France in the footsteps of Colette
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Travel France in the footsteps of Colette


Tucked away in the French department of Correze is a little-known treasure that gives a warm welcome to visitors. Here, in a pretty valley surrounded by woodlands, near the town of Brive-la-Galliard, a garden has been established dedicated to Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, a 20th century (1873 – 1954) writer who was both during her lifetime and since so beloved of the French people that she is often referred to in France  as “Our Colette”.

Why here and why a garden? Colette lived with her second husband in nearby Castel Novel – about which more later. And she was a great lover of nature.

I love this quote of hers:

“On this narrow planet, we have only the choice between two unknown worlds. One of them tempts us – ah! what a dream, to live in that! – the other stifles us at the first breath.”

Les Jardins de Colette was created in 2007 over five hectares by landscape architects Laurent Duplantier and Anouk Debarre and it has been a real labour of love.

As visitors walk through these gardens they are travelling through Colette’s extraordinary life, into her written works, her dreams, and the French regions that she loved.

Les Jardins de Colette

Les Jardins de Colette is a metaphorical tour of France with six stops. It is divided into six gardens, each one representing a french region where she lived. Each garden represents an important period in Colette’s fascinating life and offers a glimpse at a different region of France.

Six mini gardens have been growing since 2007, each representing a different French region where Colette lived during her long and celebrated life. It is also designed to reflect her writing, her dreams and her personality. The formal gardens are arranged in the shape of a huge butterfly and there are a lot of blue flowers (she always wrote on blue paper).

Terrasse salon de thé Jardins de Collette France

The first thing you experience is the red visitor’s centre, built from local sandstone. There a small gallery displays photographs and exhibits from Colette’s life, including lovely pictures of the revered novelist as a young innocent and a sultry woman. Both here and throughout the gardens motifs designed to represent her life and works. Look out for a blue leaf in each garden. Blue was Collette’s favourite colour – she always wrote on blue paper.

The Burgundy garden: Colette’s childhood

The first garden is the Burgundy garden of Colette’s childhood. Colette was born in 1873 in Saint-Sauveur en Puisaye in Burgundy. From her mother she received a love of nature and animals, playing in the extensive gardens with her sister and brothers.

It was not a happy childhood and financial difficulties forced them to move to Châtillon-Coligny in the Loiret region when Colette was eighteen years old, …

Here two gardens have been created: a botanic garden and a vegetable garden (Colette also enjoyed eating good food). There are roses, daylilies and hydrangeas… and then tomatoes, fennel, strawberries, globe artichokes…Both gardens are surrounded by hornbeams to symbolise the family cocoon.

Then there is a cherry orchard in reference to the first book Colette wrote in 1900: Claudine à l’école. In this story, Claudine has an exam but she falls asleep in an orchard just before it. One of her friend comes to wake up her and Claudine goes in for the exam with grass in her hair. She passed her exam!

Burgundy garden, Les Jardins de Colette

The Franche-Comté garden: First marriage

Colette met Henry Gauthiers-Villars (nicknamed Willy) at a Parisian library. He was a friend of her brother and an urbane and epicurean journalist. They married in 1893 when she was only twenty and he introduced her to the literary world. She formed friendships with Anatole France, Marcel Proust and others.

She was devastated by the discovery of Willy’s infidelities and was confined to bed for more than sixty days. But Willy promted her to write about her memories of school and the result was Claudine à l’école, then Claudine à Paris, Claudine en ménage and Claudine s’en va. Willy controls the money from these books and bought the Mont-Boucons property near Besançon in Franche-Comté, where Colette created a beautiful English-style garden. The couple eventually divorced in 1910 as a result of Willy’s unfaithfulness.

In this garden we can see the leafy and wooded Franche-Comte. There are Holland poplars, beeches, wild cherry tree and then fir-trees and bald cypresses, showing the contrast between the lightness of the leafy forest and the darkness of the coniferous forest.

Les Jardins de Colette, Correze, France

The Brittany garden: Colette and Music Hall

The third garden evokes the wild granite coast of Brittany where Colette bought a house to live with Music Hall star Mathilde de Morny.

Colette met “Missy” in 1906 and this woman was an important friend to her, shepherding her through the music-hall world, where Colette became successful writing theatre and mime.

Both women decided in 1910 to buy a manor house in Brittany. But only Colette signs the bill of sale because the home owner doesn’t want Missy to sign it. Indeed she wears like a man and at that period it was forbidden and scandalous. This manor is called “Rozven” which means “wind rose”. Colette welcomes her family and friends like the actress and filmmaker Musidora, the writer Francis Carco… in this bucolic Eden. From the garden, Colette can see the Brittany granite coastline. She loves this region for its sea and its wonderful scenery.

In 1923, Colette wrote one of her most famous books: Le blé en herbe. It deals with a love story between a young boy and an older lady and the entire story takes place in Brittany.

