Britain might be knows as the home of gardeners, but France has some stunning ones as well. They are often more formal than those of the UK, particularly historic gardens attached to châteaux that were designed by Le Nôtre, designer to Louis XIV.
But the French also excel in the delightfully named potagers (kitchen gardens); is that something to do with their superb cooking?
Look out for gardens when you travel around and ask at the local tourist office if there is anything special in your area. Then wander through gardens with sweet-smelling flowers, gardens that have specific themes and those that reflect the local landscape. You will not be disappointed.
The Gardens at Versailles
Louis XIV’s château of Versailles is extraordinary by any standards, even the extravagant ones of the reign of the Sun King. And surrounding the palace, with its 700 rooms, 67 staircases and 352 fireplaces to heat the place, are the wonderful gardens.
In 1661, the King employed the gardener André Le Nôtre to plan the garden, a project which took 40 years to achieve. Foremost is the Grand Canal that takes you from the Water Parterre away into the distance. The garden is a lesson in symmetry with its perfect lawns, grand vistas, fountains and statuary.
It’s a beautiful setting with several different gardens, all of them impressively large and beautifully planted. Don;t miss the Jardin anglais with its little stream that burbles its way through the greenery and a grotto reflecting the English love for follies; the Hameau de la Reine, Marie-Antoinette’s play village and farm; and the formal Jardin française with its little theater where the Queen acted out her innocent plays.
Open: Tues-Sun April-Sept 9 a.m.-6:30 p.m.; Oct-March 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m.
Garden daily 8 a.m.-8:30 p.m.
Closed Jan 1, May 1, Dec 25
Admission: Prices vary according to the package you take and start at 18 euros for adults. Admission free for under 18 years. There are comprehensive details on the website information page.
Location: Versailles is 12 miles (20 kms) southwest of Paris. On public transport take the RER line C5 from Champ de Mars or other Left Bank stations to Versailles-Rive Gauche. Then it’s an 8 minute walk.
There is also a Versailles Express Coach leaving from the Eiffel Tower.
If you're in Versailles, check out the luxury shopping for perfumes, gloves and more in the Courtyard of the Senses.
Gardens of Vaux-le-Vicomte
The magnificent château of Vaux-le-Vicomte was built by Nicolas Fouquet – the charming and astute minister of Louis XIV. But he made the mistake of making the place just too magnificent for the young King, who had Fouquet arrested by d’Artagnan, captain of the Musketeers and seized the palace for himself. The King took Fouquet’s brilliant architect, Le Vau, and commissioned him to design his new palace of Versailles along the same lines.
The gardens follow the same grandiose lines, designed by André Le Nôtre, who virtually invented the grand formal French garden style here. Stretching for just over a mile (3 km), all the elements are there: a Grand Canal, formal gardens with the beds delineated by low box hedges forming a maze-like pattern; gravel walks lined with statues; clipped yew trees and hedges placed in strict orderly lines and off into the distance, the rolling lawns taking your eye up a gentle slope to the horizon and another grand statue. On summer evenings, 2,000 candles light up the house and gardens.
Fontainebleau, Seine-et-Marne, Ile de France
The château of Fontainebleau is magnificent, a royal residence since the 15th century and expanded by the French King François I to become the center of French politics and intrigue in the 16th century. It was also Napoleon Bonaparte’s favorite ‘home’.
There are four courtyards, some of which open onto the gardens, 130 acres of parkland and three spectacular gardens.
The park runs from the Bassin des Cascades with its fountains to the end of the estate. It’s a rolling, wonderful green space, the place for picnics and for children to let off steam today.
The Grand Parterre, the largest formal garden in Europe, was created between 1660 and 1664, though some of the design was destroyed by Louis XV. You see the herb garden and water features complete with statuary.
The Jardin Anglais follows the early 19th-century passion for English parklands. Green lawns roll into the distance; a specially created river runs through it and it’s full of rare trees and statues.
The Jardin de Diane, a smaller green space, has a pond with a fountain and statue of Diana, built in the time of Henri IV (1606-1609).
Impressionist painter Claude Monet’s house and garden at Giverny is beautiful and one of France’s most popular attractions, particularly for those taking a day trip out from Paris. The house where Monet lived, from 1883 until his death in 1926, is pretty though his original paintings are not on display here. So visitors come mainly for the gardens, divided into the Clos Normand and the Water Gardens.
