17 September 2011

Jardin Exotique

Perched high above Port de Fontvieille in Monaco, with views of the French and Italian Rivieras, there is the Monegasque Exotic Garden. Opened in 1933, it was the brainchild of Prince Albert I (dubbed "Prince Savant") and took twenty years to create. A large number of the plants were already hanging around, part of a collection housed in the principality since the 19th century. Today, there are over 1000 different species in the tiered, cliff-side garden.
Something that's surprised us about this country is its lushness. Plants are everywhere and there's at least ten different parks and gardens scattered around - but none like the Jardin Exotique. It feels like a botanic garden, an art museum and a safari rolled into one. The plants may originate from the Americas, Asia and Africa, but most have been living right there in Monaco for so long that you're - in a sense - seeing them in their natural habitats. The original plants in the collection are still thriving over a hundred years later.
Unlike most gardens, these plants flower at varying times of the year and, even, of the day. They are succulents - plants that store water, like agave and cactus. They are hardy, resilient colonizers that know how to survive in tough environments. There wasn't an overwhelming amount of signage in the garden, but just enough to give you an appreciation for what you were looking at. Many of these species are greatly endangered in their country of origin, due to urban, industrial and agricultural influences. To a large extent, this is a conservatory and it feels almost encyclopedic in its variety.
The thing about succulents - they are just so darn fun to look at. I'm not knocking roses or anything, but, as Gertrude Stein once said, "a rose is a rose is a rose." Here, most of the scenery felt brand new. Some plants are downright sculptural and the textures are unbelievable. Some look like enormous flowers, some look like they're covered in burgundy velvet. Some are as small as a baseball, others reach as high as a chestnut tree. Some hang from above, with their roots floating in pond water.
So many gardens that I've been to have seemed too organized, too curated, too spaced out to really build a sense of environment. That is absolutely not the case here, where you're not as worried about trampling a flower than you are of one drawing blood if you get too near. That is, I think, it's most appealing feature. These plants are every bit as beautiful to look at, but have a sort of inherent strength. You completely forget that someone planted them. You're in their world, they're not on show in yours.
Over 21 million visitors have walked through the Exotic Garden, according to its posted statistics. A few choice cacti bore evidence of the people that had come before; names were scrawled, scratched into their skin. Twenty one million is just a fraction of the people who have gone to Monte Carlo casino or the prince's palace. Overflow from the Carnival cruise line parked in the main port didn't find its way up here. On a hot Saturday, it was one of the least congested places we'd visited, but there was still a good amount of activity.
Merlin took some great black and white shots of a trio of cacti standing tall, against the blank sky - but I felt like it gave a sense of barrenness or desolation that simply doesn't exist in the space. It s about as similar to a dessert as an aquarium is to the ocean. In a lot of ways, it feels overgrown and congested. You walk across faux wooden bridges and down staircases with exotic plants all around you at all times. But, still, when you look down at the rest of Monaco, you feel a sort of bizarre tranquility - up, on the top of a cliff, surrounded by a rare world of plants.

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