Passion Points: Green/Eco
Dominique Haim, whose family’s owns La Petite Escalère, one of southwestern France’s most exquisite private sculpture gardens, shares her vision for the garden, regional favorite spots and what not to miss in Biarritz.
What is your first memory of your father’s art collection?
My father started collecting sculpture before La Petite Escalère. When he was still married to my mother, we would spend our vacation on the Côte d’Azur with my aunt and uncle near St. Paul de Vence. There were already a few sculptures around the swimming pool.
How many pieces do you currently have in the collection?
Currently there are about 50 sculptures. I intend to add to the collection.
What are some of the landscaping details at La Petite Escalère most dear to you?
This garden was never landscaped per se. Everything just happened slowly and unintentionally. I love to walk around, and every season there is a new discovery and new magic in different parts of the property. I like the vegetable and flower gardens a lot. In the spring there are roses on arches all around. In the summer I go and pick flowers for bouquets and pick salads, herbs, tomatoes and cucumbers. After thirty years in New York City, it still seems like a total miracle.
What role has the landscaping played?
I think the garden is unlike any other because it was not planed by any landscaper. Jeannette, my stepmother and an artist, chose plants and shrubs for the color of the leaves and their shape. Except for roses, there are almost no flowers. Only shrubs that bloom one after the other. She composed the garden the same way she would compose a painting. It’s this element of the unintended that keeps the garden’s freshness to this day.
Can you share a few tales of how the sculptures came to the property?
Most of the works have a direct link to Paul and Jeannette. Some were commissioned. Some were given and some where because Paul knew the artist and decided to purchase a piece. Except for one or two, they all have a story.
What are some of your personal favorites?
It’s different when you live with the pieces, see them over and over at different times of the year, watch how the light falls on them a certain way —they will give out something new. I used to not like one of the sculptures very much. And then one spring, it was surrounded by thousands of buttercups, and all of a sudden, I started looking at it differently.
How long does a tour of the garden/property take?
Depending on how the guest respond to the place it can take a good two hours. When people fall in love with the place and are attentive, we can take them on a longer tour into that so-called prairie where there are no sculptures. Because this garden is not just about the collection. It is a whole and to be experienced that way. The nature, the different settings, that’s what make this place special.
What are some other highlights in the area that you love?
The magic of the Côte Basque is that it has remained very rural. A few miles from the beach, there are working farms. The ocean and the mountain are right beside each other. The locals are very sporty and have a rich mountain culture (hiking, biking, canyoning, rafting, surfing, bird-watching for eagles and vultures). And then there’s the proximity to Spain. We go to the Spanish Basque country’s San Sebastian for tapas or shop for good Jabugo.
What are some of your favorites in Biarritz?
I like going to a restaurant called Sissimou (5 Avenue Mar Foch, 33-5-59-22-51-5). And there is a wonderful tea place called Miremont, which probably has not changed since the 1930s. But to be honest, I don’t really go much to Biarritz or St. Jean de Luz, both of which are very touristy. I prefer the town of Bayonne, which is beautiful. On Saturday, little old ladies who have a vegetable garden come to town to sell salads, onions or whatever is in season at the local market. There is also the famous hot chocolate at Cazenave’s. And then there are the fêtes de Bayonne (the last weekend in July) where everyone in town dresses in white and red. It is amazing and lovely.
What are some other museums/galleries/art-focused places in the area that you would recommend for a culture fan?
Chillida Leku has closed for a while, but I suspect it will reopen. On the Spanish side there is a lot. Obviously there’s Bilbao with the Guggenheim and the Museo de Bellas Artes. Vitoria has a good contemporary museum as well. And there’s the new Cristobal Balanciaga Museum in Getaria. San Sebastian, which is to Madrid what the Hamptons are to New York, there are often great exhibitions. The Film Festival in September is on par with Venice and Berlin. Toulouse, about a three-hour drive away, is a beautiful city to visit, and in Albi, don’t miss the Toulouse Lautrec Museum and an amazing cathedral. And then Bordeaux: this year is the second edition of a cultural event called Evento, which is worth seeing.
What are some of your plans for the future?
The idea is that La Petite Escalère will become a place of dialogue, meeting and exchange, primarily around nature and art. For example, I recently read about a doctor in Nancy who is working with Alzheimer patients through landscape and garden. I would love to have our garden be used as a place where someone like this doctor could do research or invite a experts from different fields to discuss and develop the concept. Another idea would be to create a prize for young architects to develop a cabin that can be disassembled easily for temporary use. And of course, I envision organizing special sculpture exhibitions.
What kind of traveler will get the most out of a private visit to the garden?
There are some visitors who like the idea of viewing a private, normally-closed estate more than what they appreciate what they are looking at. These are not the ones who are a good fit for La Petite Escalère. The combination of the quality of the art work with the simplicity of the garden (it’s all quite rustic) is what makes this place special. Visitors should be open, attentive and intelligent. My ideal visit starts with a country lunch at a long rectangle table covered with Basque tablecloths and where diners sit on benches. These meals are rustic and from the heart and authentic. The meal will be followed by the visit of the garden, which I view as a treasure hunt through the woods, the little paths, the canals, the bamboo bridges. Each discovery takes you to the next, farther than you expected, in a renewed sense of amazement.
For an introduction to Dominique and to organize a private tour of La Petite Escalère, contact Indagare’s Bookings Team
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