Les Jardins d’Étretat: An unusual place to visit in Normandy, France

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I spent over a week in the seaside town of Étretat. Our AirBnB rental overlooked the Atlantic Ocean, and the iconic towering cliffs of Étretat. It was a dreamy, albeit very rainy week. Such is the price you pay sometimes for travelling off-season. However, the regular, but thankfully, sporadic rains just heightened the air of mystery, and overwhelming, almost savage beauty of the coast.

The crisp autumn air, and the changing colours of the foliage did all they could, competing with the post-rain colours that the sky burst into every evening. No wonder, Impressionist painters like Claude Monet and Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot immortalised Étretat in their art.

I was content to take a lot of long walks along the windy beach. I also went for hikes, and day-trips to neighbouring Honfleur and Deauville. But I had no idea that I was just mere minutes away from one of the most beautiful and unusual places in Normandy. Nah, I would argue, it is one of the most beautiful places in France.

I spotted the gates of the Jardins d’Étretat by chance, while chasing a sunset one evening. High up on the hills, with the cliffs of Étretat behind me, the wild music of the ocean waves crashing, the Jardins d’Étretat looked surreal. Its striking topiary both majestic and whimsical. Just then, it started raining again. I gazed at the expanse of green bushes interspersed with trees, and schuptures, and was determined to come back the next day.

Well, it rained the whole of the next day. But finally on the day before we departed from Étretat, the sky broke open with the bluest, brightest day we had all week. It was the perfect day to explore the Jardins d’Étretat. What followed was an unforgettable feast for the senses.

The cliffs of Étretat as seen from the Garden of Étretat
The cliffs of Étretat and l’Aigulle as seen from the Gardens of Étretat

Les Jardins d’Étretat: The artistic legacy this jardin remarquable

The origin story of the garden starts with the arrival of a French actress Madame Thébault on the shores of Étretat. As was trés à la mode at that time, Madame Thébault too found that the town was not too shabby at all for acquiring a second home. The French call it residence secondaire.

Deciding to leave the din of the town’s centre behind her, she instead committed to the misty, and windy air of Étretat. She chose the high cliffs called Falaise d’Amont to build her villa. She named it La Roxelane. It offered a magnificent view of the L’Aiguille (which translates to ‘the needle), the geological white the rock formations Étretat. Inspired by Monet, she too began working on a fabulous garden overlooking the shores of Étretat.

Notwithstanding its artistic roots, the gardens might have been relegated to relative obscurity, if not for landscape designer Alexander Grivko. In 2015, he stumbled upon fragments of the garden, and recognised its promise. He reimagined and redesigned this space to be what we see today. Staying true to its historical elements, he introduced contemporary art and a modern point of view.

Villa 'La Roxelane' in the Gardens of Étretat, Normandy
Villa ‘La Roxelane’ in the Gardens of Étretat

The Gardens of Étretat is one of the unusual places not to miss in Normandy

One of Alexandre Grivko’s influences in the project of re-designing Les Jardins d’Étretat, was André Le Nôtre. Yes, the famed royal gardener of King Louis XIV. Grivko’s vision resulted in the surreal landscape of the gardens, which looks at once organic while being visually arresting.

The way that the plants and trees at the Gardens of Étretat have been trimmed makes them look fluidly intertwined with the magnificence of the views from here. Indeed, the shapes of the topiary pays homage to the ecological richness of Normandy. Notably, the swirling bushes are designed to resemble marine spirals, waves, cliffs and oyster farms. In many ways, it represents the deep love for nature and the natural environment in this French region.

For all these reasons, the Gardens of Étretat is officially considered among the ‘remarkable gardens in France.’ If you want to browse more gardens in France labelled as jardins remarquables by the Ministry of Culture, check out Les Jardins du Palais de la Berbie, or the gardens of Château de Versailles.

Jardins d’Étretat brings together nature, art and ecology on the same plane and make it all sing seamlessly. This is why I consider it one of the most unusual places to visit in Normandy. The views are grandiose, the kind that remind us of how small we humans are compared to the might of nature. On the other hand, the art and the gardens are a reminder of the beauty in co-existing with nature.

Jardin Impressions with a view of the Ocean in Étretat, Normandy
Jardin Impressions with a view of the ocean

What to expect at Jardins d’Étretat: Art, Ecology and Community

The garden complex has several sub-sections. Such as Emotions Garden, the Avatar Garden, the Impressions Garden, Amont Garden etc. Delightfully, each section has been designed staying true to the sensory experience it proposes to immerse visitors in.

I would like to especially mention the trees decorated with musical creations. As the wind from the ocean lashes against the gardens, the trees respond back with their own sweet music. While many big sculptures grace various corners of the garden, there is also art hidden in many nooks and crannies.

Jardins d’Étretat’s remarkable geographical location offers it a literal and figurative vantage point into the marine and ecological life of this part of Normandy. And certainly, over the years, it has embraced its role as a unique bridge between nature, art and ecology. Truly, its a befitting homage to the beauty and richness of Étretat.

The garden now serves as an open air creative space. It showcases the works of over 50 artists. Along with this, it hosts various exhibitions, performances and art experiences throughout the year. In the pursuit of establishing the gardens as a living eco-system, Jardins d’Étretat’s initiatives combine scientific research, art of gardening and art, while stressing community building.

Additionally, Jardins d’Étretat also hosts an art residency program. Apart from a stay at Villa Roxelane, the residency offers artists the opportunity to work on an art project to be installed in the gardens.

The cliffs of Étretat and art at gardens of Étretat, Normandy
The Gardens of Étretat is today an open-air artistic & creative space

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