Sunday, 13 July 2008

The green, green grass of home

I’ve just spent a wonderfully lazy week in the south of France and it was great. I loved the picturesque sea views, the craggy coastline, the neat vineyards and colourful flowers. But arriving back I realise one of the things I love most about England - the green landscape. And after all the rain we’ve had here it’s a very GREEN landscape.

One of the pleasures of travel for me is to see the gardens of the area I’m visiting. We were staying about half an hour from St Tropez but, although well known for its lavender and olives, it's not an area well known for gardens.

In the small hillside towns you can glimpse the most charming little courtyards – all the more intriguing for having to peer over walls to see them. Clipped evergreens grow in containers, geraniums on doorsteps or in window boxes, bougainvillea smothers walls, oleander bushes line the roads, plumbago tumbles over fences and wisteria clothes facades: all very colourful and pretty.

But there are few, if any, gardens open to the public, unlike further along the coast near Nice. Before I left I did check in my little book on the gardens of France if there was anything close that we could visit and the only thing that came up was a garden on the Iles de Porquerolles, close to Hyeres.

Of course we did visit it and an excellent day out it was too: very worthily the French State has bought up most of the island of Porquerolles and it is now a Parc National. The island – which has woods, orchards and vineyards as well as beaches, a marina and village with a beautiful place and lots of restaurants and cafes - allows no cars and no development. The Conservatoir Botanique National de Porquerolles protects the environment and also the ecology of the island. They are doing everything they can to be as ‘green’ as they can, including using only organic methods of weed and pest control.

The island is on the same latitude as Cap Corse (daily sunshine and very mild winters) and a ‘Mediterranean Garden’ has been established there to show what plants can be grown in such a climate. If you want to find out what plants will survive and flourish then this is the place to find examples of them. But, although of horticultural importance, it is not a pleasure garden that anyone would visit to see how beautiful French gardens can be.

It’s the bare, brown earth - parched and dry - that leaves me cold, that and the lack of lush greenery. But it doesn’t have to be green underfoot: I can happily live with only gravel instead of grass but there has to be plenty of other green - whether on trees, plants or hedges - to fill the space. I’m obviously conditioned to green.

Before I went away I was desperate for some sunshine, it’s so very cheering as well as warming. And I got plenty of sun - recharged my battery – and loved opening the windows each morning to a beautiful blue and cloudless sky. But, returning to the inevitable rain I gave a very Gallic shrug, tans pis, this is why it’s so very refreshingly green here. There’s nothing quite like the green grass of home.


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