le Vicomte

25 André Le Nôtre

26 Versailles

Galerie des Glaces • The Orangerie

	 	Bosquets • The Potager du Roi

27 Palais Royal

28 The Tuileries Gardens

29 Malmaison

30 Courson

31 Allotments, Aubervilliers

32 Hermès Roof Garden

33 La Défense and Patrick Blanc

34 Giverny

35 Champ de Bataille

36 Le Jardin Plume

37 Séricourt

38 High Wood

39 War Graves

Select Bibliography



‘Perhaps my journey to the south will bear fruit howe; ver, because the difference of the stronger light, the blue sky, that teaches one to see . . . The north will certainly appear completely new to me, but I’ve looked so much at the things that I’ve become strongly attached to them, and I’ll remain melancholy for a long time.’

Vincent Van Gogh, letter to Theo Van Gogh,

Friday, 6 September 1889. St-Remy de Provence.


This book is not intended to be a comprehensive survey of French gardens. It does not claim to be a selection of the best gardens in France or even a carefully chosen group that highlights French characteristics or idiosyncrasies, horticultural or otherwise. It is much more personal and random than that. It is a ramble, hopping from one garden to another as mood, circumstance and time allowed.

The choice of some of the gardens, particularly in the south, was driven through memory and entirely personal association; some, like Giverny or Versailles, are world famous and visited by hundreds of thousands of people each year; and some, like Vaux le Vicomte or Le Jardin Plume, deserve to be much more widely visited and celebrated than they are. There are gardens that I would have liked to have seen but could not, and others that I did visit, often taking much time and trouble to do so, that were a complete waste of time. So it always goes.

As I say, this book is a very personal peregrination and encompasses gardens that I have visited over the years rather than as one continuous trip, although in the spring and summer of 2012 – a year of appalling weather right across France as well as the UK – I made six separate journeys to France, so there is a spine of real-time travel running through the narrative.

But I like meandering, both geographically and in time. I like diversions and surprises. As has been observed many times before, one of the best ways to see things is to get lost.

There are a number of good reasons for visiting gardens. Other people’s gardens are often more beautiful and spacious than our own, so we get a straightforward vicarious pleasure from them without any envy to modify it. Many are loaded with historical significance and, because they have to also exist entirely in the horticultural present, bring that history directly alive in a profound and visceral way. If you are a gardener then they are inspirational, stoking ideas and practices to take back to your own back yard. And lovely gardens are surprisingly often made in lovely places, as a kind of response to the landscape, so it is easy to build a trip around them and also include beautiful scenery and food.

But they also work at a more subconscious level. Gardens are the most constant and immediate point of contact with the natural world for almost all societies. (I have visited gardens in the Amazon and Outback where this is not the case, but even in these places gardens instil a sense of ownership and possession that is otherwise impossible in the enormity of jungle, desert or river.) How people shape, tend and think about them can say as much about the society as it does the gardens.

And the French are different from us. I would sometimes say that the English and French have a love/hate relationship, at which point my French companions would smile wryly and say that they, the French, love us – it is just we, the English, who hate them. Despite a genuine warmth and admiration for our work ethic, social and cultural freedom and tolerance, they certainly see us as aggressive and often extraordinarily rude. The British have a caricature of the French being high-handed and dismissive, whereas the truth is that they are, by British standards, exceptionally polite and well-mannered. Most people treat each other with a great deal more formal respect in everyday intercourse than anyone in Britain ever does. At the same time tempers will flare much more violently before actual violence is reached. They are a people with a highly developed sense of personal and national honour which should be defended at all times.

I think that the attitude towards the footballer Zinédine Zidane illustrates this well. In Britain he is regarded as a sublime talent marred by an act of indiscipline in the World Cup final when he headbutted the Italian defender Marco Materazzi, who had insulted his family, and was sent off. France subsequently lost and, to most British eyes, Zidane had let down himself, his side and his country through a lack of self-control. In France, however, this was seen as an act of magnificent, self-destructive, very human grandeur: being better to go down losing with honour intact than win shamefully. The fact that he was an Algerian and a role model for all immigrant French citizens doubled the respect, because it showed how fully he had integrated with the very French sense of right and wrong.1

There are two other aspects of the French character which you see again and again through their gardens. The first is the inherent and learnt respect for, and adherence to, prescribed form. A student learning to prune will master the agreed shapes and styles before dreaming of indulging any free-form expression – and is likely never to do so. The essentials of rhythm, balance, geometric symmetry and harmony are still seen as the starting points for any garden design and not just because they make for beautiful gardens but also because they are then in harmony with the essential ingredients of an ordered, harmonious culture and society.

I often think that this expresses itself both most elegantly and irritatingly at the table. The best French meals are a performance that you have to gratefully indulge as a recipient of the wonderful food and drink that is being brought to you. Your role is to be knowing and perceptively appreciative of the depth of skill that is involved. The greater your knowledge – in other words the more qualified you are – the greater the significance of your respect. There is an underlying solemnity in this that you never experience in other countries, such as Italy.

The second aspect of the French character that you can see beautifully conveyed through their gardens is their love of intellectual debate and concepts. Order and authority has occasionally been challenged by violent revolution as in 1789, 1870 or May 1968, but on the whole the challenges to the received order are intellectual – and often passionately and hotly disputed. Versailles, for example, the epitome of order and control, was made with endless metaphorical bosquets and walks with allusion and imagery that had a potency to almost everyone who saw them and extended far beyond their actual physical presence. Modern gardeners such as Gilles Clément receive great respect as much for the ideas behind their gardens as the gardens themselves. Gardens such as Séricourt, Le Jardin Plume, Champ de Bataille or Prieuré d’Orsan all combine the respect for the formal pattern and dance, exemplified by the work of André Le Nôtre in the seventeenth century, with a twenty-first sensibility of symbolism, concepts and even philosophising that greatly increase their appeal to their makers and any French visitors.

There are really very few instances of British gardens doing this at all satisfactorily,2 and at times the much more down-to-earth British visitor can feel like an intellectual clodhopper. We are uncomfortable in this territory and much prefer to stick to the details of how things are done rather than why. But in fact this difference represents a divergence in the way that we have reacted to our history rather than any qualitative difference in intellectual development.

As a result of the UK’s early and extensive industrialisation, the vast majority of the population had lost any direct contact with agriculture by the middle of the nineteenth century. Their only relationship with the rhythms and seasons of the soil came through gardens and allotments, and this is even more true today. This is why, I believe, the British, more than any other nation I have visited, are so obsessed with the process of gardening rather than the outcome. As a broad generalisation, we are more interested in the details and skills of tending plants than the way that they appear. I have worked as a gardening writer and broadcaster for over twenty-five years and gardened for twice that, and I cannot go anywhere without being asked questions about gardening: for every one query about design I get ninety-nine about specific methods and techniques. We are a remorselessly practical people who like making and doing and mind less about the thing that is made or done. Gardens are often the most obvious and accessible outlet for this.

France, on the other hand, was much later to industrialise. It remained a largely agrarian country – albeit controlled by its very few big cities – until the Second World War. The population was much more widely spread throughout the country and much, much more cut off from the centre of power, which to all intents and purposes meant Paris. Although the aristocracy owned land and beautiful estates, land ownership was also widely dispersed among ordinary people. This meant that there was – and arguably still is – a thriving paysan culture, which had all but disappeared in the UK by the middle of the eighteenth century.

A peasant is someone who lives off the land. Any cash crops or services are undertaken to subsidise the shortfall in self-sufficiency. Families stayed on the same piece of land for generations, marrying locally, hardly ever travelling, attached to their piece of France with an unquestioning, umbilical closeness. We have a post-industrial romantic view of this but it was more often than not crushingly hard. Historically there was a steady movement to cities, to take work in factories as it was available, but nothing on the same scale as in the UK. So when the opportunities to leave the land, become educated and take white-collar jobs increasingly arose, any reversion to the land was seen as a backward step. Working the soil, even in a garden, was something that people who could not better themselves did.

Thus the image of the tweeded gentleman or lady in twinset and pearls with dirty hands weeding in a border is very rare in France. If you can afford to pay someone to do your dirty work, then you do. This does not mean that gardens are not enjoyed and appreciated, but it does mean that there is a lack of people entering into gardening as a profession. It is not seen as an honourable trade.

So to intellectualise about gardens and to use them to play with concepts is to elevate an otherwise earthy, paysan activity. It makes gardening respectable and worthy of debate and discussion. As for technique, that is something you acquire by study and devotion, master, and then take the respect that is due by virtue of your qualification rather than by the work you subsequently produce. This confers a social authority that transcends the potential lowliness of the work.

All this, of course, is sweeping generalisation.

I have spent the past twenty years travelling a great deal, visiting hundreds of gardens in every continent. That period has coincided with the last great period of travel, in the 1980s and ’90s, when the world was accessible in a way that it had never been before through dramatically increased availability of plane and car transport, and with an increase in wealth and the time in which to spend it. Of course this accessibility sowed the seeds of much destruction, because the influx of tourists nearly always destroys the very thing that makes people want to go there in the first place. There was also a sense of ease and flexibility that is inconceivable now in this age of terrorism.

I remember going on one trip to Italy when we took a set of saucepans for friends as part of our hand luggage, a couple of bags each, a pair of wellies and a picnic of champagne and roast chicken to eat on the plane. Yet a couple of years back I visited a food exhibition in Dundee and was given some prize-winning Scottish smoked salmon, marmalade and whisky, which was then not just confiscated but destroyed before I could board the plane to Birmingham. I can only hope that the nation slept easier in its beds as a result.

Luckily much of France is accessible via the wonderful TGV. This is so much more civilised than a plane, just as fast and cheap and clearly more environmentally sustainable. The only danger is that it can marginalise the places – and in truth that is most of France – that are not yet served by it. It is very easy to go up and down from Paris but going across the country is still complicated and slow.

