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I was lucky enough to visit the gardens of Chateau Villandry in the Loire region of France earlier this year.  On this trip, arranged and hosted by garden columnist Steve Whysall and his wife Loraine, we visited many beautiful gardens, and I’m often asked which one was my favorite.  Tough question, as different gardens evoked different responses.  My first view of Villandry, however, was almost like a religious experience.  It was early in the morning, and we were one of the first groups to enter the garden.

At the entrance, we entered a high sided stone corridor beside the château, and climbed up a fairly elevated walkway so when we first set sights on the garden, we were viewing it from above. On this bright, sunny, perfect morning, Villandry was truly awe-inspiring. The impressive precision of the topiaries, boxwood parterres and vegetable potages was surreal.

Everything was immaculately kept, and the initial perfection of the garden literally took my breath away.  Our group gathered up on the belvedere to view the landscape below.  On closer inspection it was obvious that the groundskeepers were already hard at work.  We had just missed the spring plantings, and the faded bulbs were being torn out of the parterres to ready them for summer flowers, and the boxwood topiaries and hedges were being meticulously groomed.  The elevated walkway was in the morning shade, so it was cool and fresh, yet the sun was shining gloriously on the garden below, shadows making everything look extra sharp, crisp and in focus.

The gardens of the Chateau de Villandry are one of France’s best known and most visited gardens. In the Renaissance style, they are full of romantic symbolism. They were completed in 1536, by Jean le Breton, a finance minister under King Francois 1st.  le Breton had also been an ambassador to Italy, where he spent his spare time studying the Italian Renaissance garden, and you can certainly recognize this influence at Villandry.  le Breton’s family maintained control over Villandry for over two centuries, until 1754, when it passed into the hands of the Marquis de Castellane, a powerful ambassador from the Provence region.  He built the outbuildings, and redesigned much of the interior of the château.  The traditional gardens were destroyed in the 19th century to create an English style park around the château.

In 1906, while slated for demolition, the château was taken over by the renowned Spanish scientist Dr. Joachim Carvallo, who is the great-grandfather of the present owners.  He devoted himself entirely to Villandry, and created the present day gardens which are in complete harmony with the Renaissance château.  He was one of the first to open this type of historic building and garden to the public.  Merci, Monsieur Carvallo!

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A large area of the garden consists of the Love Garden.  In one section, you can easily see the beautiful curving hearts that represent Tender Love.  But what better experts on love than the French?  Not content with Tender Love, they also give us Passionate Love, Fickle Love and, mais oui, Tragic Love.  As we travel through each quadrant of the garden, the shapes change from the romantic hearts, which are usually planted inside with red blooms, to maze-like sections evoking the dance of Passionate love, fans and horns with yellow plantings representing Jilted Love, and finally, Tragic Love, where the disarray of jagged shapes representing the swords and daggers used by rivalrous lovers are planted with red flowers to symbolize blood spilled.  In addition to the Love Garden, there are parterres filled with different styles of crosses, representing the different regions of France.

Another large section of the garden is the potager, which is the vegetable or kitchen garden.  In Medieval times, the potagers were tended by monks and nuns to provide food for the residents of the abbeys and flowers for the altars.  The gardens are now planted in a rotation of over 40 types of vegetables, and arranged according to colour and form, using organic and companion planting rules.

An avowed flower gardener, the beauty of this kitchen garden is almost enough to tempt me into growing vegetables, but I could never bring myself to pick just one head of lettuce and ruin the perfection of the whole design.

In addition to the medieval origins of the potager, Italian influence is prominent thoughout the garden.  Elevated walkways, flower beds, bowers, stone sculptures and fountains are used throughout, to great effect.

This gorgeous statuary, overflowing with fruits and vegetables, represents the bounty of the garden, and the stone fence surrounding the garden is made up of various panels, each with a unique design.

In addition to the Love Garden and the potager, there is also the Water Garden. The Florentine influence can be readily felt here, and the beautifully kept lawn and calm expanse of water is quite a change from the geometric shapes of the other sections of the garden.

Some of the other areas of the garden include the Sun Garden, the Herb Garden, the Children’s Garden and a maze.

On a trip filled with tours of amazing gardens, Villandry was certainly a standout. While the controlled, close-clipped parterres, geometric potagers and angular water gardens are not everyone’s favorite style, there was something about this garden and man’s attempt to make sense out of the chaos of nature that appealed to me on a profound level. I will always remember it as a perfect morning in an soul-stirring garden.

For another post on Villandry, please visit my travelling buddy Sue’s blog at:

http://designmuse.wordpress.com/2011/09/08/france-finest-formal-garden-villandry/

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