Monday, August 30, 2010

Week 14: Garden Visit

The Queen's Chair, a giant natural sculpture on display at Chaumont-sur-Loire

The rhythm of life has changed dramatically as people are beginning the rentrée (the reentry). There is a hint of Autumn in the air, we find ourselves reaching for sweaters, and the days are shorter, a few leaves are thinking about turning colors. Fewer meals are served on the terrace as the beginnings and ends of days are cooler. Less people arrive on the Place, the castle is only open now on weekends. It's time to order the firewood and get the fuel tank filled. Other signs of the end of the season: Celine, the hairdresser is back. Rick and I no longer look so scruffy. Anne and Christine suddenly reappeared and their shutters are open again after weeks of being firmly shut. They have been soaking up the sun on a Greek Island. And speaking of islands, Quinn and family are somewhere in the Adriatic as I write this, enjoying "the Mediterranean as it once was" (as the Croatian tourist board slogan would have it).

We had several quiet days this week, although we weren't completely free. We did have some Russians staying with us for a couple of nights. Two families, each with two children. The fathers are cousins. Those days were not quiet at all as the four children were all under the age of 8. One family now lives in New York and the other in Israel, so they meet in Europe during the summer and spend time together. Monday was Adi's birthday, she was the oldest girl, turning 7 at Maison Conti. Her father got up early to drive to Vibraye for cake, as Monday is the day our own boulangerie is closed. He arrived back at the house about 9am just as everyone was coming down for breakfast. He was carrying two huge boxes of large and small cakes and numerous pastries of every description. Adi showed her wisdom by asking to delay the cake consumption until the evening. I was impressed by her restraint. They had a long day visiting the Loire Valley and then returned to the house. We had set them up a big festive table in the dinning room and they celebrated into the night. 


We profited, as they say over here, from a few days without responsibilities, and did some touring ourselves. Most of this post is devoted to a garden visit we made early in the week. We have been hearing about Chaumont-sur-Loire from Georges. From June to October each year numerous landscape architects are invited to create imaginative gardens which all respond to a theme. The result is acres of fabulous exposition garden plots which are open to the public. Since this International Festival of Gardens is towards the end of its season, we were anxious to visit and discover what we've been missing. The festival was created in 1992 and is now world renowned.

We opted for the garden tour only, although one can purchase tickets to visit the château itself and the celebrated stables, which when built in the early 1800s were the most sophisticated and best-equipped in the world. The castle is in the château fort style, that is it was fortified to withstand attack. During the Renaissance, when wars were no longer fought at castle walls, buildings became much sleeker and delicate. Kings and nobles tried to convert these old, rather squat castles and added graceful Renaissance touches as they were able. The castle of Montmirail is an excellent example of that, as is Chaumont-sur-Loire. This particular château was purchased by Catherine de Medici who was queen of France from 1547-1559 and a very ruthless character (she was the author of the St Barholomew's Massacre, where thousands of protestants, guests at her own daughter's wedding, were assassinated). The king, her husband, Henry II was very much in love with his long-time mistress Diane de Poitiers and gave her the castle of Chenonceau, the most beautiful and famous château in the Loire valley. Upon the death of the king, Catherine forced Diane to trade Chenonceau for Chaumont. Apparently this was heartbreaking to Diane, but one can't feel too sorry for her. Chaumont-sur-Loire is really a stunning location.

The park is huge, with beautiful manicured lawns and gorgeous old trees and shrubs arranged to create breathtaking views from every angle.

One can walk for hours, (or better yet ride a bike) down well-tended paths that wander through seemingly endless woodlands. Although we didn't see a gardener the whole day, there must be a small army of them as every blade of grass is meticulously trimmed and every tree perfectly manicured.

The vistas over the Loire River are spectacular. We enjoyed watching an art class put their impressions down on paper.

Along one pathway a row of basket chairs were arranged for enjoying the view. I loved the design.

It was a splendid day to enjoy the exposition gardens. There were hundreds of people there at the same time, but the grounds are so immense that we never felt crowded. Twenty-four exposition gardens were created to respond to this year's theme Body and Soul

One of my personal favorites was the tea garden, complete with a wall of tea cups at the entry. Each afternoon tea is actually served in the porcelain cups in the charming little garden behind.