Whenever I travel to new places in France I am always reminded that it is a huge country. The range of landscapes is astonishing and, although the sprawl of out-of-town hypermarkets and warehouses is seemingly unregulated and horrible, there are still vast tranches of the country that are unspoilt, sparsely populated and staggeringly beautiful. French food may no longer be the best in the world (and is certainly not as good as it was a generation ago), but can still be fabulous, especially in the markets and country restaurants. If you treat them with a modicum of politeness and respect, French people are astonishingly friendly and helpful and have maintained a rhythm and balance to life that has been all but lost in the UK.

Here, on our doorstep, we have a neighbour who carries the shared bonds of a thousand years of history and yet is different from us in an entirely enlightening and enriching way. Our connections are close and often very personal. My great-uncle was killed on the Somme in the First World War and his remains are buried there, and my father fought in France and was eventually evacuated from Dunkirk in the Second World War. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of British people share the same stories. In fact we share more stories with France than with any other nation. And, on top of that, they have some of the best gardens in the world.

My first visit to France was in April 1970. I was fourteen and had never been on an aeroplane, never been outside the country. I was taken for a four-day treat by my aunt and uncle who were, by the standards of the very conventional, middle-class, Home Counties England of the time, libertarian in a way my parents could not dream of. So, as well taking me to all the obvious tourist landmarks – the Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Jeu de Paume, L’Arc de Triomphe, Sacré Coeur, rue Rivoli, Les Invalides, Nôtre Dame, a Bateau Mouche – they let me smoke, which I did with a kind of Gallic fervour, drink – not so easy, since I had no capacity for alcohol at all – and most importantly of all, feel grown up. This was intoxicating beyond any amount of nicotine or alcohol.

I now realise that in fact what I was feeling was sexy. Paris in 1970, just eighteen months after the ’68 student riots, had the perfect balance of modernity and the frisson of Edwardian naughtiness that my grandfather had told me about. It was a deeply sexy city and no subsequent trip I have made has ever matched it for excitement or intensity.

One of the things that has been lost since then was the Frenchness of Paris. Thank goodness France still has a curmudgeonly resistance to outside influences, but in 1970 it was gloriously unlike anywhere else at all and I took it all in, saucer-eyed.3

Pissoirs in every street, cigarette stalls where I could insouciantly buy a lovely soft packet of Gitanes, garlic, snails, berets, baguettes, cups without handles, widows in black with stockings tight under their knees, paying a moustached old lady for the privilege of using a public lavatory, hipster baths, dishes of vegetables served as a separate course, being allowed to drink wine with every single meal! And feeling, for the first time in my life, old enough to know better and young enough to try . . .

But this is all too glamorous. This story does not begin here. It was, after all a very brief visit. I returned home, got kicked out of school, went wrong, got distracted – all the usual teenage stuff. Move on three-and-a-half years to a lavatory on a campsite in Aix en Provence.



It was October 1973, I was eighteen and heading for Greece with my guitar and a friend. We had taken the train to Paris and spent the first few days at a youth hostel, where breakfast was huge bowls of café au lait – in itself exotic – and baguettes. By stuffing a baguette into a pocket and supplementing it with a cheap camembert that grew increasingly lively at the bottom of my rucksack, we were fed for the day.

The plan was to hitch down to Greece, camping at night and earning whatever money we needed by busking. It was an open-ended arrangement. I had worked all summer on a building site and earned enough money to buy a new guitar,4 and I vaguely thought a winter on a Greek island would be something like Leonard Cohen writing Beautiful Losers on Hydra. Very vaguely.

There were two problems. The first was that I had little ability on the guitar and less with my voice. Even in an era marked by the abundance of truly dreadful buskers in every underpass and tube station, I was outstandingly, show-stoppingly awful. This evaluation crossed borders and the French paying public passed on by, wincing as I offered them my rendition of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ and ‘Streets of London’.

The second problem was that my companion was recovering from a broken leg and was encased from ankle to thigh in plaster. This made walking practically impossible and getting ourselves in and out of cars – never mind our two ridiculously over-kitted rucksacks and camping gear as well – tricky.

At one stage we got a lift with the owner of a 2CV just outside Roanne, having filtered slowly across from Bourges. It took a complicated dance of shoving, straining and squeezing to get us and our kit into the car and, just as the driver cheerily turned to see if we were comfortable, a tent pole burst through the canvas roof. He was furious, drove in silence for a few kilometres and then booted us out. We stayed by the side of that road for three days, liftless, hungry and thirsty.5

Eventually we leapfrogged lifts through St Étienne, Orange, Montélimar (where I can still remember how irresistibly delicious a loaf of rough rye and currant bread tasted, broken off in handfuls and eaten at seven in the morning, standing by the side of a busy road) and on down to Aix en Provence. There we found our way to a campsite so we could stay for a few days before heading to Nice, through Italy and on to a boat across to Greece.

The weather south from Orange had been a growing revelation. This was 1973. Hardly anyone went abroad. My mother had never set foot in France and my father went once, in 1939, to kill Germans and then almost get killed by them at Dunkirk. He never went back. Other than the weekend in Paris when I was fourteen, the furthest south I had been before was the Isle of Wight. Now it was autumn, yet the sun shone from a blue sky. People were tanned, wore dark glasses and smiled a lot. Aix was full of people my age sitting in street cafés drinking lager, citron pressé or real coffee. There were markets filled with vegetables I did not recognise and crêpes for sale in the street. By existing almost exclusively on bread and cheese it was possible to live for just a few francs a day.

When it got dark, it was still warm enough to sit outside nursing a beer for hours. And the daylight was brighter and there was more of it than anything I had experienced or imagined. This light entranced me. The fact that there was heat attached to it was a bonus. It was the light that lit Cézanne and Van Gogh, both artists that I was obsessed by, and I knew that Cézanne had lived and painted in Aix. Those incredible paintings that I had seen at the Courtauld Institute in London and in countless reproductions were lit by this sun, this light that now shone on me. I felt blessed.

I did not know then that I was affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and that the morbid, introspective gloom I sank beneath every autumn was as much to do with lack of light as anything else. No one did. SAD had not been invented. Now the southern light was raising the serotonin levels in my sun-starved brain, creating a kind of ecstasy I attributed to Cézanne. Art won over science, yet again.

After a few days of this there was a huge storm and the campsite was washed out. Our tent was a foot under water, so we gathered our sleeping bags and took shelter in the only dry building, which was the wash house. For forty-eight hours we hunkered down with half a dozen other people, wedged between the sinks and loos. It was all very jolly: with the rain beating down outside, this was camping as I knew it, and, carefree young things that we were, we had guitars, local wine at 4 francs a bottle (about 30 pence), a little hash, bread and lovely French cheese. We thought that this was living. There were no phones, no world outside that flooded campsite and its white-tiled wash house. The Yom Kippur War was raging, Watergate was building up a head of steam in America and the oil crisis was about to start a cycle of inflation and strikes that would bring down a series of governments in Europe, but none of this reached us at all.

Sharing our shelter from the storm was an American hitching through Europe accompanied by an entirely silent girlfriend who slept with him in his sleeping bag beneath the washbasins. It was a tight fit. He had done a degree at Brown University and spoke enthusiastically of student life. Up to that point I had no intention of ever being a student. I hated school and left vowing never to return to academia in any form, wanting to be free of all institutions. This desire was considerably helped by my exam results, which were so bad that no one would have me anyway. But listening to him I realised that there was a student world that involved self-motivated learning and a meeting of true minds. The fact that he was hitching with a girlfriend, albeit one who seemed never to employ her voice, and I was sharing my journey with an old school friend who was half-wrapped in plaster of Paris and not turning out to be much of a friend at all, showed the obvious benefits of student life.

I decided not to continue on to Greece. The truth was I never really believed in it. I had never met anyone who had been there and Leonard Cohen had left Hydra ages ago. But I knew I badly wanted more of the Provençal light and more time in Aix.

I had seen a language school in rue Gaston de Saporta, in the centre of the town, and, on a whim, went in and tried to sign up to do a course. It was completely booked and in any event there were fees. I had no money and absolutely no prospect of earning any, despite lugging my guitar around. But I decided to go back home, get a job – which back then was effortlessly easy – and retake my English A level at night school. That summer I had managed not just to do badly in the exam but to fail it completely. Not even an O grade. I knew that writing answers to questions I thought much more interesting than the ones actually asked had not helped but I also knew that this result was a travesty. The great awakening in that storm-battered washroom in Aix was that the world would not suddenly realise that I had been shamefully misjudged: I had to go and prove that to the world. Then with honour regained and the money saved from the job I would come back and spend a year in Aix, learn fluent French and paint like Cézanne.

So, up to a point, that is what I did, labouring on a building site through the winter, hod-carrying and digging footings by hand all day and resitting English A level at Farnborough tech in the evening. It was hard physical work. There were few machines, no health and safety restrictions and constant graft, often in foul weather. I would go straight to college from this work, slathered in mud and cement with a copy of Brave New World or Dubliners wedged into my donkey jacket pocket. My fellow workmen teased me for my airs and graces and fellow students steered well clear. But it paid 59 pence an hour which was enough to pay rent, petrol for my motorbike and a couple of new paperbacks each Saturday, as well as saving £10 a week. Best bitter was 13 pence a pint and half an ounce of Old Holborn and a packet of Rizlas about the same. Other than light, I wanted for little.

I got into the habit of rising at five thirty and reading for a couple of hours before going to work. It felt like time I was stealing from the remorseless mundaneness of Home Counties England. Quietly, before anyone was awake, I was slowly earning my passport out. That year I worked my way through the works of D.H. and T.E. Lawrence, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Aldous Huxley, E.M. Forster, George Orwell, Thomas Mann, Jean-Paul Sartre, André Gide and others. I was a sponge, leading a double life, soaking up a world that had ended before the war and was both removed and foreign yet accessible in the same way as France was from the Home Counties.

