BY CHERYL ANDERSON
My one and only visit to Fontana Rosa was in 1998. It had become a Historical Monument in 1990, hence it was on my list of what to see in my early days visiting Menton, France. The Spanish tilework captured my attention and thankfully there were many still unbroken. I see on the Internet, there has been a lot of restoration and it’s now less overgrown but still a lot remains to be done. I would say another visit is called for to see just what has been restored in the decades since I laid eyes on it.
My pictures reveal that it was in significant disrepair in the late ‘90s. I could see that the possibilities to bring it back to its former glory were endless. At that time, I was able to walk right onto the grounds, but now you have to make arrangements for a guided tour (Monday and Friday, 10:00-11:30).
Vincente Blasco Ibáñez (1869-1928) was a Spanish writer, born in Valencia (the setting for many of his novels) and the creator of the garden La Villa Fontana Rosa. The style is a combination of belle époque with elements of Andalusian and Arabian-Persian influence. He and his second wife, Elena, began their life in Menton, creating the garden in 1922. Sadly, he only lived there for six years before he died.
During Ibáñez’s years in Menton, he spent his days writing and watching his garden grow. His novel, Mare Nostrum, was written there in 1916. Ten years later, it was made into a silent film by Metro-Goldwyn (remade in 1948 as a “talkie”). He came to love the Mediterranean sunshine and its way of life.
Branching out from only writing novels, he began to write about travel. Most notably, La vuelta al mundo de un Novalista, the three-volume work about his exploration. Writers from all around came to Fontana Rosa, with its Moorish Iberia feel, to relax, stroll around in the shady groves, marvel at the huge structures, socialize with Ibáñez, and, I would imagine, have very literary discussions. The artist Jean Cocteau was a frequent visitor.
The main house, Villa Emilia, dating from the 19th century, sits on the lower part of the property. In the garden of architecture, there’s an aquarium, a colonnade, a concrete pergola, pillars of course, flower vases, ceramic-paneled benches around the main house, and a round steel pergola over a long staircase in the middle of the property. I am not able to say which of the buildings are currently open to the public. Perhaps now with guided tours a few are at the ready for viewing.
Among the plants brought in by Ibáñez were Ficus macrophylla, Arancaria heterophylla, palm trees, banana trees, and roses—there wasn’t much of a garden when I saw it except for trees and huge structures, Spanish and Menton pottery throughout. I am still amazed that bananas grow there!
Three tall white stone walls comprise the impressive entryway surrounding the double doors in the center of it all. The words Le Jardin des Romanciers are on the left wall. In the center above the words Fontana Rosa reads El Jardin de los Novelistas. On the right wall: “The Garden of Novelists.” These words declare the spirit with which the garden was created.
Especially pretty are the banners of tiles with roses accented by a bright aqua color running along the tops of each wall. The entryway is impressive, inviting you to see what is on the other side. At the very top of the archway are three blue and white tiles with the faces of Honoré Balzac, William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, among his favorite authors. Busts of Balzac, Shakespeare, and Miguel de Cervantes appear on pillars, rotundas, and fountains dotting the property. As a writer, Ibáñez was passionate about other writers. His garden was his way to honor them.
His son inherited the land after Ibáñez’s death. It was sacked in 1939 during the World War II and stood abandoned for thirty years. In 1970 the property was given to the Italianate commune of Menton by the family, renovations and restoration on the buildings starting in 1985, and in 1991, attention being focused on its spectacular pottery.
I consider Fontana Rosa a hidden gem and well worth a visit, one of the many remarkable gardens on the Côte d’Azur. Restorations take a lot of money, labor, and time. Its condition as it stands now is considerably more beautiful with plant life and repair that wasn’t there in 1998.I am eager to return to Vincente Blasco Ibáñez’s garden. He had a big dream, and we are fortunate to be able to visit his testament to what he was most passionate about: nature and the novelist.
Villa Fontana Rosa
6 Avenue Blasco Ibáñez
+33 4 89 81 52 70