Life in the Shadow of the Castles

Chaumont-sur-Loire, the castle with one of my favourite gardens.

Castles like Chaumont-sur-Loire cast a long shadow.

It was my last day in the Loire and I had a few free hours.   Maybe I could visit a vineyard or two after all.  As I strolled around the little village of Azay-le-Rideau, pondering this idea, I stumbled across the Office de Tourisme.  The lengths they go to, to hide these things, never ceases to amaze me.  Same thing in Italy, which, despite all the wonders France had to offer, I was beginning to long for.

I went inside, thinking I might find a couple of brochures, maybe even a map to the vineyards.  There was nobody around.  Then a young woman rushed in, carrying a sign that had been discreetly placed where tourists were unlikely to see it.  She looked at me in surprise.  What was I doing in there?  (To be fair, she didn’t actually say this, but the look on her face gave her away.)  The office was fermé (closed).   Rather than heading politely to the door, I followed her as she went around closing up shop, and asked about the vineyards. After a while of this she relented.  But instead of vineyards, she urged me to visit another kind of place, that was, she assured me,  très intéressant, and was only a 10-minute drive from Azay.  Much closer than any of the vineyards.  It was a village of troglodyte dwellings called Goupillières.

So far, all the places I had visited on the recommendation of locals had turned out to be well worth a change of plans. I decided to follow her advice.  Besides I didn’t know what troglodyte (troag-low-deet) meant.  Turns out it’s the same word in English.  I didn’t know what that meant either at the time.   It means ‘cave dwelling’.


First view of Matera, inhabited by humans since the Palaeolithic era.

I had seen cave dwellings several years earlier in Matera, on my way to Puglia from the Amalfi Coast.   In late October the sun sets surprisingly early in southern Italy, so I made sure to leave so that I would arrive while it was still daylight.  I hadn’t counted on a traffic accident. By the time I arrived it was pitch dark.

When I got up the next morning, I was dismayed to see … nothing.  The city was covered in a thick blanket of nebbia (fog).


On my way to the breakfast room – everything is better after a cappuccino or two – I stopped by the reception desk.  Just out of curiosity.  I had never been to this part of Italy.  Maybe the Amalfi Coast was so consistently sunny because the moist air never got past the mountains surrounding Matera?   The signora was remarkably cheery – and polite – when I asked my ridiculous question.   She was probably used to inane questions from tourists.  “Non si preoccupi!” (Don’t worry.)  By noon the fog would have lifted and it would be cielo azzurro (clear, blue sky) all around.  Given how thick the fog was, this seemed highly unlikely, but I certainly couldn’t go anywhere by car, so I decided to explore the parts of the old town I could still see.

Matera has been occupied by humans since the Palaeolithic era.  It is in the middle of nowhere, which was its big attraction.  The other attraction was tufa, a soft limestone which made carving caves to live in back-breaking, but possible.  For anyone fleeing persecution it was ideal.  During the Middle Ages, when various armies from northern Europe were rampaging up and down the coasts of Italy, it became a refuge, first for hermit monks, then entire monastic communities, primarily from the east.  Over the centuries these monks dug out over one hundred Chiese Rupestri (Cave Churches), one of the main attractions nowadays.  But it was hard to get around in the fog and I didn’t want to fall on the uneven, slippery alleys.  The tourist site closest to my hotel was a refurbished cave, done up to look like a typical dwelling.  I set out for Vico Solitairio.


The chimney of a cave dwelling below pops up in the middle of the front door terrace of the dwellings above.

Like Positano on the Amalfi Coast, Matera is vertical.  The similarities end there.  The houses are laid out according to a plan called ‘Spontaneous Urban Design’, a fancy name for higgledy piggledy.  To get anywhere is like playing ‘Snakes and Ladders’ in real life.  You go up and down narrow stairways that lead to small flat areas which are the roofs of the dwellings below.


Interior of a cave dwelling in Vico Solitario – typical except for the fresh coat of whitewash, electric lighting, as well as the total absence of mould or stench from the animals that lived side by side with the human inhabitants.


In the mid 1930’s Carlo Levi, a doctor, writer and painter from Turin in northern Italy, was banished by Mussolini’s Fascist government to a village in this remote, desolate region.  In 1945 he published his memoir of life during that year of internal exile – ‘Cristo si è fermato a Eboli‘ (Christ Stopped at Eboli.)  Eboli is a town to the west, not far from the eastern border of the Amalfi Coast.  The title is a metaphor for the mind-numbing destitution and depravity of life in a village that Christ, and with him, civilization, never reached.  After World War II, of all the villages in Italy, Matera was one of the most problematic for the country.  Overcrowding, unsanitary conditions – the cave dwellers still lived side by side with their animals – and the lack of running water or electricity finally led the government to evacuate the remaining inhabitants in 1952.


As the signora at my hotel knew it would, the fog eventually cleared.

This drastic measure – many of the inhabitants had to be forcibly removed – eventually led to renewal and a measure of prosperity for the town.  In 1994 the cave dwellings were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  As one Italian journalist proudly wrote, “The Sassi are no longer a symbol of misery and national shame, but a testimony of an ancient civilization now open to the eyes of the world.”


That lumpy bit to the left with the cross on it is a church – Santa Maria de Idris.


Mel Gibson filmed ‘The Passion of Christ’ in Matera, which is also known as la Città dei Sassi (City of Stones).

Matera may have been perfect for those seeking refuge from wars and religious persecution in the past, but it is a strange place for a garden lover to visit today.  Apart from moss and a few plants growing out of cracks, it is utterly devoid of greenery.  After just one day I was glad to leave.


Palaeolithic caves on the other side of the ravine.

So when I set out that last afternoon in the Loire Valley, I was looking forward to see what cave dwellings à la française would look like.  My heart sank when I arrived at the very large, very empty parking lot of Goupillières.  Maybe I should have gone to the vineyards after all.


A plaque at the entrance sets the tone.

The division of Medieval society into those who worked and paid taxes (90% of the population – sound familiar?), those who fought and those who prayed struck me as somewhat original.  The sympathies of the writer were obviously with the first group, the peasants, who were écrasés (sounds much more compelling than ‘crushed’) with taxes.  Calling the taxes for the use of the mill, oven and wine press (all owned by the Seigneur) ‘banalités’ seemed particularly mean-spirited.

IMG_4611 - Version 3

If I were to go back in time, there was only one class that looked at all appealing, despite the off-putting subtitle  – ‘those who fought’.   Have a look and see which group you would have wanted to belong to.

When I first heard the word Troglodyte, I took it for one of those words that get what I call the ‘phonetic translation’ treatment.  You take a French word – say – autarcie, tweak a vowel or two to give it more of an English look and Voila! you have ‘autarcy’.  I had never come across ‘autarcy’ either, but there it was on the plaque.   Am I alone in not knowing this stuff?…

Unlike Troglodyte, ‘autarcy‘ was a good try, but no cigar! (or maybe that expression has joined the rather long list of current politically incorrect expressions.  Not sure.)   In any event, in the interests of keeping an open mind about such things, I plodded through the online dictionaries in search of ‘autarcy’.  (Sorry to disappoint the purists out there, but it is so-o-o much easier than flipping through the pages of the mammoth real thing;  besides, so many of the biggies are online now anyway –  Merriam Webster, Collins, Larousse, Dizionario Garzanti)  After a while I came across ‘autarchy’.  Never heard of that one either.  Apparently it’s a synonym (obsolete?) for ‘autocracy’.   Eventually I found ‘autarky’.  It means ‘self-sufficient’, which is what those cave dwelling Troglodytes were. (But I’d be careful throwing that one around.  It can also mean ‘reactionary, deliberately ignorant (people are deliberately ignorant?!) or old-fashioned’).


