The recent French Gardens programme by Monty Don has been a real treat. Stunning gardens and scenery and an engaging presenter . . . oh, and lots of sunshine. For an hour I was transported to somewhere warmer and sunnier. In fact, the only downside to the programme was that when it finished, the reality of it actually being February returned. I can imagine bookings of French holidays have increased as a result of the programme.
I’ve been captivated by France for a long time now. I studied French at A’ level and was introduced to the delights of French literature and film. I was less enamoured by French TV which my teacher would record and make me watch in class. These programmes were generally hosted by Antoine de Caunes, (he of Eurotrash and Rapido fame), and were bizarre to say the least. It didn’t help that I only understood every few words and the content was generally so distracting I don’t think it did anything to boost my vocabulary.
Despite being fascinated by the country I’ve only ever been to France once. My one and only Gallic experience was whilst at university. I was nursing a broken heart and a couple of friends invited me along on a short break to Paris to cheer me up. Admittedly three days in the capital city of romance with three platonic friends, visiting the classic tourist sites and being surrounded by loved-up couples might not seem like the obvious way to get over heartbreak. It did the trick though.
Monty’s programme brought back happy memories. Back then, at the age of 20, gardening wasn’t the all-consuming passion it is now but two of the strongest memories I have of the trip are plant related. I was so surprised that Paris was such a green city, which wasn’t my experience of British urban areas. There were trees everywhere you went, lining the boulevards and giving Paris a light and airy feel even in the heat of summer. It seems, thanks to the imagination of botanist and garden designer Patrick Blanc, who creates incredible green walls, Paris is now even greener than when I visited in the late nineties.
My other memory is of Versailles. Our visit there hadn’t been planned. We were at a Metro station and discovered we could get to the palace from there and for a few francs. So off we went. It was a blisteringly hot day and for some reason we didn’t actually go inside the Palace, instead we wandered around the back and were greeted by the jaw-dropping sight that stretched out in front of us. It was the sheer scale of the enormousness of the clipped hedges, the boating lakes, the planting, everything. It was as if the garden had been created for giants. It took our breath away and it all went on for miles and miles. People were dwarfed by the vast proportions and looked like ants. Since then, I’ve seen gardens that are more beautiful than Versailles, but for sheer grandeur nothing has matched it.
It’s strange how some memories stand out. I dug out some old photos when I thought about writing this post and couldn’t remember other aspects of the trip but that afternoon at Versailles has stayed with me. The blue skies, the heat and lying on the grass of the vast avenue listening to a French radio station on my Walkman. I had one earphone, my friend Faiz had the other and Children by Robert Miles was playing as we stared out across the scene in front of us. When I hear that track now I’m immediately transported back to Versailles.
Monty’s series has awakened a desire to return to France and particularly to Provence. I read the books Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources by Marcel Pagnol for my A’ level. Set in Provence, Pagnol captures so evocatively the sights and sounds of the countryside. He was born in the area and his love of the landscape and flora and fauna is obvious from his descriptions. Jean de Florette, and it’s sequel Manon are tales of struggle and revenge and follow a man and his family when they move back to his home village to farm the land. They are wonderfully crafted stories which were turned into films in the 1980s.
Directed by Claude Berrie, the cinematography is sublime. You can almost smell the lavender and the sun-baked ground. Gerard Depardieu plays the title role, Jean and with the poignant music , they are perfection for me, in terms of film. I don’t want to give away the story for those who may want to watch the films or read the books but everyone who has grown their own will understand something of the struggle Jean faces. There is a scene in the film where Jean is tormented by the rain and the effect it is having on his crops. It’s a scene all growers will empathise with. Ever since I read these books it has been my dream to visit the area. Nearly 20 years later and I have yet to go, but maybe Monty’s programme has ignited the desire enough for me to actually start planning a trip. Wellyman quite likes the idea of hiring a 2CV but is less keen on copying the youthful Monty wearing a beret.
English translations are available of Marcel Pagnol’s books and the films are still available on DVD. They have subtitles and I can’t recommend them highly enough.
One final recommendation. For a witty and cheeky take on Monty’s recent series take a look at The Sea of Immeasurable Gravy blog, it will make you giggle.