So the exam was taken, earning that grade I had previously assumed was mine by right, money was saved and in October 1974 I set off on the night train from Victoria for Aix en Provence. I was lugging an absurdly heavy suitcase that contained a Dundee cake and a jar of marmalade amongst the new corduroys, water-purifying tablets and immersion heater that clipped over the rim of a cup. Apparently my father had exactly the same two items in his kitbag when he set off with the BEF in 1939.

My grandfather, who had worked in Paris before the First World War, told me never to trust the word of a Frenchman unless it was written down. Ever. I had never previously had any kind of personal conversation with my father, although he did once teach me how to kill a sentry soundlessly with his commando dagger. Now, he took me to one side, muttered and shuffled a bit and said in too loud a voice, If you do any fucking, wear a johnny. It was hard to know which of us was more embarrassed.

I spent the crossing being quietly sick over the railings. We arrived at Gare du Nord at dawn and I hauled my suitcase on to the metro across town to Gare de Lyon. The train that was to take me on down to Marseille was due to leave from there at ten that night. I have no idea why I did not take a day train. Perhaps it was felt that the journey needed breaking. I do remember that I sent my suitcase ahead on a separate goods train. I suspect one could not do that now. I also remember my shock that the ticket to Aix cost 200 francs, which was about a week’s wages. But the upshot was that I had a long day in Paris with £100 in travellers’ cheques,6 to pay for my board and lodging until I had set up a bank account in Aix (which took weeks), and 30 francs (about £2.50) in cash. I was footloose, young and fancy-free in Paris, the most seductive city on the planet, with a wodge of money in my pocket, yet I felt anxious and alone. It rained all day. I had no waterproof. I walked for hours, revisiting the Jeu de Paume to look at the Impressionist paintings but feeling ill at ease and not connecting with them or anything else, not knowing how to use the empty day at all, but aware I was wasting it. Here, free at last, setting out on the adventure I had longed for, I was tired, hungry and feeling very alone.

I remember going back to the Gare de Lyon in the afternoon and double-checking that it was the right station. Checked I still had the luggage ticket. Checked I still had the train ticket. At the time I felt unsophisticated and hopeless but I now know that this is the underlying state of anyone who ever takes a bus, plane or train anywhere. All travel is riven with the anxiety of being taken to the wrong place.

Boarding the train as early as possible, I found my couchette, chose a top bunk and settled in. For fully an hour I had the compartment to myself but then, just as the train was about to take off, five North African men hustled on and took the other berths. In Aix I had been told stories of how Algerian men invariably availed themselves of pretty young boys at any opportunity: apparently anyone in the Algerian quarter of the town after dark was fair game. Girls would do at a pinch but boys were preferred. Sharing a space the size of a modest cupboard with five swarthy men who clearly had deliberately chosen this couchette – and me – for a night of debauchery, I felt alarmingly young and pretty. I lay there, spending the second night in my clothes, clutching my virginity and scarcely daring to breathe.

However, they quietly and politely turned to sleep and, eventually, so did I, waking at seven and slipping out into the corridor to find the train stopped at Arles and sunshine streaming in through the corridor window. The train headed south to Marseille and I remember the surge of exhilaration at the orange tiles of the roofs beneath the absolute blue of the sky, the cypresses and olive trees, all as exotic as anything I could then conceive.

I changed at Marseille and took a little train to Aix, hauling my case from the station, stopping at every corner to change hands until I found my digs at rue Cardinale in the seventeenth-century part of the town south of Cours Mirabeau, next to the thirteenth-century church of St Jean de Malte.

The landlady was ninety – so old enough to remember Cézanne but too old to hold on to those or any other memories – and the house had that darkness and smell that I learnt to associate with French town houses that had not sold their souls to the twentieth century. Electricity was used under sufferance. The stairs were terracotta polished by footfall and a silent maid. The furniture in my room was heavy and dark, with a four-poster bed and a jug and basin for washing. Breakfast was brought to my room at eight by the mute maid and a six-course dinner was served in the dining room every evening. This was shared with the other lodgers: a Swedish bodybuilder, two Americans studying French and, disturbingly, someone I had been at school with five years earlier. It was civilised, comfortable and hopelessly unsuitable.

After a week I moved to the country at Les Bonfillons, between St Marc Jaumegarde and Vauvenargues, where Picasso briefly lived and is buried. I bought a Mobylette for 1,000 francs. A thousand anything seemed a lot, although in fact it amounted to about £90, brand new and on the road. I walked into a shop, pointed at the one I wanted, filled in a form, paid the money and rode it away. The simplicity of it was beautiful.

Mobylettes – a 49cc moped with pedals so you could save fuel going downhill or on the flat – were absurd but ubiquitous back then, more common than bicycles. There was an elderly man in a beret with a couple of baguettes strapped across the back of his Mobylette on every street and country road. Most people used them for journeys of a few kilometres, but I went everywhere on mine, planning a trip each weekend that would take me, very slowly, to the Lubéron, l’Étang de Berre, the coast – as far as the two-stroke engine would go on a tank of fuel. It was not sexy or romantic or glamorous in any conceivable way, but it was freedom and that, there, then, was bliss.

I joined a rugby club and played a few games on the baked pitches of Marseille and Toulon. Then, at a home match in Aix, I got kicked in the eye and found myself lying in Aix hospital next to a farmer whose friend (mon vieux copain) had shot him in the eye when they were out hunting thrushes. It was an accident, he said. Could have happened to anybody. His wife, denied of suitable ingredients for her pâté, spent the night cuddled up next to him in bed. I was deeply embarrassed but impressed. They offered me a nip of marc from a flask and I can taste that clean, slightly musky mainline of alcohol in my mouth now.

My own right eye was lost in the taut black swelling that made the right side of my face the outline of a rugby ball. I asked why the other eye was black and was told that I had fractured my skull but they had every hope of saving my eye. Having had no notion that there was the possibility of losing it, this was a little alarming. I went for a pee and slipped on the large, slightly viscous, pool of blood on the lavatory floor. I was just nineteen, and terrified and thrilled in equal measure.

I did not tell my parents about the eye. There was nothing they could do and I guessed that they would expect me to take that sort of thing in my stride. The standard means of communication was an aerogram, which took about four days to reach its destination.7 Making a phone call would have meant going to the post office at the bottom of the Cours Mirabeau and queuing for ages to book a call before waiting up to half an hour for the connection to be made; you were then directed to a booth where the phone would be ringing – without any guarantee of it ever being answered.8

When it was established that my damaged eye had vision I was discharged with a large patch and rode home one-eyed on my Mobylette. After a week I could raise the lid a millimetre or two to expose a satisfyingly bloody mess that nevertheless looked back at the mirror. Sight saved. A few weeks after that I went back to have the haematoma cut out. They injected local anaesthetic into the eye to numb it. I flinched. ‘Come on, Mr Rugby Man,’ said the nurse with a mocking but incredibly sexy smile. ‘Be brave.’ The scalpel descended on my eye and cut into the lid like a fingernail scoring the flesh. I didn’t feel at all brave. They stitched me up, told me I was off games for six months until my skull healed and that the intense headaches were only to be expected and that I was lucky. Another millimetre and the eye would have been removed.

I moved into the centre of Aix and rented a second-floor flat in rue Portalis that I shared with the Swedish bodybuilder called Stefan who ran a complicated stable of three or four Scandinavian girlfriends, one of whom was usually leaving in tears, only to reappear seemingly unconcerned a few days later. Aix was full of students renting flats in lovely eighteenth-century buildings. We didn’t know they were particularly lovely beyond the fact that we liked them, but for most of us they were probably the most stylish, charming places in which we would ever spend time.

Rue Portalis opens out into Place des Prêcheurs, which had flower stalls every morning and a big market every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday when there would be stalls of just huge tomatoes, puckered and ribbed like pumpkins, piles of strange sundried tomatoes looking like rounds of shrivelled toast, ten different types of olive on dishes, and great vats of oil and little wizened old ladies in black with bundles of herbs from the hillside which they sold in twists of newspaper, oranges and lemons stacked head high and aubergines with skin as glossy and black as a guardsman’s toecaps, mounds of peaches and nectarines and apricots, little bundles of courgettes the size of sausages still with flowers bursting from their ends like flames, charcuteries of every imaginable variation set out in baskets with pieces to taste on little wooden plates, onions that were not just golden but bright red, and onions long and slim, and garlic – huge swags of pink garlic gloriously exposing itself. There were crêpe makers and sweet sellers, walls of nougat and strange Algerian sweets, and the cafés around the square filled with leather-skinned men smoking yellow cigarettes and drinking wine and pastis at eight in the morning. I never lost my wonder that such a world existed and that all I had to do was stumble from my door and take a few steps down the road to immerse myself in it.

I had been brought up in the shadow of food shortages and rationing. My parents wasted nothing and there was a culture of eating what you were given and being thankful for it. Foreign food of any kind was rare and only valued if it was the bastardised French haute cuisine that still masquerades as good food in Britain today. Pasta was only known as a novelty dish, boiled to a pulp and served floating in grey watery mince. It was called, without any hint of shame, let alone irony, spaghetti Bolognese. On the whole the food was seasonal and fresh, but it was plain and repetitive and came bundled with guilt and repression. No one was overweight and few had diet-related illnesses, but hardly anyone expressed any sensual delight in what they ate. The English regarded meals like sex: you did it mostly indoors, in private, showed good manners and restraint, didn’t take too long about it and were sure to say thank you.

So to come to a place where abundance and colour and fragrance and texture washed and swirled so openly was completely liberating. Everybody looked for and demanded the best food and not to relish it in every glorious manifestation was to turn your back on life itself.

I found that I had to buy very little if I waited until midday, when the stalls packed up and anything that would not last until the next market day was left behind. Mounds and piles of fruit and vegetables were quickly scavenged by students like myself. Once a week we could afford to eat in the restaurant on the corner of the street. For 10 francs (about 90 pence) you could have the set three-course meal, and another 3 francs bought a large carafe of the house wine.



