Sunday, March 26, 2017

Château de Chenonceau: A Tale Of Two Gardens

This stunning castle,

Château de Chenonceau, is like a fairy tale.

 It gracefully straddles the River Cher in the Loire Valley region of France.

The corridor that spans across the river

It was a cloudy day in May, 2016, when I visited Chenonceau, a castle I had heard so much about. I found it to be both gorgeous and fascinating--not only because of its' location on the water,

beautiful interiors,

or the even the antique carriages on display.

But, it is with the cast of characters where this fairy tale ends--and the dysfunction,  or soap opera, begins. This 16th century story is about a king, two women and their gardens.

One enters this sizable property by first strolling through an allee of trees that cuts through a small forest.

The castle and gardens are virtually surrounded by water.

Chenonceau is known as the 'castle of women,'
referring to the six women who were the succession of owners.

Two of the most intriguing women, each with a namesake garden on either side of the castle, were Diane de Poitiers, whose garden is to the left, and Catherine de Médici's, whose garden is to the right.
Both women oversaw the planting of gardens, including flowers, vegetables and fruit trees, at different times during their stay at the Château.

Diane's garden
The story goes that Henry II and Catherine de Medici marry when they were both 14 years old. 

Catherine's garden
 Only one year later, 15-year-old Henry becomes romantically involved with the beautiful Diane de Poitiers, who was 35 years old at the time.

Henry and Catherine live at the castle. But then, so does Diane. The women are not exactly friends (which is the only part of this story that strikes me as normal).

 Henry II is so enamored with his mistress, that he gives ownership of Chenonceau to Diane, who is also a powerful adviser to the king. And, it is said, Diane has the wherewithal to ensure that Henry also sleeps with his wife, in order to provide proper heirs to the throne.
Meanwhile, Diane (who also has a role caring for Henry II when he was 11 years old) apparently raises those heirs to the throne, and spends five years overseeing the planting of her gardens.

 Henry II dies unexpectedly in a jousting tournament, and the status of the two women change. Catherine assumes power as Queen, and claims the beautiful Chenonceau for herself, by forcing Diane to give up the deed to the property. Catherine then sends her away to live in another castle in the Loire Valley--the Chateau Chaumont--instead.

As I get ready to put this blog post to bed, I am aware that this dysfunctional tale
 doesn't end happily ever after.

Well, I'd like to think the Queen was happier.

It seems Catherine finally was able to find her own voice, plan her own gardens
 and own the Château de Chenonceau,. 

The End.

Copyright 2017. All rights reserved.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Obsessed With Chateau de Villandry Gardens

The famous gardens of Chateau de Villandry are, 
in a word,  jaw-dropping.

(Or is that really two words?)
Honestly, though, it is hard to stick to only one word that describes this garden.

Obsessive compulsive, meticulous and perfectionism also pop into mind.

Looking at these photos I took during a visit to Villandry in France in May 2016,
it is as if each shrub is a piece of a life size, brain teasing puzzle that may never end.

Square after square, the gardens feature meticulously sheared shrubs. 
Later in the season, there will be blooms within the shaped shrubbery
or edible plants in the kitchen garden.

Now, I'm a sucker for a garden, and a sucker for well manicured yew topiary.

The Chateau itself pales next to the extensive and extraordinary jardin.
The building was constructed in 1532 for Jean Le Breton, Minister of Finance for François I.

The gardens were formal, Renaissance style at the time.  Later, with subsequent owners, the garden was redesigned and, eventually, replaced with a traditional, English notion of a garden with an open, park-like landscape and large swaths of trees. 

In 1906, the Chateau was purchased by a Spanish doctor, Joachim Carvallo and his American wife, Ann Coleman. Not fond of the English romantic style, Carvallo complained that the castle appeared lost in a forest of trees. 

He restored the garden to its Renaissance roots and French style. The garden has been open to the public since 1920.  Now, a team of 10 gardeners maintain an orderly and meticulous garden--without a leaf out of place, much less a tree.

