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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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?

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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.

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

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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).

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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.

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

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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’.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A Contemporary/Traditional Garden

What with the potager and the Festival International des Jardins at Chaumont-sur-Loire, I was getting close to my sensory overload threshold.  The point at which my brain turns to mush.   The point at which I normally would be heading off to the cute little bistro I had seen on my way to the castle.  Instead I was standing at the entrance to le Parc des Prés du Goualoup.   

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Cedars of Lebanon. One of my favourite trees.

The area before me was flat and large – 10 hectares to be exact (that’s just over 20 acres for those of you who, like me hover on the metric/Imperial divide.  Actually, I still don’t have a very good sense of what an acre is, just that 20 of them is a very large area.)

Opened to the public in 2012, it is a work in progress.  The goal is to create a series of jardins pérennes liés aux grandes civilizations.  More of these perennial gardens in the style of traditional gardens of the world will be added over the next few years.  The guiding muse of the design is described as l’esprit (spirit) contemporain.  Traditional.  And contemporary.

A circular path takes you through the park/garden.  To the left is a small grove of Cedars of Lebanon that seemed to encircle (shelter?) a few large, round objects.   To the right gardeners were working on the iris bed, planted just last year.  I set off to the right.  It’s always fun to chat with the gardeners.

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Apart from the gardeners, I was the only visitor.  Had all the others gone to lunch?

Since there are none of the high hedges that enclose the festival gardens nearby, you can see what’s coming up from quite a distance.  This gives you a while to try and figure the thing out before you reach the plaque.

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Square and Round.  In addition to (much-needed) explanations, here there were also mini bios of the designers.

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I struggled with this.  I wondered if the designer had similar difficulties with the English country garden style.

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No such problems with this  garden, just a few metres further along.

Although descriptions of gardens as modern or traditional are meant to be helpful, I’m often left wondering about the time line.  When does ‘modern’ begin?  Like the controversy around native vs. introduced species.  Native as of when?  Before the arrival of Europeans? That position always strikes me as rather arbitrary, especially in light of  nature’s own role in the migration of flora.  What about plants like the coconut that for centuries, without any intervention on man’s part, have been floating across the oceans and setting down roots on new, previously coconut-free islands?

Besides, it seems to me that, more and more, gardens in which the plant material plays the leading role (and I’m not talking about Botanical Gardens where, by definition, the focus in on the plants) are lumped, often with a subtle, but unmistakable hint of disdain, into a group called ‘traditional’, while  those with ‘strong architectural elements’ (i.e.. man-made structures) are classified as ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’.

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Here was the embodiment of the collaboration between man and nature that resulted in the higher ‘Third Art’ that the garden designers of the Renaissance had aspired to.

I could see this from quite a distance.  Call me a philistine, but it reminded me of a (badly built) beaver lodge.

Moving on, I came to what looked a lot like a beaver lodge.  A badly built beaver lodge.

There is a lot of talk these days about ‘pushing one’s limits’ and ‘getting out of your comfort zone’.  I began to wonder if maybe that is what this whole area was really about.

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I was also starting to get annoyed.  Why had I listened to that woman in the gift shop?  I could be sitting down with a nice glass of one of the local whites – or maybe a red – the sun was trying to coming out, but it was still on the cool side.

One thing I hate more than going on a wild goose chase is retracing my steps.  I’d already come a fair way along the path.  The thought of turning back at this point was even less appetizing – that again – than continuing.

I started to hear a strange, soft whooshing/thumping kind of sound.  It came at regular intervals.  Like a heart beat.

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Whoosh…Whoosh…

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I just wished the sun would come out, even for a bit. So I could walk through a rainbow.

So what do you think it is?

So what’s your guess?

It was only because I had to pass by the plaque that I knew.

I didn’t get an opportunity to guess because of where the plaque is located.  I doubt it would have occurred to me that someone might think of putting a giant lemon squeezer in the middle of a field.

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A haven of peace and contemplation.  Yes.

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Sacred Fence.  Was this Branzi’s radical take on the  ‘Sacro Bosco’ (Sacred Wood) of the ancient pagans?  I’ll write about my visits – once in the fall and once in springtime – to a Sacro Bosco in northern Lazio – when I get back to Italy.   Tôt ou tard. (Sooner or later.  Probably later.)

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The wide perennial border at the front was really quite lovely.  But the ‘Sacred Fence’ was way too radical for me.

I could see the Cedars of Lebanon not far ahead.  Almost back at the beginning.  Lunch was not far off.

