Park Floral Phoenix, Nice
Apart from the park’s amazing size, over 7 hectares of land, the renown of Parc Floral Phoenix is of course its immense greenhouse, one of the largest in Europe and known as “Le Diamant Vert”, the Green Diamond. This amazing glass and metal tent-like structure, 22 meters high and extending over 7,000m², houses the most complete range of plants ever assembled in Europe and offers the visitor seven different tropical and sub-tropical climates. Designed by architects Selme and Tampon-Lajariette, it was built in 1989 and opened in February 1990 and is Nice’s most original architectural feature since the disappearance of the Casino de la Jetée-Promenade in 1943.
The entrance to Parc Phoenix is located west of Nice, a stone’s throw from the airport and within the Arénas district, Nice’s bustling business quarters adorned by tall mirror-façade buildings complete with hotels, restaurants, and shops. Nestled in this modern urban glass and cement city you’ll find the entrance to the park located just next to the Museum of Asiatic Art.
Last year over 500,000 visitors passed through its turn-styles and it is now the most visited botanical garden on the Cote d’Azur, with Monaco’s Jardin Exotique in second place and Eze’s Jardin Exotique a close third.
While it is certainly a wonderful day’s outing for families with small children, anyone remotely interested in gardens would enjoy coming here and strolling around the grounds. Its been cleverly designed to suit all needs and, while certainly a child’s paradise, there are also quiet, secluded areas where the only sound you’ll hear is birdsong and an overhead plane or two . . .
To appreciate the park at its best and so as not to miss any of its attractions, do make sure you’re given a map at the time you pay your admission fee. I didn’t receive one on my first tour, but luckily picked up a used copy abandoned on a bench towards the end of my visit, which I brought home with me. Studying the map in more detail I realised I’d missed several areas of the park, notably the rather interesting circular craters and other theme gardens. The map is also very useful when you’re inside the Diamant Vert itself.
Oddly, with the high number of visitors, at present there are only two ticket kiosks available which in turn can lead to long queues during school holidays. However, I visited at the end of September on a Sunday and simply sailed through. Note that the main entrance and underground car parking is located at the north end (Entrée Arenas) while the south entrance is reserved for large buses and coach parties. You can park your car without charge for up to two hours at weekends.
Once you’ve received your tickets (and map) and gone through the turnstiles you’ll find yourself directly in front of the park’s central feature: an enormous 6,000m² lake. Interestingly, the Museum of Asian Arts, with its large glass windows, is built on this same lake and adds a somewhat oriental feel to the start of your tour. As a byline, I drove past the Museum on my way to the underground parking and then took the elevator up to ground level. For some silly reason, once inside the park, I simply couldn’t fathom what the glass building standing in the lake was and wondered if it wasn’t some sort of conference building linked (somehow) to the park. It was only when I revisited Parc Floral Phoenix a week later that the penny dropped and I realised that it was indeed the Museum of Asian Arts; I obviously hadn’t expected it to be so close.
The Lake and Floral Park
The lake and its protective banks are a haven to a myriad of different waterbirds. The normal culprits such as Mallard, Coot and Shelduck swim eagerly up and down squabbling noisly for food, and even the more exotic birds such as White Pelicans, Canada Geese, Black Swans and Mandarin Ducks swirl around them in the hope of some tasty offerings.
Following the trails and sign posts along the way, a kaleidoscope of over 2,500 different species of plants, many of them rare, await you as you venture forth around its various outdoor gardens that lead ultimately to its masterpiece: the impressive Diamant Vert.
To the left of the lake, as you start your stroll, you’ll come across different animal enclosures. The first one you’ll encounter is the European Otter. These slinky, shiny creatures are wonderful characters and great swimming acrobats. Difficult to photograph too as they don’t stop moving around, diving into their transparent pool or popping out and running along the pool’s edge. From there you have the option to cross the lake by stepping on large boulders, washed by river water that flows into the lake itself; or following the trail and taking the small wooden bridge.
Which ever way you go the walk is charming, with Mediterranean plants and enticing views from all sides. Taking the trail you’ll pass another animal enclosure; this one belonging to the Prairie Dogs. To me they resemble oversize hamsters and are just as tubby and cheeky. Again, difficult to photograph but great fun to watch as they dash in and out of their holes and then scamper over to their food troughs to pick up food with their tiny hands. Not having a map the first time round, I took to crossing the boulders and encountered two charming Mallards as surprised to see me as I was them.
