Gardens of the Seven Deadly Sins

There were a couple of castle gardens I was a little apprehensive about visiting.  Chaumont-sur-Loire was one of them.

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In French the castle se blotti on the hillside above the village. To my ear, ‘nestles ‘ sounds so much better. One for English!

It wasn’t the fact that Diane de Poitiers, whose tastes in such things I had grown to admire, didn’t like it.  It was the description on the official website that had me wondering.

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“The perfection of the righteous is formed from the right composition of the seven deadly sins – just as white light is from the composition of the seven traditional colours.”  Paul Valéry – Tel Quel.  What if, entirely naturally, the garden led to unbridled hedonism – temptation born from a lost Eden, a thirst for knowledge and expense? A magical place which, to blossom, relies on the rule that subversion is possible and which, to thrive, knows where its limits lie: in Chaumont-sur-Loire in 2014, the garden will embody the heady expression of the deadly sins – a festival of extravagance and self-restraint and a shining example of the duality of impulses and characters. The gardens will celebrate an alchemy which, while far from flawless – i.e. free from sin – will nonetheless be, as Valéry put it, “the perfection of the righteous”.

See what I mean?  In the end, curiosity got the better of me. It was either going to be dreadful or wonderful, and there was only one way to find out.

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Glimpse of the castle beyond the festival gardens.

The lyrical waxing continued.  “Indeed, what do gluttony and pride mean when we speak of gardens? Sloth and lust? Wrath and envy? Could not gluttony be a simple partiality for something; wrath, an almighty rage; pride, a sin of youth; the restfulness of sloth, “a secret charm of the soul” for La Rochefoucauld; and lust, “the cause of generation” in Leonardo da Vinci’s words?”

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Permanent beds line the paths between the annual displays.

In 1992, a group of locals bent on increasing tourism in Chaumont hit upon a brilliant marketing strategy to entice some of the hordes on their way to Chambord and Chenonceau.  They invited landscape designers and architects from around the world to submit proposals for what they grandly called ‘le Festival International des Jardins‘.

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The creators of the 20 winning designs – in 2014 there were over 300 submissions  – must maintain their gardens throughout the duration of the festival season, which in 2014 runs from April 25 to November 2.

As usual I arrived before l’heure de l’ouverture.   It is so frustrating.  Dawn or early morning is the best – the only time, some would say – to take photographs of gardens.  But if, like me, you don’t have the BBC and National Geographic to magically open gates at the ‘golden hours’, you’re stuck with visiting gardens during official opening hours.

Before I had a chance to get started on an ongoing inner rant about arbitrary, inconsistent and unreasonable opening hours, (none of which hopefully is revealed in the vacant look I try to summon up for these situations), the young woman at the ticket booth advised me that “En attendant, si vous désirez, vous êtes libre de visiter le potager à côté“. (While you are waiting, if you like, you are free to visit the vegetable garden just over there.)

By now I’d become a real fan of these French veggie gardens, so off I went.  It had to beat shuffling around the entrance gate.

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As at Cheverny, the vegetables here at Chaumont had to compete for space with a glorious range of flowers.

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The organizers made sure they started things off with a bang.  The inaugural theme – each year it changes – was Les Jardins de Plaisir.  Subsequent themes ranged from ‘les Jardin des Délices, Jardins des Délires’ (Delights and Deliriums ?!) to ‘Erotisme au Jardin’ to ‘Jardin, Corps et âmes‘ (Body and Soul).  There were other, less steamy themes too – maybe they felt the public needed a bit of a breather now and then – like ‘Jardins d’avenir ou l’art de la biodiversité heureuse‘ (Gardens of the future and the Art of Happy (?) Biodiversity.)

Mystery of the ubiquitous dill in the potager at cheverny solved!  It wasn't dill it was fenouille.  Fennel.

The second I saw this – basket? – the mystery of all that dill in the potager at Cheverny was solved! It wasn’t dill.  It was fenouille. Fennel.  (I know that feathery stuff isn’t fennel, but as we all know, the mind works in mysterious ways…)

Some Versailles-worthy espaliers.

Along the perimeter, some Versailles-worthy espaliers.

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Borage. Plant that tastes of oysters.

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If you look really closely you’ll see some vegetables in there amongst the flowers.

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I was so entranced with what was going on at ground level I totally missed…

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…the lapin standing guard over the whole thing. Take another look at the preceding photo and you’ll see part of its front paws.

When the gates to the Festival eventually opened, I was sorry to leave.  On the upside, no matter what I was going to see next, the potager had made the drive worthwhile.

An upside down tree was the first thing I saw when I went through the gates.  Not a good sign of things to come.

An upside-down tree was the first thing I saw when I went through the gates. Not a good sign of things to come.

I wandered around looking for the entrance to the ‘Festival’.  By the time I found it, I was inclined to forget about the whole thing.  (FYI:   it’s to the left of the ‘tree’.)   Surely my time would be better spent enlightening myself about the local wines.  But it was only 10 in the morning.  Luckily a tad early for wine tastings.  I say ‘luckily’ because, as the organizers promised, it really was une espace magique.

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Le Pécher. Peach tree or Tree of Original Sin?

