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.




The Village That Tore Up Its Sidewalks

My visit with Elsie had got me in the mood for roses.  Before leaving home, I had spent a fair bit of time meandering around the internet, looking for interesting, but less famous gardens.  One day I stumbled across an intriguing entry.  No grand castle, no extensive grounds, no private ‘folie’.  It was a Village Jardin (Garden Village) called Chédigny, which in 2013 was the first village in France to be awarded the coveted designation, Jardin Remarkable.  And it is full of roses.


I thought I was in the right place. But the only sign I could find was this half-hidden one for a couple of villages nearby.

In the late 1990’s, the mayor of Chédigny, who has a self-confessed grande passion pour les roses, decided that to further beautify the village – they had just finished ‘under-grounding’ all the networks – they could plant roses and train them up the façades of the houses.


I had never come across this sign before. ‘Semi pedestrian street’. Could this be it?

The villagers loved it and two years later decided to aller plus loin (go further).  In the words of the mayor, the goal was to “redonner la rue aux habitants” (give the road back to the villagers).


Whenever there is talk of giving back the streets to the people in big cities like Toronto, increasing sidewalk space always comes up.  But in Chédigny, instead of expanding the sidewalks, they tore them all up, leaving just the curbs.  Then they started planting.   Ancient roses.  Modern roses.  Climbing roses.  Repeat roses – roses remontantes.  In French they don’t just repeat, they ‘rise again’.  There were soon more roses than villagers.  (latest count – 700 to 150)


Even a village that got rid of its sidewalks still needs somewhere to put the garbage bins.

The population soared 20% in just eight years.  (Do the math – there may now be a couple dozen more Chédignois.)  Word spread, and with the inauguration of the annual Festival des Roses in 2006, more and more visitors came to have a look at what was going on in the tiny village.


Of course, “Où il y a des roses, il y a des épines,” admitted the mayor.  (Where there are roses, there are thorns.)  The new interest in the village has led to a doubling of real estate prices, making life in Chédigny beyond the reach of many young people.


And with the rise in tourism comes the risk that Chédigny will become ‘un jardin musée’ (a garden museum) like those of the castles, in the words of a man who obviously does not mince his words.  Instead the goal is to create ‘un lieu de vie, de parfum’; un jardin vivant’  (a place of life, of fragrance; a living garden).  From what I saw early that morning in May, there was no need to worry.


Presumably there is another entrance.



Chédigny’s gardening team – one Head Gardener (in the yellow jacket) and her assistants.

Another épine has to do with the ‘slight’, additional cost to maintain all the plants, the responsibility for which rests on the shoulders of one Head Gardener, and a couple of assistants.


Chédigny’s gardeners try to do as much as possible à la main (by hand), with minimal use of pesticides.

When asked what it’s like to take care of a whole village, the young woman put it this way:  “Il faut avoir une petite connaissance botanique et une grande passion.”  (You need a bit of botanical knowledge and a lot of passion.)   As far as passion goes, it was clear that there was plenty of that.


I think she was being far too modest as to her expertise on the botanical front.  Sometimes it was hard to see them for all the roses, but there were lots of other plants too.



Apart from the gardeners, the only other sign of life during my early morning visit was this villager chatting with the postman.


Strolling along the quiet lanes, it was difficult to imagine the pandemonium tomorrow – opening day of the 9th annual edition of the Festival des Roses.  I wondered, if I had known about it, would I have changed my itinerary? The line-up for the two-day event looked wonderful.  Although visiting the booths of the rose growers and nursery owners would probably have been just an exercise in frustration (too many tempting things I of course could not take with me), there were all sorts of events and activities that would have been worth all the jostling with the crowds –  street musicians, photography and painting exhibits, an olfactory workshop seductively called ‘Parfum de roses, plaisir du nez’ (perfume of roses, pleasure of the nose).



Pink roses and blue shutters were my favourites.


It was love at first sight with this rose.

During a segment for France 3 television (you can see it on Youtube – “Chédigny, village de roses”), one of the villagers explains that her involvement in gardening developed progressivement.   From a bit of puttering around, it has now reached the point where “ça me demande beaucoup d’ attention et presque… “(it requires a great deal of my attention and almost…).  She hesitated, struggling to find the right word – “Ce n’est pas de l’inquiétude…” (It’s not worry…)   Finally she hit upon an image that satisfied her:   Je suis aussi attentive à mes rosiers que je suis à mon petit chat.” (I pay as much attention to my roses as I do to my little cat.)  And you can bet that’s a lot of attention.



Chédigny, the village where roses have replaced sidewalks.



