If the Hanging Gardens of Marqueyssac (previous post) are an ode , then the gardens of the Manoir d’Eyrignac are a symphony to the colour green.
Depending on what time of day you arrive, you might want to have a bite to eat before you visit the garden. And since you’re in serious gourmet country, why not try some of the delicacies the Périgord is famous for. However…
… be forewarned. If you’re even a bit of a foodie or at all susceptible to the charms of bucolic views, once you sit down it won’t be long before you’re sorely tempted to forget about the garden and simply while away the afternoon sampling more of the region’s culinary delights. Which, of course, you’d have to wash down with more of its wines.
Fortunately, after a while it becomes impossible to resist the temptation to see what lies beyond the manicured field. A strong café and ‘Allons-y!’
If you continue along the path you will come to the Chambre de verdure.
But you won’t continue along to the ‘Green Room’ just yet because a few steps past the arch another path intersects the one you’re on. To the right the new path is quite short, so you can clearly see the structure at the end of it. I haven’t been to China, but it certainly struck me as having a very Chinese air about it. An odd choice, n’est-ce pas?, to put at the entrance to a garden that self-describes as un des rares jardins à la française (one of the rare French gardens) in France today.
As if anticipating the visitor’s puzzlement, the second in of a series of plaques dotted around the property explains.
But I doubt many visitors spend any time meditating in the pagoda because to the left is an amazing sight – the 100-metre long Allée des Charmes. Avenue of the Hornbeams.
It takes six gardeners eight days to trim the ‘avenue’. And since Hornbeam is a fast grower – about 80 cm per year – between the end of May and the end of September, keeping the buttresses in shape requires four, and in some years, even five trims. The gardeners get a bit of a break with the ‘cylinders’. They are yew and only need to be trimmed twice a year.
Given all the trimming that goes on here, you’d think that as you walk around the property you’d be subjected to a cacophony of trimmers and leaf-blowers and all those other wretched machines that are the only unwelcome sign of spring where I live. But this is not just a showpiece garden. This is a jardin passionnément aimé where mere efficiency is not allowed to troubler our tranquillity. All the trimming is done using manual clippers and the leaves are raked up with – rakes. There is only one thing that causes the gardeners to lay down their clippers. Une trop forte chaleur. A sudden, intense hot spell. Leaves that had previously been in the shadows would be burned by the too sudden exposure to the sun.
From the Hornbeam Avenue the path continues past a few more clipped yews…
… and a quartet of potted topiary trees that stand as if on guard in front of an arch…
…that leads into the Chambre de Verdure. The idea of creating a space that offers both intimacy and a sense – illusion? – of our control over nature, as well as views of an endless, untamed nature beyond comes from Leon Battista Alberti, who wrote the definitive guide to Renaissance architecture and garden design. I’m not a fan of the teatro verde as they are called in Italy, but there must have been something about these half-enclosed, half open spaces that appealed to the zeitgeist because they started appearing in all the great gardens of the time. Many, especially in the Renaissance gardens around Florence, have been carefully recreated. My favourites are in the gardens of Villa Gamberaia (The Perfect Renaissance Garden, Sept. 29 and Oct. 6, 2013) and Villa Reale (A ‘Real’ Villa, Dec. 8, 2013). Whether you like them or not, it is surprising to see one here. When Gilles Sermadiras de Pouzols de Lile, started restoring the gardens of Eyrignac in the mid 1960’s after decades of neglect, his goal was to recreate a garden ‘à la française dans l’esprit du 18e‘. Which begs the question – what is an Italian Renaissance teatro verde with views inspired by one of Italy’s greatest architects doing in an 18th century style French garden? Well, like the Chinese pagoda, there is a simple, very reasonable explanation. In the 17th century when construction of the Manoir began – on the ruins of an ancient castle – there were no gardens. It wasn’t until a century later when work on the gardens began. Under the direction of an Italian landscape architect.
Next to the Chambre de Verdure, another surprise. A large, very un-French expanse of lawn with not a bit of topiary or hint of symmetry in sight. We’re at a kind of memorial to the 19th century fad in garden design that originated in England and swept across Europe – like a tidal wave, in the words of the inimitable Edith Wharton – and transformed or, depending on your point of view, destroyed gardens throughout France and Italy, leaving ‘natural’, romantic, park-like creations in its wake. Many property owners who had succumbed to the new fad quickly discovered – no doubt to their dismay – that growing conditions in their gardens were not at all amenable to the English Landscape Style. Unlike in England, summers in the Périgord are intensely hot, and notwithstanding the showers I’d encountered at Marqueyssac, it rarely rains, so the limestone soils tend to be extremely dry. However, in homage to the ultimately impractical style, not only has a small piece of park been kept, but in a part of the world – Italy included – where grass is meant to be seen, not touched, or stomped on, or disturbed in any way – visitors are given, in this one instance only, permission to walk across it.
In the guide I had been given, visitors are urged to go to the top of the steps for a glimpse of the French parterre and especially, to take note of the ‘perspective’ in the foreground. I had no idea what they were talking about and since the steps had obviously been off-limits for some time, I could only see the top bits of the mysterious perspective and nothing at all of the parterre.
Eyrignac is old Occitan dialect for ‘là où l’eau coule.’ (the place where the water flows). In a region where water is a scarce resource, the property is blessed with seven sources (springs), one of which feeds this reflecting pool.
Then I came to the part I was supposed to keep in my mind’s eye. I read the plaque several times, glancing back and forth at the yew pyramids, trying to see the false perspective.
Maybe the false perspective is more apparent from the other end. Maybe you need more distance to see the effect. Or maybe I just don’t have a good enough sense of what a true perspective looks like.
The White Garden marks the edge of the established gardens. Although a great deal of work has already been done – trees felled, brush removed and land levelled – this is where you really begin to grasp the enormous challenge and unimaginable labour that was required to create these gardens. As I’ve said before, maybe you do have to be a bit crazy to be a gardener.
By now, unless you’re one of those annoyingly super fit people, you’ve probably reached the point where you really do think you cannot take one more step. And then, beyond the nursery, off in the far west corner of the property you see the most marvellous sight. It’s mind over matter. And maybe the promise to self of a nice glass of something cool and white on the café terrace.
Patrick Sermadiras, the current owner, came by to watch us oohing and aahing over the plants. Like his father, he had been born on the property and had dedicated his life to maintaining and building on what his father had begun. I overheard him tell the leader of the group I had caught up with that he hoped his son Patrick would continue in their footsteps.
As I watched him watch us, it seemed to me that our obvious enjoyment and appreciation brought him a great deal of pleasure. And, I would say, pride. The good kind of pride, the kind that comes from having created something that helps others forget, even if only for a while, their problems and those of today’s troubled world; that lifts our spirits and renews our faith in mankind’s potential for good. So, un grand merci, Patrick, for opening your gardens for all of us to enjoy.