Nature had been given carte blanche here.

This French village of cave dwellings was eerily similar and yet drastically different from what I had seen in Italy.  For one thing, unlike the desolate landscape of Matera’s cave dwellings, these were set in a fantastically lush valley.  True, the rain which had started on the way over made everything seem even greener, but even if it had been a hot sunny day the dominant colour would have been, not grey, but a wonderfully vibrant green.


There are lots of animals, typical of the ones that would have been raised centuries ago, which makes Goupillières a popular destination for school field trips.  Hence the enormous parking lot.

IMG_4591 IMG_4590

The caves were discovered fairly recently, in 1962, by a 10 year-old boy who was playing in what was then a neglected, overgrown valley.  Over the next twenty years Louis-Marie Chardon would return to the valley whenever he could.   His explorations would lead to the discovery of three ancient Troglodyte farms.  After he inherited the family property in 1984, he began to clear the valley in earnest and in 2000 he opened the site to the public.


The stark contrast between these cave dwellings and the magnificent castles nearby was unsettling.


Apart from the lushness of the surroundings, the other thing I liked was there had been no attempt made – or as little attempt as is hygienically possible – to sanitize things. But perhaps that had something to do with the fact that there was nowhere near the sense of national shame associated with the cave dwellings in Matera.



Iris were planted on the roof to hold the soil. On the left, barely visible, steps carved in the rock allowed access whenever the rooftop garden needed tending.


Doesn’t the roof look like it’s going to cave in any moment?



There was something about the goose in the foreground that caused me to linger a moment.


Ah hah! Who knew they were born yellow? (not this city girl!)


Nature probably has some very good reason for the bright yellow feathers of the chick. To make them easier to see? But it’s not as if they’re in a snow pile…


There had been no sign of life when I went by this cave earlier.

There had been no sign of life when I went by this cave earlier.


Not at all shy.


Even posed for the camera.

I’m always up for a wine tour, but I was glad that I had instead decided to spend my last few hours in the Loire Valley here, in this lush valley, surrounded by the caves that had provided the building material for all the castles I’d visited.

Normally my next post would be of the gardens I next visited on my way south to Provence. But as wonderful as the French gardens, people, food and wine were, when it came time to return to Canada, I found myself pining for Italy.  This yearning only got more intense in the days after my return and eventually, I took Oscar Wilde’s advice for dealing with temptation.  I gave in.  I booked a flight to Rome and started looking at agriturismi and simple hotel rooms along the Amalfi Coast. Places where I could mingle with the locals, take a couple of cooking classes, visit lemon groves, see what the gardens look like in fall and generally immerse myself in the local culture.

So … since I travel without a computer, or any other electronic gizmos, I won’t be posting anything for the next couple of weeks.  Until then, Arrivederci!


Bay of Naples and Vesuvius from Sorrento, the first stop on my journey to the Amalfi Coast..



An Abbey Run by Women and Other Diversions

One of the great things about visiting the gardens of countries like France and Italy is that whenever you need a break from the gardens – and, as beautiful as they are, this does happen – there is a tantalizing embarrass du choix when it comes to diversions from all things horticultural.  Often you don’t have to go further than the front door of your hotel.


The tiny historic centre of Chinon is perfect for a late afternoon stroll after a day of visiting gardens.


How it all survived World War II is beyond me.


In some places ‘new’ 15th and 16th century buildings huddle against the half-timber buildings of the Middle Ages.


A less fortuitous blending of the centuries. You have to wonder how these neighbours get along.


And above the historic centre, what is left of Chinon’s once great castle.

At street level the Château de Chinon doesn’t look like much.  But don’t be fooled.  Remember that photo of the castle from the other side of the river (“Elsie’s Garden”)? And after a massive four-year reconstruction project costing 14.5 million euros – that’s almost 22 million Canadian at the rate I’ve been charged lately – it’s a fascinating place to visit when you need a break from gardens.   However, anyone travelling with a history buff, be forewarned.  All those hours your companion has spent traipsing around castle gardens with you are about to be redeemed.

A large part of the reconstruction involved the creation of museums dedicated to the castle’s long and event-packed history.  Several rooms portray the story of the ill-fated Knights Templar.

By the end of the 13th century, of all the Christian military orders, the Ordre du Temple was the most powerful and wealthy.  Much of their wealth was derived from loans made to various European monarchs.  This was to be their undoing.   In order to finance a succession of wars – mainly in the pursuit of strengthening the monarchy – King Philip IV became heavily indebted to the Templiers.  Faced with the disagreeable prospect of having to repay this debt one day, he resorted to an age-old solution.  He charged the order with heresy, had all the knights who had the misfortune to be in France at the time arrested, thrown into the bowels of the castle and tortured – all of which is displayed in gory detail.  The resulting ‘confessions’ gave the king the pretext he needed to suppress the order and seize all its assets.  Debt gone.


At the top of the 14th century Tour de l’Horloge (Clock Tower), the white mantle and distinctive red cross of the Templars.

This is also where, in 1429, France’s favourite heroine, Joan of Arc, was first put to the test by a sceptical royal court.  After a harrowing 11-day ride, she arrived at the castle and was immediately taken to the royal throne and presented to the Dauphin.  But rather than kneeling before this figure, she turned to a peasant in the crowd, who, as you history buffs will know, was the real Dauphin, and future king Charles VII, disguised to discredit Joan’s claims that heavenly voices were guiding her.

Imposing from any angle.

Imposing from any angle.

This was the favourite castle of Henry II and the birthplace of his most famous son, Richard the Lionheart.   It’s about this point that I become totally muddled.  The Plantagenêts, ‘aka’ the Counts of Anjou were, as the name suggests, French.  So far so good.  But one of the French counts marries Matilda, daughter of the English King Henry I and they have a son, another Henry, who is married to Eleanor of Aquitaine and after a while he is crowned King of England, the net result of which is that the King of England and the founder of the Plantagenêt dynasty are one and the same person.  It gets worse.


Reconstructed remains of the Chateau du Milieu. The name sounds so intriguing in French, it seems a shame to translate – Castle in the Middle. It really is in the middle of the fortress complex.

Visitors are encouraged to take advantage of guided tours.  On the day I visited this consisted of an extremely energetic, young guide delivering a script jam-packed with events and dates and personnages who seemed to fill their days betraying, killing and otherwise making life miserable for each other. All delivered at bullet speed. En français.

I don’t think I would have been able to follow all the intrigues any better even if the tour had been in English.  Maybe it would have helped if I’d known a bit more about the history beforehand.  As to the other members of the group – all French – they seemed totally at ease with the torrent of events.  Even asked some challenging questions.   From what I had seen of the French educational system, they had probably started memorizing all this stuff from their first day in school.  History is treated differently on the other side of the Atlantic.


