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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!
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:
Wow! I can’t believe it’s been so long since my last post. I had good intentions of doing this religiously, staying disciplined, on target and on task. Ha! Why should blogging be any different than anything else in my life? Lately I’ve found it much more fun to read other blogs. There’s some very funny people out there. I feel like a bit of a stalker….you read one funny post, then you read the comments, and they’re funny too, so you link to one of the commenter’s blogs, and it’s funny, and so on and so on. You get to know some of the names, and you feel like you’re part of the group, but really, you’re just kinda spying. Oh well, it’s fun. Before you know it, your computer time is all gone and you haven’t even thought of a good excuse for not blogging. But I do have a good excuse, really I do. I wanted to blog about my garden, but my camera’s not working, so I can’t get any current pictures. My camera kicked the bucket on my recent holiday to France. My good friend lent me her spare camera while we were away, so I used that for the trip, but I still haven’t gotten around to getting the problem with my camera worked out. (I’ve been too busy reading other people’s blogs, for one thing.) So instead of doing a post about my garden, I’m going to do one about my trip. Oh yea, being on a two week trip is another excuse for not blogging.
Now, my trip to France was actually a garden tour! Yes, indeedy. I ran away from home with a girl friend, and left my hubby, boys and cats to fend for themselves. We went for two weeks on a tour arranged by Steve Whysall, a garden columnist for the Vancouver Sun. Steve and his lovely wife Loraine were the hosts on the trip, and it was fabulous. We saw many beautiful gardens, met a lot of nice people, sampled too many delicious pastries and too much ice cream, and washed everything down with a lot of wine.
The first garden we visited, on arriving at Charles de Gaulle Airport, after an endless, crowded flight from Vancouver, with a two hour stop over in Calgary, and a long drive in Friday rush hour traffic in Paris, was Parc de Bagatelle. This is a park now owned by the City of Paris. I can’t remember too much of the story, because by this point we’d been up a very long time without sleep. We saw the sunrise over Greenland. This amazed me. Day meets night.
(Did you know that after 48 hours without sleep, your body releases a chemical similar to LSD?) The one thing I do remember, however, is that the chateau in this garden was built as a result of a bet. Marie-Antoinette (she of the “let them eat cake” fame) bet her brother in law, the Comte d’Artois (who bought the property in 1775), that the chateau he was planning on building (replacing the original, which had been torn down), could not be completed within three months. The Comte won the bet, completing the house in 63 days (or thereabouts, you know how french time works).
Before this new chateau was built, Bagatelle was a hunting and playground for the rich and famous of France (i.e. the Kings). The chateau and park barely escaped obliteration during the French Revolution. The City of Paris bought the garden in 1905 and entrusted its head gardener, Jean-Claude-Nicolas Forestier, with the restoration work. He set out to beautify the gardens without changing the harmony of the existing layout. He turned subsistence crops into beautiful displays of perennial flowers, and also designed the well-know Roserie de Bagatelle. It is in Bagatelle that classical concerts are often held, and the highlight of the year is in June, when the Rose Exhibition takes place, an international competition for new roses which has been held in the city of Paris every year since 1907.
In Bagatelle, the peonies were out in full force, and we rested on the benches that lined a lovely section of the garden that was filled to overflowing with all imaginable varieties. We snacked on yummy baguettes we had scored at a delightful Patisserie. We sat in the sun and felt the warmth on our pasty white Vancouver skin, and breathed in the most intoxicating air. Ah, simple pleasures are the best!
One side of the garden was lined by a very tall brick wall. It was here the climbing roses and clematis were trained up an amazing trellis. It was rose, after rose, after rose, each one a new favorite. A hot, sunny location, and these were all thriving.
The garden surrounding the pavilion was so picturesque. Beautifully groomed, with alliums blowing up everywhere.
Then we wandered into the formal rose garden. Here there were giant structures made out of rebar to support the climbing roses. (Of course this means I’m going to have scads of rebar sitting around my garage for the next five years waiting my attempts to copy same supports.) There were so many varieties, and everything was beautifully maintained. The building you see in the background is not actually the chateau (somehow I managed in my ignorance not to get any pictures of the actual chateau), but it might the the orangerie. Trust me, I’ve tried to research this further by Googling the garden and stuff, but most of the websites are in french, and Google Translate (much as I depend on it) basically makes a mess out of the translation, confusing me further. So, I might be making this up, but let’s say the orangerie is where they overwintered all the orange plants. It also would be a great place for a big party. One big room, lots of windows, overlooking a garden. Martha would definitely entertain here.
So there you have it. A new post filled with photos and semi-made up history. I never did find out what Marie and her brother-in-law wagered, but in a country where the guillotine was invented I’m thinking you don’t want to lose too many bets.