I have always tried to visit the homes of writers and artists who influence me, believing that seeing where a man ate his breakfast or the wicker chair beneath the tree that remains is a key of sorts to their work, and back in January 1975 I did try and visit Jas de Bouffan,9 Cézanne’s family home for forty years.

In fact I never got beyond pressing my nose against the big iron gates and glimpsing the house at the end of a long avenue of bare-boned plane trees. The house was on the edge of the unfashionable western side of town and a new autoroute had just been built running right by it – and presumably through its former fields.10 On a grey, cold winter’s day it was bleak, noisy and as far from my idealisation of Cézanne as could be conceived. It started to rain. I got back on my Mobylette and returned to town.

Thirty-seven years later I came back and went through the same heavy gates. As I went in, a man who had clearly enjoyed much refreshment stopped me and asked what I was about. I told him. Then, he said, you will like to come and see the Cézanne I have in my apartment in town. Really, I said, a real Cézanne? But of course, he said. A lost painting but fully authenticated. Done when he was a young man. An immature work to be sure but it could be mine for a mere 50,000 euros. I politely declined the offer and went in but he followed me inside, clutching at my sleeve. Strong words were exchanged. He tottered off, cursing me.

The area is still bleakly dominated by roads and blocks of flats but the trees, now in the full leaf of midsummer’s day, were cool and dark, the shadows latticing the grass. Boughs that had been pollarded some fifty to a hundred years ago canted in, striking recognisable poses. It is fanciful to think of Cézanne being influenced by their linear lean but perhaps in his day they were polled back to mere stumps on a trunk.

The house, set fully a hundred metres from the road, is an elegant ochre cube with pale eau-de-Nil shutters. The garden is not up to much. Good trees, areas of scratchy grass, the pond, almost unchanged, the water as green as the leaves that shade it. But no sense of it being tended or designed, no flower beds or structure as such, just the grass cut now and then.

But that is the point. Cézanne, for all his comfortable bourgeois home and domestic padding, is the painter of transcendence. The most ordinary things become suffused with light and life, and it is this that makes his work sublime. There is the game to be played of checking the ‘real’ garden against his paintings and finding almost everything in its place, as though there is an alchemy of archaeology and sacred relics. So the stone block is still at the end of the pool, the trees are larger but there is no reason to presume that they are not the same ones, and the house has scarcely altered in any way. But there was nothing that could not be found in a hundred other places at any given moment, just as there were a thousand bowls of apples or arrangements of cloth that could have been painted when he was at work.

The house is at that point of abandonment that does not feel like dereliction and yet would have builders and architects shaking their heads and sucking their teeth whilst they added noughts to their estimates. It is due for a major repair and restoration and is closed to the public but I was shown round.

There was no electricity and it was dusk, so the only light slanted in the half-opened shutters, cutting a beam through the darkness into a large central hall, steep stairs and wrought-iron bannister. A sedan chair sat on the corner of the first landing. Up through the core of the house was another tiny staircase for servants, with slitlike doors on to each floor.

Like so many large French houses, it was used by the extended family in a series of apartments with a communal kitchen and large living rooms. At the top of the house were the servants’ quarters, which were tiny, plain rooms with fireplaces and unexpected partitions. Off one room was a space that was barely more than a closet, big enough only for a bed. The walls and ceiling were decorated with elaborate moulding, quite unlike the rest of the top floor. This, according to my guide, was built so that the original owner of the house could come and claim droit de seigneur with the maid of his choice. As long as it all stayed up here, in the servants’ part of the house, it was acceptably outside marital territory.

Cézanne painted murals in the salon, and in 1907, after Cézanne’s death, Louis Granel, the man who had bought the house from the family in 1899, suggested that he detach them and donate them to the nation, although he had already been offered more than 100,000 francs for them. The nation, in the shape of a Monsieur Bénédite, came and inspected the murals and, on consideration, decided that it did not want them. Monsieur Bénédite thought Cézanne’s work of little value: he had already rejected three of five paintings offered to the nation in 1896 by the estate of Gustave Caillebotte. The murals were subsequently detached and sold in 1912.

The floors throughout are tiled and the patina of polish and age has made them almost plum coloured, glimmering in the dark. With the flaking limewash and the wasted light falling like rags and my caught-breath reverence, it made the empty building pulse with intensity.

At the top of the house was Cézanne’s studio, with a window cut into the eaves to give northern light. This was quite an invasive thing to do to this impressive, four-square building. The fact that Cézanne’s father was prepared to deface the frontage of the house in this way, along with the allowance that he paid him, adds up to strong and practical support by a father for a son who sold nothing before he was thirty-five and was locally thought of as a simple-minded dauber. Even in 1974 I recall people expressing amazement that Cézanne’s work had taken in so many people. This, of course, was coupled with intense pride that he was Aixois.11

Cézanne lived at Jas de Bouffan until 1899. He only left it then because the sale was forced by his two sisters after the death of his mother, so they could extract their share of the inheritance.

This means that the vast majority of his work that was not painted outside sur le motif was painted in this surprisingly small attic room. Cézanne’s catalogue runs to some 954 paintings, 645 watercolours and 1,400 drawings. Given time spent in Paris, given his love of painting outside and given that I am guessing randomly, it is not unreasonable to suppose that he produced hundreds of separate works within these four walls. It is my experience that buildings and landscapes act as batteries, taking the charge from significant acts, good and ill, and holding a trace of them, sometimes with overwhelming and palpable intensity. But there was absolutely nothing in that room at all. It was empty of everything that had ever happened there. All the ghosts have gone.

The house is closed until the repair work is done. It will become something between a Cézanne theme park and a beautifully cared-for homage to one of the greatest painters the world has known. Maybe it will bring the ghost of Cézanne back but, with the motorway and the grim housing and the unravelling of heritage and art and national pride, I doubt it. I think on my visit I saw a glimpse back a hundred years just as it was slipping away for ever.

On the other side of Aix is a corrective to too much melancholy about temps perdu. After Jas de Bouffan was sold Cézanne moved into an upper floor of a house in rue Boulegon in Aix, making a studio in the attic there. But he was now rich and could afford better. In 1901 he bought a plot of land, an olive grove12 just north of the town, and built himself a studio. For the last four years of his life he lived in his rue Boulegon apartment, rising at four and walking every day to his studio where he lit the stove and read. At five, milk was delivered and he made coffee before starting work. He broke for lunch at eleven and then worked outside if possible till evening.

The studio has been beautifully maintained and looked after and is left as though Cézanne had just walked out of the room. In his day the steep road that is now constantly threaded with traffic was a dusty track but behind the gate it seems to be genuinely unspoilt. The garden has regrown after the devastation of the Great Frost in 1956, when the original eighty olives on the plot were all killed. If it were in the UK it would have had a committee developing Action Plans to restore it as nearly as possible to its 1906 state, in tune with the interior of the studio. As it is French, and Provençal French in particular, it has just been allowed to grow, almost untouched. I like it for that. And in any event, the garden is a sideshow, a setting for the studio.

In March the trees were scrawny, and scruffily unkempt. But when I went back in mid-summer they had become cool, sleek havens against the sun, casting a delicious green shade. It also smelt good. Pine, sand, sun, stone, cistus, thyme mingled to make that particularly oily, musky, southern fragrance.

Inside is a stage set, carefully propped to look as though the artist has just left the room, but it works. The walls are painted a shade of grey that intensifies the oranges and blues of the carpet and fruit and on a dresser are apples, a jug, three skulls, stools and chairs, the ornate stove that warmed him and his morning milk. His coat, smock and beret hang on a hook. In the corner is a door no more than fifty centimetres wide but fully three-and-half metres tall – a slot built in to slide out huge canvases.

You struggle to avoid becoming a pilgrim in these places but it is futile. To poke and peer with the relaxed curiosity of familiarity seems sacrilegious. This is an inner sanctum. Although reverence does not get you any closer to the work, it is inevitable and in its own way richly enjoyable. But to step inside the work and allow it to get further inside you, you need to go sur le motif and take the road to Le Tholonet.



Despite the cheapness of living I found was running out of money. So I got a job. Not a proper job and not a job that paid me in money but it was a job that hugely enriched me.

A cousin of a friend of an acquaintance I was briefly introduced to had written a name and phone number on a scrap of paper. If you are in Aix you must look this woman up, he said. She is terrific.

So I went to the post office and called the number. Madame Tailleaux answered and, after a sentence or two of my inadequate French, asked me, in a cut-glass English accent, if I wanted to come to lunch.

That would be lovely.

Stay there then, she said. See you in an hour. And she rang off.

Madame Tailleaux – I never called her anything else or knew her first name – duly arrived in her Renault, stopped in the middle of the road, asked a couple of other youngish men if they were Monty, finally located me and swept me off to lunch at her house, La Bertranne in Le Tholonet.

A pattern emerged. I would go to Le Tholonet a few days a week and work in her garden, and in return she would make me lunch (a proper French two-hour lunch), introduce me to local people and act as a guide, mentor and friend. She would also expect me to accompany her on jaunts, often without notice. The Renault would stop in rue Portalis and she would call up to the window for me to come down because we were going to Gardanne to buy some tiles, or to come quickly (it would be eleven in the morning) because Poublier who lived two fields away from La Bertranne had a bouillabaisse ready. She wanted a companion and liked young people and I fitted the bill.

She seemed very old to me but was no more than sixty – just a few years older than I am now. She was half-American, half-French, had been brought up in pre-war England and married a French painter. Her house had various lodgers, waifs and strays and friends of different nationalities who were treated as a cross between children and members of a commune. Whilst the basic lingua franca of the household was French, she rarely completed a sentence in the same language that she began it and often jumped from French to English to German to Italian as she talked, seemingly unaware of doing so.