Cypresses. An unusual sight in the Loire Valley.

I did get in one good question.  Of course it had nothing to do with history.  What were the cypresses doing in the garden?  She smiled, just the faintest hint of surprise crossed her face.  From the no doubt stupefied expression on my face as I followed the group around, she probably figured I hadn’t understood a word.  The cypresses were indeed an anomaly. They had been added later, when the Renaissance gardens of Italy became all the rage.


View from the castle of Chinon’s historic centre and the Vienne River.

Sometimes you get lucky and there is a festival.  I could see lots of activity on the other side of the river.  It was just a 20-minute walk to the bridge.  All downhill.


Flat-bottomed gabares, the main mode of transportation for centuries.


Despite a series of sudden downpours, a good crowd had come out to see traditional crafts…


…and enjoy some traditional songs.

One of the diversions I had planned was to visit the largest and best preserved medieval abbey in Europe.  But for this, I had to go further afield.

The abbey is so large I can't get it all in one photo.

The Abbey of Fontevraud is so large that, even standing by the fence that encloses it, I couldn’t get it all in one photo.

As soon as I arrived, I knew it had been well worth the drive from Chinon – all 15 minutes of it.  And on top of the fabulous architecture, the Abbaye de Fontevraud was exceptional in that it was run by women.

But first, what was that bizarre structure to the left of the main building?


For a long time historians didn’t know what to make of it.  In the end, it was a Brit who solved the mystery.  An English archeologist, John Parker, had come across similar structures in England.  It’s a kitchen.


There was a lovely little border of perennials around the base of the ‘kitchen’. And not a rose in sight!

La Tour Evraud was used primarily for smoking the fish consumed at the abbey.


Depending on the winds, fires would be lit in one abside or another…


…and the smoke would circulate savamment (nicely, like a good child) throughout the entire space.

As extraordinary as the kitchen is, there is something even more extraordinary about the abbey.  It was always headed by an abbesse.   That’s right – a female.  According to my guide book, the founder of the abbey was a ‘visionary itinerant preacher’.  ‘Visionary’ seems a mild term for the Middle Ages.  ‘Radical’ is more like it.


Reflecting the abbey’s feminine nature, lots of women are featured in the frescos decorating the walls of the Chapter House.

At the time, being head of a Abbaye Royale like Fontevraud would have been a highly attractive opportunity for intelligent, noble women whose career options were otherwise limited to marriages arranged by their ‘lords’, ie. fathers, whose sole purpose was to further the ambitions of said lord or their male siblings.


The halls of the Chapter House open on to the hortus conclusus, the enclosed garden typical of the Middle Ages.

IMG_4512 - Version 2

But whatever are these decidedly unMiddle Age creatures doing here?


The Kitchen Tower. Even more remarkable from the rear.

To reach the entrance of the abbey church, you have to retrace your steps, which gives you a chance to see the Tour Evraud from another angle.


Grotesques on the columns at the church entrance. To scare off evil spirits undaunted by the prayers of the devout.


Eleanor of Aquitaine, the most famous of Fontevraud’s abbesses.  Lying next to her for all eternity, hubbie Henry II, who may have loved living in the royal castle of Chinon, but seems to have hedged his bets when it came to the afterlife.

Instead of the elaborate coffins and statues one usually finds in a medieval church, there are painted effigies of the abbey’s VIP’s lying on the floor in the middle of the nave.   It seemed somehow undignified.

By now my time in the Loire Valley was almost up.  Before heading south for the gardens of Provence, there were two more sites I had to visit.  The first was the castle that was the inspiration for ‘Sleeping Beauty’ – more precisely, for the version of the tale that most of us are familiar with – the one by the 17th century French author, Charles Perrault.


Château d’Ussé had worked its magic on Perrault during a brief stay.

As a child, I am sure the idea of there being multiple versions of  ‘Sleeping Beauty’ – or of any of the fairy tales we were read – would have been unimaginable.  Even as an adult, it is a vaguely unsettling idea.  No doubt the version by the Brothers Grimm, published  a century later, had a much darker plot line than Perrault’s.


Enormous tapestries line the entrance hall. Here a village wedding. A bit on the earthy side, but probably a realistic depiction.

In an earlier version, a lovestruck prince does not wake up the sleeping princess with a gentle kiss.  No, no, no.  He has his way with her.  (Psychologists must have a field day with this one.) She somehow sleeps through the whole thing (?!) and only wakes up nine months later when the baby she has just given birth to starts sucking her finger and the splinter that plunged her into the century-long nap comes out.


One of the disadvantages of not reading the pamphlets you’re given at these places is that you sometimes end up spending time in a place you would have normally bypassed for some other activity – like sitting in the village square with a glass of something local.   I didn’t realize the castle was populated with wax effigies.  I’ve never liked wax museums. There is something creepy about the figures.


Despite the creepy factor, I had to admit, these were beautifully done.

The upper floor was filled with children running in delight from room to room.  This is where the fairy tale was portrayed.  It also was well done and if I’d been a child I would have been running and shrieking too.


Roses were trained up the walls of the elegant courtyard.

It’s a funny thing about names.  I had always known this tale as ‘Sleeping Beauty’.  So when I first came across ‘La Belle au Bois Dormant’, it seemed somehow wrong.  Totally irrational of course.  The tale was first written in French, for heaven’s sake.  But there it was, this feeling that the ‘real’, true name was the one I had grown up with.  Also the emphasis was all wrong.  It was the princess dormant, not the forest, that mattered.


When I was living in Italy, I first heard a saying.  There are probably countless versions of this saying throughout different cultures, but as someone who had grown up surrounded, immersed in the only language that mattered, that was real – please add as many air quotes as you like – I had never heard,  let alone contemplated the concept underlying it before.  Cambia lingua, cambia personalità.  (Change your language, change your personality.)  I have often wondered about this.  Do things change when we call them by a different name?


Luckily, all you have to do is ruffle your r’s a bit and even in France “A rose is a rose is a rose.”



Roses, Resolutions and Treasure

Montrésor is the name of the village I’m visiting today.  When I first heard the name I thought it meant ‘My Treasure’.  It wasn’t on my original itinerary.  I only learned about it at breakfast.  The couple at the table next to me had been there the day before and were raving about it.

This being the Loire, even though it was little more than a hamlet, it had the requisite castle.

This being the Loire, even though it was little more than a hamlet, it had the requisite castle.

What it also seemed to have in its favour was a complete absence of gardens.  There is only so much beauty you can take in at once and by this point I’d definitely OD’ed on gardens.    And roses!  I had no idea there were so many roses in the Loire Valley.  I’d always thought Grasse, in southern Provence, was where the roses were.

Banners celebrate the 2014 edition of the annual Festival des Roses in Grasse.

Banners celebrate the 2011 edition of the annual Festival des Roses in Grasse.

But after only a few days in the Loire I’d used up most of a chip just on shots of roses.   As if by taking all these photos I could somehow capture their ephemeral beauty. After having a few chats with myself over the futility of this, I finally made a resolution – no more photos of roses.  Not a one.

