Green energy, green building codes, green political parties – it’s almost got to the point where you have to use air quotes if you want to talk about what goes on between blue and yellow on the colour spectrum. Except for one day, March 17, when green in all its bilious shades – such a difficult colour to wear – makes an annual, world-wide comeback. A day when glasses overflow with green foamy liquids and prestigious architectural wonders – the London Eye, Sydney Opera House, Leaning Tower of Pisa – are lit up in shades redolent of guacamole, peas and limes. Not even the Pyramids or the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro are spared. And perhaps the most lurid sight of all – the green river running through Chicago. (The officials insist the dye is non-toxic, but you have to wonder where all that green water goes. Does the dye just disintegrate?) If you’re not keen on any of the above but would still like to pay tribute to the green saint, here’s an idea that will not leave you feeling green long after the festivities are over – a visit to a garden that is a veritable ode to green. It’s in the Dordogne region of south western France.
La Dordogne is a region of castles and prehistoric caves and charming medieval villages with colourful, bustling markets, that doesn’t (yet) have the crowds – and prices – of Provence.
British travellers tend to be much more familiar with the region than North Americans. Maybe something to do with the Hundred Years’ War. Or perhaps the resemblance to the villages that once dotted rural areas of their native country.
Saint-Cirq Lapopie is so dripping with charm I wasn’t surprised to learn that it is one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. But when I also saw it described as le Village Préféré des Français I was confused. What is the difference between a beautiful village and a favourite village? Is one more prestigious than the other? On my way to the gardens of Italy and France I’ve visited quite a few villages. At the entrance to some of them are plaques bearing the ‘Plus Beaux Villages‘ logo (in Italy – I Borghi Più Belli). Some of them were indeed beautiful. Others left me wondering what I was missing, and still others struck me as the quintessence of charm and yet there wasn’t a plaque in sight.
I decided to dig around a bit, see what was up with the two designations. Maybe I would learn something that would help me avoid the not so beautiful beaux villages. What I discovered offered an interesting insight into marketing in today’s tourism industry, but as a surefire guide as to which places, as Michelin puts it, ‘mérite le détour, the exercise was not as enlightening as I’d hoped.
It turns out that Les Plus Beaux Villages de France is an independent association. The goal of the member villages is ‘to make the exceptional quality of their heritage known and recognized and to invite you to encounter their history, their land, their culture and their inhabitants.’ It was established in the early 1980’s as a way of revitalizing villages that were dying and/or had been largely bypassed by national tourism campaigns. Interestingly, a village is considered ‘dead’ when most of the houses are either in ruins and thus uninhabitable or have been restored as holiday homes for foreigners or French citizens. The overall improvement of life in rural France and the return of meaningful economic activity are high on the association’s agenda. Turning villages into open-air museums or museum-villages is a no-no. I was reminded of what the mayor of Chédigny had said about the risks of making your village too beautiful and thereby attracting too many tourists. (‘The Village That Tore Up Its Sidewalks’, Aug. 10, 2014) Since it was established in the early 1980’s, the association has been a huge success. After joining, some villages have seen their revenue from tourism increase by as much as 50%. As of 2015 155 villages (out of a total of 32, 000 in all France) had joined and the plan is to cap membership at 200. All of which is of course wonderful. Admirable. But – there always seems to be a but – it is the nitty gritty of how membership is gained that explains the – let’s call them ‘anomalies’.
There are no contests, no Michelin-style inspectors who go around the country looking for up and coming beautiful villages. In a nutshell, if you want to join, you apply and provided you meet a few criteria, you’re probably in. And the criteria? The population of your village, which must be in a rural location, cannot surpass 2,000 and you must have at least two national heritage sites within your walls and finally, the majority of the villagers must support the application. Which means that an ambitious and dedicated mayor and a few equally ambitious and dedicated villagers can make all the difference as to whether a village seeks – or in some cases declines – membership. Which explains the ‘anomalies’.
And France’s Favourite Village? That one is an actual contest, held once a year by the French TV station, France 2. Twenty-two villages are entered in the competition, one from each region of mainland France and viewers vote for their favourite. In 2012 the winner was Saint-Cirq Lapopie. The financial boost to the local economy was undoubtedly huge. Like the Plus Beaux Villages the stakes are high; even getting in the top five can bring enormous benefits. But I was glad things had quietened down by the time I visited in 2014. I wouldn’t have wanted to have been anywhere near the tiny village when the tourists – over 400,000, most of them French – started arriving that year.