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It isn’t just the magnificent shape of the tree. It’s the fantastical, gravity defying pine cones.

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Even as they ripen, they stay upright.

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I wasn’t the only one.  The large round objects I’d seen earlier in the middle of the grove were a delightful take on the unusual pine cones.  At least that’s what I think they are…

Next stop:  A rose lover brings a touch of  ‘Chaumont’ to her patch of Eden.

 

Gardens of the Seven Deadly Sins

There were a couple of castle gardens I was a little apprehensive about visiting.  Chaumont-sur-Loire was one of them.

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In French the castle se blotti on the hillside above the village. To my ear, ‘nestles ‘ sounds so much better. One for English!

It wasn’t the fact that Diane de Poitiers, whose tastes in such things I had grown to admire, didn’t like it.  It was the description on the official website that had me wondering.

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“The perfection of the righteous is formed from the right composition of the seven deadly sins – just as white light is from the composition of the seven traditional colours.”  Paul Valéry – Tel Quel.  What if, entirely naturally, the garden led to unbridled hedonism – temptation born from a lost Eden, a thirst for knowledge and expense? A magical place which, to blossom, relies on the rule that subversion is possible and which, to thrive, knows where its limits lie: in Chaumont-sur-Loire in 2014, the garden will embody the heady expression of the deadly sins – a festival of extravagance and self-restraint and a shining example of the duality of impulses and characters. The gardens will celebrate an alchemy which, while far from flawless – i.e. free from sin – will nonetheless be, as Valéry put it, “the perfection of the righteous”.

See what I mean?  In the end, curiosity got the better of me. It was either going to be dreadful or wonderful, and there was only one way to find out.

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Glimpse of the castle beyond the festival gardens.

The lyrical waxing continued.  “Indeed, what do gluttony and pride mean when we speak of gardens? Sloth and lust? Wrath and envy? Could not gluttony be a simple partiality for something; wrath, an almighty rage; pride, a sin of youth; the restfulness of sloth, “a secret charm of the soul” for La Rochefoucauld; and lust, “the cause of generation” in Leonardo da Vinci’s words?”

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Permanent beds line the paths between the annual displays.

In 1992, a group of locals bent on increasing tourism in Chaumont hit upon a brilliant marketing strategy to entice some of the hordes on their way to Chambord and Chenonceau.  They invited landscape designers and architects from around the world to submit proposals for what they grandly called ‘le Festival International des Jardins‘.

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The creators of the 20 winning designs – in 2014 there were over 300 submissions  – must maintain their gardens throughout the duration of the festival season, which in 2014 runs from April 25 to November 2.

As usual I arrived before l’heure de l’ouverture.   It is so frustrating.  Dawn or early morning is the best – the only time, some would say – to take photographs of gardens.  But if, like me, you don’t have the BBC and National Geographic to magically open gates at the ‘golden hours’, you’re stuck with visiting gardens during official opening hours.

Before I had a chance to get started on an ongoing inner rant about arbitrary, inconsistent and unreasonable opening hours, (none of which hopefully is revealed in the vacant look I try to summon up for these situations), the young woman at the ticket booth advised me that “En attendant, si vous désirez, vous êtes libre de visiter le potager à côté“. (While you are waiting, if you like, you are free to visit the vegetable garden just over there.)

By now I’d become a real fan of these French veggie gardens, so off I went.  It had to beat shuffling around the entrance gate.

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As at Cheverny, the vegetables here at Chaumont had to compete for space with a glorious range of flowers.

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The organizers made sure they started things off with a bang.  The inaugural theme – each year it changes – was Les Jardins de Plaisir.  Subsequent themes ranged from ‘les Jardin des Délices, Jardins des Délires’ (Delights and Deliriums ?!) to ‘Erotisme au Jardin’ to ‘Jardin, Corps et âmes‘ (Body and Soul).  There were other, less steamy themes too – maybe they felt the public needed a bit of a breather now and then – like ‘Jardins d’avenir ou l’art de la biodiversité heureuse‘ (Gardens of the future and the Art of Happy (?) Biodiversity.)

Mystery of the ubiquitous dill in the potager at cheverny solved!  It wasn't dill it was fenouille.  Fennel.

The second I saw this – basket? – the mystery of all that dill in the potager at Cheverny was solved! It wasn’t dill.  It was fenouille. Fennel.  (I know that feathery stuff isn’t fennel, but as we all know, the mind works in mysterious ways…)

Some Versailles-worthy espaliers.

Along the perimeter, some Versailles-worthy espaliers.