The gardens stretch down towards the river, taking you to the famous water-lily ponds with their instantly recognizable and elegant Japanese footbridges. They were the inspiration for his famous Nypheas series of paintings where Monet searched for a way to capture the reflections of light on the lake’s surface.
The Clos Normand is equally delightful, with a central path dividing the flowerbeds full of hollyhocks and annuals, mixed with wild flowers like daisies and poppies. The central alley is covered by iron arches for the climbing roses that give out the sweetest scents. The gardens were planted as Monet wanted them, mixing flowers according to their colors.
Open: March 28-November 1, 2015 daily 9.30am-6pm
Admission: Adult 9.50 euros; 7 to 12 years 5.50 euros; under 7 years old free
Location: Monet's house In the small village of Giverny in Normandy, 46 miles (75 km) northwest of Paris.
The gardens at the Château de Villandry are stunning, completely remodeled by the family of the present owners. In the early 20th century Joachim Carvallo took out the former English garden and recreated a Renaissance garden, befitting a castle rebuilt in 1532 by Jean Le Breton, Minister of Finance for King François I.
Carvallo had the funds for an incredibly expensive task; he had married Ann Coleman who inherited an American iron and steel empire. Cavallo's research was painstaking and thorough; in one instance he compared the remains of walls and pipes against old plans that he had, including the Napoleonic land register (Villandry had been seized in the French Revolution, then handed by Napoleon Bonaparte to his brother Jerome).
The gardens are in three parts on different levels. You start at the ornamental garden where flowerbeds are shaped into hearts separated by flames of love at each corner of the square. The central part of each one shows masks, worn at balls to allow outrageous flirting with a certain amount of innocence, or intrigue. There are three other ‘Love Gardens’. I won’t spoil it by describing them before you visit.
There’s a Water Garden with a pond at the center, lawns, avenues and more ponds.
The Sun Garden was created in the early 20th century; there’s a second Ornamental Garden and a Herb Garden for sweet-smelling, medicinal and culinary herbs.
But what many people come to see is the Ornamental Kitchen Garden (potager). It’s delightful and follows the tradition of monastery gardens in the Middle Ages. It’s extensive, and laid out in geometric shapes in nine large squares. Each is planted with vegetables that were grown in the 1500s, many of them startlingly new at the time. Today yearly plantings take place in Spring (March to June) and in summer (June to November).
Séricourt gardens are tucked away but easy to reach from the north coast of France. They are lovely, and different, so they are well worth a diversion if you’re driving south.
You’ll be rewarded with a jardin remarkable that was designed by Yves Gosse de Gorre and is now run by him and his son. It’s a highly personal series of gardens, inspired by events such as wars in the region, leading to the Battlefield with red and white lupins and an army of yews. There’s a Peace Garden, the Cathedral of Roses where roses and clematis swirl around a frame you walk under, and much more. There are 29 different gardens altogether which you wander through apparently at random, but in fact, following a path designed to make you see all the gardens without any sense of being directed. The plantings are cleverly done, with humorous touches like a topiary table and chairs. It makes a great half day for both adults and children.
If you're here, also see the Abbey and gardens of Valloires.
Jardin du Mont des Recollets
Le Jardin du Mont des Recollets is a more modest garden, but still classified as a Jardin Remarkable by the French government and also voted Garden of the Year in 2011 by the Guild of French Garden Writers. It feels like something out of a child’s fairy tale.
The Flemish farm with its red tiled roof and chickens clucking in front on the old brick pathways sets the scene. Then you walk through 14 little gardens, inspired by Flemish Old Master paintings. Each garden is themed, so you move from the Renaissance to a little kitchen garden and a contemporary garden. They’re planted with box hedges, berlingots, with yews shaped like waves and grey, blue and purple gardens as well as fruit orchards, and everywhere there’s a fabulous view of the surrounding countryside.
If you’re in the area, make sure you visit charming Cassel for its museum and have a meal at the ‘T Kasteelhof estaminet which is owned by the same family as the garden.
Open: Mid-April to mid-November, Thursday to Sunday 10 a.m.-7 p.m.
