Approaching an imposing moat-surrounded château, embellished with hedges trimmed into designs and patterns called parterres de broderies, gravel crunching underfoot, is an unforgettable experience. The Loire Valley, more than most places in the world, personifies the good life.
Forests here are stocked with game and there are lush expanses of lawn amidst the medicinal, aromatic, herbal, and vegetable gardens.
All were indispensable to the numerous castles and monasteries of those who maintained them, each with typical elements of the château garden including parterres, orchards of trained fruit, potagers (vegetable gardens), labyrinths, cloisters, rose gardens, canals, and lakes.
This garden region of France is nourished by the Loire, Eure, Cher, and Loiret rivers, and it boasts well maintained and manicured outdoor spaces inspired by generations of talented gardeners, whose lives’ work it was to beautify the gardens of kings.
The Loire River flows from the belly of Mont Jerbier de Jonc, and past the clay and chalk soiled vineyards of Sancerre. It passes through the valley of kings, some of whose châteaux date from the 12th century, and through the salt marshes of the Guérande into the Atlantic on the west coast of France.
The big châteaux have breathtaking verdure; what follows are a few lesser known places.
During the off-season (there are fewer tourists in spring and fall), don’t be surprised if you may be one of a handful of visitors in your own secret garden.
Château d’Ainay-le-Vieil is hidden from the road by a stone wall. “Of course we want more roses!” exclaims Madame Peyronnet, whose family has inhabited the château since 1467.
The five chartreuse (walled gardens) are concealed by tall hedges and separated by brick walls. Each is distinct.
A fragrant garden of perennial flowers leads onto an orchard of trained pear and apple trees, coaxed to grow along wires to maximize fruit production. This segues into a jardin de méditation, complete with geometric parterres and a whimsical house of hedges supported by branches; followed by a jardin de simples, the ubiquitous medieval garden, containing medicinal plants, herbs, and aromatics.
The final chartreuse consists of parterres, statues, topiaries, and the formerly exotic magnolia tree, probably imported from the Caribbean. This garden has surprises around every corner making it easy to spend an afternoon among its allées (paths meandering throughout the hedges), weeping willows, stands of bamboo, chartreuse, and rose bushes.
Le Parc Floral de la Source
Le Parc Floral de la Source, located in the southeast corner of Orléans, celebrates the source of the Loiret River with a variety of landscapes. The guest is invited to wander throughout the more than 86-acre publicly owned property, either by foot or on the train running from one end of the park to the other.
Features include a recreated forest, an innovatively designed aviary containing those birds not left to roam free in the park and – a highlight – the emergence of the Loiret from its source within the underground waters of the Beauce region, France’s bread basket.
Sancerre, an especially picturesque town, is built on a hilltop overlooking fields of vineyards punctuated by villages. It provides a base from which to visit local winemakers in one of the most famous AOCs in France.
Whether you visit the Maison des Sancerres - which describes the history of the region, its wine producers, and their brilliant marketing campaign of the early twentieth century - or simply enjoy a picnic among the vines, a visit to this region is worth the extra few liters of diesel it takes to get there.
La Prieuré d’Orsan
La Prieuré d’Orsan, an adaptive reconstruction of a former monastery, provides respite from the busy-ness of the tourist trail with its meandering and intimate gardens. The thoughtfully designed orchards are places to quietly contemplate life while enjoying one of the pears, plums or apples dangling temptingly from their trained branches.
A diverse potager providing ingredients for the simple and delicious dishes prepared in the kitchen is enhanced by the jardin de simples, which contains the required 88 species of plants decreed by Charlemagne to form a proper medicinal garden. This is truly a carefully composed landscape. Zen-inspired rooms complete the experience at this peaceful priory.
Château de Chamerolles
Château de Chamerolles, built on the site of a fortress by Lancelot du Lac – not to be confused with the knight of the roundtable – has gardens based on archives from the 17th century, whose design was inspired by the proprietor’s visit to Italy.
Italian methods of perfume distillation inspired the choice of aromatic plants, particularly a lovely rose garden encircled by a trellised walkway. The potager has an assortment of fruit and nut trees, vegetables, and condiments, or herbs. Test your nose with a blind sniff test in the château’s large collection of perfume oils.
Château de Maintenon
The Château de Maintenon was inhabited by Louis XIV’s secret wife, Madame de Maintenon. This 16th and 17th-century château has aqueducts optimistically constructed to supply Versailles with the water its extensive gardens and canals required.
The aqueducts were never completed, but visitors can still walk among parterres and flowerbeds designed by famed French gardener André Le Nôtre. A golf course is also on-site.
Popular, Not-So-Secret Gardens of the Loire Valley
Don’t forget about these gardens on the well-trod château circuit, most of which hold events throughout the growing season:
- Built by Jean Le Breton, Finance Minister to the sixteenth-century king, François I, the Château de Villandry has extensive grounds which include a labyrinth, vegetable, water and love gardens.
- Every year, Château de Chaumont-sur-Loire hosts a themed horticultural competition, augmenting its already impressive gardens.
- Chateau de Chambord, claiming a double helix staircase attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, has a 2,500-acre forest stocked with deer, birds and wild boars. Bicycle, Range Rover, and walking tours are options for viewing the national wildlife preserve. Events include markets, guided tours (only in French), concerts and art exhibitions.
- The Saumur region has seven wine appellations, whose vineyards are part of a hilly forest preserve. Winemakers and residents alike make use of the chalky soil by building houses and wine caves into the earth. Former quarries house a wide variety of mushrooms, supplying much of Paris’ demand for the fungus.
- Stay at a Bed and Breakfast in the Loire Valley with these great options.