So. Not only am I taking a detour back into summer, here, well September, but also documenting a detour we took on our way home from Brittany this summer. Our usual route is pretty much engraved on our brains and usually takes 10-12 hours – we head east past Rennes to Le Mans, pass Chartres, skirt Paris and then head back down past Auxerre to Beaune and back up to Basle… those placenames mark the étappes we record back to our families for reassurance that the journey is going well. On the whole, we do the trip in one fell swoop, though we did once stop and spend a memorable July 4th in Paris (parking under the Hotel de Ville, lunch on the rive gauche, then through the Louvre – dog bathing included in the fountains! – and all along the Seine to the Tour Eiffel and later the ride back on a bateau mouche… :)). Then there was the time when my tired husband missed the motorway junction west towards Brittany and we found ourselves down at Orléans and on a surprise route overland to Le Mans… but I digress!
For over 20 years, we’ve been saying we ought to take a detour through the Loire valley, famous for the many châteaux built all along it. When it came to it, we were travelling with a dog and a cat and when confronted with the real possibility of doing this, the question was, which one should we choose?!
Happily, we chose Villandry. At Le Mans, we turned right and headed down to Tours – travelling through France just blows my mind when I think of how much travelling was done back in mediaeval times and how long it all must have taken, and yet the history books cheerfully tell us how King A/Queen B, Pope X went to C, then D then Z and more often than not, all his entourage and/or troops, too…and back again. What hardy people they must have been. It seemed rather convoluted after Tours, since the map said that Villandry is just a short way west of Tours on the route back to Brittany (Angers/Nantes)! However, once you are off the motorway, the countryside is delightfully green, lush and the villages so French that the drive is a very pleasant one, including the village of Villandry itself. Interestingly, the village is almost integrated into the castle grounds. Fortunately, it has kept its mediaeval form and skyline and the modern age seems far away, as it nestles in at the bottom of a small hill, with the castle walls pushed up against it, the castle hardly any higher (though at the other end of the grounds) but with a belvedere up above it affording a view over the whole and over the (surprisingly?) flat Loire valley – I hadn’t expected to be able to see so far into the distance.As you can see, the weather was perfect, the visitors few and just in case, you know, dogs are allowed in, on a lead, of course! The other surprising bit of info is that the gardens don’t close – entry is until 7 pm and you can stay as long as you like, though once through the exit turnpike, you cannot re-enter. Wow!
From the belvedere, this is the overall view of the gardens, which are breathtakingly beautiful – especially for a formal garden and geometry-loving person like me!! There are 6 hectares of gardens: in the foreground are the gardens of the heart (tender, passionate, flighty and tragic), as well as those representing the coats of arms of the families/regions, fleur-de-lys and music - we didn’t have time to visit the castle itself but I’m assuming the representative rooms look out onto these intricately shaped and traditionally hued gardens, which are elegant and pretty and suit the architecture’s pretensions (the building itself is mainly renaissance with a façade altered in the mid 18th century in the style of Louis XV, but covering many periods from the mediaeval keep to the classicist orangerie and terraces…). These “top” gardens appear to always have constituted the ornamental element. Beyond them on the lowest level are the kitchen gardens, a labyrinth of colour and shape and giddy array of luscious fruit and veg (at this time of year, anyway!); these were recreated in the 20th century, after earlier estate owners had, in the early 19th century, followed the English fashion for landscaped park gardens and taken out all the earlier beds.
All the land up to the village church had been added to the original estate, so that the gardens now extend up towards the safety of the hill, too, and in the centre of that photo above, I was enthralled with the effect of such simple and yet exquisite planting – waist-high geometric box quadrants planted with lavender and sea-lavender and punctuated by tall yew topiaries in disc-like shapes that allow a peek beyond. Three simple white stone fountains at the intersections of these gardens cool the air slightly, enough to be noticeable. The whole was originally irrigated from the pool on the top level of gardens, the Water Gardens, now a sunken pool in the shape of a Louis XV mirror, with simple fountains on either side and plain grass “beds”, all surrounded by lime-tree-topped banks with walkways below them. Towards the village are a few newer gardens – a play on sun and clouds, a children’s garden, a labyrinth without any deadends and a herb garden to complement the return to the kitchen gardens complete with more low fountains and bowers, vine-laden walkways (the grapes hang low enough for a tall man to only have to tip back his head to grab a grape!), knee-high espalier apples (enormous) and pear-trees straight out of a nursery rhyme. Apparently, if you are there when they harvest, the produce is given away for free!
Energised, and after letting the pets out for a stroll through the pumpkin patch, we headed back to Tours and this time, intentionally towards Orléans, skipping Paris on this occasion to use the brand new, empty, motorway that connects the A10 with the A6 and homeward bound…