The garden itself was a cottage garden filled with a jumble of flowering plants.

Each garden had a panel at the entry with a short explanation of the idea behind the garden design. My favorite was this:

"Mysterious and light, fanciful and joyful, this garden evokes the soul of those departed and works on the idea of reincarnation. The presence of birds brings peace to its visitors." It then quotes this marvelous story by Philippe Cailltaud:

Every day at the end of the 1970s I went to see my grandparents, who lived in a street close to mine. The rue du Haut-Pas in Dieppe. They lived in a flat on the first or second floor. I can't remember now. I often saw my grandmother feeding the birds on the kitchen window ledge. A group of feathered creatures, that was to say the least mixed, had become habitual visitors and came to beg for their sustenance every day. Side-by-side there were pigeons, sparrows and of course a seagull; an emblematic creature of the town, providing the soundtrack of life in Dieppe. It seemed to be the same ones who always came back and my grandmother talked to them. She had a conversation with them. One day she explained to me that these weren't in fact just any old birds: they were the reincarnation of members of her family (and so of mine) that she had known well and who had died at various times in the past. Obviously their appearance had changed a little, but she could recognize them because their fundamental attitudes had remained the same. So Aunt Léontine was still as stingy and surly, Uncle Marcel, miserly, Uncle Ferdinand generous and musical, Aunt Alice reliable and cheery, Godmother still ate as much, and so on and so on. She recognized the dead people who came to visit her. She gave them her little offerings and all these birds found they were given names. Dieppe Metempsychosis. So it seems that in my family, our souls transmigrate into birds.

There were several water gardens, reflecting white puffy clouds, with golden carp swimming below the surface.

We entered one garden through a spiral path that led to a central space where one could relax on hand-crafted chaise lounges. This was purported to be mother nature's birth canal.

Some of the gardens afforded lovely views through the trees and down to the river.

All along there were places to sit and relax and enjoy the many colors, glorious day and pleasant aromas.

Ceramic balls of various sizes make wonderful benches

Tibetan themed prayer garden

After exiting the exposition gardens, which are re-created by guest gardeners each year, you find another space called the Experimental Garden, created by the regular Château gardening staff. It is evolving but permanent. I am slightly partial to vegetables, so I particularly enjoyed this one, as it is basically a big kitchen garden with its seasonal crops grown and displayed in highly attractive and creative ways.

Vertical seems to be a big theme in the garden and it's such a great way not only to get more space, but allow the produce to grow unencumbered.

If you've been in Paris and seen the famous vertical garden at the Quai Branly, by the new museum near the Eiffel Tower, you know what a gorgeous and exotic thing it can be. Basically a building is covered with a kind of netting that holds soil and an irrigation system. Plants of various shapes, colors and textures are tucked up and down the fabric and create a living wall of plant growth. The technique was first developed here.

After hours of garden exploration, one has a whole series of cafés and restaurants to choose from for either a quick refeshment or a full-on meal. No wonder Georges and his family spend two full days here.

We, on the other hand, had to hurry back home to prepare the house for our next visitors.


The week in Montmirail ended with a Brocante, basically a village-wide garage sale. During the season one can always find one village or another hosting such a sale. This week was our turn.


Moon rising over the Loire


  1. J'ai entendu parler des jardins depuis longtemps mais ne les ai jamais visités ! Cette année, j'avais fait pousser mes potimarons verticalement, comme à Chaumont, sans savoir si c'était une bonne idée. Et ça a bien marché !Les photos sont superbes et je vois que Rick s'est bien reposé ! He seems like in a nest in the spiral path garden, and like a king in his basket chair, greeting his people !

  2. What a magical post! I am enamored with the idea that we might be able to come back as know I would love that! Your photos are beautiful..loved the puffy cloud sky, the gardens and the wonderful rising moon. I oooo'd and ahhhhhh'd through this whole post.

    Janet xox

  3. Love the last picture of the moon rising . . . thanks again for sharing your weeks with us. I was on holiday in Canada over the last week or so and had to get caught up. I can't believe it is already Fall and soon to be winter. Not ready to give up my warm days yet.
    Take Care,