After Chaumont-sur-Loire I was looking forward to something on a smaller scale. Something I wouldn’t just gawk at, but could actually relate to. I had arranged a visit to le Jardin d’Elsie, a private garden in Chinon.
The garden is on the edge of town to the left of the castle. Easy to find if you know what to look for. Not so easy if you’re a first time visitor and you’re navigating solo. I spotted the sign on my third drive-by. This meant that I had to keep on going until I could get turned around at the next rond pont. (round bridge).
I have a love-hate relationship with these things. The big city ones are enough to fray even the steeliest of nerves, but the little ones are wonderful. Like those bright yellow suns we used to draw. With all the little sunbeams bursting from the centre. You just keep going round and round until you figure out which ‘sunbeam’ you’re supposed to take.
From my window table at Café de la Paix one day I watched traffic make its way around the tiny circle. The traffic in both directions has to CEDEZ LE PASSAGE. This creates some interesting encounters.
I followed the narrow side road to another sign. It pointed to a high gate in a gorgeous shade of smoky green. I looked around. There was no bell. No button to press to speak with someone inside. Feeling like an intruder – and hoping there were no dogs – I lifted the latch and tentatively pushed the gate open a bit. There was one car parked in a small gravelled area. I opened the gate as wide as it would go, hurried back to my car, which I had reluctantly left blocking half of the very narrow road, did a truly ugly 5 or 6 point turn to get myself lined up at right angles to the gate – hoping all the while that no local would decide to come down the road at that moment – and gingerly drove through. No problem. There were at least two inches on either side of the car to spare.
There was still no-one in sight, so I closed the gate and went through a small opening in the dense foliage surrounding the little parking area.
Still feeling like an intruder, I continued towards the villa. Just after I took the photo below, Elsie came out.
We exchanged ‘Bonjour’s’ and then she asked if I wanted her to take me through the garden or if I preferred to tour it on my own, after which she would make us coffee and I could ask any questions I had. When I said I preferred to découvrir (discover) a garden on my own, she smiled. “Vous êtes des vrais alors.” (“You’re one of the real ones then.”) She handed me a map of the garden and then looked down at my shoes. They were going to get wet, she warned me. It wouldn’t be the first time, I replied. She laughed. A good start.
I love exploring gardens on my own. I also enjoy guiding visitors through gardens back home. One more instance of Homo sapiens parodoxalis?
I was tempted to check out the view from this solitary chair, but couldn’t find a path. As Elsie had warned, my shoes were already soaked. It had poured – again – during the night.
The property had once been a vineyard, but when Elsie bought it, there was nothing. In the early days she would often eat dinner in the courtyard – a totally pleasant experience – apart from the staring eyes of her neighbour on the other side of the D751. “Il pouvait même voir ce qu’il y avait sur mon assiette”. (He could even see what was on my plate).
Later, after I’d toured the whole garden Elsie brought out coffee as promised. I had a few questions, but Elsie didn’t need much prompting. I sat there entranced for the next hour as she told me about the garden, roses and her life.
Born in Antwerp, Elsie De Raedt studied to be a translator. With French, German and Néerlandais (not Hollandais, which I had previously thought was the word for ‘Dutch’) she quickly built up a successful practice in Brussels, which in addition to producing chocolates and beer, is also the main operating base for the European Union and the Headquarters for NATO. But as she approached the treacherous middle age crisis years, she realized that translating was not what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.
She made the transition gradually. She attended weekend workshops on landscape and garden design. Antwerp wasn’t just the right place to be born if you wanted to be a translator. It was also the home town of Jacques Vert (I think I’ve got the name right), the pre-eminent garden designer of the time. Elsie continued to gagner sa vie as a translator, while she started to accept commissions to design gardens.
“On fait bien ce qu’est la passion. On arrive au top“, she observed. (You do well what your passion is. You arrive at the …) Then she hesitated. She explained that she was puzzled, even a bit uncomfortable, at the thought of someone who was touring all the grand castle gardens looking at her garden which was, she cautioned me, “pas parfait” (not perfect). I assured her that even though most people can’t resist the over-the-top extravaganzas, we also appreciate ‘real’ gardens like hers just as much, maybe even more.
