Saturday, 7 September 2013

Villandry - chateau bio gardening?

Villandry, built around 1536 was the last of the great chateaux to be built along the banks of the Loire River during the Renaissance. Owner Jean le Breton, Finance Minister under Francois I, razed an old 12th century fortress, of which nothing remains today except the foundations and the keep. The latter (the heavy tower) offers wonderful views over the gardens.

Jean Le Breton's coat of arms. Villandry was built by Jean Le Breton, Minister of Finance for François I. His coat of arms can be seen on one of the lucarnes of the main courtyardJean Le Breton’s coat of arms can be seen on one of the lucarnes of the main courtyard.

It was at this chateau that Henry II of England (Henry Plantagenet) admitted defeat before the King of France, Philippe Auguste. The chateau went through various owning families and went through architectural modifications. In 1906 Joachim Carvallo, born in Spain, and his wife Ann Coleman, heir to an American iron and steel empire bought it and decided to restore it.

Leaving behind the laboratories of the Paris Faculty of Medicine where, a favourite disciple of Charles Richet (winner of the Nobel Prize in 1913), he was conducting advanced research into the physiology of digestion, Carvallo put all his energies and fortune into restoring  Villandry to its former glory. With the help of a team of 100 stonemasons, he gave the chateau’s façades back their Renaissance beauty.

He consulted various texts on how the gardens had been originally designed. This chateau is a contemporary of the magnificent Azay-le-Rideau but Italian influences and medieval vestiges have disappeared leaving a simpler, more French style. It is built in harmony with nature and there are three levels in the gardens.. Each year two planting schemes are devised and forty species are used each year in the vege garden. Each winter the 1015 lime trees take four gardeners three months to prune. 115,000 flowers and vegetables are planted out each year with 50% being prepared in the chateau greenhouses

The dining room was redesigned in the 18th century style with Louis XV panelling replacing tapestries and parquet replacing marble flooring. In 1934 this room was listed as a historic monument.

The first floor bedrooms have been renovated. One bedroom was that of Prince Jerome, Napoleon's youngest brother who owned Villandry for several years during the Empire period. He didn't spend much time there and as he was more interested in other areas of Europe he sold it.

Carvallo and his wife were passionate collectors of old paintings and one of their reasons for buying the chateau was to have somewhere to display them. The collection was broken up by inheritance but there are still many fine paintings to look at. Most of them relate to the Spanish realist school and are religious works.

There are two children's bedrooms with great views over the gardens, light and airy with a few toys and books on display.

We were in for a surprise in one room. It was almost empty except for an amazing ceiling. It's a Moorish design and came from the Maqueda ducal palace, built in the 15th century in Toledo. When the palace was dismantled in 1905 Joachim Carvallo bought one of the ceilings. It took a full year to reassemble the 3,600 separate pieces.

The chateau itself is not that extraordinary, even allowing for the history and some furniture as you can find more impressive examples along the Loire, but Villandry is known for its gardens.

There are several styles of gardens, most of which are very formal. I especially enjoyed the beautifully laid out vegetable gardens. Somehow the gardeners manage to keep it active and interesting most of the year round. The little wooden alcoves covered in climbers are handy when the sun beats down. I spent a few moments in one just soaking in the coolness and the atmosphere of this place.

Four ornamental gardens display Tender Love (with its hearts), Passionate Love (hearts in a farandole), Fickle Love (four fans and horns of jilted love) and Tragic Love (blades of daggers and swords) picked out in buxus and seasonal flowers.  There's a canal, gardens in the shape of a Maltese Cross, fleurs de lys and even evocative of music notes.There's a maze though it's not the sort where you can get lost.

Other information on the gardens includes:
  • The water garden at the far south of the gardens is a classic creation based around a pool representing a Louis XV mirror and surrounded by a botanical cloister of linden trees.
  • The maze planted with arbours, where the goal is to find spiritual awakening as you make your way to the central platform.
  • The garden of simples, consisting of aromatic and medicinal plants, traditional in the Middle Ages.
  • The Renaissance vegetable garden. It is composed of nine equally-sized squares but inside of which the geometric patterns are all different.

We walked the length of the grape-covered walkway between the vegetable gardens and the herb/medicinal gardens. Its cool shade was just the thing on a hot day .

Since 2009 the gardeners have changed their modern growing methods for organic ones, digging and hoeing rather than using chemicals.Some of the weeding of paths is done by a special machine that burns the weeds, thus avoiding the use of herbicides.

Crops are rotated every three years to avoid impoverishing the soil. Partner insects have been introduced to control pests. There's even a chateau cat who seems to benefit from titbits from tourists and perhaps hunting pests. These new techniques are a little more expensive than the old non-bio ones but the results have been worth it as the heath of the gardens improves.



AnneE said...

We were at Villandry yesterday, it's extraordinary. I was pleased to see you mention Ann Coleman - but it was her fortune that paid for he restoration, as her husband was penniless, and she was an equal partner in this brilliant enterprise. All too often the official brief accounts completely ignore her and make it sound as if it was all due to him. Good to know, too, that the gardens are now run on organic principles and are flourishing unde this system.

Post a Comment

I welcome your comments, contributions and feedback.