Seduced by the gardens of the Loire Valley
Over centuries, France's royalty and nobility cultivated dozens of terraces across the region. Today, many are open to visitors
After a long grey winter on Canada's West Coast, the fields of brilliant yellow colza come as a pleasant shock. The fragrant flowers herald spring in northern France and keep us company as we drive from Paris to the Loire Valley for a week that will be filled with many more blooms.
We've come to explore and be inspired by some of the Loire's best and most beautiful gardens. If fields of colza – canola in English – have me drooling, I'm wondering what effect the newly restored classical French garden at Château de Chambord will have on me? Or the Renaissance garden at the Château de Chenonceau, where Catherine de' Medici held court, or the contemporary garden at Château de Villandry?
The Loire Valley is known as "the Garden of France", and it's easy to see why. French royalty, nobility and the ordinary wealthy loved this verdant valley and built dozens of châteaus over the centuries, each with its own garden. Today, many are open to visitors, along with modern gardens, such as Terra Botanica that opened in 2010 and Les Chemins de la Rose, a botanical garden that boasts 10,000 rose bushes of a thousand different varieties. The largest Japanese garden in Europe is also here, at Maulévrier, next to – wouldn't you know it – yet another château, this one with a gorgeous potager worthy of a Michelin star chef.
Its gardens were a key reason that UNESCO recognized a 280-kilometre stretch of the Loire Valley as a World Heritage Site in 2000. And now – at the risk of being redundant – the region has declared 2017 to be "the year of the garden." From Chambord in the east, to Angers in the west, something special is in the works at 80 different sites.
We get our first glimpse of what the French call "the great Loire River" in Orléans. Its olive-green water is studded with sandy islands and lined with trees in new leaves. When we step onto a traditional "sand" boat for an evening cruise, the owner tells us the Loire is the longest river in France and was once the country's major highway, transporting all manner of goods including the locally quarried limestone used to build the valley's châteaus.
The next day, we head to our first garden at Château de Chambord – the granddaddy of châteaus – and where the 18th-century formal French garden has been recreated following years of historical research. (American philanthropist Stephen Schwarzman picked up the €3.5-million tab.) This is not a garden where you stop and smell the roses. In fact, there are no flowers. "The Renaissance garden has flowers. The French garden has no flowers," our guide informs us as we climb to the top of one of the château's towers for a better view of the garden's straight lines and uniform green beds.
At nearby Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire, the 26th International Garden Festival is under way and the gardens here couldn't be more different from those at Chambord. This year's theme is "flower power" and 25 gardens have been created following an international competition. Wandering through these gardens is like visiting a modern open-air art gallery where you sometimes feel you missed the message. What is the point, for instance, of all those mirrors reflecting multiple images of ourselves in one of the gardens?
The best part of Chaumont is gazing upon beds of pure white tulips that lead to a white and black château that could be straight out of a fairy tale. That, and the hundred-year-old cedars of Lebanon with their sweeping branches. Why Catherine de' Medici swapped Chaumont for Chenonceau is a mystery to me – until we visit Chenonceau.
Two rows of magnificent plane trees lead to the château, which straddles the River Cher as it flows lazily past on its way to meet the Loire. "Catherine de' Medici would have walked right here," says Nicholas Tomlan, an American expat and Chenonceau's botanical director, as he leads us to the manicured edge of one of the first true Renaissance gardens in France. "She was very interested in the garden and art. The garden was art."
Yet this particular garden is named for Diane de Poitiers, Catherine's rival and the mistress of her husband, King Henry II. When Henry was killed in a jousting competition, Catherine became Queen and forced Diane out of Chenonceau, giving her Chaumont instead. Ah, the intrigue …
As we wander through the rooms of the château with its Flemish tapestries, Old Masters paintings and fresh bouquets from the cutting garden, it all seems very civilized, even the love triangle. After all, Catherine didn't destroy Diane's garden, she simply created her own next to it. Today, both gardens contain shrubs, stone urns, climbing roses and – in spring – thousands of tulips, pansies, daisies and daffodils.
This year, a new garden will be added at Chenonceau, based on drawings that were found from the 1950s by acclaimed British garden designer Russell Page. Even the most-visited, privately owned château in France can't rest on its roses.