Her husband’s studio was still fully set up at La Bertranne although he had not lived there for years. It had a full-size replica of Picasso’s Guernica on one wall. Only recently I learnt from her son Carlo that she had been sent to a concentration camp in the war for helping the Resistance and Jewish escapees. She hated injustice and authority in equal measure, treating both with an aristocratic, imperious fury, and was scared of nothing.

Thirty years ago I drove to Le Tholonet with Sarah, vaguely hoping that she might still be there so Sarah could meet her. With the arrogance of youth, I assumed that because my life had changed so much and ten years seemed so significantly long to me, everyone else’s life would be utterly different too. We drove down the road to Le Tholonet, talking about her, when she appeared, walking out of the woods. I stopped the car. She looked a little older but almost exactly the same. I got out. Madame Tailleaux?

Ah, Monty, she said without breaking beat, how nice to see you. Will you come to lunch?

So we did. The house was empty, a bit shabby but unchanged. Lunch, as ever, was delicious. She gave us a huge plate made by the potter across the fields. We still use it for oranges, glowing against the indigo glaze. Then we left and I never saw her again.

But I thought of her a great deal and realised that what I loved was her fearlessness and complete lack of philistinism as well as the connection to the artists and writers of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s that I had discovered for myself as inspiring but remote figures. She had been, both through the stories and accounts of her life before and during the war, always thrown away, no more than asides really, the living key to a world otherwise unobtainable to me and her influence spread far beyond the actual time we spent together or the things that we did. So last summer I travelled back along the road to Le Tholonet to see if I could find La Bertranne. I had no plan. I just wanted to go down that road again.

The route from Aix was fringed with villas for perhaps a kilometre and then quickly left town and cut and twisted into the hillside through pines and oaks growing amongst pink boulders. There were blue shadows, hollyhocks in the long grass and a meadow dotted with thousands of white spiders. Forty years ago I had noticed a little marble plaque tucked into a stone wall, commemorating six people ‘Fusillés par les Nazis le 17 Août 1944’, presumably right here, at this bend in the road, far enough away from the town to be out of earshot and with a bank high enough to absorb bullets. It was still exactly the same. Sad, only half-noticed, shameful. A plastic water bottle was stuffed with a florist’s lily and hydrangea. Someone’s father, grandfather – perhaps even husband – was still mourned at the edge of this lovely road.

And then against that clear blue sky, with a lick of pine branch framing its contours, Mont Sainte-Victoire was rising and growing before me. Unlike most mountains, which have a monumental presence, Mont Sainte-Victoire always seems, as Cézanne so brilliantly portrayed, to be still in the process of becoming, as though its heaving geology is just momentarily stilled and the iconic shape is a temporary assumption. It is tentative and usually slightly faded, almost gauzy in some lights. That is why Cézanne painted it again and again.13

To know the mountain and the paintings a little better, forty years ago I climbed to the Croix de Provence at the top. There is a track all the way up, steep and at times needing all hands as well as feet but, like so many of the wonderful Grandes Randonées right across France, clearly marked with red and white stripes painted on the rock, helpful without being bossy and at times daring you on without unnecessary and unwelcome consideration for your health or safety in the process. The Alps could be seen in the east, their snow surreal in the hot, resinous light. They were the first snowy peaks I had seen. As the afternoon light angled down from the west towards them they turned golden and then pink. I stayed watching, transfixed, until the light slid down and the peaks sank back into shade, and then stumbled down the mountain in the dusk.

I had assumed that a full generation later La Bertranne would have been bought by a German banker and replete with swimming pool, gym and sleek fast car outside. When I found it, the shutters were a different colour and it looked freshly painted. Half tempted to turn back and not risk the disillusionment, I went up the long track, encouraged to find it as bumpy as I recalled, and parked by the house. The banging and sawing from builders seemed to confirm my suspicions and I was turning to leave when a voice said, Monty! A figure appeared in the doorway with Madame Tailleaux’s deeply sunken eyes and high cheekbones. It was her face but carried by a man, probably in his sixties. This was Carlo, her son, whom I had not met but had heard much of. It turned out that he had come across me on telly in England, where he had lived for a while, and had also heard something of me from his mother. Madame Tailleaux had only died a few years previously, well into her nineties. He was moving back and repairing the house.

We sat on the terrace and drank a glass of wine and talked of those years long ago that we had not shared at all but had, in another sense, shared quite profoundly. I was, Carlo said, in many ways a replacement for him. A biddable version of the impossible, uncontrollable son. It was a strange role for me, who had always been the black sheep of my own family, to become the safer substitute for someone whose adulthood was so much freer and more interesting than the versions that I grew up with at home. He said that the garden had meant a lot to her and my helping her keep it in some order would have mattered. He wanted to live here, didn’t know if it would work out, but wanted to try. He wanted to make it beautiful again in her memory.

I left, bouncing slowly down the track to the road, between the barley fields infiltrated with fennel and Sainte-Victoire looming out of the shadows in the east. I felt at peace. It was not so much a case of seeing old friends as of seeing and laying the ghosts of my old self, and settling that piece of my past easily into my present.



There is a no-man’s-land quality to the coastal strip of Provence. I have never found any identity there that I can recognise. This is not so strange when you think that it has been primarily a holiday resort for the past century. I remember taking a coach trip from Aix to Nice, staying in the youth hostel there and then going to see the Fondation Maeght at St Paul de Vence. It was the first time I had seen sculptures integrated into landscape and a garden built around sculpture as an integral component. It was and remains an extraordinary experience. I walked on the beach in the dark and it felt as though the sea was a reluctant visitor, that Nice had drawn up its lines there because that was where the land stopped rather than where the sea started.

In the 1980s Sarah and I spent one Christmas in a borrowed villa in the woods above St Paul. We drove down from London in a brand new car, Grace Jones singing all the way, emerging from the freezing fog of the north into southern light like crawling out of a tunnel. We had vague directions for finding the house and it was getting dark as we bounced down a rough track. Big gates opened with one of the bunch of keys we had been given and the house sat just inside. It was completely dark and, fumbling, none of the keys worked. There seemed to be no other houses nearby. Either this was completely the wrong place or all the plans had gone askew and the house was not available after all.

We drove on down the track to see if there were any neighbours we could ask and came to a large house with lights above the front door. I knocked. Nothing. Walked round trying to see in the windows but the shutters were closed. For some reason I tried one of the keys in the door, and it opened easily. There was a note welcoming us in the hallway. It turned out that the first building was the gatehouse and this – the right villa – was equipped with swimming pool, tennis court, gym and a fridge stocked with champagne and the best local produce.

For twenty-four hours the luxury was a novelty and we played with it like a toy, trying everything out. But that soon waned and Nice on Christmas Day was a soulless, grim place. I have not spent Christmas away from home since. But we did have a couple of good meals at the Colombe d’Or in St Paul de Vence, where the walls are decorated with paintings and drawings by Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Chagall and others who paid for their meals with art. It was famous and expensive but somehow accessible back then.

And we found some beautiful pots for our garden. We had seen lovely olive oil jars and wanted to buy one for our hosts as a present. We were talking to an English ex-pat couple and asked if they knew the best place to buy them. He, seventyish, thin, nut brown, in shorts in December, said, ‘Certainly. Bat on down to Antibes and turn right to Biot. You’ll see a field full of pots on your left. They are the best in Provence.’ So we duly batted on down the coast road and found a field with thousands of pots in rows – some as big as ready-mix cement lorries and others you could hold in one hand. We bought one for the huge sum of £100 and then, just as we were leaving, saw another, nicer one, so did the obvious thing and bought that too, just fitting them in the back of the car. We kept the nicest and left the other in the garden,14 although I rather suspect they did not like it.

The Musée Picasso at the Château Grimaldi in Antibes, which Picasso used as a studio for three months between September and November in 1946, is wonderful. At least it was in 1984 when we visited it after buying our pots in Biot. Picasso came to Antibes after the war with his new lover, Françoise Gilot, who was some forty years younger than him. As payment for the studio space Picasso left all the work that he did there – twenty-three paintings and over forty drawings, most featuring Françoise Gilot – on condition that it should remain in situ. To visit is to step inside an extraordinary slice of restless, astonishingly confident creativity.

Picasso had met Françoise Gilot a few years earlier in 1943, in a restaurant in occupied Paris, when he and Dora Maar were dining with Marie-Laure, Vicomtesse de Noailles. As Françoise Gilot later wrote, Marie-Laure had a ‘long, narrow, somewhat decadent-looking face, framed by an ornate coiffure that reminded me of Rigaud’s portrait of Louis XIV in the Louvre’.15

Marie-Laure de Noailles was the great-great-great-granddaughter of the Marquis de Sade and had married Charles de Noailles in 1923 when she was twenty. Charles de Noailles was a vicomte with a vast fortune and the pair proceeded to spend large amounts of it patronising modern artists in various media. They helped finance the films of Man Ray and Luis Buñuel, the paintings of Salvador Dalí and Balthus, the sculpture of Brancusi and Miró, among others. The couple also commissioned a Cubist garden by the Armenian designer Gabriel Guevrekian. The garden was made as part of the villa that they had built just after their marriage. Overlooking the small town of Hyères, this was a holiday home where they held artistic court.

Guevrekian was an architect who eventually made three gardens, each one an artistic statement, deliberately using the principles and ideas of Cubism. There was no intention of making it natural or relating it in any way to the surrounding environment. Charles de Noailles was a serious gardener and botanist but this particular triangular wedge of ground was intended to serve only two functions: to be looked at from above as a static work of art and to be occupied as a space for parties. It seems to have served both purposes admirably during the period in the 1920s and ’30s when the de Noailles used Hyères most intensely.

I visited early in the morning, after a coffee at the bar opposite Hyères railway station, when the shadows from the surrounding pines were filling the sharp prow of the garden with shade. It was intended that the first sight of it would be from above, looking down through the big openings in the curtain wall, but the modern visitor skirts the edge, seeing too much too soon. It seems too small, too dingy to justify the excursion, especially one that meant setting the alarm for five thirty.

