Villandry has been called ‘the finest potager in the world.’ For much of the year its beds are a mass of vegetables, from soft herbs and jewelled beetroot to blowsy purple cabbages and bright chubby pumpkins, all edged by long, low lines of trained apples and pears. It is a kitchen garden like no other, planted out with 60,000 colour co-ordinated vegetable plants, and then primped and tweaked by a team of eight full-time gardeners.
But it has its charms in winter too. We first visited one February, when we enjoyed the drama of the empty potager beds and the almost alien knobbliness of the pollarded limes (tilia). In the jardin d’amour, we admired the box hedging, tightly clipped into shapes that symbolise four different kinds of love. The low winter sun lit up the pièce d’eau (an elevated water garden). Almost the only visitors, we strolled along the terraces that surround the gardens, enjoying the vistas, and the early signs of Spring in the surrounding woods.
For me as a landscape historian, Villandry is a magical place, a combination of very different eras and influences. The gardens were first created in the 1530s around a chateau built by Jean Le Breton, finance minister to the king, on the site of an earlier Loire Valley castle. This was over one hundred years before André Le Nôtre introduced the grand vistas and perspectives that we now associate with classical French gardens. Instead, the gardens at Villandry developed from the enclosed geometric forms of medieval monastery gardens, and showed the influence of the Italian Renaissance (Le Breton had been French Ambassador to Rome).
The chateau and gardens at Villandry passed through various hands including, at one point, those of Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother. Fashions changed and, in the early nineteenth century, the gardens were replaced by what one visitor in 1854 called “a vast and delicious English-style park.”
As happened to so many great gardens in France, by the end of the nineteenth century Villandry was virtually abandoned, and the chateau threatened with demolition.
It was saved by Spanish doctor Joachim Carvallo and his American heiress wife Anne Coleman, who bought Villandry in 1906. Carvallo recalled that when they first saw the property, “the park was in the English style, with dales and hillocks … thickly planted with newly imported exotic species: cedars, pines, thuyas, magnolias, all massed together on the sides of artificial little hills. The chateau itself was hidden in the middle of a forest of trees and greenery.”
Sadly no records existed of how the gardens at Villandry had originally been laid out, and so Carvallo and Coleman turned for inspiration to the detailed engravings in Jacques Androuet du Cerceau’s Les Plus Excellents Bastiments de France 1576 and 1579.
Armed with Cerceau’s engravings of many French gardens, including the jardin des Tuileries, the couple designed and laid out a new garden for Villandry. It echoed the late sixteenth century styles that Cerceau had so carefully recorded, but could not fail to include more contemporary influences, including some Art Nouveau curves and more modern choices of plant.
Villandry continues to be run by the descendants of Carvallo and Coleman, and today is one of the most beautiful and most visited gardens in the Loire.
And that’s why I like Villandry so much. Yes, it has a dazzling potager. But it is also quietly beautiful in winter, and stands as a perfect reminder that historic gardens never simply refer back to a single point in time. As at Villandry, you can always scrape back the layers to find hints and glimpses of many different periods and influences.