Apparently close to 50% of Americans – and probably the same percentage of Canadians – make resolutions every year, most of them at New Year’s.  And how many achieve their goal?   Take a guess.  Make it a wild one, because the rate is astoundingly low*.  All sorts of psychologists and neuroscientists are studying the phenomenon.  One of the explanations they propose has to do with the ‘false hope syndrome’.  (As opposed to ‘true’ hopes?!) According to this theory, we set ourselves up for failure by setting unrealistic goals that are ‘out of alignment with our internal view of ourselves.’

To avoid falling into the ‘false hope’ trap we need a realignment.  I did not find this a very attractive solution, having just forked over a bundle to have one done on my car.  In any event, what we need to do is set small, attainable goals.  Fine.  How hard could it be to eliminate just one species from my viewfinder?  There were hundreds, if not thousands of others to choose from.  Oh.  And the other thing we need to do to increase our odds of success? Exercise a little more willpower, which, according to the experts, is not a fixed asset, but is ‘malleable’.  No more rationalizing; no more begging off with ‘my genes made me (not) do it’. (*8%)

I set off under a gorgeous, clear blue sky.  There were lots of signs along the way, so without any of the usual ‘side trips’, I soon reached the village.  As usual, when visiting historical villages and towns in France and Italy, the first order of business was to park the car.  That is where the trouble began.  Finding the parking lot was easy.  And at this early hour there were lots of parking spots.  The problem was, the entire lot had been planted with…


There was no escape.  They were everywhere, all as beautiful as the one I eventually parked in front of.


Encouragingly, one researcher offered this piece of advice when faced with imminent failure:  instead of giving up altogether, try tweaking your goal.   OK.  Maybe I could take a few, just a few, more photos of the irresistible species.   I willed myself away from the parking lot and set off for the castle.


As a ‘city girl’, I don’t think I could actually live in one of these villages, but I find them absolutely enchanting to visit.


Entrance to the original medieval fortress, built by the count of Anjou, founder of the Plantagenêt dynasty.

As with most of the fortress castles built during the Middle Ages throughout France and Italy, during the Renaissance, Montrésor’s castle was transformed into a luxurious residence.

In the mid 1800’s the property was purchased by the Polish count, Xavier Branicki,  a close friend and financial advisor to Napoleon III.  Branicki restored the castle and gardens and then set about filling it with priceless works of art.


Fortunately, given how things were going with my resolution, Branicki focused his efforts on the interior.  Although there were a few hot spots in the garden.


Was it the rose that Anais Nin was thinking of when she wrote her memorable words? “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom”.

There are the usual roped off areas, but other than that, visitors are free to wander at will.


Nice floral arrangement on the table, but what about the wolf hanging from its back paws?

I’m always fascinated by the things one can and cannot do in other countries.  Something we take for granted in Canada – like walking on the grass – is a serious transgression in both France and Italy.  But nobody seems to be concerned about the damage from hordes of visitors clomping up this delicate spiral staircase – or – and here my North American roots come out – the potential for liability.


The way to the second floor is via this beautiful escalier à vis.

At the top of the spiral staircase is the Boudoir italien.  I felt as if I had been transported back to Italy – to Florence even.  The walls were covered with paintings – all by students of the great Italian masters – Fra Angelico, Botticelli, Bronzino, Verrocchio…


It felt odd to see  a painting like this one labelled as ‘Madone à la chaise.’ As if it only had an Italian name.


One of Xavier’s sisters, portrayed à la Turque, all the rage at the time.  Only, unlike Modigliani’s Odalisques, fully clothed.

On the other side of the door was another take on the Turkish theme – one of Xavier’s cousins, the Countess Potocka, with her hair done up in a turban.


The Countess was clearly a great beauty – a mixed blessing in those days (and perhaps nowadays too).  The Tsar, bewitched by her beauty, fell madly in love and had her poor husband locked up in a tower for four years.


Le Grand Salon

There is a lot going on in the Grand Salon, but for me one of the most interesting objects was the piano.  A memento of heady days in Paris when Poland’s great composer, Chopin, in love with Xavier’s sister-in-law had composed a waltz for her, perhaps on this very piano.

The other object of note is a saddle, just to the left of the piano.  It’s hard to see – this was as close as I could get.  The only reason I even noticed it among all the other furnishings was because of an entry in the binder visitors are loaned for the duration of their visit.

Knowing I would  remember little of what was written in the binder by the time I got back home, I took photos of the the contents of the binder under the shade of a tree next to the castle.

Knowing I would remember little of the contents of the binder by the time I got back to my hotel and could make notes – let alone when I got back home – I took photos under the shade of a tree.

The last entry reads:  Next to the piano, a saddle, encrusted with semi-precious stones, taken from the Turks at the battle of Vienna.  It belonged to Kara Mustapha, grand vizier of the Sultan.  It is green, the sacred colour of Islam.  Only a descendant of the prophet Mahomet could sit on this saddle.

There was something unsettling about the presence in this elegant room in this peaceful little village of an object – obviously sacred – that had been plundered in war.  I knew nothing of the Battle of Vienna, so I had a look on Google.

September 11 (!), 1683 was the second time in less than one hundred years that the leaders of the Ottoman Empire attempted to take control of Vienna.  This time the gateway city was rescued by the King of Poland, who against enormous odds, had managed to cobble together an alliance of Christian troops.   For an extensive and, I believe, well-researched account of the battle and forces involved, check out “gates of” by Baron Bodissey.  One of the most disturbing things I found in Bodissey’s post, especially in light of ongoing developments in the Middle East, was the fact that the successes of the earlier Muslims troops were largely due to their willingness to overcome regional differences and loyalties to present a united front against their Christian/Western enemies.

Time for a breath of fresh air and a walk around the old village.  According to the map I had been given at the Office de Tourisme, which, to my surprise, was actually open, if I followed the alley below the castle I would discover the real meaning of Montrésor and how the village got that name.


I needed to follow signs for le lavoir (wash house).


There were lots of signs, but with all the roses, they weren’t always easy to read. Presumably this is Rue Branicki.


I resolutely walked right by the rose growing up the wall of the medieval market.


I knew I was on the right road and saw lots of ‘you know what’ but no signs for the lavoir.


Oh. There it is. In plain sight.


You know you’ve stepped back in time when the local cat takes a nap in the middle of the road.

Proof that kitsch knows no borders.

Proof that kitsch knows no borders.



On the opposite bank of the river, the lavoir.

19th century laundromat.  Guaranteed to dispel any nostalgia for the 'good old days'.

19th century laundromat. Guaranteed to dispel any nostalgia for the ‘good old days’.

Whenever I begin to wonder if perhaps progress is overrated – this tends to happen on days when I’ve seen more than a few people texting while driving, or heard of one more person who’s dropped their cell phone in the toilet – really! how does that happen?! or read yet another article about driver-less cars – are these people crazy!  what happens if there is a ‘glitch’ in the motor?  – anyway, any longings for a simpler era are quickly dispelled whenever I come across the reality of what life was really like then for the vast majority of people.


The lizard that led the way to Montrésor.

In the courtyard of the lavoir is an enormous lizard.  A plaque on the wall tells the story of how the village got its name.