But go up to the raised level of the house and look down and the garden works. It is powerful. It sits well with itself. The hard triangular bow and chequerboard squares break and reshape any hint of natural lines, challenging preconceptions of how a garden ‘ought’ to be, yet it remains as accessible and inviting as any lawn flanked with herbaceous borders.

Go down into it and it teases you, inviting you forward and yet not really having a forward to go to. The only paths are zigzagged at an angle up the wall. Every clear step is blocked by a planted square, with the resulting diagonals all on different levels. But movement is not the point. Take up a position and it feels comfortable. Apparently it was the favoured place for cocktails, the lack of routes encouraging an easy mingle. The soft ochre of the back wall is warm with its play of shadows, and the slightly aggressive corners and angles, all elbows and knees from above, become playful.

A lot of playing was done at Villa Noailles, both in public and private. It was elaborately, formally decadent. I met the present head gardener, Pierre Quillier, whose grandfather had been butler for the de Noailles during that interwar period. Pierre told me that his grandfather had forty-eight staff under him, all of them always in freshly laundered white uniforms, and that he constantly moved between their houses in Paris, Fontainebleau and Hyères. What struck me as most extraordinary about this was that the de Noailles were so young when they had these enormous, elaborate households. Younger than when Sarah and I drove down to St Paul feeling terribly grown up precisely because we were not terribly grown up.

The villa at Hyères was always filled with artists, politicians, writers and actors. It was a summer-long house party. Whoever the guests were, young and old, unknown or world famous, all had their clothes taken away when they arrived. In return they were given simple white tunics so everyone was dressed the same. The idea was to remove the barriers set up by class, wealth or creed. No cars were allowed, so visitors were dropped off and then remained within the walls of the villa, in this strange, privileged state of artistic equality.

For about ten years it became the centre for French artistic modernity and the patronage of the de Noailles was almost essential for any artist to get on. I asked Pierre if his grandfather ever talked of any of the guests. Apparently Salvador Dalí was a favourite and he was always hungry. Pierre’s grandfather found him in the kitchen on a number of occasions, stuffing food into his mouth.



Back in the 1970s I remember setting off on my Mobylette to Manosque, heading north up to the Provençal hinterland. My journal says, ‘There was one particular stretch from Jouques to St Paul lez Durance which had tiny lawn-sized fields each bounded by a thick drystone wall out of which grew pale blue flowers. Almond trees lined the road which twisted and climbed through the mountain. Behind me lay the silhouetted shapes of St Victoire, La Chaîne de la Ste-Baume and the mountains by Marseille. White houses with earth-coloured tiles merged into the hillside. I did not see a soul save a shepherd two valleys away.’ Lovely as it still is, it has inevitably changed for the worse, at least for the visitor looking for the frisson of the romantic. Not too many shepherds left, I suspect.

That, minimal as it was, was the extent of my voyaging into the Lubéron and Haute Provence. Hardly a glimpse. I regret that, as it is incredibly beautiful and still to some extent free from the overcrowded commercialism that taints the Riviera and the southern strip of Provence. It has attracted an eclectic mix, from Samuel Beckett, hiding from the Germans in Roussillon (and writing Watt) after his Resistance activities in Paris in the Second World War, and Albert Camus, buried at Lourmarin, to the Marquis de Sade’s castle in Lacoste. However, in the past forty years it has become the trendy place for wealthy Europeans to retire or take holiday homes, and there is a sleekness and order that only money can buy. Villages such as Ménerbes, Lacoste, Gordes and Bonnieux have become famous for attracting the famous. They are still lovely and essentially unspoilt. But there is a kind of self-knowing quality to them that was not there forty years ago. The innocence has been sold to tourists like us.

Take the Roman road north out of Aix towards the Alps and instead of going east towards Manosque, carry on to Pertuis. A few kilometres west, before you reach Villelaure, are the vineyards of Val Joanis. A long track takes you through 185 hectares of them, sweeping round to a courtyard where a square of large white stones is studded with a grid of vines. It is interesting what changes perception. The previous five minutes have been spent driving through hundreds of hectares of vineyards which come right up to the walls of house and garden. Yet because these vines in the courtyard are set in stone not earth, are in a square grid not rows and are surrounded by tarmac, they become an installation. Viticulture as art. It sets the tone.

Vines have been grown in this region since Roman times and Val Joanis has been a vineyard since at least 1575 when Jean de Joanis, secretary to Louis III of Naples, built his house there. But the garden, at least the garden open to the public, is new. There has been a herb garden here since the current house was built a couple of hundred years ago, growing herbs both for culinary purposes and as medicine – most specifically to fend of the plague that was always lurking around Marseille.16 It was in effect a potager, but a distinctly herby one. The present garden was made in the late 1980s, both as an elaborate accessory to a rich person’s estate and as a showpiece for visitors.

I visited Val Joanis in early March and again in mid-summer, by which time it had been bought by the Roozen family from Holland, who made their fortune with orange juice and chose to spend it on grape juice. The point is that the garden is an extravagance rather than a working potager. Apart from anything else the family is rarely there. There is no one to eat the vegetables or fruit. But it looks magnificent and the concept – and France is the land where concepts count – is fine and clear. The link between the ranging hectares of vines and the intensely manicured potager is umbilical.

The vines are the outward manifestation of the cultural depths of terroir,17 pruning, variety, climate and the sensual sophistication that any wine-making, wine-drinking society nurtures. Sprawling across millions of hectares, they have a kind of insouciance and careless ease that barely hints at any of these things. Talk to a winemaker and every item, every aspect is accounted for as a lifetime’s study. A potager takes it all and distils and condenses it into a domestic space.

At Val Joanis the training and pruning of fruit – which is such an integral part of the process of caring for the vines – is elaborated to an extraordinary degree. Every variation and permutation of espalier, cordon and fan is on display. The vegetables are grown lovingly and with skill, with twenty-five varieties of tomato, aubergine, pepper, chard and artichoke all flourishing in the extreme heat, though a combination of extreme watering and extreme tending means that the garden can supply the full battery of the vegetable garden arsenal. Herbs, even if plague is not now quite such a threat, are still important, with inula, sage, vervaine, tansy and thyme that would all have been part of the earliest medicinal herb garden, and fennel, basil, tarragon and all the usual culinary herbs present too. But the fruit, in all its precise and ornate glory, is what takes this above and beyond an exceptionally well-maintained allotment.

When I first visited Val Joanis in spring the gardeners were hard at work finishing the winter pruning. The head gardener was operating secateurs with a battery pack on his back. I know what that kind of equipment costs. The battery alone will set you back as much as a dozen of the best secateurs that money can buy. Expensive kit. It tells me that the role of pruner and the importance of the job demand recognition with overtly expensive, top-of-the-range gear.18 Pruning matters terribly in France and is a language that many understand. It confirms the rightness of order and method and is an agreeable display of skills that have to be learnt and mastered. The British have access to exactly the same information but bypass them, mostly regarding pruning as at best a means to quite a different end and at worst a display of horticultural pedantry. In France, the pruning is part of the process that makes the product. A wine could not possibly taste so well if produced chaotically.

When I returned at the end of June, with the temperature rising above forty degrees and the cicadas roaring, the garden was made almost monochrome by the intensity of light and shade. The pruned bones were hidden by foliage and for all its fecundity the garden had lost some magic. It was like a fine-set face made puffy and bloated with years of ease. In March it was busy and working, whereas by the end of June everything was for show. Food grown for display never convinces. There must be need or pleasure, preferably both, to bring it fully to life.

But this is quibbling at the edges. It is a beautiful, impressive garden. The oaks and hornbeams, pruned to columns, cones and blocks, had a gravitas and solidity that was easy to overlook in spring. The lavender was almost hyper-real and extravagant, as though all northern-European lavender was merely a ghost of the real thing. Perovskia stood in rows like pale mauve bodyguards flanking espalier apples and pears and hollyhocks watching over the courgettes. It was as though the cottage garden had been reshuffled and the jumbled mix of flower and fruit and herbs lined up and straightened and set properly square.

You cannot visit a vineyard and pass judgements on its garden without at least trying its wine. I tried quite hard. The 2007 is a joy. Sitting beneath a pollarded plane in the courtyard, its black interior almost completely hollowed out, I thumped the trunk to hear its drumtone and a large indignant owl flew out.

After leaving Val Joanis I stayed the night in a modest hotel in Lourmarin. It was reasonably priced and both convenient and secluded. When travelling a lot, especially when filming, I stumble from hotel to hotel with a kind of resigned world-weariness. Part of me would love a beautiful room, fabulous view and luxury in every possible form. But another large part just wants it all to work and not be too noisy. Cleanliness, enough space to put my suitcase on the floor and still be able to move, a comfy bed, hot and cold running water and a flushing loo fulfil most needs.

My room in this establishment had deep red walls. The pictures on the wall hovered on the line between bad-taste eroticism and coy porn. I opened a drawer and revealed a range of dildoes in various sizes. In another were a set of handcuffs and a leather mask. It transpired that this was a swingers’ hotel and monthly gatherings were staged for couples from all over the country. I had been given the best room. Hence, I gathered, all the special extras.



I took the road from Lourmarin up into the hills through some of the loveliest countryside in Europe, slowing for a large wild boar that stood in the road, looked lazily at me and excreted thoughtfully before tipytoeing off in that high-heeled way even the fiercest pigs have. It led to the village of Bonnieux, whose houses tier down over the valley, across from the billows and mounds of blue distant hills. There is a kind of inevitability in these southern French villages with their cafés and boulangeries and dogs and elderly shoppers. They have worked out how they want to live and seen it through. To the northern visitor, seeing what they most want to see and glossing over the summer drought, difficulty in communication and all the inevitable restrictions of remote provincial life, it is tantalisingly, ravishingly ideal. The reason for going there was to visit one of the most perfect gardens in the whole of France and certainly the garden that most exactly captures the spirit of Provence. This garden is called La Louve.

