There is something about gardens in France that is different from much of the rest of Europe. While many of us would be accustomed to the presence of variety of colorful flowers, this is one character that you will find “lacking” in the Jardins of France.
Commonly referred to as a formal garden, this style of gardening was an import from Italy that was fashioned into its own form in France. Its development reached an apogee in the 17th century when the Versailles palace was built by Louis XIV. It was said that Charles VIII brought home both the idea and the craftsmen to help him fulfill his wish of creating his version of what the Medici family had built (this was in the late 1490s) in Florence. Italy as you should recall was the centre of the Italian renaissance with a burst in the development of arts and science.
You will find that in many of the Chateaux with a formal garden follow the design space characteristic of the period of the French Renaissance (approximately 16th century) that were strongly influenced or borrowed from Italy.
One such garden is at Chateau Villandry (built around 1536) in the heart of the Loire valley.
This is where a succession of chateaux was built over the course of 300 years by successive French Kings. We found that the garden was framed with geometric shapes and were symmetrical in design. The top of the castle showed not just a great view, but also how these principles were used. Today the private family that owns it continue to maintain and develop the gardens, turning this into a must visit if one should be in the Loire!
We could not find many flower beds, except for a collection of roses clinging to a wall in one corner. Obviously this supports the design concept of an all-year round garden that can be enjoyed even in the depths of winter!
Villandry is indeed one of the key places to see French royal gardens in its full grandeur. Read more about chateaux in the Loire here.
Yet another garden is Eyrignac in the middle of the Dordogne (southwest France). While it is not a chateau, it is nonetheless a fabulous manorial home. Here, we found fountains and pools in addition to the mazes planted. It seems that the gardens were designed to be enjoyed the whole year round without the need for adornment by flowers too!
Yet another characteristic of French gardens is that you can always find a terrace or lookout point from which to enjoy the entire spectacle that lay out in front of you. The water elements in the garden provide “obstacles” round which one would need to stroll. This is a play on perspectives, and it also serves to make the garden appear bigger than they really are especially on a photo!
This is kinda of like Fengshui in terms of the arrangement of various elements and features in a play of “harmony”.
One of the most fascinating gardens we visited was at the Chateau Marquessac in the same region. Set atop a hill, it boasts of a maze garden with sculpted plantings. Viewed from a distance, they looked like bonsai perched on a cliff. This is yet one more principle of La Jardin Francaise – representing man’s mastery over nature. And precisely because the chateau is on a plateau of high ground, taking a walk along its perimeter will afford you views of the valleys too.
Capturing this view was such a prize for our mobile devices’ screen background. The seeming maze design may not appear to be organized, but as you look closer, there are also geometric patterns on play too!
And in the chateau grounds there are Bories – it is a dry-stone hut, roughly like an igloo made of stones. Although the bories were very useful, the reason for building them was very basic: to clear the stones from the fields. The word “Borie” of Provençal origin, comes from the Latin “boaria” – oxen stable -, signifying a type of shed. Read more about them in our story on La Cabanes du Breuil.
Back to the Loire
Even the giant fortress of Angers was not “spared” the influence of garden design. Although built much earlier than the French renaissance, a formal garden arose in the former moat of the castle, with geometrics depicting fans. Located at the western end of the Loire Chateaux “belt”, it showed us how this concept dominates formal gardening to this day.
The garden here in the former moat of the castle is denuded of mythical sculptures as evident in some of the other gardens we visited. But that is because this is a more recent introduction.
Many castles are now public property and converted to museums. Yet others had been turned into hotels. One of the good things that had been done was to revitalize these historical places of interest with greenery that did not exist before and the “French style” had been chosen and revitalized.
There are so many more gardens in France that you can visit and be awed by their beauty. One great thing is that they can be enjoyed most times of the year (except when it is covered by snow).
You have seen that we have omitted Versailles in this essay. Fear not! A separate and more detailed speak of the Sun King’s reside can be found here. Start with the Chateaux “belt” of the Loire with its many famous locations (Chenonceau, Villandry and Chambois comes to mind) and you will not be disappointed. Just remember to share your photos with us after you have relished the experience of French gardens!
Journeys to these gardens were made over a period 2004-2005