“One day King Gontran and his faithful squire were riding through a vast forest when, exhausted and thirsty, they stopped and rested at the base of a rocher (large rock).  The young squire was soon fast asleep, dreaming of a young princess of Aquitaine who alas was too wealthy for him, when he suddenly woke up and saw a small lizard on Gontan’s face.  “By Notre-Dame!”, exclaimed the king, “Who is pulling on my ear?”  “This wretched creature”, replied the squire, holding up the lizard.  “I’ll cut its throat, your Majesty.”   “May St. George hold back your hand”, said the Prince.  “Look!  This creature, with its emerald eyes, is inviting us to follow it.”  Whereupon the lizard disappeared through an opening in the rock. When it reappeared, it was shimmering in gold.  The prince and his squire widened the opening and discovered a cave in which lay hidden a fabulous treasure.  With this treasure, Gontran built a castle on top of the rocher, which, as happens in legends, had been transformed into a mountain, which evermore was known as ‘le mont au trésor (which, as you may already have guessed, does not mean ‘My Treasure’, as I had thought, but ‘Treasure Mountain’) – Montrésor!  And this is also how the squire’s dream came true, for he became governor of the fortress and married his beautiful princess.”

I headed back to my car, a walk that, for such a tiny village, took me an awfully long time.


The Loire is known for its excellent wines. Maybe the gardeners feed their roses with compost from the vineyards.


Fairy Tales, Love Potions and a Forest that Runs

I wasn’t sure about this next garden.  I’m not a fan of mixing genres.  In anything. ‘Historical Fiction’ drives me crazy.  How can you tell the real parts from the made-up bits?  From what I’d seen on the website for the Château du Rivau, notwithstanding the Jardin Remarkable designation, it looked more like an amusement park, admittedly a rather lovely one, than a garden.

And what about Chaumont-sur-Loire, you might well be asking?  Well, remember the old adage about the exception proving the rule?…

View from the parking lot.

View from the parking lot.

It had started to rain, again, on the way over, so I had plenty of time to ponder my alternate plan – visiting a couple of vineyards – as I sat in Rivau’s parking lot.   I gave it 15 minutes, and if the rain hadn’t stopped by then, I was going to hightail it to the nearest vignoble – avec dégustation, of course – and tant pis (too bad) for the garden. Fortunately le temps s’est remis (the weather reset itself) before the allotted time was up, because it turned out to be a truly wonderful garden.


The Castle of Rivau and its gardens of fairy tales.

After paying the entrance fee – which, to give some perspective to the issue of how much the owners of these private gardens charge, was 10 €; i.e. more than the fee some visitors objected to paying at La Chatonnière (see previous post) – you are given a Parcours de visite.  In addition to a very useful map of the gardens – there is a lot going on here and I got disoriented a couple of times – it also has a ‘Charte du visiteur‘.  A code of conduct for the visitor.   I’d seen one before in a rather unusual garden in Tuscany (post coming soon).  This one begins with “Lors de votre visite, nous vous confions notre jardin.”  (During your visit we are entrusting our garden to you.) Visitors are asked to treat the garden with the greatest care and respect.  And not to pick the flowers or fruit.

It was a pity the owners had found it necessary to include that last bit.  But sadly, they aren’t the only garden that has to deal with filching by the public.   Just a couple of weeks after I returned from France, I was going through the Toronto Botanical Gardens in preparation for leading a tour and watched in disbelief as adult – not a child, this character would have been in his forties – looked furtively around and then proceeded to snap off flowers – entire flowering branches – in one of the borders and then pick them up.  I let him ‘have it’ and he skulked away.  I took the flowers to the TBG gift shop and, still in a lather, told the volunteer at the cash register what had happened.  She put them in a vase and told me that it was not the first time.




The first garden you come to at Rivau is the potager.  There is none of the ornamental extravaganza we saw at Villandry.  Instead, this appears to be a very impressive, but strictly utilitarian vegetable garden…

It is a taupe (mole).

…except for the creature rising out of the vegetables.

Plaques throughout the gardens provide much-needed enlightenment.

Plaques throughout the gardens provide much-needed and often whimsical enlightenment.

It is a taupe (mole), just popped up for a breath of fresh air, after getting lost in the labyrinth of tunnels between the castles of Rivau and Chinon.  It symbolizes the short-sightedness of our efforts to destroy a creature that helps not only to aerate the soil, but also to control the insect population in our gardens.

Another of the rules was directed to visitors with young children.  The former were asked to faire attention that their young charges did not throw cailloux (stones) at the ducks or Oeuvres d’Art.  Really?! What is with people these days?

In a pond nearby the ducks were enjoying a blissful moment, free of any stone-throwing little visitors.

In a pond nearby the ducks were enjoying a blissful moment, free of any stone-throwing little visitors.

Glorious roses hedges along the walls of the old moat made it hard to follow the parcours de visite.



Rivau, which has over 450 varieties of roses – all of them fragrant – has been declared a Conservatoire de la Rose Parfumée.

But I didn’t want to miss out on any of the gardens, so I headed back to the giant marronnier (chestnut tree), which marked the entrance to the Fairy Tale gardens.


Raindrops on the iris from the recent downpour.

Raindrops that had already landed on the flowers were one thing.  Not so delightful was the stress of trying to shield my camera from the ones that kept falling from the branches overhead.


Who knew there were so many gorgeous orange flowers?

Gigantic Eremurus aka Foxtail Lilies – the perfect plant for le Chemin du Petit Poucet (Tom Thumb’s Lane).  This was going to be fun.   Somebody obviously had a great sense of humour, as well as botanical expertise.


Maybe it was time to rethink my aversion to the colour.


I must have missed this fairy tale.


Did you notice that these are two left feet?

It was the photo of these boots on Rivau’s website that had made me hesitate.  In case you’re wondering, the greyish splotches on some of these photos are from those leftover raindrops.  I just hoped the real thing would hold off until I’d seen all of the gardens.  Luckily, it did.


Once your thoughts started wandering, the list of mismatched pairs and solitary halves kept growing –  one lonely mitten, socks that go into the laundry as pairs and come out orphans, single earrings kept in the hope the matching earring will show up …

Entrance to the labyrinth of Alice in Wonderland/Rivau.

Entrance to  Alice in Wonder/Rivau-land.


Lots of places for little visitors to ‘hide’ from the grownups.

Despite the menacing Queen of Hearts at the main entrance, the labyrinth has lots of entrances and exits and the design is simple enough that even very small children might feel brave enough to enter on their own.

Nearby, strange creatures guard the forest.

Nearby, strange creatures guard the forest…

...or maybe the Famille Pot de fleurs (Flower Pot Family).

… and the Famille Pot de fleurs (Flower Pot Family).

And no Enchanted Forest is complete without an ogre or two.

And no Enchanted Forest is complete without an ogre or two.

La Forêt qui Court (Forest that Runs).

La Forêt qui Court (Forest that Runs).


At the edge of the Running Forest, a wide, grassy path – le chemin des fées (Fairies’ Path) leads back towards the castle.  Here, perhaps more than in any other part of the garden, it is clear that while there may be lots of pixie dust floating around, there is nothing insubstantial about the plant material.

Le Chemin des Fées (Path of the Fairies).

A serious collection of perennials grows along the Fairies’ Path.

How strange that a group of plants with such gorgeous flowers is also the source of so much misery worldwide.

A ‘good’ poppy.