In this garden, there are several varieties of thistle and lots of pines, characteristic of the oceanfront. Granite cost and benches give it a unique atmosphere.

The Correze garden: Second marriage 

In 1910, Colette became a journalist for the newspaper “Le Matin”, of which Henry-de-Jouvenel was the editor in chief. They married in 1912 and had a daughter in 1913: Colette Renée whose nickname is “Bel-Gazou” which means “beautiful words”. Colette was forty years old and they lived in Castel Novel castle with an English nanny Miss Draper. During the First World War, Henry de Jouvenel was called up and went to Verdun. Colette stayed in Paris with friends. In 1921 her husband became senator of Correze but they divorced in 1925.

Correze is the setting for the fourth garden. The willow trees and centenarian oaks are typical of the region.  The Henhouse (and hens) are a reference to the little girl who enjoyed taking care of animals.

Provence Les Jardins de Collette France

The Provencal garden: Third marriage

Colette met Maurice Goudeket in 1925 and discovered Provence with him. She loved this part of France, where her father had hailed from. In 1926, Colette sold Rozven and bought a house in Saint-Tropez: The “Treille Muscate”. In those days, Saint-Tropez was a fishing village. Many painters came here to take advantage of the light, and to Colette also fell in love with the beauty of nature and sea here.

She said she hated writing in Provence because she was always tempted outside to discover new wonders! But every night she locks herself in her work and writes on blue paper.

Entering the Provence garden we discover vineyards, bamboos to remind the vegetation of the “Treille Muscate”. Colette tried to create a wild garden but it didn’t work so she asked for the advice of a gardener. He told her that a garden has to be ordered to develop.

The structured garden has many flowers and colours. There are red Crocosmia Lucifer, blue agapanthus, yellow daylilies… olive-trees, cypresses, lavender, pines… there are wonderful scents in the rose garden. Both Colette and her mother loved roses and her favourite was “Cuisse-de-Nymphe”. Planted here is the “Colette rose” created in 1995. A blue construction called the “outdoor bedroom” represents the “Treille Muscate” (also the name of a 1932 novel) terrace where Colette used to sleep on a raffia mattress to enjoy the smells, silence and night atmosphere of her garden.


The Palais-Royal garden: A famous writer internationally recognised

And finally Paris, where Colette lived from 1938. This garden reflects the building where she lived at 9, Rue de Beaujolais and looked out on the formal gardens of the Palais Royal with its avenues of lime trees.

During the Second World War she went to Curemonte in Correze where her daughter lived and wrote Journal à Rebours, dealing with war exodus. Her Jewish husband was arrested and sent to Compiègne camp. He was freed in 1942 thanks to Colette’s efforts.

During these years she was internationally recognised as a writer and feted by her countrymen. In 1945 she was received into the Académie Goncourt and became president in 1949. In 1953, she received the Paris medal and is described as the most important writer after George Sand. She was the first woman to have a state funeral and is buried in Pere-Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

This last garden is the most structured and looks like a formal garden with its two alleys of lime trees. The space between the trees is the same as the gardens of the Palais-Royal. The triangular flowerbeds show different colours and varieties of flowers. Here, everything is done to remind the visitors the special atmosphere of the garden of the Palais-Royal.

Examples of books inspired by Paris include Belles Saisons and Le Fanal Bleu (the Blue Lantern).

Palais Royal garden, Les Jardins de Colette

Lose yourself in Colette’s footsteps thanks to the “Bel Gazou” maze

The final attraction at Les Jardins de Collette is for both adults and children. The woven wicker maze covers nearly 5,000 m² and it is a literary adventure designed for younger visitors. It is in the shape a butterfly because Colette loved them and had a collection of butterflies. Children can lose themselves in the writer’s life and works in a kind of paper-chase, opening five doors with codes and and clues hidden in the maze. It takes around one hour and thirty minutes.

Les Jardins de Colette papillon labyrinth

Castel Novel

What a wonderful tour of France! An essential stop in the footsteps of Colette is Castel Novel, just a few miles from the garden.

Castel Novel is now one of those fabulous chateau-style French hotels. It is all ancient stone towers draped in creepers. I wasn’t able to stay the night but I did experience a most memorable evening meal, including risotto with summer truffles and silky lamb followed by coffee on the terrace in the soft evening air, imagining the life of Collette!

Hôtel Castel Novel - Le château où vécu Colette

By Natasha von Geldern

Les Jardins des Collette are open from early April to early November: in April from 10:00 to 12:30 and from 14:00 to 18:30, closed on Mondays and Tuesdays; in May, June and September from 10:00 to 12:30 and from 14:00 to 18:30, closed on Mondays; in July and August Open every day non-stop from 10:00 to 19:00; in October and November from 10:00 to 12:30 and from 14:00 to 17:00, closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Have you visited Les Jardins de Colette or the region of Correze in France?

Follow the footsteps of Colette in France - Les Jardins de Colette

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