Provençal Escape

A Garden of Eden on the French Riviera

Nestled at the foot of the Massif des Maures between Le Lavandou and Saint-Tropez, and boasting Art Deco architecture in a vast, landscaped, Mediterranean garden overlooking the sea, the Domaine du Rayol only reveals its secrets to those who truly love the Côte d’Azur. An absolute must-see for anyone staying in the Var.
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The Domaine du Rayol, on the French Riviera, overlooks the turquoise-blue water of the Mediterranean Sea. © Guillaume Exer

The coast shifts from turquoise to indigo depending on the weather, and was only populated relatively recently. For many centuries, the imposing Maures mountain range saw off any attempts at settling. The sea and sheer cliffs were too intimidating for fishermen, and the inland forests were impenetrable and too silent for farmers. It was not until 1890 and the advent of the train between Hyères and Saint-Raphaël that the true splendor of this area came to light.

Now a highly sought-after location, the Corniche des Maures has inspired passion and speculation among businessmen and titans of industry. The first to succumb to its beauty was Alfred Théodore Augustin Courmes, an entrepreneur, prolific traveler, and well-known figure in Parisian high-society. He made investments in the French colonies for different companies, acquiring mines, farmland, and forests, but his dreams were filled with the excitement of the open sea. He soon bought a fifty-acre estate on the coast and built the region’s first villa, the Hôtel de la Mer, in 1912. He added a superb garden filled with the most popular exotic plants of the day, including araucarias, palm trees, Barbary figs, acacias, and eucalyptus. But his wife hated the project, finding it far too grand and pompous. She would have much preferred a humble farmhouse hidden away in the estate’s pine forests, and decided to build Le Rayolet, a more modest villa, on the property’s eastern headland.

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Thérèse and Alfred Courmes in front of their farm, 1912. © Chouanard Private Archives
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The Hôtel de la Mer, built in 1912, is representative of classically-inspired seaside architecture. The Conservatoire du Littoral has launched a fundraising campaign to restore the building in 2022. © Goscha Coutellier

After Courmes died (heirless) in 1934, the estate fell into disrepair – until it was acquired in 1940 by Henry Potez, a pioneer in the aeronautical industry and the partner of aircraft manufacturer Marcel Dassault. He moved in and launched a full-scale renovation. Le Rayolet was transformed into a villa bathed in sunlight overlooking the surrounding landscape. The Potez family also took over the beach below the estate. As an engineer and modern art collector, Potez wanted to create gardens with spectacular views, and built a large staircase lined with cypress trees and Aleppo pines running down from the pergola. A series of small geometric gardens sprang up all over the place, in a style reminiscent of the future dry gardens made with stones and plants that seem more decorative than alive. To top it all off, he added a collection of rare plants to the estate, including some 400 exotic species.

When the Conservatoire du Littoral – a public body tasked with protecting the French coasts – purchased the land to protect it from a property development project in 1989, landscape designer Gilles Clément transformed the hilly site sloping down to the sea into the “Mediterranean Gardens.” Working with total creative freedom, the gardener was never above getting his hands dirty, and designed a pathway inspired by the plants, landscapes, colors, and fragrances of all the world’s regions that share a Mediterranean climate and vegetation.

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The esplanade of the Hôtel de la Mer and on the horizon, the islands of Port-Cros and Levant. © Marco Strullu

From California to New Zealand

You won’t find flowerbeds festooned with intricate box-tree motifs, and no sculpted plants or symmetrical lines like at Versailles, Vaux-le-Vicomte, or Cheverny. Gilles Clément is totally against what he sees as an overly aestheticizing vision. The landscape designer also works as a botanist, biologist, and even entomologist, and he rejects the “clashing energies” of thoughtlessly imported plants.

In line with his own high standards, he only selects plants that are perfectly adapted to the weather and the soil. By constantly clearing, planting, sowing, and organizing, he uses a network of discreet, interlinking, shaded paths to offer a journey through the multiple facets of the Mediterranean world, from Mexican and Australian gardens to palm groves, the savanna, and a valley of tree ferns from New Zealand. Astonished visitors will discover Spanish oleanders, North African date palms, dracaenas from the Canary Islands, and glades of vines and cactus.

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The New Zealand Garden and its luxuriant tree ferns. © Goscha Coutellier
The pergola, between the South African Garden and the Australian Garden. © Chloé Arregoces

After a dozen gardens filled with the scent of pine and the sound of cicadas, the experience ends with the sea and a sandy beach hewn from the steep, rocky coastline. As if the beauty of the marine landscape was the rambler’s ultimate reward, after the step-by-step discovery of an almost untouched nature, showcasing how the living world has become a part of the surroundings. True to his work as an ecologist, Gilles Clément also dreamed of including the “gardens” below the surface of the water, which abound with vast prairies of sea grass. And his dream came true! Visitors can now book guided tours, complete with snorkels and masks, to admire the wealth of underwater fauna and flora.

Green-thumbed gardeners can buy seeds and cuttings of the estate’s iconic plants at the nursery next to the Hôtel de la Mer bookshop, and Art Deco enthusiasts will love visiting the salons and the Modernist bathroom at Villa Le Rayolet. Meanwhile, La Ferme and the Café des Jardiniers offer an extension of the gardens with fresh, organic dishes crafted with local produce. The Ancient Greeks defined happiness as a blend of what is beautiful (kalos) and good (agathos). Needless to say, they would have been overjoyed at the Domaine du Rayol!

 

Article published in the November 2021 issue of France-Amérique. S’abonner au magazine.

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