I love poppy flowers.  How strange that Nature would create a group of plants with flowers that are so beautiful and yet the source of so much misery.  I didn’t get far into this sombre line of thought because just then, out of the corner of my eye I caught a slight movement.

The last time I'd seen a peacock wondering around in complete freedom was at the Giardini Ravino on the island of Ischia.

The last time I’d seen a peacock wondering around in complete freedom was at the Giardini Ravino on Ischia.

And as at Ravino, there was no concentrating on the garden while this gorgeous creature was strutting by.

And, as at Ravino, there was no concentrating on the garden while this gorgeous creature was strutting around.

After sauntering through the vegetable patch it set out along the Fairies' Path.  Towards the giant red pot.

After pecking its way through the vegetable patch, it set out along the Fairies’ Path toward a giant red pot.

While I was pondering the Pot Rouge, the peacock, now joined by another, headed for the other end of the path – and one of their favourite things.


Humans aren’t the only ones fascinated by their image.


The peacocks happily spend long periods of time gazing at the Miroir des paons.

Hunters used to lure unsuspecting birds with miroirs aux alouettes.  The mirrors of those unscrupulous hunters have long since disappeared, but the expression stuck.  Nowadays it is used to describe some under-handed, devious strategy – smoke and mirrors.  It appears regularly in articles dealing with politicians and government policies.

Now and then, even a peacock gets tired of admiring itself.

Now and then, even a peacock gets tired of admiring itself.

Besides, there's

Besides, there’s a lot of upkeep involved to being such a gorgeous creature.


Upkeep which involves some rather unusual contortions. Sounds eerily familiar.


Peacocks are also extremely curious about their environment and observe any changes closely.  This one kept his eye on me as I continued on to le Jardin des Philtres d’Amour nearby.


In the Garden of Love Potions.

In the ‘Garden of Love Potions’ plants endowed with magical powers to promote or derail affairs of the heart fill two large beds in the shape of intertwined hearts.  Curly Tansy to nurture love and protect against the devil’s interference.  Dictamnus alba, the ‘Gas Plant’ we saw at la Chatonnière, to ease tormented minds.  Verbena officinalis if your love life needs a bit of help from a spell.  And my favourite, in the centre, rue, to calm the ardour in men and fan it into flames in women.


I’m afraid I may not have done justice to this garden.  It was hard to focus on the plants, no matter how wondrous, once the peacock really started strutting its stuff.


From all angles.



I had been so taken with the roses earlier that I hadn’t even noticed Rapunzle’s Hair hanging from the tower.

Unlike the dead tree with the hanging pots, this was a fairy tale I had read many times as a child.  What I didn’t know then was why such a beautiful damsel would have such an ugly-sounding name.  I certainly would never have guessed that it had anything to do with cravings brought on by pregnancy.

I’m sure you all know the story of the poor couple, who after many long, sad years ‘get pregnant’, as people often – very weirdly in my opinion – say these days.   One night the husband, driven to despair by his wife’s insatiable craving – not for ice cream or pickles, but for a plant – sneaks into the walled garden of their neighbour and steals some leaves of Campanula ranunculus, aka ‘Rapunzel Plant’.

Like most fairy tales, there is a nugget of reality in this story.  During the Middle Ages the cravings of pregnant women were taken very seriously and family members would do whatever it took to relieve their half-crazed partners.  A craving for the spinach-like leaves of a plant like Campanula ranunculus might have come from a deficiency in iron, common in pregancy.  And all might have gone well and the poor man might have just asked his neighbour for a bit of the plant, but of course, this being a fairy tale, the neighbour is a witch.  And we all know what happens when the baby is born…

By now I was famished.  Time for le déjeuner.  I headed back to the entrance where there was a small café which featured products from Rivau’s potager and vignobles.  On the way I had a quick look at the castle interior.


After the gardens, it was a bit of a jolt to the senses.


Balthazar’s Feast.

Things just got more and more bizarre.



I went back outside to where things might be fantastical, but at least they weren’t bizarre.

Lunch.  Délicieux and not at all bizarre.

L’Assiette des fées. (Fairies’ Plate). Délicieux and not at all bizarre.

Wine, Gardens and Bug Hotels

Today I was going to faire d’une pierre deux coups (hit two targets with one stone).  The Château de Valmer was not only a Jardin Remarquable, it was also a producer of one of the most prestigious Appelations Contrôlés of the Loire – Vouvray.


And for someone who is crazy about Italian gardens, an added inducement was that the gardens – 5 hectares of them – were inspired by the Renaissance gardens of Italy.  Since it was still early, I decided to save the dégustation for the end of my visit.


Beyond the Terrace of the Florentine Fountains, the Valmer vineyards stretch as far as the eye can see.


At the base of the wall, slightly left of centre, is the entrance to the Troglodyte chapel.

Valmer is in the ‘Upper Loire’, the most north-eastern part of the Loire wine-making region.  The soil here is predominantly limestone, which is good not only for producing excellent wines, but also for digging tunnels like those I mentioned in  ‘Elsie’s Garden’, as well as caves (wine cellars).  At Valmer, where you would expect to find a few caves carved out of the soft rock, aka tufa, instead there is a rare Chapelle Troglodytique.


A ‘cave’ chapel.

According to the info sheet I was given at the ticket office, it was commissioned by the head of the king’s household in 1524.  I would have preferred it if the writers had left out some of the descriptive details and had instead included some idea as to why the king’s servant had decided to go to the trouble of building an underground chapel.  Apart from the moss, it looked like many above-ground chapels I had seen and just as beautiful.


Back to ground level and the 21st century was a strange sight.  If you go back two photos, just to the left of the entrance to the chapel you will see a section of severely clipped yews. Rather bizarre, but then you realize there are more of them.  I really don’t like reading these info sheets when I’m visiting a garden, but now and then…


The delightful building beyond is the so-called ‘Petit Valmer’ (1647), where the current owners live.

The yews represent, identically, the footprint of the original chateau which was destroyed by fire in 1948.  The openings are the windows.  This was obviously not a garden that lent itself to intuitive exploration.

The area I was now looking over was the ‘Moat’.  Visitors were encouraged to view this garden, planted in 1979, from ground level.  The only problem was, I couldn’t see how to get down there.  Back to the info sheet.


Apparently you went down a curieux espalier à vis (spiral staircase), vintage 15th century.  And where was the entrance to this staircase?  Hidden in the giant yew in the corner of the Terrace of Leda.


I walked around almost the entire moat before I finally saw the two openings.

In the far corner of the Terrace of Leda is the hidden staircase to the 'Moat'.

In the far corner of the Terrace of Leda, hidden in the yew is the staircase down to the ‘Moat’.


Really, would you have guessed there was staircase here?

Once again, change your pint of view, change your reality.

But there it was, in ‘plain’ sight.

Like most of life, once you know where to look, it's so self-evident.

Like so many things in life, once you know where to look, it’s so self-evident.


Valmer’s potager in mid-May.

There was one more garden I wanted to see, the potager, which by now had become my favourite part of these castle gardens.  It was clear that this was the real thing.  The elegant layout was inspired by – what else? – classic Renaissance gardens.


Unlike the army of gardeners at Villandry, here there was only one hardy soul busy at work.


La Tour de l’Âne.  Lucky donkey.

