Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A typical day in La Loire - part two

After a tragically disappointing lunch at a little spot in the village, about which I will say no more, we zoomed off to the next château on the itinerary: Villandry, which is known for its astonishing gardens. The story of the château is quite something: it was built in the 16th century, on the grounds of a demolished 12th-century fortress (the keep and the foundation are all that remain); it was "upgraded" in the 18th century, and the traditional garden was destroyed in the 19th century in favor of an English-style park (Arcadia, anyone?).

In 1906, it was acquired by an American heiress, Ann Coleman, and her Spanish husband, Joachim Carvallo. These two non-French people restored Villandry to its earlier glory, and lived there with their children (it's so odd to wander around this museum, looking at both 17th-century paintings and 20th-century family snaps). Carvallo became determined to turn the grounds into gardens appropriate to the château's era, and to make them absolute show-stoppers.

As you can see from the photos, he succeeded. For all of you out there planning your summer gardens, here are a few Villandry-inspired tips:

Design your garden to replicate Renaissance ideals: highest should be a formal water garden (swans included), signifying the soul. On a lower level you'll need an ornamental garden, symbolizing the heart, with intricate arrangements of boxwood-bordered flowerbeds delineating various concepts of love: tender, passionate, fickle, and tragic. And then at the lowest level, symbolizing the body, set up a vast checkerboard of a potager, or vegetable garden, with all the beds outlined in hedges, and each overseen by a single rose bush standing in for the monk who would have tended gardens like this back in the day.

Throw in a maze, a canal, a garden of medicinal and cooking herbs, ancient pruned lime trees bordering every square centimeter, and a belvedere high above it all for the view, and you'll be the talk of the neighborhood association.

After hours spent wandering the gardens and taking zillions of photos, we headed to our fourth château of the day, Château de Noizay, where we had a lovely dinner. It wasn't quite as special as Le Bon Laboreur — a bit too Relais & Château-y for my taste — but nothing to sneeze at.

Then we headed home to our own little château, the one we love best; one always prefers one's own castle, even if it's not quite as grand as Villandry.