The renovated gardens of Chambord
The stunning gardens of the Loire Valley
Think of a French region which best catches the eye of keen gardeners (whilst also providing a side order of fascinating history, stunning architecture and a whiff of romance) and the Loire Valley will no doubt come to mind.
It’s a languid, leisurely region, with a fittingly royal demeanour about it. Its fertile soils are well watered and receptive to crops and garden plants alike. In short, no surprises that it is known as the ‘Garden of France’.
The role of the châteaux
During the Renaissance (15th-16thcentury), the French royal court gradually took up residence in the Loire Valley. It seemed a perfect spot, strategically well placed for trade, just far enough from Paris and with all the space needed for hunting and building elaborate châteaux, each designed to impress more than the last.
Many courtiers took over ancient defensive fortresses and re-modelled them along contemporary fashionable lines. The sprouting of ornate details and architectural flourishes, superfluous in times of war, reflected the more peaceful times.
Some 300 châteaux were constructed including those in Chinon, Montsoreau, Orléans, Amboise, Angers, Blois, Saumur and Tours. Most are set close to the river Loire or its tributaries such as the Maine, Cher, Indre, Creuse and Loir. At their finest, they embody the ideals of the Enlightenment and embrace the newest technological innovations and designs of the time.
In later years, French royalty preferred the comforts of Fontainebleau, the Louvre Palace, and Versailles (notably Louis XIV, the Sun King), not to mention Château de Rambouillet. Eventually, during the French Revolution many were neglected or ransacked, leaving them at the mercy of the elements and the local populace until, in time, they began to be restored again.
Spotlight on Chambord
The foundations of Château de Chambord were laid in 1519 under the watchful eye of Francis I. This was going to be some hunting lodge.
The visual aim was for a magical castle set deep in the forest, its ornate white tufa stone turrets looming up from the shimmering waters of the moat and catching the sunlight like some celestial structure.
The château is famous especially for its twin, double-helix staircases, designed by Leonardo da Vinci reputedly to ensure that wife and mistress never crossed eachother en route to or from the king’s bedchamber.
Outside it was always less complicated. In some ways Chambord has never really had proper gardens. Strictly speaking, in its early years, it was never formally completed, set on its half-island with the arrow-straight canal heading off to the east. And latterly the huge terraces to the north and east have been maintained as grass lawns (and not particularly manicured at that). Whether this was for budgetary reasons or deliberately aesthetic reasons, it was hard to tell.
The newly restored gardens, in the 18th century parterre style, were completed in 2017 at a cost of some £3m and genuinely add to the overall picture. Together, the gardens and the ancient building are more than the sum of their parts.
Some 14 years were spent researching this grand project in order to get it right. Ancient documents were dug out and faded plans were scoured to ensure accurate re-plantings where possible. The east garden is less visible than the north and south, and does away with the intricate cut-turf motifs. Roses, alliums, cosmos, echinacea and thyme hedges add interest and a gentler aesthetic.
The gardens are hugely design-led: this is an exercise in geometry and precision rather than a romantic mélange of richly planted borders. It certainly has none of the blousy, exuberant froth of an English garden. As such it is perhaps not the most interesting to an avid gardener or keen horticulturalist, but that is to miss the point. The point here is for the elegantly formal gardens, and their linear paths and symmetrical austerity to act as a counter-point to the architectural majesty of the château itself (blousy and exuberant and frothy in its own way).
The restored gardens have been an extraordinary success and it’s almost as if they are the finishing touch to this château of châteaux. Choose the right Belle France holiday and you’ll get the chance to see it for yourself.
Restauration des jardins à la française de Chambord
The green fingered favourites
Château Le Rivau
Not far from Chinon, and popular with all ages (and, ahem, less than fully committed gardeners), this is a playground of the imagination. With no less than fourteen gardens, each themed with imagination and flair, you can wander and be fascinated, amazed and puzzled, possibly all at the same time.
The elegant towers of the château overlook the gardens, all inspired by the colourful legends of a child’s traditional storybook. There’s Gargantua’s vegetable garden featuring, yes, large pumpkins amongst other produce.
Explore the enchanted forest, the wildflower meadow and the secret garden. Enjoy the sensory overload of 450 varieties of fragrant old roses, not to mention rolling beds of lavender that make the warm air heady as you stroll by. Alice’s Maze is fun with surreal features like outsize boots and a giant watering can to challenge your perspective.
Château de Chenonceau
Perhaps the most beautiful of the châteaux, Chenonceau (in the village of Chenonceaux, with an ‘x’) has several gardens. There are the formal gardens of Catherine de Medici and Diane de Poitiers – featuring spring plantings with bulbs and violas and a summer planting with dahlias, petunias and roses.
The kitchen garden is perhaps the most rewarding of all, 10,000 square metres producing vegetables for the restaurant and cut flowers that feature in every room of the château.
Château de Villandry
Built in the early 1500s, Château de Villandry has evolved to become recognised as having the most exquisite gardens. The formally laid out gardens are a veritable patchwork of knot gardens, with miles of box hedging giving a unique neatness and symmetry. Be sure to get the best view from the raised terrace overlooking the gardens.
There’s a water garden with fountains, an ornamental garden constantly changing with the seasons, and a vast ornamental, kitchen garden. In season, this ‘potager decoratif’ is a stunning assembly of colour themed beds (according to the variety of vegetable) – truly an inspiration, no matter how green your fingers.
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