France: The Bizarre Look Of The Unusual Les Jardins d’Etretat Garden

Mesmerizing, unique, and beautiful, The Étretat Gardens, with the giant sculptures of human-faced rocks, is one of the most well-known tourist destinations in France.

Photo:  Rouen Normandie Tourisme & Congrès
Photo: Rouen Normandie Tourisme & Congrès

The Étretat Gardens (French: Les Jardins D’Étretat) is a cliff-top experimental garden with “living sculptures” in Étretat, Normandy, France. It surrounds a villa that once belonged to Madame Thébault, an actress from Paris, in the beginning of the 20th century. More than a century later, the garden was restored by a team led by the Russian landscape architect Alexander Grivko of the British garden design and landscaping company IL Nature, who was inspired by the flora of the Normandy coast. It was reopened to the public in 2017.

Grivko was awarded the 2019/2020 European Garden Award in “Best restoration or development of a historic park or garden” category for his work. The Étretat Gardens are listed among “Great Gardens of the World” and also received a star from the Michelin Green Guide.

The origin of the garden

Photo:  EGHN
Photo: EGHN

Inspired by the impressionist and enthusiastic gardener Claude Monet, the garden was originally created for the famous French actress Madame Thébault, with the first tree planted in 1903. Monet had determined the general mood of the garden, which has been carefully preserved to this day. The main terrace of Les Jardins d’Étretat sits on the renowned cliff d’Amont, where the artist used to spend many hours on his canvases – a series of paintings and sketches known as ‘Les Falaises d’Étretat’.

In 2015, Alexandre Grivko and his talented team of architects recreated the historical landscape. Les Jardins d’Étretat expanded their borders, hosted new objets d’art and were given new life. The value of this project lies in the unification of historical elements of the Villa Roxelana garden and modern ideas – the result is a fully-fledged architectural object ripe with neo-futuristic vision.

Photo:  Robb Report Vietnam
Photo: Robb Report Vietnam

Les Jardins d’Étretat is an experimental artistic laboratory which primarily seeks to identify new plant care technology and new forms of trimmed compositions for spatial planning. Large-scale trimmed plants provide the material for the garden’s neo-futuristic compositions and images: the eternal organism of the ocean with its own dynamic, spirals and whirlpools; troubled waves; and the cliffs and arches of Normandy’s alabaster coast. Les Jardins d’Étretat not only draw attention to the biodiversity and natural beauty of the ecosystem, but also demonstrate new architectural methods in the art of landscaping.

The garden also forms a modern art museum under the open sky of Normandy. The museum has main and temporary exhibitions. The main modern sculpture exhibition forms an indivisible architectural base, without which, the meaning, drama, general mood and artistic integrity would be lost. This exhibition emphasises the striking individuality of Les Jardins d’Étretat in the world of landscaping art.

What to see at Les Jardins D’Étretat

Photo:  Tiqets
Photo: Tiqets

1. Jardin Avatar

Jardin Avatar is situated at the entrance to Les Jardins d’Étretat. Avatar was the Sanskrit title of the guardian of the Universe, who permeated it with his divine presence. Jardin Avatar is a gateway that leads visitors beyond the bounds of reality, into the magical realm of surrealism. There even trees make their music. Strikingly trimmed plants beckon the visitor to step into a fairytale where anyone can find a path to their own Avatar.

The installation Clockwork Forest was created by Greyworld, a British group of artists best known for its public-activated art, sculpture and interactive installations in public spaces. Clockwork Forest is the first chapter in the new fairy-tale yet to be told. Turn the key, and a clockwork melody will accompany your every step, as you wander through this magical garden.

This installation, made from a plastic membrane by St. Petersburg-based artist Alyona Kogan was commissioned especially for Les Jardins d’Étretat. The installation transforms a clifftop into a seabed, instantly changing the viewing angle and recalibrating the scale of its surroundings.

2. Jardin Émotions

Photo:  Normandie Tourisme
Photo: Normandie Tourisme

The Jardin Émotions was modelled after the first French oyster farm, which was owned by Queen Marie Antoinette, and lies at the foot of Les Jardin d’Étretat in the waters of the English Channel. The vision of the ocean floor became the main inspiration for this garden. The trimmed plants echo the landscapes of the underwater world and the oysters’ habitat. It is also home to a set of expressively sculpted faces. The sculptures capture the entire range of emotions and symbolise the various “moods“ of the ocean and its inhabitants.

3. Jardin Impressions

Photo: Normandy Tourism
Photo: Normandy Tourism

Jardin Impressions is the heart of Les Jardins d’Étretat. The garden opens up on the iconic historical panorama of the ocean and the cliffs of Étretat, which have inspired many great artists. Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Eugène Delacroix, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, and Vasily Polenov – all came here to paint. The topiary compositions embody the tides and ebbs of the English Channel, enhancing the effect of being immersed under water.

The sculpture of Claude Monet is made entirely out of natural materials and is part of The Tree Hugger Project. It has been commissioned especially for Les Jardins d’Étretat and points back to the landscapes and views of the cliffs of Étretat, painted by one of the founding fathers of Impressionism in the late 19th century.

4. Jardin d’Aval

Photo:  Les Jardins d'Etretat
Photo: Les Jardins d’Etretat

Jardin d’Aval is a meeting and resting point for the garden’s visitors. The tale of Alice in Wonderland inspired it. The garden is magically surrounded by fanciful plants and numerous yew arches symbolising the famous Aval cliff of Étretat. Jardin d’Aval boasts a rich collection of orchids, their blooming flowers enhancing the garden’s air of surrealism with their unusual colours and shapes.

This environmental project by Agnieszka Gradzik and Wiktor Szostalo came into life as a humorous attempt at illustrating “100 Ways to Hug a Tree Without Looking Stupid“. The sculptures on display were made from fallen tree branches and wood waste. The artist’s ‘wicker people’ hugged trees in seven countries around the world. However, after taking part in the UN World Climate Summit, the project took on more serious ecological overtones. How long will the people living on Earth feel connected with nature?

5. Jardin Zen

Jardin Zen, which features white rhododendrons, embodies a harmonious coexistence of man and nature, growing only plants with white blossoms and featuring an audio installation. There is a wooden decking walkway, leading visitors past a tall ledge of bamboo. An installation by the Russian artist Sergey Katran features an array of terracotta sculptures shaped like the sound waves of the word “art” uttered in different languages.

6. Jardin La Manche

Photo:  Les Jardins d'Etretat
Photo: Les Jardins d’Etretat

The Jardin La Manche garden is located in the center of the Étretat Gardens. It is something of a maze with large-scale trimmed plants reflecting the crashing waves below – even the silvery color of the leaves is a nod to the ocean. The panoramic view of the English Channel and the cliffs opens in this garden.

Charlotte Pho