Once over the boulders you come to another spectacular area with another water theme: a water fountain and small water fall. You can actually walk under the water fall which links easily to the other side of the lake or, if you prefer to keep your feet dry, to walk up a few steps and enjoy the fountain. The French expression “Jeux d’eaux” admirably describes the water jets as they throw up different lengths of frothy white water. Inside the basin you’ll also find some sculptures, as indeed you will find others throughout the park. These are delightful touches to the scenery and add a further interest as you stroll round.
Following the trail again you’ll pass another enclosure with a multitude of terrapins. Apparently these are all ‘rescue’ terrapins or unwanted pets that have been donated to the park and they evidently have gone forth and multiplied. The enclosure is close to the bank of the lake and a motley crew of various ducks and geese waddle around and will follow you in the hope of some tasty morsels. By now you’re very close to the Diamant Vert but before you reach it, you’ll encounter another animal enclosure – the accent here is on birds: owls, Macaws, Rhea’s and Crowned Cranes.
This is a busy area attracting children and grown ups alike, and its fun to linger there especially with its wonderful pergola brimming with rambling Kiwi’s, passionflower and honeysuckle. Further scents are added by various herbs and lavender bushes planted closeby. The curve of the pathway leads you to a secret children’s playground and the green house.
The Diamant Vert
Entrance is through electronic sliding glass doors that bring you into the heart of the structure. Inside this moist and earthy climate you’ll discover an amazing range of tropical plants and knowing which one to look at first becomes a difficult decision as each one is more spectacular than the other. The immense size of the Diamant Vert only becomes apparent as you wind your way through and visit each section. In fact, it’s rather like seven greenhouses protected by one enormous one.
The different sections are protected one from the other by thick glass doors or heavy rubber-like panels similar to those found in refrigerator rooms. Following the signs and starting from left to right, you’ll discover the Emerald Room, Iguana, Louisiana, Tree Ferns, Aquarium & Insect, Australian greenhouses and finally the Orchid Green House. Each greenhouse is remarkable with some surprising creatures lurking within.
For example it was fun discovering Iguanas roaming freely around. Close up these are impressive reptiles and it was a delight to watch them mooch around, some in trees, other peeking over the top of cupboards, while others on the ground delighted in chewing dainty Hisbiscus flowers or nibbling the straplike leaves of a Spider Plant. While some of the Iguanas were fairly big you’ll find Bigger Boys, Cayman, in the Louisiana greenhouse – but they’re behind tough glass.
All in all you should count on staying a good hour if you want to give your full attention to everything in the Diamant Vert. This length of time might be difficult for some people so, thoughtfully, there are toilets and a baby’s nappy changing area. More toilets are located just at the Arenas entry of the park.
A lovely walk awaits you too as you leave the Diamant Vert behind you and if you’re feeling peckish you’ll find a good snack bar and seating area, located midway in the park where you can recharge your batteries and rest awhile.
The idea of a large park was first discussed in the 1860s apparently by Napoleon III on one of his official visits to the region when inspecting works carried out on reinforcing the banks of the River Var, adjacent to what was then just open fields. His suggestion was to create something akin to the Bois de Boulogne. As it was, the Société Central d’Agriculture, d’Horticulture and d’Acclimatisation of Nice and Alpes-Maritimes used part of the land to undertake a series of ambitious projects: an immense orangery, experimental vineyards and plant cultivations, as well as a silk worm farm and an agricultural laboratory.
During the 1880s plans for a Casino were put forward by the Blanc family who then owned the land but this idea was brushed aside by the local authorities. Little by little the land was sold off in parcels to various smallholders until the expansion of the agglomeration of Nice looked towards this area for property development. Thankfully, while building work was carried out to create the business centre of the Arénas and, adjacent to that the development of the airport, the parkland remained intact and unspoilt.
In 2004 it seems an idea was put forward to renovate the existing park and transform it into a world class Theme Park while still incorporating existing park elements into the new design. While layouts were drawn up to provide new and unique attraction concepts I’m unsure whether or not any official decision was taken. It is hoped that, much like the idea of a Casino all those many years ago, the idea of a Theme Park will be equally shelved as, personally, I think the Parc Floral Phoenix is already in a world class of its own.