In French ‘un pécher’ means a ‘peach tree’.  But it sounds exactly like ‘un péché, which means ‘sin’.  A circling path leads us, not to the biblical apple tree, but to a peach tree, with its sweet, tender, juicy flesh, symbol of corrupting sensuality.

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Amongst the peach-toned flowers lining the path, the roses in gorgeous shades of light pink to the subtlest of peachy tones were my favourites.

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Continuing the theme, the path is covered with peach stones.

Some took their inspiration from literature, like the Garden of Harpagon, the miserly protagonist in one of Molière’s plays.

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Harpagon’s treasure.  Brilliant, precious and inaccessible.

My preference, when I’m visiting gardens, is to approach them with an open mind, ‘uncluttered’ by what the experts or the designers have to say.  I read just enough so that I don’t miss interesting, but less obvious elements.  However, as I’ve noted in past posts – ‘The First Renaissance Garden’  was one of the earlier ones – there are some gardens where knowing even a bit about the historical context or the designer’s goal adds a whole new layer of meaning and interest.

I started off at Chaumont by simply taking a photograph of the explanatory plaque by the entrance to each garden, thinking that I would read them all later.  But I quickly became frustrated.  While the gardens were intriguing and unlike anything I had seen before, I had no idea what was going on.  What was the meaning of the marble arabesques around the cacti?  And those golden balls in the giant basket, what were they all about?

I decided to give my normal garden visiting strategy a bit of a tweak.  I would enter a garden, wander around for a while and then go read the plaque.

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Captivating, but what was going on here?

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The tweaked approach wasn’t much better.

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Any ideas?

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No wonder!  I haven’t a clue about most of ‘virtual reality’.  Why would a Garden of Virtual Sins be any different?

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Virtual sins. As obvious as virtual reality.

After a while I started reading the plaques at the outset.  They were so beautifully written, and it really was fascinating to then see how the designers portrayed their messages.

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Was the invitation to get up on the platform meant to be taken literally? Not sure.  There were no takers while I was there.

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The designers have to keep their installations in top shape for over six months. How do they do it?

Some of the designs, like the ‘Canned Garden’, focused on the sins of modern society.

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Strangely beautiful and disconcerting at the same time.

Others were less confrontational.  Lyrical even.

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There had been so much rain some of the gardens were struggling.  This poor fellow spent the entire time I was in the garden trying to fix one of the irrigation pipes.

There had been so much rain some of the gardens were struggling. This poor fellow spent the entire time I was in the garden trying to fix one of the irrigation pipes.

Red, the colour of passion, was bound to show up.

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As with ‘Haute Couture’ I wasn’t sure if you were actually meant to sit down at one of these chairs. Again, there were no takers.

Red, the colour of gluttony.

Red, the colour of gluttony.  And all this time I thought it was the colour of passion.

Some of the gardens, like les Fleurs Maudites below, didn’t do much for me aesthetically, but I did enjoy their ironic take on the theme.

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Psychotropics and plants like digitalis, beneficial if used appropriately, deadly if not, are safely beyond the reach of visitors.

Others were … well, judge for yourself.

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Resurrection or in praise of failure.

A little girl asked her parents, "Mais, qu'est-ce que c'est alors?"  (What is it then?)  My thoughts exactly.

A little girl asked her parents, “Mais, qu’est-ce que c’est alors?” (Whatever is it?) My thoughts exactly.

The most distant source of inspiration, geographically speaking, came from New Zealand.

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Now and then little puffs of smoke came out of the volcano.  I'd seen something similar at Canada Blooms in Toronto earlier that spring.  One of those simple, but irresistible features.

Now and then little puffs of smoke came out of the volcano. I’d seen something similar at Canada Blooms in Toronto earlier that spring. One of those simple, but irresistible features.

Purgatory, an obvious subject, was featured in several gardens.  This one, by a group of Americans, was my favourite.

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And then, of course, there was the Garden of Eden.   There was no mincing of words in this entry from the Netherlands.

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For the first time I was glad for the cool weather. Imagine the stench of all that rubber on a hot, sunny day.

Not far from ‘Paradise Reversed’ was the Jardin des Poules (chickens).  Was this deliberate on the part of the organizers or were the parcelles assigned randomly?

'Unconscious' chickens spend their day pecking for bits of food.

‘Unconscious’ chickens, symbolizing mankind, spend their day pecking for bits of food, while Eden lies in plain sight, but inaccessible, on the other side of the stumps.  This mother held on tightly to her children’s hands as she took them, one at a time, along the path.

By now I was starving.  And in need of the petit coin (literally, ‘little corner’).  Hoping there was some nice place to eat on the premises, I went into the gift shop next to the entrance.  Apart from what looked awfully like a hot dog stand, there was nothing.  As I turned to leave, she asked if I had seen the new permanent collection.  I said no, and was about to say something about going to look for a restaurant when she  interrupted,  “Mais, Madame, ça vaut vraiment la peine!”  OK.  If it was really worth my ‘pain’, it would be a shame to miss it just because my feet were killing me and I was hungry.  Besides, it wasn’t raining.

I set out in the direction she pointed to.

TBC

 

 

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