Château de Villandry is rumoured to feature the most remarkable gardens of any castle in the Loire Valley, and based on what I’ve visited in the region, I have to agree. I was impressed by the large formal gardens because they manage to achieve that elusive balance between history and originality. The gardens are a 20th century interpretation of 16th century renaissance garden ideas, and manage to remain true to the site -defined by the castle and the wider landscape where old church towers and farmed countryside recall a different era- while also injecting some imagination and freshness into a classical design. Best of all, I felt that the garden avoids the trap of being overly grandiose and impersonal, which is too often the case in other large, formal castle gardens.
The very first garden at Villandry sets the tone for whole site: at the entrance to the imposing castle, instead of a grand lawn with a fountain or sculptures, visitors are greeted by the lowly vegetable garden. It’s true that this isn’t just any vegetable garden – it’s actually a superbly crafted example of the French ornamental potager, and is the garden which defines Villandry. The juxtaposition of the main formal elements against the bright colours and textured forms of common peppers, cabbages, swiss chard and annual flowers, make it fresh and interesting, without being overbearing.
Moving on from the main attraction of the potager, the large grounds are divided into several spaces on different levels. The separate areas break up what would otherwise be an overwhelming space, and bring it down to a more intimate, human scale. Each space is just big enough to fulfill its purpose without being too grand. I also thought the change in levels was well done – it helped define the individual spaces without creating complete separations and thus still retaining the views both around the property and towards the greater landscape.
The next areas continue to exploit the tension between formal and informal witnessed in the potager. In the garden below, incredibly blue spires of Perovskia, Russian sage, were bursting from their holding pen of perfectly manicured yew hedges. A very simple, yet very effective, composition.
Further along one encounters a more a traditional formal garden, in the sense of being more serious and minimalist, but still unique. The entire garden was sunken, and invited contemplation from a high, tree-shaded moat which surrounded it. Without realizing it, we actually spent a long time sitting in this garden, watching the reflection of the sky in the large pool and just feeling its calmness. Admittedly, a lot of the time was also spent watching a little dog that didn’t tire of rocketing up and down the steep moat. I wonder how they mow that.
In the upper corner of the property there is a new garden which took me by surprise – it features exuberant planting in the new perennial style, mixing together tall strong perennials with mostly equally tall and strong grasses. The overall layout is still formal, thus linking back to the other parts of the garden, but the feel here is definitely different. The garden could be regarded as slightly out of place, but I thought it fit the edge of the property with its free-flowing, slightly abandoned feel. I think it's a great new addition to the gardens, continuing the forward vision into the new century.
Overall, Villandry is a stunning garden, with one foot in the era of extravagant castles and formal, controlling design, and the other foot in more loose, fun and modern planting. Definitely worth a visit.