If you want to visit a French Chateau then you can’t go wrong with a visit to The Loire Valley, where there are plenty.
Villandry is one famous Loire valley chateau. It is known for its extraordinary gardens which are laid out in the French Renaissance style. The gardens were recreated and restored by the current owners, mainly based on historical records. They are truly stunning, and extensive. It took us a long time to get around the grounds and view it from many interesting angles.
Most visitors start with the chateau itself and its grand interiors and furniture. There are quite a lot of stairs but the views from the open rooftop are rewarding. The views of the gardens from the windows are as interesting as the interiors. It’s best to view some areas of the garden from high up. We enjoyed descriptions of the symbolic hedge shapes below us representing love and so on.
Moving outside, on a hot day we were glad of the terraces shaded by lime trees and from this raised position we had more views of the formal gardens. The water garden was open to the sun and the lake had steep sides, so visitors with young children need to take care. However further on there is a hornbeam maze for a bit of fun, and the kitchen garden and herb garden provide more opportunities to explore. As the gardens are ornamental, there are many different paths to run up and down. The moated stream has some fish which sharp-eyed children can spot, too.
Chateau de Villandry for Gardeners
The Villandry website is an excellent source of gardening advice. Try putting a plant name followed by “Villandry garden” into a search engine and you may find some fascinating advice. Visitors are encouraged to talk to the gardeners (in French, I am sure!).
While these French formal gardens were first completed in the 18th century, in contrast in England gardens like this were being torn up by Capability Brown. He was a tremendously successful landscaper and is responsible for naturalistic parklands at hundreds of English stately homes. To this day his skill is revered and I have been a fan since childhood.
Capability Brown’s vision of parkland was like poetry. He said “Now there, I make a comma, and there, where a more decided turn is proper, I make a colon; at another part, where an interruption is desirable to break the view, a parenthesis; now a full stop.” The landscape may have looked like a totally natural creation but each tree, slope and pool were part of a precise man-made plan.
Garden Destruction and Rebirth
Villandry therefore gave me a huge shock. When I saw the exceptional beauty of these formal gardens and imagined them being ripped up and replaced by English parkland, I found it upsetting. Yet this did happen all over England – for example there are drawings at Temple Newsam House in Leeds showing the old French style gardens. They were nearly all ripped up. Imagine how many gardeners were put out of work and skills lost.
In fact, this happened at Villandry itself, but without the finesse of Capability Brown’s vision. In 1906 Villandry’s gardens were described thus: “The grounds [are] landscaped in the English style, all undulations and hillocks (…). The chateau itself [is lost] in a forest of trees and greenery”. It may have been the “English style” but Capability Brown would never have allowed the fine views of the chateau to be lost.
The restoration of these French Renaissance gardens is heart-warming and – in my view – completely correct for the age of the house and its location.
Now I wonder, was Capability Brown a visionary or a vandal?