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Loire Valley Gardens

French Gardens, Chateaux (Castles), Monasteries and Fabulous Wine

By Eve Bergazyn

Chateau de Villandry

Chateau de Villandry

T. Eigeland/CRT Centre
Approaching an imposing moat-surrounded château, embellished with hedges trimmed into designs and patterns called parterres de broderies, gravel crunching underfoot, is an unforgettable experience. The Loire Valley, more than most places in the world, personifies the good life.

Forests here are stocked with game and there are lush expanses of lawn amidst the medicinal, aromatic, herbal, and vegetable gardens. All were indispensable to the numerous castles and monasteries of those who maintained them, each with typical elements of the château garden including parterres, orchards of trained fruit, potagers (vegetable gardens), labyrinths, cloisters, rose gardens, canals and lakes.

This garden region of France is nourished by the Loire, Eure, Cher and Loiret rivers, and it boasts well maintained and manicured outdoor spaces inspired by generations of talented gardeners, whose lives’ work it was to beautify the gardens of kings.

The Loire River flows from the belly of Mont Jerbier de Jonc, and past the clay and chalk soiled vineyards of Sancerre. It passes through the valley of kings, some of whose châteaux date from the 12th century, and through the salt marshes of the Guérande into the Atlantic.

The big châteaux have breathtaking verdure; what follows are a few lesser known places. During the off-season (there are fewer tourists in spring and fall), don’t be surprised if you may be one of a handful of visitors in your own secret garden.

Château d’Ainay-le-Vieil

Château d’Ainay-le-Vieil is hidden from the road by a stone wall. “Of course we want more roses!” exclaims Madame Peyronnet, whose family has inhabited the château since 1467. The five chartreuses (walled gardens) are concealed by tall hedges and separated by brick walls. Each is distinct.

A fragrant garden of perennial flowers leads onto an orchard of trained pear and apple trees, coaxed to grow along wires to maximize fruit production. This segues into a jardin de méditation, complete with geometric parterres and a whimsical house of hedges supported by branches; followed by a jardin de simples, the ubiquitous medieval garden, containing medicinal plants, herbs, and aromatics.

The final chartreuse consists of parterres, statues, topiaries, and the formerly exotic magnolia tree, probably imported from the Caribbean. This garden has surprises around every corner making it easy to spend an afternoon among its allées (paths meandering throughout the hedges), weeping willows, stands of bamboo, chartreuses and rose bushes.

Le Parc Floral de la Source

Le Parc Floral de la Source, located in the southeast corner of Orléans, celebrates the source of the Loiret River with a variety of landscapes. The guest is invited to wander throughout the more than 86-acre publicly owned property, either by foot or on the train running from one end of the park to the other.

Features include a recreated forest, an innovatively designed aviary containing those birds not left to roam free in the park and – a highlight – the emergence of the Loiret from its source within the underground waters of the Beauce region, France’s breadbasket.

Sancerre

Sancerre, an especially picturesque town, is built on a hilltop overlooking fields of vineyards punctuated by villages. It provides a base from which to visit local winemakers in one of the most famous AOCs in France.

Whether you visit the Museum of Sorcery, the brand new Maison des Sancerres - which describes the history of the region, its wine producers, and their brilliant marketing campaign of the early twentieth century - or simply enjoy a picnic among the vines, a visit to this region is worth the extra few liters of diesel it takes to get there.

La Prieuré d’Orsan

La Prieuré d’Orsan, an adaptive reconstruction of a former monastery, provides respite from the busyness of the tourist trail with its meandering and intimate gardens. The thoughtfully designed orchards are places to quietly contemplate life while enjoying one of the pears, plums or apples dangling temptingly from their trained branches.

A diverse potager providing ingredients for the simple and delicious dishes prepared in the kitchen is enhanced by the jardin de simples, which contains the required 88 species of plants decreed by Charlemagne to form a proper medicinal garden. This is truly a carefully composed landscape. Zen-inspired rooms complete the experience at this peaceful priory.

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