All along the wall an assortment of fruit trees – nectarines, apricots, apples, pears – are trained contre-espalier.  At the other corner was a larger tower, where the gardener once lived.  Next to it was a curious little structure.




La Maison des Insectes.

A sheet on the stump explained how to set up your Bug House and what locataires (tenants) to expect.


The list describes the aménagements you should provide for nine groups of ‘tenants’, beginning with chrysopes – Chrysoperla for the experts, Lacewing for the rest of us (it isn’t just Italian gardeners who have it so easy with those Latin names!).  They like a red box filled with packing fibres with a few slits; for the bourdons (various types of bees), you need a box with a hole 10mm in diameter – and don’t forget the ‘flight board’ for landing and taking off!  I was surprised to see forficules on the list of desired lodgers.  I wasn’t aware the earwig had any redeeming value.  But the carabe was the biggest surprise of all.  Welcome the beetle?!  The ravager of roses and lawns?  The destroyer of elm, ash and spruce trees?   Curious, I did a bit of research on this one.

It turns out that when it comes to beetles we want to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water.  There are some good ones too!  Am I the only one who wasn’t aware of this?  In French the good beetles are called carabes and the bad ones scarabées (un-beetles).   The good beetles – one is even called la carabe jardinière  – are carnivores. They gorge on aphids, snails and slugs.  Luckily for them – and consequently for us gardeners too – their days of undeserved ignominy appear to be coming to an end, as their real role as beneficial participants in the biodiversity of our gardens becomes better known.   Note:  in case a hedgehog starts eating all your good carabes, give it some cat food – just make sure it’s the good stuff, with lots of protein.  Hedgehogs are lazy. When it comes to choosing between food they have to  chase after and food that just sits there waiting for them, the hedgehog is not too choosy.


The donkey’s view.


Like all the castle potagers, lots of space is made for roses at Valmer.

Closer to home, Mark Cullen recently extolled the benefits of the ‘Bug Hotel’ (Toronto Star (August 23, 2014).  Since, as he explains, 99% of the insects in our gardens are beneficial, we should welcome them.  Build them a hotel.  Just make sure it isn’t too ‘sanitized’.  Bugs, like nature – and life – like things a bit on the messy side.

Routes Barrées and Other Inconvénients

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).



Beyond the construction, a sign tauntingly showed the way to Chédigny (via Bléré).

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.


Photos around the base of the Panthéon let visitors know what they were missing.

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.


An all-too familiar sight for visitors from Toronto.

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.


Instead of approaching the castle along the elegant drawbridge, we were directed to a temporary access off to the side.


Surprisingly, I overheard several visitors wondering what this painting was about.


‘Nutrisco et extinguo’ was the motto of François I and his emblem was the salamander, shown here nourishing (good) and extinguishing (evil).


For the time being, the view from the rear gave the best sense of the castle’s Renaissance elegance.

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.


At least I didn’t get yelled at, as one hapless tourist did when he went along a clearly public path beyond the parking lot to have a look at this field of poppies, which were, presumably, part of the ‘sweeping views’ lauded in the website.

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.


Garden of the Senses (2003).

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).


I’d seen red Crocosimia before, but never this gorgeous shade of magenta.

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.


To the left of the stone wall was a path.  The ‘proper’ place to start the garden visit.


Jardin des Romances. (2002)

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.



The not so simple Garden of Botanical Sciences. (2003)

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.


The original ‘Burning Bush’?

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.


A long wisteria covered allée like those of the Renaissance gardens looks onto poppy fields on the left and the sheltered Garden of Abundance on the right.


There were still a few blooms on the wisteria, one of my favourites.


“Amateurish, totally pretentious and full of weeds” as one Trip Advisor contributor squawked, or simply an indication of the back-breaking work and time needed to create and maintain a garden?

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.


Nature, still fabulous, in all her imperfections.

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?

Le Potager de l'Abondance (Veggie Garden of Abundance).

Le Potager de l’Abondance (Veggie Garden of Abundance). 2000

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.


I also loved the Californian poppies - the only orange flower I like -  growing along the wall.

I also loved the Californian poppies – the only orange flower I like – growing along the wall.


At the end of the grass walkway you turn right and enter the Allée de la Chance (2005) which leads back to the castle.

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.


This was the garden with the ‘leaf’!


Narrow paths form the veins of the ‘leaf’.

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.


400 David Austin roses line the path.


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.


Mother Nature clearly preferred the Californian Poppies.


Just imagine what this will be like in a few more years.

It's always fun to have a peek at the greenhouse.

It’s always fun to have a peek at the greenhouse.

In the Garden of Senses next to the greenhouse, they had had more luck with the Tricolore.

In the Garden of Senses next to the greenhouse, they had had more luck with the Tricolore.

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.


I know some people are fans, but formal gardens like this just leave me cold. Or itching to put in a bunch of colourful plants.


They’re so austere. So restrained. So at odds with nature.


Like all the best Renaissance gardens, a path led to a wild bosco (forest).

I wandered around rather disconsolately and then headed back to what really made my gardener's heart sing - the Garden of the Senses.

I wandered dutifully around for a bit and then headed back to what really made my gardener’s heart sing.

At the entrance peonies get a little help from the boxwood.

At the entrance, peonies got a little help from the boxwood.

And on top of the wall, a descendant of the chaton the castle was named for?

And on top of the wall, a descendant of the chaton the castle was named for?


As dark clouds gathered, I lingered as Iong as I dared in my favourite part, the Jardin des Sens.



Of Cabbages and Kings

The time had come, not to “talk of cabbages and kings”, as the walrus suggested to the carpenter, but to visit the last of the grand castles built along the banks of the Loire.

First glimpse of the castle.

First glimpse of Villandry.

I had been working up to the Château de Villandry.  And I wasn’t even going to tour the interior.  The gardens – six of them, laid out on three terraces – are the most spectacular in the region.  And the most spectacular part of all is the potager.   The first picture I saw of Villandry’s famous veggie garden had been taken in the fall.  The highlight  at that time of year is the chou (cabbage).


In spring the leafy stars of Villandry’s potager are the lettuces.

Surprisingly, at least for an English speaker, the humble cabbage crops up (sorry!) quite frequently in French.  Something we might describe as ‘easy as pie’ becomes ‘bête comme chou’ (simple as …)  Mess up and you’ll find yourself dans les choux (in the …).  And when it comes time to retire, in French you go ‘planter ses choux’ (plant your…).   I’ll stop now.


There were a few choux too.  (in French it rhymes, sounds like ‘shoe two’)

In the 17th century, French garden designers needed a new garden style that could accomodate the roses of the traditional French gardens and all the strange, new vegetables that were being brought back from the New World.

They combined a few elements of the hortus conclusus, the enclosed abbey gardens of the Middle Ages (see Post – Abbey of the Good Harvest) with a few from the pleasure/power gardens of Renaissance Italy to come up with le Potager Décoratif.   The Ornamental Vegetable Garden.


Tree roses recall the monks digging in the square under their care.

