BY CHERYL ANDERSON
As common as hydrangeas in the American South, olive trees dot the South of France, whether they stand alone in private gardens or en masse in majestic groves. Olive trees are loved, considered sacred by some, protected, respected, and the land is preserved where they grow in great numbers.
I’ve spent time in groves of olive trees where quiet surrounds me, marveling at the uniqueness of each of the trees, one hundred years old or more and they’re still standing. In my mind, they’re one of nature’s greatest treasures—nature’s works of art.
I never tire sitting on a bench in the Parc du Cap Martin, in the coastal town of Cap Martin, amongst the olive trees or walking around closely observing the magnificence of the trees.
After communing with les oliviers, I continue along the cobbled walkway to the sculpture garden and children’s play area, slowly wandering along the pathways and enjoying the view. The sculptures change most every year, however, some disappear and reappear another year. Perched among the trees is a small Coco Chanel sculpture, honoring her legacy—she was a moving force on the Cote d’Azur in her day—as well a modern red sculpture of Princess Grace. I happened to be in the park when her son, the Prince of Monaco, was present for the dedication.
I’ve walked through le parc many, many times over the years when it’s been deserted and at other times hosting birthday parties, yoga or exercise classes, and lectures to small groups or school children on class outings. While no dogs are allowed in the main park, handily, there is a dedicated dog park directly adjacent, by the back gate.
After taking it all in, I have a coffee and a bite to eat at the boulangerie across the street, opposite the Parc du Cap’s main entrance with its heavy wrought iron gates. Next door is a tabac where you can buy a newspaper and sundry. The park is a perfect place to read the paper under the shade of its famous trees.
Olive trees were often the subject of the Impressionist painters like Renoir, who captured the magnificent olive trees of his last home, Les Collettes on his canvases. Even I was moved to paint a picture of an olive tree growing on the grounds!
From his window, the artist had a perfect vantage point to feast his eyes upon the charming garden fronting his small villa in Haut-de-Cagnes—a perfect spot for a leisurely stroll. There’s a particularly magnificent specimen on the vast property—quite amazing. See if you can find it. A word of warning: if you intend to visit, be aware the house and grounds close promptly at noon sharp and may or may not open again later in the afternoon.
When I lived in Spain, I saw olive trees in abundance, but it wasn’t until I experienced the groves in the South of France that I fully appreciated their majesty. The first time was in 1994, sitting in the L’Olivaie du Pian, av. Blasco Ibanez in Menton, France, amongst 500 one-hundred-year-old trees. I stayed in the apartment next door to my friend that lived close by, in the vieille ville (old town) of Menton, related to me that she used to take her two girls there to play and have picnics. I’m sure families still do so. My friend’s girls remember very happy times spent there in the pian.
Long ago, Feraldo de Castro was the owner of this swath of the very old olive trees rolling down the hill from Blvd. de Garavan. He generously donated it to the village of Menton. His generosity is the sole reason it’s a beautiful park and not an apartment building—or two—on prime real estate on the Cote d’Azur overlooking the sea.
The olive tree provides shade when it’s hot, very tasty fruit after processing, and, of course, oil. Quoting the famed chef Alain Ducasse in Provence of Alain Ducasse, olive oil is the “thread leading straight to the heart of your cuisine.” It’s with reverence he speaks about olive oil: its simplicity, its importance. I’ve had the pleasure to taste the “thread” in his cuisine at his restaurants, La Bastide de Moustiers and L’Hostellerie de l’Abbaye de la Celle, in Paris and Monaco.
When I am close to an olive tree, I feel as if I am in the presence of great wisdom. I mean, they are so old one can only imagine what they have been witness to. Their trunks oft times look as though there has been a struggle. But while they may appear gnarled below, their grey-green leaves spring up like a soft toque above.
Rather than braided stalks or bunches of lavender, try olive branches tied together—they are just as elegant and just as decorative (and far more interesting). Once I gave a small olive tree in a pot to a friend in Cap Martin. They’re available in a variety of ages in the same shop in Menton every year in little pots. Temptation is great to bring one home to watch grow in a sunny window.
In the meantime, here’s an idea for an adventure: participate in harvesting olives. There are olive tree farms in France that allow you to “help.” The harvesting season is between October and February, depending on the region. This fall, why not get to know le olivier and become a part of its storied history?