Touring France’s Loire Valley is a journey through the decadence of the Renaissance.
Incredible chateaux lavishly outfitted with artworks by the masters, intricate tapestries and ornate furniture, gold, silver and lace … these perfectly restored and expertly curated exhibitions of hedonism are wonderful to experience.
And in amongst them are some equally excessive gardens to explore.
For standout beauty and artful precision, it’s hard to go passed the gardens of Chateau Villandry – the last of the great castles built in the Loire and just 15 kilometres west of Tours.
Overlooking the River Cher, the stunning patterns of this ever-changing masterpiece of horticulture are like nothing else.
Three terraces of plantings showcase very different styles with the kitchen garden, of all things, among the most beautiful.
Spread across one hectare with nine separate sections, the beds are planted in a checkerboard arrangement interweaving vegetables and fruits with flowers – you’ve never seen edible displays like this.
The kitchen garden is a legacy of the First World War when it was planted to nourish the patients of the hospital.
The gardens are re-planted twice every year with autumn being the best season to view the most colourful displays.
The water garden is the uppermost terrace and its ponds and mini-canals gravity-feed the terraces below. It is a place of respite and tranquillity with a range of water features and fountains providing a gentle sound track to the entire garden.
It is more open and expansive than the other sections with a huge pond, citrus trees and lawned sitting areas providing a restful viewpoint of the chateau.
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Undoubtedly the most photographed section of this wonderful estate is the ornamental or ‘pleasure’ garden where allegorical displays of four types of love – tender, passionate, tragic and fickle – are shaped in amazing detail to the point they almost look like pre-fabricated structures.
Plantings that mimic butterflies and fans, hearts and clovers fill row after row of amazing displays. The precision of the topiary is mind-blowing and there’s also a children’s maze albeit not an especially challenging one.
From ‘love’ you pass a small canal in the pleasure garden to ‘music’ where boxwood hedges and flowerbeds of musical symbols again feature staggering detail.
Around 400,000 visitors a year visit the property which lies on the site of a fort built around 1100AD and was later mostly dismantled – notwithstanding the tower that remains – to make way for what became Villandry that was completed in 1536.
Villandry was owned originally by French Minister of Finances Jean le Breton who later became Ambassador to Italy where he studied the Italian Renaissance gardens he would later emulate at his home.
Through the ages, the gardens were expanded upon but ultimately fell into neglect. The sale of the castle to Spaniard Dr Joachim Carvallo in 1906 ultimately saved the property from demolition. Dr Carvallo devoted the rest of his life to its restoration and rejuvenation of the gardens that are so enjoyed today.
The gardens were opened to the public in 1934 and visitors can now also tour the interior of the chateau which has also been styled in Renaissance splendour.
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