Swept by the mistral in winter, overwhelmed with heat in summer, Mount Andaon is not the ideal place to cultivate plants. The poet Elsa Koeberlé nevertheless accomplished, almost a century ago, the feat of planting a delightful garden there, labeled “Remarkable Garden” in 2014. She was 35 when, at the end of 1915, fleeing her native Alsace plagued by fighting, it fell under the spell of a 10th century Benedictine abbey, nestled on a rock, with an unobstructed view of the Popes’ palace and the Alpilles.
The young woman inherited a taste for old stones and poetry from her father. Emeritus surgeon, inventor of the haemostatic forceps, Eugène Koeberlé, whose bust sculpted by Antoine Bourdelle is kept at the Musée d’Orsay, held a literary salon in Strasbourg. Elsa publishes her first collection of poems at the age of 20 and becomes friends with Paul Claudel, with whom she will correspond all her life. A fortuitous meeting on the Côte d’Azur with the patron and collector Gustave Fayet, friend of Paul Gauguin and Odilon Redon, will influence his destiny.
A garden designed with Génia Lioubow
Without resources since her family property was confiscated by the Germans, Elsa Koeberlé manages to convince the wealthy businessman to buy the Saint-André estate and entrust her with the reins. She moved there in 1916 with her friend Génia Lioubow, a painter with a strong personality and troubled origins. If the latter claims to be the natural daughter of a Russian aristocrat, recent discoveries have revealed that she fled her family of bakers at the age of 14 in Champigny-sous-Varennes (Haute-Marne) and invented an exuberant character for herself. to find a place in the artistic world.
In Saint-André, the combined efforts of Elsa and Génia have literally moved mountains: tons of pebbles have been strewn across the site for more than a century. After the French Revolution, a stone merchant had in fact dismantled the churches, the conventual building and the upper floors of the abbey palace, i.e. more than 80% of the abbey which, in the 17th century, extended over nearly 10,000 m2. In this field of ruins and wasteland, Elsa and Genia undertake to create an Italian garden.
A walk between trees and statues
On the large terrace, the young ladies, as they are called in the village, install a long stone pergola, on which climb a wisteria and a rosebush, then a pond and an elegant fan-shaped flowerbed. The bush roses of Bengal are surrounded by moldings in vegetable arabesques, sculpted by a local craftsman on the drawings of Génia. An arc of a circle planted with cypresses, boxwood cut into balls and oleanders elegantly encloses the whole and gives an intimate atmosphere to the promenade, punctuated by statues of Diana and Ceres.
On the death of Elsa Koeberlé in 1950, six years after Génia, Roseline Bacou, curator at the Louvre Museum and granddaughter of Gustave Fayet, inherited the estate and undertook to restore the building, including the charming little chapel of Sainte- Casarie, nestled at the top of the hill dotted with centuries-old olive trees. Below, she is laying out a wild garden around the remains of the Saint-André church and the former monks’ hospice, which she stages with rows of cypresses and plantations of irises and laurels.
A domain open to artists
Since the disappearance of Roseline Bacou in 2013, her great-nephew Gustave Viennet, who is also a winegrower in Béziers (Château de Raissac), has continued to beautify the site. Due to global warming and ecological management, the rosebushes have been replaced by a meadow of white and magenta cosmos, dotted with blue Damask nigella and creamy pink soapworts. On the hill, labeled LPO refuge (League for the protection of birds), a new botanical trail invites you to discover 75 Mediterranean species: acanthus, Jupiter’s beard, yellow purslane, pistachio, cistus…
The domain is also open to artists, welcomed in residence and whose exhibitions punctuate the seasons. This summer, in addition to concerts, musical readings and visits to the garden by moonlight or at dawn, the birch forests and lichens painted by Stéphane Erouane Dumas bring a welcome Scandinavian breath of fresh air.
Elsa Koeberlé (1881-1950), unpublished poem I salute you, November 1923:
“I salute you, serene, majestic and sublime
River, which towards the sea rolls your waves singing.
Hail gardens, which on the brow of the hills
Mix the green laurels of Apollo with the blooming roses.
Hail city, magnified by the setting sun.
I salute you country, splendor cradle of Latin. But the shadow of our days lengthens over our hearts…”