Elsie’s Garden

After Chaumont-sur-Loire I was looking forward to something on a smaller scale.  Something I wouldn’t just gawk at, but could actually relate to.  I had arranged a visit to le Jardin d’Elsie, a private garden in Chinon.


Chinon. The castle and the town. Then and now.

The garden is on the edge of town to the left of the castle.  Easy to find if you know what to look for.  Not so easy if you’re a first time visitor and you’re navigating solo.  I spotted the sign on my third drive-by.  This meant that I had to keep on going until I could get turned around at the next rond pont. (round bridge).

I have a love-hate relationship with these things.  The big city ones are enough to fray even the steeliest of nerves, but the little ones are wonderful. Like those bright yellow suns we used to draw.  With all the little sunbeams bursting from the centre. You just keep going round and round until you figure out which ‘sunbeam’ you’re supposed to take.


Rond pont. Deceptively simple. (The modern tower-like structure in the background – slightly right of centre) contains an elevator to the castle on the ridge overlooking Chinon.

From my window table at Café de la Paix one day I watched traffic make its way around the tiny circle.  The traffic in both directions has to CEDEZ LE PASSAGE.  This creates some interesting encounters.


During the time it took me to eat lunch, not one driver cut across the tiny brick circle.  Amazing!

I followed the narrow side road to another sign.  It pointed to a high gate in a gorgeous shade of smoky green.  I looked around.  There was no bell.  No button to press to speak with someone inside.  Feeling like an intruder – and hoping there were no dogs – I lifted the latch and tentatively pushed the gate open a bit.  There was one car parked in a small gravelled area.  I opened the gate as wide as it would go, hurried back to my car, which I had reluctantly left blocking half of the very narrow road, did a truly ugly 5 or 6 point turn to get myself lined up at right angles to the gate – hoping all the while that no local would decide to come down the road at that moment – and gingerly drove through.  No problem.  There were at least two inches on either side of the car to spare.


First view. When Elsie first began to make her garden, did she and guests sit here and look over what was and what was to be?

There was still no-one in sight, so I closed the gate and went through a small opening in the dense foliage surrounding the little parking area.


Still feeling like an intruder, I continued towards the villa.  Just after I took the photo below, Elsie came out.


We exchanged ‘Bonjour’s’ and then she asked if I wanted her to take me through the garden or if I preferred to tour it on my own, after which she would make us coffee and I could ask any questions I had.   When I said I preferred to découvrir (discover) a garden on my own, she smiled.  “Vous êtes des vrais alors.”  (“You’re one of the real ones then.”) She handed me a map of the garden and then looked down at my shoes.  They were going to get wet, she warned me.  It wouldn’t be the first time, I replied.  She laughed.  A good start.


Map of the garden which Elsie had wisely laminated.

I love exploring gardens on my own.  I also enjoy guiding visitors through gardens back home.  One more instance of Homo sapiens parodoxalis?


I was tempted to check out the view from this solitary chair, but couldn’t find a path.  As Elsie had warned, my shoes were already soaked.  It had poured – again – during the night.


The property had once been a vineyard, but when Elsie bought it, there was nothing.  In the early days she would often eat dinner in the courtyard – a totally pleasant experience – apart from the staring eyes of her neighbour on the other side of the D751.  “Il pouvait même voir ce qu’il y avait sur mon assiette”.  (He could even see what was on my plate).

Later, after I’d toured the whole garden Elsie brought out coffee as promised.  I had a few questions, but Elsie didn’t need much prompting.  I sat there entranced for the next hour as she told me about the garden, roses and her life.


Born in Antwerp, Elsie De Raedt studied to be a translator.  With French, German and Néerlandais (not Hollandais, which I had previously thought was the word for ‘Dutch’) she quickly built up a successful practice in Brussels, which in addition to producing chocolates and beer, is also the main operating base for the European Union and the Headquarters for NATO.  But as she approached the treacherous middle age crisis years, she realized that translating was not what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.


She made the transition gradually.  She attended weekend workshops on landscape and garden design.  Antwerp wasn’t just the right place to be born if you wanted to be a translator.  It was also the home town of Jacques Vert (I think I’ve got the name right), the pre-eminent garden designer of the time.  Elsie continued to gagner sa vie as a translator, while she started to accept commissions to design gardens.

On fait bien ce qu’est la passion.  On arrive au top“, she observed.  (You do well what your passion is.  You arrive at the …)  Then she hesitated.  She explained that she was puzzled, even a bit uncomfortable, at the thought of someone who was touring all the grand castle gardens looking at her garden which was, she cautioned me, “pas parfait” (not perfect).  I assured her that even though most people can’t resist the over-the-top extravaganzas, we also appreciate ‘real’ gardens like hers just as much, maybe even more.