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Borage. Plant that tastes of oysters.

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If you look really closely you’ll see some vegetables in there amongst the flowers.

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I was so entranced with what was going on at ground level I totally missed…

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…the lapin standing guard over the whole thing. Take another look at the preceding photo and you’ll see part of its front paws.

When the gates to the Festival eventually opened, I was sorry to leave.  On the upside, no matter what I was going to see next, the potager had made the drive worthwhile.

An upside down tree was the first thing I saw when I went through the gates.  Not a good sign of things to come.

An upside-down tree was the first thing I saw when I went through the gates. Not a good sign of things to come.

I wandered around looking for the entrance to the ‘Festival’.  By the time I found it, I was inclined to forget about the whole thing.  (FYI:   it’s to the left of the ‘tree’.)   Surely my time would be better spent enlightening myself about the local wines.  But it was only 10 in the morning.  Luckily a tad early for wine tastings.  I say ‘luckily’ because, as the organizers promised, it really was une espace magique.

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Le Pécher. Peach tree or Tree of Original Sin?

In French ‘un pécher’ means a ‘peach tree’.  But it sounds exactly like ‘un péché, which means ‘sin’.  A circling path leads us, not to the biblical apple tree, but to a peach tree, with its sweet, tender, juicy flesh, symbol of corrupting sensuality.

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Amongst the peach-toned flowers lining the path, the roses in gorgeous shades of light pink to the subtlest of peachy tones were my favourites.

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Continuing the theme, the path is covered with peach stones.

Some took their inspiration from literature, like the Garden of Harpagon, the miserly protagonist in one of Molière’s plays.

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Harpagon’s treasure.  Brilliant, precious and inaccessible.

My preference, when I’m visiting gardens, is to approach them with an open mind, ‘uncluttered’ by what the experts or the designers have to say.  I read just enough so that I don’t miss interesting, but less obvious elements.  However, as I’ve noted in past posts – ‘The First Renaissance Garden’  was one of the earlier ones – there are some gardens where knowing even a bit about the historical context or the designer’s goal adds a whole new layer of meaning and interest.

I started off at Chaumont by simply taking a photograph of the explanatory plaque by the entrance to each garden, thinking that I would read them all later.  But I quickly became frustrated.  While the gardens were intriguing and unlike anything I had seen before, I had no idea what was going on.  What was the meaning of the marble arabesques around the cacti?  And those golden balls in the giant basket, what were they all about?

I decided to give my normal garden visiting strategy a bit of a tweak.  I would enter a garden, wander around for a while and then go read the plaque.

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Captivating, but what was going on here?

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The tweaked approach wasn’t much better.

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Any ideas?

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No wonder!  I haven’t a clue about most of ‘virtual reality’.  Why would a Garden of Virtual Sins be any different?

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Virtual sins. As obvious as virtual reality.

After a while I started reading the plaques at the outset.  They were so beautifully written, and it really was fascinating to then see how the designers portrayed their messages.

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Was the invitation to get up on the platform meant to be taken literally? Not sure.  There were no takers while I was there.

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The designers have to keep their installations in top shape for over six months. How do they do it?

Some of the designs, like the ‘Canned Garden’, focused on the sins of modern society.

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Strangely beautiful and disconcerting at the same time.

Others were less confrontational.  Lyrical even.

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There had been so much rain some of the gardens were struggling.  This poor fellow spent the entire time I was in the garden trying to fix one of the irrigation pipes.

There had been so much rain some of the gardens were struggling. This poor fellow spent the entire time I was in the garden trying to fix one of the irrigation pipes.

Red, the colour of passion, was bound to show up.

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As with ‘Haute Couture’ I wasn’t sure if you were actually meant to sit down at one of these chairs. Again, there were no takers.

Red, the colour of gluttony.

Red, the colour of gluttony.  And all this time I thought it was the colour of passion.

Some of the gardens, like les Fleurs Maudites below, didn’t do much for me aesthetically, but I did enjoy their ironic take on the theme.

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Psychotropics and plants like digitalis, beneficial if used appropriately, deadly if not, are safely beyond the reach of visitors.

Others were … well, judge for yourself.

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Resurrection or in praise of failure.

A little girl asked her parents, "Mais, qu'est-ce que c'est alors?"  (What is it then?)  My thoughts exactly.

A little girl asked her parents, “Mais, qu’est-ce que c’est alors?” (Whatever is it?) My thoughts exactly.

The most distant source of inspiration, geographically speaking, came from New Zealand.