A checker board was the farthest thing from my mind as I wandered, aimlessly entranced, along the box-lined paths.  But, as I found out later, the original design, on which the modern garden is based, was meant to create the illusion of a multi-coloured checker board.  How did they do this?  Like so many things that appear extraordinary at first glance, the underlying concept is surprisingly simple.  The entire area is divided into nine squares of identical size, which are planted twice a year with 40 different varieties of vegetables – mainly lettuces and peas in spring; cabbages, squashes and gourds in the fall. Whoever is in charge of all this faces an enormous challenge – striking a balance between aesthetic and horticultural concerns.  Not only do the vegetables have to create the spectacular patterns the garden is famous for, but they also have to be planted in periodic rotations to minimize pathogens and avoid impoverishing the soil.


In 2009 Villandry introduced ‘le jardinage bio‘.  What we might call ‘environmentally friendly and sustainable gardening’.   Amongst the practices listed is bêchage, which means digging up the soil.  To the dismay of all the gardeners who, for years, at great peril to their backs, have religiously turned over the soil in their vegetable gardens every spring, it has recently been shown to have little or no effect.  I wonder if the gardeners at Villandry still do it.

The jut-out on the highest level is the 'belvedere' - borrowed from the Italian word for 'beautiful view'.

The jut-out on the highest level is the ‘belvedere‘ – borrowed from the Italian word for ‘beautiful view’.

The stuff that was getting sprayed on the plants may have been environmentally friendly, but I still wasn’t keen on any of it landing on me, so I decided to head up to the belvedere for an overhead view.


In April the gardeners start trimming Villandry’s boxwood – 52 km of it. It takes them until October. And then, the next April…

The parterre by the base of the wall was a hive of activity.  As in the gardens of Tuscany I’d visited the year before, it looked like May was boxwood trimming season here too.


After the trimmers have done their work, other gardeners come by and rather cavalierly plop their tools and buckets and crates of annuals right on top of the newly trimmed hedges.

A group of young students - momentarily calmed down - were working on an assignment along the balustrade which led to the upper level.

A group of young students – momentarily calm – working on an assignment along the balustrade which led to the upper level.



It was mesmerizing to watch the gardeners carefully ply their long sword-like tools back and forth until they were satisfied. (Did you notice the total absence of any plumb lines?)


I felt sorry for this poor fellow as I watched him lift the aerating machine over the top of the hedge and then struggle to manoeuvre it in the narrow spaces. I wondered where this job fit in the gardening hierarchy.


A rather elaborately decorated checkerboard.  The geometric motifs recall the patterns used by medieval monks in their vegetable gardens.

In a few weeks most of these plants would be dug up and replaced with summer and fall plants. As beautiful as it was in May, the photos I’d seen of the spectacular show created by the ornamental cabbages and squashes and gourds in fall made me wonder if Villandry might be one of those rare gardens that are just as beautiful later in the season.


From the belvedere, view of the Ornamental Garden, potager and village.

About this time I began to wish I’d had more than my usual croissant et café for breakfast. Visits to this place should really come with an advisory, like those travel alerts.  Something along the lines of  ‘Warning!  Enter at your own risk, or at least on a full stomach.  You may be here for a very long time’.

The Jardin d’Ornement, the Ornamental or Embroidery Garden, aka the Garden of Love, is divided into four sections.


In the section devoted to l’amour tendre (tender love), boxwood hearts are separated by tiny flames.

The annuals had yet to add their bit, so I had to consult the guide to figure out what was going on in the other three sections.   As in real life, here were themes which, despite being all too familiar, remain essentially incomprehensible – passionate, fickle and tragic love.


L’Amour volage (Fickle love). Between fan shapes in the corners representing the lightness of love, the cornes of the cuckholded.


L’Amour passionné. Hearts torn asunder by unbridled passions form a disorienting labyrinth.

L'Amour tragique. The long shapes represent the swords of duelling rival lovers.

L’Amour tragique. The long shapes represent the swords of duelling rival lovers.

Eventually I left the drama of the Love Gardens for a calmer part of the garden.  The greenhouses.


115,000 flowers and vegetables are planted out in the gardens every year,  50% of which are grown on site.

While interesting, even the most ardent horticulturalist would have difficulty describing the greenhouses as attractive, so it seemed normal that they would be located, more or less out of sight, in this remote corner.   But I was surprised to see another building close by.  What was such a lovely little structure doing here?


Built in the 18th century, it is called l’Audience.   Here the Marquis de Castellane would give audience to the farmers and peasants who worked on his land.  By the time I reached the bottom of the slope, a tour group had arrived.  A tour group with its very own Marquis and consort.



Time for me to check out the rest of the gardens.


The fountains and large water feature of the Water Garden were inspired by Italian Renaissance gardens.

The Jardin d’Eau is surrounded by a cloître de tilleuls (cloister of lime trees).


It takes four gardeners three months to trim the +1,000 lime trees at Villandry.

Just when you think you’re almost done, that there can be nothing else to stop you in your tracks, you come to the latest addition to Villandry’s splendours – the Jardin du soleil.


It is so unlike anything else, you wonder if, at some point, you’ve wandered down the wrong path and somehow left Villandry.


But no, there’s the castle beyond the hedge.

Even for someone who is not fond of orange (it’s actually my least favourite colour) the garden was beautiful.  I only left when I saw the ‘Marquis’ and his entourage approaching.

There were still two more things to look at in order to declare one had ‘done’ the gardens – a labyrinth and a garden of ‘simples’.


Entrance to the labyrinth.

Within seconds of my taking this photo, total pandemonium broke out.  The kids started running and screaming all over the place.  The teachers looked at me apologetically and did their best to corral the pent-up energy of their young charges.    I wasn’t all that surprised.  Even I, who had quite a few decades on les jeunes, was beginning to feel the effect of all the sensory stimulation.

I decided to skip the labyrinth.  Besides, I had already visited the most spectacular labyrinth in Europe in the gardens of Villa Pisani in northern Italy.  Leaving the screams of delight behind, I passed by a number of posters.  I was pleasantly surprised.   So much of French pedagogy – and Italian too – is terribly dry.  Ponderous.  Laden with details.  But these had just the right amount of information for the setting.  Like the amuse-bouches, the small, always delightful, complimentary appetizers offered at some restaurants, they presented just the tiniest tidbits of history and horticulture.  And left you eager for more.


Under ‘Curieux d’histoire?‘ a delightful tidbit.During the Gallo-Roman era there was a farm where the castle now stands.  It was called ‘Villa Landrici.’

Bolstered by the thought that there was just one more garden to be looked at and then I could go, conscience clear, look for somewhere to eat, I made my way to the incongruously named jardin des simples.  In Italy I’d encountered the same thing – giardino dei semplici.  These ‘simples’ were herbs.  Aromatic, culinary and medicinal herbs.



The not so simple Jardin des simples.

The layout was so stunning it was hard to give more than a cursory glance to the poor ‘simples‘.  There was, however, an even bigger problem with the Jardin des simples.  It overlooked the potager.


Not for the first time I was glad to be on my own.  I’m sure I would have driven even the most patient companion crazy, as I went back and forth, looking at it from different angles.  Taking ‘just one more shot’.  Again and again.  It was only because I was crevée de faim – (a pneu crevé is a flat tire; faim is hunger;  you get the general idea) that I finally dragged myself away.


There was just one last hurdle between me and lunch.  The gift shop was an easy pass, but right by the exit were the most exquisite roses for sale.