Right after fermé (closed), next on the list of French words you don’t want to come across are route barrée and déviation. It was early in the morning and I was on my way to Chédigny, (The Village That Tore Up Its Sidewalks). Since there was clearly a car beyond the pylons, and since I had no desire to join the ranks of foolish tourists taken in by such ruses, I continued tout droit (straight ahead).
The French word for ‘challenge’ is défi – as in ‘The forces defy you to get to your destination’. (For you language purists, I know that is technically an incorrect use of the word, but you get what I mean.) After yet another of what were becoming increasingly ugly multi-point turns – this one thankfully under the bemused watch of only one local – I drove back to the corner and obediently followed the Déviation.
Twenty minutes later, still looking for the follow-up sign, I found myself en pleine campagne.
Among the uncharitable thoughts going through my mind at this point was the conviction that there was no way the locals would put up with such a long detour, no matter how beautiful. I turned around and took the first road to the right. When I got back to Deviation Village, I went into the épicerie (grocery store), the only sign of life at that early hour, to ask for directions. And, in clear violation of one of the cardinal rules of the Good Tourist, I confess to giving in to the urge to vent. Just a bit. Rather than getting offended, the young man was actually very apologetic. I was not the first traveller to be led astray. It turned out ‘someone’ had neglected to put up the rest of the signs.
Apart from roadblocks, another challenge to visiting gardens is an annoying obsession the people in charge of these places have with maintenance. Of course this doesn’t apply just to gardens. The Pantheon is my favourite building in Rome and I was looking forward to seeing its sister building in Paris during my May 2014 visit.
To wind down after Villandry I was going to visit a private garden that is open to the public. Since it’s only a few kilometres from Azay-le-Rideau, one of three villages I stayed in while travelling around the Loire, I decided to have a quick look at Azay’s castle – a five-minute walk from the little bistro where I had lunch – and then drive over to the garden.
Anyone who is forced to engage in daily battle with the construction sites that have taken over Toronto lately is sure to have more than a few words to describe how I felt after I’d paid the entrance fee and upon exiting the gift shop/ticket office was met by this scene.
Back at the hotel the receptionist assured me that getting to the garden was “très simple“. I hate it when people say that. Mozart is NOT simple! Anyway I wrote down the ‘simple’ directions and set out for La Chatonnière. The official website lured visitors with promises of ‘enchanting terraced gardens, hidden in a secluded valley with sweeping views across the forest of Chinon and the Indre River’. There was also a comment about it being ‘a carefully guarded secret’, which at the time I took to be just more lyrical fluff.
I found it easily, but as I got closer to the gate, which was at the end of a long, rough dirt road, I could see that it was fermé. I parked the car and went up to a dejected looking young couple standing by the gate. They were French and just as puzzled as I was. Like me, they had checked the opening hours on the website, which declared that the garden was “Ouvert tous les jours de 10h à 20h (dernier accès à 19h) sans interruption, du 1er mars au 15 novembre.” (Open non-stop every day from 10 am to 8 pm (last entrance at 7 pm) from March 1 to November 15.) We peered through the wrought iron gate for a bit and then, more than a little miffed – at least I was – the French couple seemed rather sanguine about it all – maybe they were used to such things – we got back into our cars and left.
Back at the hotel I talked the receptionist into calling the garden to see what was going on. She need a bit of coaxing – I couldn’t tell if it was because of some local tiff or, more likely, that deep-rooted French aversion to being faced with things that weren’t quite comme il faut (the way they should be). And in case you’re wondering why I didn’t just make the call myself, since I speak French, I have found that it’s always a good idea to involve the locals in any situation that has a potential to go south. I do it all the time in Italy and my Italian is a lot better than my French.
After a bit of back and forthing the receptionist passed the phone to me. The person on the other end of the line wished to speak with me. To verify I was a bonafide candidate worthy of being allowed past that locked gate?
It turned out that, notwithstanding what was on the official website, the garden was no longer open to the public at the stated hours. Instead, and also not withstanding all the signs welcoming visitors along the long, rough road into the property, it could, as of some unstated date, only be visited by groups – minimum 10 – by prior arrangement. Look up ‘la Chatonnière’ on Trip Advisor, and you’ll see how this played out with other would-be visitors.
Well, I hadn’t crossed the Atlantic to give up at the first défi. In the end it was agreed that I would return to La Chatonnière the next day at 4 pm, at which time I would be greeted by no less than the Duke himself. I learned this by asking at the end of our conversation to whom it was that I had been speaking. He hesitated and then replied, “Mais je suis le Duc.” (But I am the Duke.) Oh.