With time she became an expert en roses anciennes. She was invited to give lectures not just in Belgium, but throughout the Loire Valley, the rose capital of France. She spent less and less time translating until eventually she became a full-time paysagiste.
She received many invitations to the Loire castles. The old gardeners were dying off and with them their intimate knowledge of the ancient roses in their care. The current owners often had no idea what roses were growing in their gardens, let alone how to take care of what they knew was a priceless horticultural patrimoine (heritage).
After a few years of designing gardens for others, Elsie decided she wanted to create a garden of her own. She started looking for a suitable property in Antwerp. But the properties for sale were either too small or exorbitantly expensive. Then one day, she asked herself, Why Belgium? Why not le pays du Loire, where she was already spending so much time giving lectures and consulting?
One of the questions I had for Elsie had to do with a circle of tree trunks painted in bright red. She laughed, “Je voulais chaumonisé un peu mon jardin.” (I wanted to chaumonize my garden a bit.) She hastened to clarify that this was not a real word. From a design point of view she liked the way the reds complemented each other, but it was also a bit of a set-up. She wanted to make sure visitors had at least one question to ask her.
I had loved the garden festival at Chaumont. I wondered what a professional like her would think of it. It turned out that even though she thought some of the installations were complètement sottes (totally idiotic), she loved it too. Went every year. She hadn’t been this year yet. Was waiting for her sister to join her. Thought it was more fun visiting with a friend. I agreed. As much as I enjoy visiting gardens on my own, I could see that Chaumont would be even more enjoyable in the company of someone to ‘ooh and aah’ with.
In addition to the boxwood rose, Elsie had urged me to have a look at the colombière.
She hadn’t mentioned anything about all the wine bottles.
The area around the castle of Chinon is riddled with ancient tunnels. Escape routes. This may have been the exit to one of them. It is also where modern day plumbers had installed some very unattractive piping. Since she was in wine country, Elsie decided to close up the unsightly hole with empty wine bottles.
When I asked about the nest-like clumps in the trees, she gave me an odd look. “C’est du guy”. (ghee.) I still had no idea. She had obviously over-estimated either my French or my plant ID skills. Probably both. Seeing that I was totally mystified, for the first and only time, she slipped into English. “Mistletoe.”
The only mistletoe balls I’d seen before were the ones people hung over doorways around Christmas. The ones you were supposed to kiss under. I didn’t know it actually grew as a ball. I was skeptical. But she assured me it was indeed mistletoe. Thinking of the ivies that strangle to death hapless trees back home, I asked if it killed the host tree. That’s what most people think, she replied, but in reality, rather than harming the host tree, if anything, the mistletoe prolongs its life. Since I had already revealed myself to be one of ‘those’ people, she went on to explain. The mistletoe seed needs a nice, thick bark to take root in. The kind of bark that is found only on older trees. Trees that have maybe ten more years to live. For nourishment the seed absorbs a bit of the sèvre (sap). This causes the sap to s’activer en plus – shakes it out of its arboreal doldrums – which re-energizes the tree, thus prolonging its life.
While we were having coffee, a woman came up to the table and started talking with Elsie. She was holding three roses in her hand. Roses she had obviously picked from Elsie’s garden. Elsie seemed totally unperturbed. Instead she asked where the woman had found them. Near the greenhouse perhaps? They examined the colour and fragrance. Elsie was confident one of them was Bouquet Parfait. But she wasn’t sure about the others. Wasn’t one of them usually a bit lighter in colour? I felt rather odd, sitting there as they continued their rather lengthy discussion. But I had a feeling that this too was part of what was turning out to be a most enjoyable and unique garden visit.
After the woman left, Elsie turned to me and explained. It was her femme de ménage (cleaning lady). Un trésor who had been with her since she arrived. When she’s finished for the day, she goes through the garden, sees if there are any roses she wants – or doesn’t already have – and places her order. Over the years she has accumulated quite a collection. Vous êtes sure que vous avez encore de la place?, Elsie had teased her. (You’re sure you still have room left?) Later on Elsie will go out into the garden and make sure she has correctly identified the roses her cleaning lady wants. On her next trip to Belgium, where her rose propagating business is located, she will ensure that this morning’s order is taken care of.
On my way out, I thought about what she had said – “On fait bien ce qu’est la passion.”