It seems that no trip to France is complete without a requisite castle visit. During our vacation in Normandy, we weren’t exactly seeking them out, having already overdosed the year before in the Loire Valley. Still, we couldn’t escape at least one, and that one ended up being Domaine de Villarceaux. The choice was quite random (I think we might have spotted it in a brochure), but it led us to a hidden treasure.
Domaine de Villarceaux is different from any other castle I’ve been to in France. First off, there are no hordes of tourists, probably because it only opened to the public fairly recently and it is almost impossible to find. Second, this particular chateau can only be visited by guided tour. With only 6 people on our tour, including our own group of 4, it was a treat to have a personal, expert tour leader. And third, the whole thing, including the guided tour, was free! This must be unique in all of France.
The highlight of Domaine de Villarceaux is definitely the gardens. The chateau itself is quite small, and not as impressive as some others in the area, though still certainly worth a visit. However, the gardens, which sweep from the castle down a hill and into a broad valley, are enough to fall in love with. The building blocks of the garden are classical and minimalist: lawn, hedges and water. What makes them remarkable is the way all the elements sit so well in the landscape, how they fill the space, and how easily they flow into one another.
The entrance to the chateau is on the far side of the property, by the stables and other utilitarian buildings which are quite beautiful in their own right.
The tour of the gardens proper starts up a few worn steps to a small stone tower, which was built especially to hide and protect the property’s spring, apparently a very valuable commodity in former times. Surrounding the tower is an enforcement wall and a surprising, elevated herb garden. Hidden by walls on all sides, and with no seeming connection to the ground, this garden felt a bit like a secret sorcerer’s laboratory.
Descending from the magical herb garden, you are met by the best view at Villarceaux: a floating garden backed by a long view of the valley. The floating garden is in fact an intricate hedge parterre, surrounded and transected by still, dark water on all sides. It’s the first time I’ve seen this and the effect was unmistakably ‘floating’ and very striking.
The gardens then proceed to snake their way through the valley, with a large grass bridge between two bodies of water leading up to the castle. On our visit, it started to rain at this point and the very friendly staff came running down with rain jackets for everyone (yet another unique feature at Villarceaux)!
The castle itself doesn’t make an appearance until the very end of the visit, after a fairly long climb up a grassy slope. The slope is intentionally designed to be nearly invisible from the castle thanks to clever land-shaping. This was done in order to make the outer landscape, including the lake at the bottom of the valley, appear much closer, right outside the castle doors. Only those who venture outside to explore the grounds are surprised by the long stroll down and the many secrets of the gardens below.
One last neat thing about Domaine de Villarceaux is their environmental conscience. The gardens are managed completely organically, and plans are underway to construct a tiny hydro plant in one of the ponds to supply power for the fountains and garden lighting.