When I arrived, promptly at 4 pm, I was surprised to see another couple already at the gate. And instead of the duke, there was a young man struggling to communicate with the couple. I recognized them from the hotel I was staying at. Normally I would have gone up to them and chatted, but from the little I had seen of them, it was apparent they were a very disagreeable pair, so I took off on my own to explore the first garden that visitors see and one of the first created – the Jardin des Sens (Garden of the Senses).
Once he had sent the couple on their way, he hurried over to where I was. It turned out he was an apprentice gardener from Spain who was nearing the end of a six month internship. We chatted a bit about the state of horticulture and garden design in Spain – there didn’t seem to be a lot of money for such things – quelle surprise, given the state of the economy – and then he began what was obviously a well-rehearsed script about the garden. I was quite happy to bumble around on my own, but he insisted I follow the ‘route’. In order to get a proper sense of the gardens.
The path leads up the slope to the Garden of Romances – note the plural – a collier vivant (living necklace) of woven willow covered with climbing roses. It overlooks a labyrinth – that Renaissance playground.
Next to Romance was a garden of medicinal and culinary herbs. I liked that they called it Le Jardin des Sciences Botaniques instead of the usual Jardin des Simples. 80 squares of alternating grass and medical plants fill the area.
Pink and white Dictamnus were the stars when I visited. It struck me as rather elegant, so I was surprised to learn that it’s also known as the ‘gas plant’. It turns out that it produces a methane-like gas which is extremely combustible at high temperatures. Entire plants can be momentarily engulfed in a flash flame. My indispensable travelling tool is a corkscrew, not a lighter, so I couldn’t check this out, but there is a hilarious YouTube in which a gardener ‘fires up’ his plants.
I don’t usually include photos of the ‘scraggly bits’. It seems mean-spirited – like catching someone on film in a fleeting, unflattering moment. But so many negative comments have been written on Trip Advisor about la Chatonnière, including newer parts that are clearly ‘works in progress’, that I decided to include this photo, so you could decide for yourself.
Some of the most scathing comments have to do with the new policy regarding access, and while I do agree that, if you are going to have a website on which you invite the public to visit, common courtesy demands that you keep the conditions under which said public can visit up to date, I do not think the lack of notice warrants the kind of nasty ranting that some contributors apparently feel entitled to. Therefore, I have decided to add my two cents’ worth.
First of all, if you’re looking for perfection, what are you doing in a garden? Stick to the art galleries. They’re full of perfection. Even perfect ‘Still Lifes’. Although, as I’ve said before, the Italian Natura Morta (Dead Nature) strikes me as a much more accurate expression.
Even at Villandry, with its virtual army of gardeners, there were some scraggly bits. A bit of dead boxwood, a few bug-bitten lettuce leaves in the potager, which you have to be a total horticultural misanthrope not to declare spectacular. For the final photo in my post on Villandry (Of Cabbages and Kings), I toyed with the idea of using the photo below, instead of the ‘perfect’ red and white rose I eventually settled on. Maybe I should have gone with the more ‘real’ image.
Secondly, when it comes to private gardens, shouldn’t we just be grateful that the people who own them allow us to traipse through their bits of Eden? I have a post in the wings (which I’ll publish when we get back to Tuscany. Almost there.) in which I talk about the fact that in Italy, the opening up of private gardens to the public is a very recent and still fragile development.
Thirdly, there is the issue of price. Some Trip Advisor contributors object, vehemently, to the 8 € entrance fee charged at la Chatonnière, especially in light of the 6.5 € fee to visit Villandry. Even at an exchange rate of 1.5 euros to the Canadian dollar (why is the Canadian dollar so weak against the euro anyway?), the difference amounts to $2.25. Is it really worth ranting on a website that attracts millions of viewers about an amount that won’t even get you a cup of coffee at your local Starbucks?
Admittedly this vegetable garden is on a much smaller scale than the potager at Villandry, but comparisons are odious, even those that don’t involve our children. And the lettuces are just as gorgeous.
In between the climbing roses I caught glimpses of the potager below. And then it began to dawn on me what I was seeing.
I bring as few notes as possible when travelling (and not one IT gizmo) and had totally forgotten why I had decided to visit this garden.
To paraphrase the old saying that one of the hidden benefits of disorder is that you are constantly making new discoveries, this was an example of one of the hidden benefits of a terrible memory. The delight of ‘discovering’ the whimsical design for myself.
The surrounding field was called le Jardin de la France. The plan was to have sweeping areas of daisies, poppies and cornflowers, the colours of the French flag. But as anyone who has ever tried knows, creating a meadow garden is a lot harder than you’d think.
There was one more area I wanted to have a look at – the Vallon de l’Elégance (Vale of Elegance). OK, maybe they had gone a bit overboard with the naming thing, but just think of some of the names people give to their cottages in the lake district north of Toronto.