I walked down a steep side street to a front door opening straight on to the road, knocked and walked into a hallway floored with gravel. That first touch – and crunchy sound – is the signal to pay attention. Something is happening here. It is unlike any other experience and already interesting and good.

It gets better. The garden is as complete and coherent as a garden could possibly be. It has the sureness of a perfect melody: you sing along, knowing exactly which note to hit, even though you are simultaneously surprised with the uniqueness of it all.

I have a standard routine when writing about a garden that I have visited. Whilst I am there I fire off photographs without any thought as to pictorial quality or lasting value. I am simply making notes alongside the scribbles in my notebook. The pictures are downloaded and the notes transcribed. It is all stored and sometimes hardly looked at for weeks or even months. During this time the memories mature and if, as often happens, I am visiting a dozen gardens in as many days, they meld and merge with just the clear defining characteristics remaining. When it comes to writing, I put all the pictures up on a screen and edit them down. I have two large screens on my desk and the idea is that one has the pictures and the other the words. Memory, research, photographs and notes are all plundered to try and distil the essence of the experience on to the page.

But with La Louve I found editing the pictures almost impossible. I usually quickly get it down to a hundred and then reduce that to fifty. The whole process is a good way to reacquaint oneself with the place and takes a leisurely ten minutes or so. With La Louve every image was stunning and seemed integral to the spirit of the place. Nothing at all was extraneous or conflicting. Of course it also means that one could choose any image almost at random and immediately have the garden complete and singular before you.

This is incredibly rare. I paid three visits to La Louve over the course of three months and each time found more to see and more to admire. Yet it is small, the planting contains little of horticultural, let alone botanical, interest, there is a very muted palette, hardly any flowers, and it was created and planted with almost wilful ignorance and neglect of basic horticultural wisdom. Thank God.

The garden was made between 1986 and 1996 by Nicole de Vesian, a fabric designer who, after retiring from working with Hermès, moved to the Lubéron to make a garden. She knew nothing at all about gardening but an awful lot about colour, shape, texture and style and had the wit to realise that the constituents of a good garden always owe more to good design than horticulture. So far so unremarkable. But Nicole de Vesian deliberately applied two other vital tenets to her garden. The first was to radically restrict her palette. No gaudy colours. She wanted her garden to be like an old tapestry so everything is muted, toned down, faded, washed out and weathered. Browns, sepias, greys, blues and greens. Stone, wood, earth. Not a blade of grass. Under a grey northern sky, that could easily slip from stylish to dreary, but under the brilliant Provençal light it is tonally rich and soothing. It also needs a very dry climate. Rain in this part of Provence is a refreshing treat. Weeks and weeks on end are guaranteed to be bone dry.

The restriction is also applied to plants. There is no attempt at horticultural bravado. There is nothing in the garden that might not be readily found in a hundred local gardens, nothing that is not comfortably at home. This is a deliberate and clever choice. Nicole composed her garden predominantly from plants that were either indigenous to the area, like lavender, rosemary, myrtle and teucrium, or ones that have made themselves at home over millennia, like euphorbia, cypress, box and bay.

The second piece of simple genius she applied was to respond directly to the shapes of the landscape. She set her little garden, clustered about with other houses and gardens, in the context of the furthest horizon and everything that lay between. The views are an integral part of the garden. This adds grandeur and scale to what is a very intimate, private space. The shrubs are clipped to reflect the curves of the hills and trees pruned to frame them. Garden designers often talk about ‘borrowed landscape’ (meaning a view) and usually imply pulling them into the garden as a bonus. Nicole de Vesian did almost the opposite, opening out her garden so that it becomes part of all that is around it without in any way being diminished.

It is extremely intimate. There are seats everywhere, although always in ones and twos. It is a garden for talk and contemplation, not big parties. The paths are narrow, clearly made as materials accumulated, and delightfully wonky. Every exit and entrance is just wide enough to pass through, brushing the scented foliage as you do so. There is nothing haphazard about this. It was all as precisely and meticulously made as the most ordered minimalist house or garden. Apparently Nicole chose the individual stones for each wall and kept a beady eye on them as they were made, often asking for courses to be rebuilt to suit her aesthetic standards. She did not plan the garden but assembled it, making it up as she went along, trusting her eye above all else. The thing she hated most was uniformity and you see this in every tiny detail, almost to the twigs on the ground. Every aspect is a still life, every plank of wood, stone, bush, step or branch tailored to be unlike its neighbour and yet working perfectly in harmony with it.

This could be exhausting. That it is not is tribute to the skill in creating and maintaining the garden where things seem to be incident and accident rather than over-meticulous performance.

There are few pots and there were none in Nicole’s time. She apparently hated them, along with geraniums, red, yellow and orange. I always give a quiet three cheers for this type of quirkiness even if it clashes directly with my own preferences. The more opinionated, individual and provoking a garden can be, the more interesting and stimulating it usually is.

There are three levels. The first, reached through the house, is gravelled, with a table and chairs, stone troughs, walls and balls. The seemingly random stonework is all held exactly in place by precise wedges and fillets – a sign that for all the easy informality an exact eye is at work. Tightly clipped shrubs of box, myrtle and rosemary jostle in the space beneath the shade of tall pines. This is a place to sit and read and eat and talk, where the house and garden flow to and fro between each other.

The second level is reached by very steep, very narrow steps and has a stone pool built against the corner of limestone rock that supports the walls of the road and the house, so that both seem to grow from deep underground. The water is crystalline and throws spangles of light and shadows of plants against the stone. Entrances and paths are made so narrow that if, like me, you are broadish of shoulder and beam, you have to squeeze through.19

The garden hems itself about you, aromatic, rustling, tactile, and then releases into new, open space. It is an old trick this, perfected on a monumental scale by Luis Barragán in his gardens in Mexico, compressing space right down in order that it can be expanded out again when previously there was either too much or too little room for that to work. But it is beautifully done with the simplest of means in La Louve and that simplicity is in itself inspirational. The paths are made of bits and pieces of stone, tile and cobbles, carefully selected stone by stone, like the walls, and equally carefully positioned in relationship to each other but laid simply on or in the earth so there is not a hint of slickness but oodles of style.

More steps lead down to the largest part of this small garden where hundreds of lavender plants are set in dry dusty soil, each plant a glaucous mound and the same size but clipped alternately. There is the nod towards a crop and the lavender fields of the village as well as the formality of seventeenth-century French gardens. Yet it is very simple and easy on the eye. Very sophisticated. Very elegant. Terribly French.

There is a rhythm and flow to everything, contained and positioned by the cut-off flat tops to the cypresses, stone walls, balustrade, table tops and steps. Almost all the vertical lines are curved, leaning or drawn with a meandering hand, whereas most horizontals are clean cut both in shape and direction, straight lines following the walls, steps, edge of the stone pool and the flat terraced levels like decks of a ship. On this very steep site, with most of the garden always either above or below you, it creates balance and harmony.

Nicole de Vesian loved gardens but was not a ‘good’ gardener in any conventional sense. There was apparently no soil preparation, no thought of making compost and plants were plonked in – usually much too close together – wherever she thought they might look best, without any regard to conventional wisdom on where or how the plant might thrive. There have been some problems as a result of this but surprisingly few. I have long thought we mollycoddle garden plants too much. They are tougher than we tend to give them credit for. The right plant in the right place is what matters, not the plant correctly grown regardless of how it relates to everything around it.

After ten years Nicole sold up to make a new garden – at the age of eighty – nearby.20 La Louve was bought by Judith Pilsbury, an American art dealer based in Paris, both as a southern second home and as a self-conscious work of art. From the outset she decided to curate the garden rather than make it her own in any way.

I asked Judith why she considered Nicole’s garden a work of art and what differentiates a beautiful, original garden from an artwork. Her answer was that although she treated it as art, it probably was not made as anything other than a garden. Nicole dressed, ate, designed fabrics – and gardens – with the same fastidious care and superb attention to detail. She could not help but be artistic. In that spirit some people make art from everything they touch, however functional it is or how prosaic in lesser hands. In general a work of art probably has to declare itself early on. It is not something to be anointed after the event. Art has to be a deliberate act.

This seemed fairly contradictory but she added that art in a garden is the province of childhood. We love the gardens of our early years and inevitably they are gardens that we are intimate with. All the best gardens have a strong influence of memory and innocence. They are our Eden. Everything after this aspires to that. But for certain, she said, botany has nothing to do with art and horticulture very little. Despite the oft-used cliché, you cannot ‘paint with flowers’ but you can definitely sculpt with plants: the one thing that Judith said she had learnt from La Louve is to clip and clip often.

Accepting a garden exactly as it happened to be when you first saw it would normally be a recipe for the kind of paralysis that you can see in some historic gardens in the UK, but La Louve seems to live and breathe independently of its owners. This might be a testament to the way that it transcends horticulture to become a work of art, but I guess that this is also because it still feels in a state of becoming rather than a finished work, and it is still relatively young. Most gardens hit their mature stride at about twelve years old and can comfortably hold that for another twenty years before any radical reassessment is needed.

Judith Pilsbury’s timing was spot on. She sold it in 2012, having enjoyed La Louve in its flying prime. Whether the new owners can continue to curate it as Nicole de Vesian’s garden remains to be seen. Perhaps it will be completely changed. Perhaps it will become something even more beautiful or spectacular. But it is hard to conceive how La Louve could be improved or fit so exactly into the spirit of the place. If it is to change, I am glad that I saw it when I did.

From La Louve I took a taxi to Avignon’s beautiful sleek upturned hull of a train station, had time for a coffee and caught the TGV right to the terminal at Charles de Gaulle airport. I was there inside three hours. It is perhaps the best travel experience to be had in Europe, and a very suitable way to end the visit to one of the best gardens I have ever seen.



At the western end of the Lubéron mountain range the land becomes richer and is filled with thousands of orchards, all immaculately pruned, no doubt for maximum productivity but with a flourish, like a dancer adding a twirl. I drove through at the end of March when the blossom was out and it was an extraordinary thing, field after narrow field of rows of sculpted trees posing in their pretty flowering dresses.