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Now and then little puffs of smoke came out of the volcano.  I'd seen something similar at Canada Blooms in Toronto earlier that spring.  One of those simple, but irresistible features.

Now and then little puffs of smoke came out of the volcano. I’d seen something similar at Canada Blooms in Toronto earlier that spring. One of those simple, but irresistible features.

Purgatory, an obvious subject, was featured in several gardens.  This one, by a group of Americans, was my favourite.

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And then, of course, there was the Garden of Eden.   There was no mincing of words in this entry from the Netherlands.

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For the first time I was glad for the cool weather. Imagine the stench of all that rubber on a hot, sunny day.

Not far from ‘Paradise Reversed’ was the Jardin des Poules (chickens).  Was this deliberate on the part of the organizers or were the parcelles assigned randomly?

'Unconscious' chickens spend their day pecking for bits of food.

‘Unconscious’ chickens, symbolizing mankind, spend their day pecking for bits of food, while Eden lies in plain sight, but inaccessible, on the other side of the stumps.  This mother held on tightly to her children’s hands as she took them, one at a time, along the path.

By now I was starving.  And in need of the petit coin (literally, ‘little corner’).  Hoping there was some nice place to eat on the premises, I went into the gift shop next to the entrance.  Apart from what looked awfully like a hot dog stand, there was nothing.  As I turned to leave, she asked if I had seen the new permanent collection.  I said no, and was about to say something about going to look for a restaurant when she  interrupted,  “Mais, Madame, ça vaut vraiment la peine!”  OK.  If it was really worth my ‘pain’, it would be a shame to miss it just because my feet were killing me and I was hungry.  Besides, it wasn’t raining.

I set out in the direction she pointed to.

TBC

 

 

Dog ‘Soupe’ and a Veggie Garden

The first of the ridiculous number of castles I planned on visiting in the Loire was Château de Cheverny.

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Château de Cheverny on the eastern edge of the Loire Valley.

But it started to rain as I soon as left Versailles and by the time I hit the  A10 – aka E5 – which would take me into the Loire Valley it was pouring.  I had got soaked the day before in the gardens of the Sun King and the thought of trudging around another garden in the rain was highly désagréable.    I decided that if it was still pouring by the time I reached Blois, which is where I would have to leave the highway and head south along the D174, D765 and/or D102 to Cheverny, I would just keep on going to my hotel in Chenonceau.  (As in Italy, the bigger the road number, the smaller – and usually more charming the road.  And, as in Italy, once you hit three digits, the road numbers are more or less useless.  I soon gave up trying to follow them and instead, as soon as I was in the general vicinity, I would just keep an eye out for signs leading to the castles.)

Although it was the gardens of Cheverny that I was interested in, I got the sense that for many, the highlight of the visit was the 5 pm ‘Soupe des chiens‘ (feeding of the dogs).

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After seeing the ruckus the dogs raised when the keeper came in to wash down the floor, I decided to give the Soupe a pass.  If you’re curious, check out one of the entries on Youtube.  Amazing.

It was still raining, but not as heavily, by the time I reached Blois.  As luck would have it, it was also lunch time, so I decided to drive into the town and look for somewhere to eat. This was not on my itinerary, so I didn’t have a clue where I was going; just kept following – or tried to follow – the signs to the centre.  After a few false starts I ended up near the castle and what seemed to be the only parking lot in town.

It was only my second day with the car and I was still somewhat discombobulated – although I had got the hang of the windshield wipers.  I didn’t have the monnaie (change) I usually keep on hand for the horodateur, but luckily – again – it was one of those villages where parking was free between 12,00 and 14,00.  Very civilized.

I walked up and down the main street checking out the eateries.  Not having a good meal was not going to make the rain any more bearable.  (I was feeling rather negative at this point.)  A lot of people seemed to be going into the restaurant right across the road from the parking lot – the Bistrot du Boucher (Butcher’s Bistro).  When in doubt, my strategy is to act like the sheep – the local sheep.  I followed a young couple through the door.  Half the town seemed to be inside.

After the daily special, tagine d’agneau (stewed lamb; delicious!) and un pichet du rouge I was feeling much better and on the basis that it couldn’t possibly keep on raining the rest of the afternoon, I decided to head for Cheverny.  Then I ordered un café.  When the waiter returned with the extravaganza below I thought he had got my order mixed up with another table.  The place was hopping.  But no, he assured me, with just the slightest hint of a smile, “C’était bien le café de madame”.

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You never know what you’re going to get when you order un café.

