Spring is a spectacular, if somewhat short-lived season in Provence, particularly after the unusually cold winter we have had. But now that the merry month of May is here at last, fields begin to gleam with deep-red poppies, woods are aglow with magenta-flowered Judas trees and the underbrush is honey-scented from the long-lasting yellow blooms of coronilla, a self-seeding shrub that flourishes on complete neglect.
To celebrate the flowers that bloom in the spring, we have picked a fragrant nosegay of flower gardens, interspersed with a few flower festivals, for you to visit. Stroll through their rich floral displays, inhale their heady perfumes and hum the Mikado, if you wish.
We begin our garden tour across the river from Avignon, the city of the popes, in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, where the cardinals took up residence in the 14th C. The white stone ramparts of the St. André fortress, which crowns the town, hide a serene, flowering oasis. The 1,000-year-old Abbaye Saint-André (04 90 25 55 95); open daily except Mon, sheltered a female hermit, Sainte Casarie, in the 6th C, then a community of Benedictine monks in the 11th C, before being destroyed in great part during the French Revolution.
The current owner, Roseline Bacou, a petite lady of inexhaustible energy and timeless elegance, has brought both the abbey and its garden back to life. It is one of the loveliest country gardens of Provence, densely planted with such typical flowers as wisteria, irises, white Lady Banks roses and lavender. It also has some magnificent olive trees over a hundred years old, among the rare survivors of the deadly spring frost of 1956, and offers a sublime view over the Popes’ Palace, particularly at sunset.
In the rolling hills of the Durance valley north of Aix-en-Provence, Château Val Joanis (04 90 79 20 77); entrance free of charge; open daily, on the outskirts of Pertuis, combines the attraction of a 500-acre vineyard that welcomes visitors, with splendid gardens that do the same. The 16th C house and estate, bought by the Chancel family in 1978, produced its first wine harvest in 1981, the same year in which Madame Chancel, a passionate gardener, started creating a 19th C terraced garden that mixes fruit, flowers and vegetables in an exuberant, yet carefully designed quilt of many colours.The first of the three terraces is mainly given over to herbs and vegetables, with some flowers intermingled, to create a dominant palette of blue and white. The second terrace is a glorious explosion of flowers: roses, irises, golden yarrow, sages, peonies, whatever takes Madame’s fancy. The third terrace showcases ornamental shrubs and trees, and all three are linked by a long arbour - once used for ostrich races! - draped in a riot of rambling roses.
From Pertuis, it takes only half an hour to reach Marseille. Just a short drive (if you avoid rush hour), along the coastal road leading eastward out of the city, gives you sweeping views of the ever-changing, always beautiful moods and complexions of the sea and brings you to the 42-acre Parc Borély (04 91 55 25 51). The most visited green space in Marseille, its charm lies in the contrast of a 19th C English-style park, with sweeping lawns and specimen trees, with a formal French garden laid out around a handsome 18th C château. A botanical garden, which added a Chinese section in 2004 and is continuing the Oriental theme with a new Japanese garden this year, a lake with a waterfall, a rose collection of 1,200 different varieties and a tropical greenhouse are additional reasons for its great popularity