Copyright 2016. All rights reserved.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Picture Perfect: Sissinghurst Gardens On A Clear Day

Welcome to
Sissinghurst Castle Gardens.

A place I've frequently heard mentioned, over the years, in the most passionate regard by gardeners lucky enough to visit this famous garden in Kent, England. Eventually, I had to put Sissinghurst on my own garden bucket list.

Recently, I checked it off. And it is a fabulous place.

The manor itself was not the castle I expected to see; but the estate was built in the Middle Ages and is complete with a moat. At one point, the estate fell into decline, and was used as a prison for 3,000 French sailors captured by the British in the Seven Years War. Apparently, conditions here were vile and the French prisoners dubbed it 'le chateaux.' The 'castle' reference stuck and became part of its name.

The property, which also used to be farmland, is rustic.
Currently, the land is also used to farm fruit, veggies and meat for the estate's onsite restaurant.

 The site was dilapidated in 1930, when Vita Sackville-West, a garden writer, and her diplomat and author husband, Harold Nicolson, purchased it. They poured their hearts into creating a garden here, and now it is the most visited garden in England. Currently, it is cared for by the National Trust.


The garden is known for its design that features a series of outdoor garden rooms,
 walled with manicured hedges,

or pink brick walls. My Spring visit meant the wisteria was blooming.
There are some simple yet formal garden spaces, and a cottage garden (see top photo).

The white garden is popular.  I personally love green and white plant themes, too.

Imagine all the white flowers

 picking up the light 

of a bright full moon.


And climbing up to the top of the tower, you can see the big picture. 

Garden rooms, inside a garden,

surrounded by the English countryside

 dotted with sheep in naturally lush, grassy landscape.

It couldn't be more perfect.

Copyright 2016. All rights reserved.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Highclere Castle Is The Real Star Of This Garden, And 'Downton Abbey'

           A highlight of a recent trip to England was a visit to Highclere Castle--that is, of Downton Abbey television fame, which has also been the highlight of many Sunday nights in homes across the UK and the US for the past six years. At the final episode of the series earlier this year, I was sad to say goodbye to the story, the people, the music and, to this castle. 

So, when my sister, my husband and I flew to London from the States, after a somewhat unnerving drive with a steering wheel on the 'wrong' side of the car, on the 'wrong' side of a narrow road and after way too many roundabouts,

 I gasped when I caught a sudden glimpse the castle top 
that loomed seemingly out of nowhere. 

Months earlier, I booked the special tickets for a garden tour featuring a lecture about 
the landscape architect who designed this property of 1,000 acres.  

Of course, a tour of the castle was included, as well as an informal lunch 
(alas, sans Carson, the butler). A surprise to us, the lecture was presented by none other than the mistress of the house, Lady Carnavon, inside the beautiful courtyard-style castle lobby that we admired countless times while watching the show; and, where the Downton Abbey family hosted several parties.

Lady Fiona Carnavon, an author of several books about the castle, is the 8th Countess,
and her husband, George Herbert, is the 8th Earl of Carnavon.
Highclere Castle, in Hampshire, is the family seat.

From majestic and statuesque trees

to the idyllic countryside setting where 3,000 sheep graze, the landscape is beautiful. Hearing the sheep bleating and 'baa-baaing' constantly is an unexpected, and fond memory of my visit.  In fact, Lady Carnavon told us, the sheep mow the grass on the property, while the two-and-a- half gardeners work on other maintenance.

Lancelot "Capability" Brown designed this and 170 other English Estates, 
to appear less like formal gardens 

and more like nature itself.  
He earned his nickname apparently by advising clients that their property 
had the capability for improvement.

The majority of the property is open space surrounded by trees,

which is not to say there are no garden rooms on the landscape.

There is a greenhouse, lovely garden beds

and borders being cultivated

behind old stone walls with arched gateways, or formally manicured evergreen yews.

But it is clear (modern day selfies aside), that the star of this show--and this garden--
has always been the Castle.

Copyright 2016. All rights reserved.