Diarmuid Gavin Shares His Favourite Spot On The French Riviera

GARDENING GURU Diarmuid Gavin’s second home is a quaint hotel on the RIVIERA

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Villefranche-sur-Mer is a charming French Riviera coastal town four miles east of Nice and six miles from Monaco. I plan gardens in the area so I’ve occasion to be there possibly just for the day, or occasionally for weeks at a time.

Dating from the 14th-century, Villefranche is charm itself, falling down a hillside towards a port which may as well have been dreamed up in Hollywood. Once it was a remote destination but the arrival of the railway in the 18th century meant that the two-week journey from London to Nice was slashed to under 30 hours. What followed was an influx of European and Russian aristocracy, artists, the social elite and movie stars. Queen Victoria bumped into her first cousin, Belgian King Leopold II, on its little pebble beach. He was the owner of most of the area’s prized land; some of the priciest real estate in the world. 

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He sold parcels of his adjoining peninsula on Cap Ferrat to many aristocratic and wealthy acquaintances including Béatrice de Rothschild who built a bright pink château on the spit of the land’s most prominent position. Beatrice gathered 5,000 antiquities for the house and garden and had railway workers unload them onto the platform at Beaulieu train station. She then paraded up and down, dressed head-to-toe in pink, and pointed out her favourite pieces with her pink parasol … they were carted away to furnish her palatial abode!

The gardens were set out like a cruise liner and 30 gardeners in naval uniforms with red pompom hats tended to them in splendid fashion. The gardens’ lavish waterworks danced to jaunty tunes way before Las Vegas thought of the idea and Beatrice’s parties were legendary.

Others who were fond of a party in later decades were the Rolling Stones who recorded Exile on Main Street during a drug-fuelled spree at the nearby Villa Nellcote, rented for a season by Keith Richards. It’s now worth in excess of €120 million.

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But my home in the area is quieter than that. Four generations of the Galbois family have run The Welcome Hotel, a wonderful waterside property where all guests are treated like royalty. It’s not huge … just 35 rooms, each with an intoxicating sea view and a quaint balcony for morning coffee or an evening apéritif.

Churchill, Jean Cocteau and hordes of Californian stars have stayed there. Cocteau kept two rooms in the 1950s while he painted the tiny 14th-century chapel, Chapelle St-Pierre, across the road. The hotel still has many reminders of his tenure, with Cocteau murals in hallways and in an elevator, as well as specially-commissioned themed crockery.

My time in the area comes in waves… when I’m dreaming, planting or visiting. Now, I have new gardens to create in the area, and a member of the family has just set up home there and announced that a little French baby is due … so the Riviera has become closer to being home than I ever imagined.

The Welcome Hotel, 3 Quai Amiral Courbet, 06230 Villefranche-sur-Mer, France, 00 33 4 93 76 27 57; www.welcomehotel.com.

This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this don’t miss our next issue, out Thursday May 4.

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