I was not convinced.  This was a bistro, not a starred Michelin restaurant.  Had the waiter taken pity on this sodden, lone foreigner?  But, not willing to appear ungracious and  certainly not about to let any vague scruples get in the way of enjoying such a gallant gesture, I simply thanked him and started in on my ‘café‘.   The crème brûlée was délicieuse!  Ditto for the mousse au chocolat.  So was the amber-coloured liqueur, which I drank only to help digest everything I’d eaten.  I also drank the coffee.

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The Potager (kitchen garden).  The wire fence around the upper level of the kennel is just visible above the hedge on the left.

In a decidedly more positive frame of mind I set out Cheverny.  Less than half an hour later I was walking around the (temporarily rain-free) castle grounds.  Next to the enclosure where the dogs were kept was the most beautiful kitchen garden I had ever seen.

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A ‘river’ of blue stones led to the Communs (Administrative Buildings).

The term ‘kitchen garden’ needs no explanation, but ‘le potager‘ was a bit of a mystery.  Why not ‘jardin des légumes’?  Or ‘jardin des comestibles’ to give it some French panache? The mystery was solved a few days later in a most unlikely venue.  A Troglodyte farm.  I’ll write about that later, but for now, it seems that when Louis XIV starting going crazy for vegetables, there was a problem.  Up until then vegetables were what the peasants ate.  In fact vegetables, often cooked all together in a pot and called la soupe, and a hunk of bread were usually the only thing the peasants ate.

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The king obviously could not eat vulgar peasant fare, so the boiled vegetable medley was rebranded as ‘le potage‘.  And to make sure there was no confusing the king’s  potages with the peasants’ lumpy soupes, the vegetables were strained to a smooth, silky texture, worthy of the royal palate.  And the gardens where all the vegetables that went into the king’s potages were grown was called…

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There were so many flowers – irises, delphiniums, roses, peonies, knofia, poppies – you had to really look to see the vegetables.

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Maybe later in the season, when the vegetables got going, it would look more like a veggie garden.

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A few artichokes jostled for space.

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I was surprised to see the frothy mounds of so many dill plants.  Maybe they ate a lot of cornichons.

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The area devoted to herbs looked almost austere in comparison.  Strangely, there were no dill plants.

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As they were in all the gardens I visited this trip, the gardeners were busy trimming hedges.

The history of Cheverny is considerably less turbulent than that of a lot of the other castles in the Loire.  There were a couple of rough spots – the first in the 16th century when it fell under the control of Diane de Poitiers, the much-loved mistress of Henri II and the much reviled enemy of the king’s wife, Catherine dei Medici.  After the king’s sudden and, unfortunately for Diane, totally unexpected death – the king had made no provisions in his will for her – Catherine had kicked Diane out of Chenonceau.  The now  homeless Diane bought Cheverny so she had somewhere to stay while the renovations on her new castle, Chaumont, were being completed.

But apart from Diane’s short sojourn and another period in the 18th century, the castle has been owned and lived in by generations of the same family, the Huraults, for over six centuries.  I hadn’t planned on spending much time in the interiors of the castles.  After all, unlike gardens, there are only so many interiors, however magnificently furnished, that any human being can reasonably be expected to traipse through.  But given Cheverny’s rather ‘homey’ history, I thought it might be worth a quick look.  It was.  I especially liked the child’s room and the newlyweds’ room.

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Chambre d’enfant.

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In the Chambre des mariés, the bridal gown worn by the Marquise of Vibraye in 1994.

At the rear, the castle opened onto the so-called ‘Apprentices’ Garden’.

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Le Jardin des Apprentis. Maybe they practiced in some remote part of the property before they got to ‘apprentice’ here.

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A wide allée, punctuated with a wisteria-covered pergola, leads from the castle to the Orangerie.

It was hard to believe that until 2006 this had been a typical jardin à la française.  The designers’ goal had been to maintain the classic feel of the place by incorporating the geometry and parterres of the original garden into the modern English landscape style.

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Normally I prefer purple wisteria, but here, the white is so elegant and goes so well with the castle.

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I was surprised to see the rhododendrons here. But then, they would have been part of the 18th century craze for the exotic plants being brought back to Europe from areas of the world only recently opened to Westerners.

Although the sun never did make an appearance that first day in the Loire, the rain held off – for a few hours.  I was checking in at the hotel in Chenonceau when the receptionist and I were startled by the sound of thunder, and a few seconds later, pelting rain.

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View from my window later that evening. Were those patches of blue sky harbingers of good weather or just teasers?