With time she became an expert en roses anciennes.  She was invited to give lectures not just in Belgium, but throughout the Loire Valley, the rose capital of France.  She spent less and less time translating until eventually she became a full-time paysagiste.

She received many invitations to the Loire castles. The old gardeners were dying off and with them their intimate knowledge of the ancient roses in their care.  The current owners often had no idea what roses were growing in their gardens, let alone how to take care of what they knew was a priceless horticultural patrimoine (heritage).


After a few years of designing gardens for others, Elsie decided she wanted to create a garden of her own.  She started looking for a suitable property in Antwerp.  But the properties for sale were either too small or exorbitantly expensive.  Then one day, she asked herself,  Why Belgium?  Why not le pays du Loire, where she was already spending so much time giving lectures and consulting?


Un coin chaumonisé. (a touch of Chaumont)

One of the questions I had for Elsie had to do with a circle of tree trunks painted in bright red.  She laughed,  “Je voulais chaumonisé un peu mon jardin.” (I wanted to chaumonize my garden a bit.)  She hastened to clarify that this was not a real word.  From a design point of view she liked the way the reds complemented each other, but it was also a bit of a set-up.  She wanted to make sure visitors had at least one question to ask her.


Rose parterre.

I had loved the garden festival at Chaumont.  I wondered what a professional like her would think of it.  It turned out that even though she thought some of the installations were complètement sottes (totally idiotic), she loved it too.  Went every year.  She hadn’t been this year yet.  Was waiting for her sister to join her.  Thought it was more fun visiting with a friend.  I agreed.  As much as I enjoy visiting gardens on my own, I could see that Chaumont would be even more enjoyable in the company of someone to ‘ooh and aah’ with.


In addition to the boxwood rose, Elsie had urged me to have a look at the colombière.


 A votre santé!

She hadn’t mentioned anything about all the wine bottles.

The area around the castle of Chinon is riddled with ancient tunnels. Escape routes.  This may have been the exit to one of them. It is also where modern day plumbers had installed some very unattractive piping. Since she was in wine country, Elsie decided to close up the unsightly hole with empty wine bottles.


Mistletoe.  A surprisingly benign squatter.

When I asked about the nest-like clumps in the trees, she gave me an odd look.  “C’est du guy”.   (ghee.)  I still had no idea.  She had obviously over-estimated either my French or my plant ID skills.  Probably both.  Seeing that I was totally mystified, for the first and only time, she slipped into English.  “Mistletoe.”

The only mistletoe balls I’d seen before were the ones people hung over doorways around Christmas. The ones you were supposed to kiss under.  I didn’t know it actually grew as a ball.  I was skeptical.  But she assured me it was indeed mistletoe.   Thinking of the ivies that strangle to death hapless trees back home, I asked if it killed the host tree.  That’s what most people think, she replied, but in reality, rather than harming the host tree, if anything, the mistletoe prolongs its life.  Since I had already revealed myself to be one of ‘those’ people, she went on to explain.   The mistletoe seed needs a nice, thick bark to take root in.  The kind of bark that is found only on older trees.  Trees that have maybe ten more years to live.  For nourishment the seed absorbs a bit of the sèvre (sap).  This causes the sap to s’activer en plus – shakes it out of its arboreal doldrums – which re-energizes the tree, thus prolonging its life.


While we were having coffee, a woman came up to the table and started talking with Elsie.  She was holding three roses in her hand.  Roses she had obviously picked from Elsie’s garden.   Elsie seemed totally unperturbed.  Instead she asked where the woman had found them.  Near the greenhouse perhaps?   They examined the colour and fragrance. Elsie was confident one of them was Bouquet Parfait.  But she wasn’t sure about the others. Wasn’t one of them usually a bit lighter in colour?   I felt rather odd, sitting there as they continued their rather lengthy discussion.  But I had a feeling that this too was part of what was turning out to be a most enjoyable and unique garden visit.

After the woman left, Elsie turned to me and explained.  It was her femme de ménage (cleaning lady).  Un trésor who had been with her since she arrived.  When she’s finished for the day, she goes through the garden, sees if there are any roses she wants – or doesn’t already have – and places her order.  Over the years she has accumulated quite a collection.  Vous êtes sure que vous avez encore de la place?, Elsie had teased her. (You’re sure you still have room left?)  Later on Elsie will go out into the garden and make sure she has correctly identified the roses her cleaning lady wants.  On her next trip to Belgium, where her rose propagating business is located, she will ensure that this morning’s order is taken care of.

On my way out, I thought about what she had said – “On fait bien ce qu’est la passion.


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.   


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.


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.


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


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


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’.


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.


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.




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.


A haven of peace and contemplation.  Yes.



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.)


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.


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


Even as they ripen, they stay upright.


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.