I paid a visit to the outdoor sculpture studio of Marc Nucera at Noves. Marc trained, in the way that the French would find completely natural and necessary, as a tree pruner, working in orchards. He then applied these skills to decorative pruning and topiary, taking the sliding curve from hedge trimming to topiary to land art in an easy stride. His mentor was the garden designer and land artist Alain David Idoux, who in turn was encouraged by Nicole de Vesian at La Louve. Marc continues working in topiary but also increasingly in wood and stone, financing his art by maintaining and overseeing various gardens for clients. That easy interplay between sculpture and horticulture would be more awkward and self-conscious in Britain. Ian Hamilton Finlay pulled it off at Little Sparta but on the whole we like our gardening ‘experts’ to be unsullied by anything as flaky as art.

Sculpture’s studios are always glamorous and exciting, littered with work half done, unsold or awaiting collection, the rawness of half-worked material hunkered and clustered in groups often better than an isolated, finished work. Marc’s studio covered a hectare, filled with work, often using trees that had died or fallen and were going to be turned into firewood. I use a chainsaw a great deal myself so am respectful of other people’s work. I know the process, know how the eye and muscles have to work. But there has been one huge problem for anyone wielding a chainsaw with creative intentions in the past thirty years, and that is the work of the sculptor David Nash. He outshines almost anyone else working in the same medium, so that much that is otherwise admirable seems a poor imitation of his work. He has carved a hole through which almost everything else passes. Also, chainsaw sculpture often looks surprisingly thin and inadequate outside. Nash’s work, which I admire beyond that of almost any other living artist, looks best within the white walls of a gallery. I once spent a day walking in the Forest of Dean Sculpture Trail and came across a carefully arranged mound of charred and pointed stumps in a clearing in the woods. It looked as much like the remnants of a bonfire as a piece of profound art and its impact was diffused and lost in the context of the trees around it. More sub-David Nash I thought. Just doesn’t measure up to the real thing. It turned out, of course, to be a piece by the great man.

I followed Marc on his motorbike, one soft-shoed foot trailing alarmingly just centimetres from the road, for half an hour south towards the Alpilles and a village called Eygalières. It is a region of farms converted into villas by wealthy eurobusinessmen, swimming pools replacing ponds and irrigated lawns herb-strewn meadows. He showed me a house called Mas Benoît where his sculptural topiary is much in evidence. He is amazingly good at it and the combination of the highly stylised, Japanese-influenced tightly clipped trees and shrubs and the loose, parched landscape works well. I later found out that Mas Benoît is very much part of the itinerary for all the tasteful garden tours that progress around Europe, usually led by a highly knowledgeable guide and often taken by people whose own gardens either do or could feature in such a tour, rather like nineteenth-century tours of cathedrals, but specialising in gardens that people would otherwise not have access to.

I was shown the huge spiral marked with olives and a thick, low stone wall, and the doughnuts of lavender clipped around the bases of the gnarled old trees in the farm’s olive grove, and the concept behind these things was explained at some length – although neither my French nor my concentration was good enough to remember quite what that concept was. But all that good taste and conceptual art did not amount to a good garden. Whereas La Louve was intimate, self-confident and felt as though the hand of its maker was everywhere, Mas Benoît – and I imagine so many other of these expensively laid-out and maintained gardens attached to the villas around it – felt installed and hollow. The skill, honesty and integrity are all there, the palette sophisticated and the plants work ecologically and environmentally with their surroundings. In short it has all the elements that well-informed, resourceful people draw upon when making ambitious modern gardens. But somehow the simple process of making a garden that exists for no other purpose than to please had got lost.

Of course I felt churlish even thinking these thoughts. Marc was utterly charming, went to great trouble and there is not a shred of cynicism in any of this work. And I loved some of the details of the topiary, such as the box that began clipped to form the backrest of a stone seat, then became bare stems before bursting out in loose, untrammelled foliage. This garden was my first brush with the French inclination to conceptualise and philosophise about the very practical. The idea of Mas Benoît was clearly the most interesting thing to everyone concerned and all the physical elements of the garden existed primarily to service those ideas. It seemed a long way from the instinctive, barely articulate intensity of Cézanne or Van Gogh that had drawn me to this region thirty years before.

A few kilometres west was Saint-Rémy, where Van Gogh stayed at the Saint Paul asylum in his madness, and beyond that Arles and the flat wetlands of the Camargue. I guiltily thanked Marc for all the trouble he had gone to, wished him well with his work and went west.



Encrusted on a promontory above the plain of the Alpilles is Les Beaux, whose position gave it military control of the area for millennia, with prehistoric occupation and a medieval population of over 3,000. This now numbers in the twenties. The castle was razed twice, in 1483 and again in the 1630s on the order of Cardinal Richelieu. What is left is a fossilisation of limestone and ruin, the ghosts of ramparts welded to geology. But it is beautiful and tourists do exactly as I did: wind up the hill, park and gawp and take pictures, stay a little and leave. Some stay and eat and get married – an elaborate wedding party was being prepared amongst the ruins when I was there – but the view is the thing.

From the battlements you look back over orchards and olive groves hedged by black cypresses to the Alpilles and across the Crau to Mont Sainte-Victoire like a lumpy liner on the horizon. Further south the marshy rice fields east of Arles peter out to the stony, dry, dead flat stretch across to Marseille. From this height all gardens are merged and invisible, the landscape defined by agriculture.

This is one of the oldest human landscapes in France, the flatlands of the Crau and the Rhône delta fanning up and away in all directions from the sea, with ancient drove roads moving vast flocks of cattle, sheep and goats away from the grass-shrivelled drought of the stony plain to the pastures of the Alps, Nice, the Cévennes and Cantal. Look down from Les Beaux one, two thousand years ago and it would have seemed much the same.

A tour arrived, a gaggle of the elderly all in beige blousons and bad shoes, so I slipped away. Not because I despised them but because they were what I could, and probably will, so nearly be.



My dear sister, I believe that at present we must paint nature’s rich and magnificent aspects; we need good cheer and happiness, hope and love.

The uglier, older, meaner, iller, poorer I get, the more I wish to take my revenge by doing brilliant colour, well arranged, resplendent.21

On my way down to Aix in autumn 1973 the train pulled in at Arles. That was pretty exciting, given that the only thing I knew about Arles was that it was where Van Gogh had exploded in fifteen months of artistic genius. This same railway line, the old PLM (the Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée railway that was replaced by the TGV), was the one that he, and Gaugin, took when travelling to the town, and his house at Place Lamartine – the famous Yellow House – was just a short walk, almost in sight, from the station where I was waking to southern light. But that really does not count as ‘visiting’ Arles.

My visit proper was in March 1975. We went to the amphitheatre where the bullfights are held and had a picnic against the walled ruins of the theatre. I was with my brother and two American friends, Guy and Abbie. My brother had been involved in a bad car smash and we were on a recuperative trip, and I was gathering and sorting the stuff I had hurriedly left in Aix a couple of months before. Guy and Abbie had their little daughter in a pushchair. They both wore red sweaters. I have no memory of that visit at all and only know that it happened because I have a picture taken by my brother. I have never seen or heard from Guy or Abbie since then and remember only that he was a lawyer from San Francisco who gave up his job to study French for a year and that I liked them both very much. Their daughter must be nearly forty now.

In fact, when I recently visited Arles in March I did so entirely under the impression that it was the first time I had been there and remained under that illusion until just before my next visit in midsummer, when I found the picture. The date is on the back of the photo: Wednesday, 26 March 1975. How many other places have I been to about which I can recall nothing at all? How many of the places I want to visit are triggered by memory rather than desire?

Thirty-seven years later to the day, I arrived in Arles in the dark, a modern traveller with no sense of place or direction. There was a road, buildings, lights. Just the ‘where’ of movement in time, but not place, that airports and chains of hotels inhabit. The hotel did its best to shatter that sense of anonymity by giving me a room across a yard and up a long flight of outdoor steps. It was small, damp and haunted. I never found out who the ghost was or looked like but I swear there was someone else in that room that night.

The next morning I was supposed to leave early but went in search of the hospital, Hôtel-Dieu, where Van Gogh was taken after severing his ear at the end of December 1888.22 It remained the main hospital in Arles right up to the mid-1970s and did not cease to be a medical institution till the mid-1980s. It is now a Cultural Centre.

Arles is one of those towns that swallows your footsteps and it is astonishingly easy to get lost. Clutching a postcard of Van Gogh’s painting The Courtyard of the Hospital at Arles and stopping to scrutinise the map every few streets, I found it eventually. The courtyard looked almost unchanged. Same paint, same layout, almost the same planting.23 But my grandfather was alive when Van Gogh painted it and I remember him much better than I recall Guy or Abbie.24 I am not sure which was made more real by the comparison – the hospital courtyard or the painting.

Van Gogh plundered and filleted Arles for the twentieth century, reducing every scene and street to a location or a simulacrum of the ‘real’ painting (almost invariably known through a reproduction). It is extraordinary when you consider that he was only there for fifteen months. He completed almost a work a day in that time, almost all of which were painted locally – within walking distance – from life. It was an artistic blitzkrieg, almost impossible to imagine or absorb, and in many ways it is better to go to Arles pushing Van Gogh from one’s mind or, better still, blissfully unaware of his existence or influence.25

Arles is dominated by the Rhône and the Rhône, at least to a British eye accustomed to a big river being measured by the Thames or Severn, is enormous, a great swathe of water cutting through the landscape, and the huge container ships add a hard industrial edge that makes Arles completely different to the holiday retreats of eastern Provence or even the land the other side of the Alpilles that is so comfortably and conveniently served by the TGV. Ironically, until the railway came, rivers were generally the quickest, safest, most comfortable and reliable way to travel around France and sailing down the Rhône from