Just 40 minutes down the road from Chenonceau, another garden demands a viewing. Villandry was the last major château to be built in the valley, but unlike at Chenonceau, its gardens were substantially changed over the centuries. At the start of the 20th century, a new owner decided to meticulously recreate the Renaissance gardens. Today, his great-grandson Henri Carvallo watches over the realm and welcomes visitors.
When we arrive early one morning, we have the place almost to ourselves; three levels of living art that include a renowned kitchen garden (imagine perfect rows of purple basil, blue leeks and green lettuce); an ornamental garden with themes of love and music (heart-shaped boxwood beds filled with red tulips, for example); a water garden that reflects the clouds and trees; and a contemporary garden where lilacs scent the air. From the top of the château, the Renaissance gardens look like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, every piece in its proper place.
Gardens may be our focus, but we can't ignore the fact that the Loire Valley is also a major wine-producing region. The limestone that lends itself so well to castle construction is critical to growing grapes here. "It's like a sponge," Denis Retiveau tells us through an interpreter. Retiveau is a winemaker near the village of Montsoreau and offers wine-tasting cruises on a traditional river boat. We happily sip a variety of his white, red and rosé wines while we motor up the Vienne – a large tributary of the Loire – and learn that grape roots can reach down 30 metres to find precious water stored in the limestone.
At the nearby Fontevraud Abbey – one of the largest surviving monasteries from the Middle Ages, and where we'll spend the night – nuns and monks once grew 1,000 hectares of grapes just for wine. In the Middle Ages, "there were too many diseases to drink the water," says our guide, Olivier Châble. Interestingly, the monks of the abbey were allotted only a quarter-litre a day while the women got half a litre – no doubt one of the benefits of having a woman run the place.
Moving on, we pay a hasty visit to Les Chemins de la Rose (after all, a rose is a rose is a rose), then head to the Oriental Park of Maulévrier. Constructed at the turn of the 20th century by a Parisian architect, the cherry blossoms, magnolias and azaleas are in glorious bloom. Taking the meandering path around a lake, we're astounded by the shapes of evergreen trees. Yews and pines have been pruned so hard their branches resemble lofty clouds. A red bridge, a Torii gate and a pair of stone lions transport us the rest of the way to Japan.
It's almost the end of the day and the end of our week when I find, perhaps, my favourite garden, the potager at Château Colbert. Maybe it's the late afternoon light, the human scale of this garden or simply the fact it smells and tastes so good. The head gardener, who came here from the Potager de Roi at Versailles, snips chives, digs up tiny red, white and pink radishes, and cuts open cloves of pungent garlic. In the greenhouse, we inhale the sweet scent of basil and chew on the leaves of mertensia maritima, a plant that tastes unmistakeably of raw oysters.
That night we eat in the château's gilded dining room and sleep under its lofty ceilings, surrounded by paintings that celebrate the pleasures of a lucky few in a bygone era. Fortunately, their gardens live on for all to enjoy.
The writer was a guest of Tourism France and its partners. They did not review or approve this story.
If you go
Air France offers daily, direct flights to Paris from Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal and a shuttle service from Quebec City to Montreal.
The Empreinte Hotel overlooks the Loire River and offers a complimentary spa. Rates from €130 ($195).
In Montlivault, near Château de Chambord
La Maison d'à Côté has 12 rooms and is run by chef Christophe Hay and Emmanuelle Hay. They operate a one-Michelin-star restaurant as well as a bistro on the property. Rates from €91.
At Azay-le-Rideau (close to both Chenonceau and Villandry)
At Fontevraud Royal Abbey
Twenty minutes from Saumur, the 54-room, four-star Fontevraud hotel is located in the former priory for the nuns of St. Lazare, who cared for lepers. The nearly thousand-year-old building has been beautifully restored with bespoke furniture, including natural latex mattresses. The tech-savvy hotel provides guests with iPads at check-in. Rates from €139.
Chateau Colbert features large rooms with modern bathrooms in a 17th-century château. Choose from two categories of rooms, beginning at €97 and €180 respectively.