You could happily spend your entire holiday visiting the villages of Dordogne, preferably on market day, as well as a few caves – don’t miss Lascaux! – and there would still be lots left over for a return trip. But for this horticultural salute to St. Patrick, we’re off to visit one of the Dordogne’s great, green gardens. It’s about 80 km north of Saint-Cirq Lapopie – but on the narrow, twisting roads and with lots of stops for photos, it takes at least an hour and a half. The garden is on a ridge overlooking another remarkable village – Roque Gageac.
The region is named for the wide river that flows by the village – the Dordogne River. For centuries the region had been known as le Périgord, but after the Revolution, when all of France was divided into ‘manageable’ régions and départements, the powers that be in Paris renamed if for the river. Confusingly, maybe only for tourists, the French often seem to prefer the ancient name.
By the time I arrived at Les Jardins Suspendus de Marqueysssac, dark clouds had moved in from east. Now and then I could hear the unmistakable rumblings of thunder.
The skies to the west still looked fine. Maybe the weather would hold and I’d have time to tour the whole garden. It was much smaller than most – less than one kilometre from one end of the ridge to the other. But there’d be no retracing steps. No dawdling. No lingering over views. Oh dear.
In French the gardens are suspendus. In English they hang. Although the English term seems rather graceless compared to the French, both words mean essentially the same thing, a hodgepodge of unappealing attributes – dangling, drooping, flapping, flopping, floppy, loose, pendent, suspended, swinging, unattached, unsupported. The secondary meanings are equally unattractive – undecided, unresolved, up in the air. Nomenclature notwithstanding, like the original Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which by all accounts did not flap or droop, the ‘Hanging Gardens of Marqueyssac’ are a marvel and an intriguing testament to mankind’s desire to tame – dominate? – nature.
It all started at the end of the 17th century when the first of a long line of Marqueyssac’s – the property has been owned by the same family since then – decided to create a series of terraces around the castle. But as often happens, it took the arrival of one individual who was not only passioné about gardening, but following an extended trip to Italy, also passionato about all things Italian (funny how that happens), to bring the gardens to a whole new level. After he inherited the property in 1861, Julien de Cerval set about transforming what had been a rather simple potager into a garden like those he had seen in Italy.
He started planting cypresses, Maritime Pines and buis. Boxwood. Lots of boxwood. Tens of thousands of them. From a strictly horticultural point of view it was the perfect choice for the exposed ridge. Box is extremely drought resistant and adapted avec obstination to the limestone soil. By the late 1990’s, when the garden was first opened to the public, there were over 150,000 boxwood plants in the manicured jardins around the castle and in the ‘untamed’, forested area – le parc – at the far end of the ridge. All of which are trimmed twice a year. By hand. Using manual clippers. Because electric trimmers grind the leaves and turn them yellow.
From the Rosemary Path you can take one of three paths to the Belvedère at the far end of the ridge. Given the dark clouds, I decided to take the Promenade des Falaises, the Cliff Walk, on my way out – minus the Via Ferrrata; I wasn’t about to have my first try at rock climbing in the Dordogne – and the Grande Allée on my way back. If it rained I figured the forest would provide at least a bit of shelter.
I headed for the forest.
In May the garden was a uniform palette of green, so I was surprised to learn that the entire forest floor had been planted with wild cyclamen, the fall-blooming kind I had come across in the forested mountains overlooking the Amalfi coast. The Latin name, Cyclamen hederifolium, refers to the ivy (edera in Italian) shaped leaves. Curiously, the common name in French is Cyclamen de Naples. Perhaps an early French tourist saw them for the first time in the same mountains as I had.
The Grande Allée dates from the 18th century when a military officer wanted a run where he could exercise his horses.
Back at the gardens I was tempted to check out the labyrinth.
But then I heard the anxious voices of tourists struggling to find the way out, which dampened my interest significantly. As it was, the skies opened a few minutes after I took the photo below and I was not damp, but drenched by the time I reached my car.
Next: Since we’re on the topic – one more take on the green theme