There were a couple of castle gardens I was a little apprehensive about visiting. Chaumont-sur-Loire was one of them.
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.
“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.
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?”
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‘.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
Some took their inspiration from literature, like the Garden of Harpagon, the miserly protagonist in one of Molière’s plays.
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.
The tweaked approach wasn’t much better.
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.
Some of the designs, like the ‘Canned Garden’, focused on the sins of modern society.
Others were less confrontational. Lyrical even.
Red, the colour of passion, was bound to show up.
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.
Others were … well, judge for yourself.
The most distant source of inspiration, geographically speaking, came from New Zealand.
Purgatory, an obvious subject, was featured in several gardens. This one, by a group of Americans, was my favourite.
And then, of course, there was the Garden of Eden. There was no mincing of words in this entry from the Netherlands.
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?
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.