Closed: 1st week of July and 1st fortnight of October
Admission: Adult 6 euros, free for accompanied children under 15 years old
Oriental Park of Maulevrier, Maine et Loire, Vendée, Atlantic Coast
Alexandre Marcel, an architect well known for his Oriental style, created this delightful Japanese garden, the largest in Europe, between 1899 and 1910. Centered around a large lake, it gives you a real feeling of the Orient. Bonsai trees, little bridges, small waterfalls flowing into the lake, pagodas and exotic plants are placed according to the principles of yin and yang, as well as embracing the Taoist symbols of fire, earth, water, wood and metal.
If you can, visit at night. You’re given a small Japanese lantern to take you on your way along dimly lit paths. Shadows fall, the trees and shrubs are brilliantly lit and the garden becomes an enchanted place.
Open: mid-March to mid November
March, Apr, Oct, Nov: Tues-Sat 2-6 p.m.; Sun and public holidays 2-7 p.m.
May, June, Sep: Mon-Sat 1-6 p.m. (to 7 p.m. on Saturdays), Sun and public holidays 10:30 a.m.-7 p.m.
July, Aug daily 10:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m.
Nighttime openings: May-Sept: Sat and public holidays; Jul & Aug Sat and Weds
Visits are either from 9.45pm or 10pm and last 2 hours.
Admission: Daytime adult 7 euros, 12 to 18 years 6 euros, free for under 12 years
Nighttime adult 10 euros; 12 to 18 years 8 euros, free for under 12 years.
The Terra Botanica near Angers in the region is an interesting botanic theme park; and it's a good day out for families.
The Gardens of Eyrignac Manor
Seven gardens make up this wonderful property in the Dordogne, facing the warm stone 17th century manor house where the family live. A dovecote and a little chapel at the front look onto the courtyard. Beyond you see the French garden, a formal collection of parterres, designed to be best seen from the first floor of the house and planted with blue, white and yellow flowers. Beyond that lies the White Garden, with fountains playing in the five ponds surrounded by pergolas and hedges of white roses like Iceberg and Opalia. There’s a pond was once a fish hatchery in the 18th century heyday of the estate.
On the other side you come to the beautifully sculpted topiary, the ‘green sculptures’ of yew and hornbeam that march away into the distance as you make your way down the green path towards the Chinese Pagoda, a reminder of the 18th-century when travelers set off for the unknown, bringing back new ideas on art, design and importantly, new plants. The Spring gardens and wild meadows, opened in 2014, offer different wild flowers; the equally new kitchen garden mixes cabbages with nasturtiums, tomatoes with dahlias.
It’s a great garden to visit and is exceptionally, open every day of the year.
This makes a good half day trip if you're staying at the Château de la Treyne, one of the best castle hotels in France.
Open: Jan 1-Mar 31 daily 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m.-nightfall
April 1-30 10 a.m.-7 p.m. May 1-Sept 30 9:30 a.m.-7 p.m.
Oct 1-31 10 a.m.-nightfall
Nov 1-Dec 31 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. to nightfall
Admission: Winter entrance to Mar 31 adult 9.50 euros; Mar-Nov 15 12.50 euros; 5 to 12 years 6.50 euros; 13 to 18 years 8.50 euros; under 5s free.
Hidden away in a valley near the north Brittany coast, the gardens were created in 1965 by the owner, painter Peter Wolkonsky, and have been restored by his daughter Isabelle who trained as a horticulturist at the RHS Garden Wisley.
The gardens surround the house, sloping down from the Golden Heath, planted with gorse, hedges and vibrant colored shrubs. The original vegetable garden has been redesigned into a palette of pinks, purples, blues and yellows in the Four Squares, following the traditional French pattern. Terraces are planted for all-season colors, from spring’s yellows to the bright reds of summer, finishing with fall’s golds and rich reds. Walk down past the lake to the Lower Valley, ending with a view of a hidden grotto.
Open: Apr, May, June & Sept: Mon & Sat 2-6 p.m.; July & Aug Mon-Sat 2-6 p.m.
Also open May 1-4; first weekend of June for the Rendez-vous au jardin national festival; and the September Weekend du patrimonie.
Admission: Adult 8.50€, 4-18 years 4.50€.