Discovering Fontana Rosa
by Nicky Gardner
It is more than forty years since the Ibáñez family gave Fontana Rosa to the town of Menton. Vincente Blasco-Ibáñez was a creature of the Mediterranean – though he spent a good part of his life deprived of Mediterranean sunshine, either in exile or in prison. Ibáñez was born in Valencia, and many of his novels are set in the Valencia region. He spent the final six years of his life in Menton, the most Italianate of the French Riviera towns, and during those last years his creative energy took a different turn. He dabbled in travel writing. Indeed his La vuelta al mundo de un novelista, a three-volume account of Ibáñez’ travels deserves to be much better known.
But Ibáñez did more than write during those Menton years. At Fontana Rosa, he created El Jardin de los Novelistas (The Garden of Novelists). Belle époque style and cool Spanish tile-work combined to make Fontana Rosa a place full of promise. Writers came from near and far to relax in the gardens, to socialise in this little fragment of Moorish Iberia, and to walk shady groves decorated with busts of those most admired by Ibáñez: Cervantes, Balzac, Shakespeare and more.
Since Ibáñez’ death in 1928, the gardens have declined. In 1970, they were given to the Menton civic authorities, who simply failed to appreciate their literary significance and allowed Fontana Rosa to slip even further into deep decay. Menton is a community blessed with many fabulous gardens: Le Val Rahmeh and Serre de la Madone are just two of more than a dozen world-class gardens in and around the French town.
I have often walked past Fontana Rosa, climbing on walls to get a glimpse into the overgrown estate and on one occasion in 2009 I used the serendipitous discovery of an open gate to take a peek inside. Clearly there was a little bit of renovation work taking place, but the gardens remained firmly closed to the public. So the good news is that when I took a look this summer, I was pleased to see that El Jardin de los Novelistas is now open to the public again. This season it was open twice weekly (on Mondays and Fridays). And the word is that the opening was a great success and looks set to continue during spring and summer 2012.
The garden is on Avenue Blasco-Ibáñez, just at the west end of Menton Garavan train station, a port-of-call that itself boasts some impressive literary connections. Overlooking the east end of the same railway platform is the former house of Katherine Mansfield, the celebrated New Zealand short story writer who sought in Menton some respite from her tuberculosis.
The author is editor of hidden europe magazine (www.hiddeneurope.co.uk) and writes regularly on the literary associations of places across Europe. She lives in Berlin.