Sunday, February 21, 2010

Château de Chenonceau, France

Château de Chenonceau is one of the most picturesque castles in the Loire Valley (unfortunately not captured at its best in our photo, which I'm blaming on the construction), and the second most popular château in France after Versailles. Its most distinguishing feature is the arched bridge which spans the river Cher and forms part of the castle.

The castle is flanked by two main gardens on either side, which are described as “magnificent” and “exquisite” in guides. I’m afraid I didn’t find the first-hand experience to be quite so impressive.The gardens are formal in the strictest sense. Both gardens are more or less similar in design, consisting of sharply geometrical patterns defined by hedges and divided around central fountains. Although the castle boasts about the tens of thousands of bedding plants that are planted out with the seasons, I found the gardens were in a little bit of rough shape at the end of August. They were neither impressive enough to offer grandeur, or complex enough to be interesting. One garden was very exposed and the pale palette of pastel annuals and dried lawn seemed sad and faded in the sun. The other garden was somewhat more enjoyable, but in retrospect I think it was because it was smaller and shaded by some impressive old tree specimens on the perimeter.

Before I sound too negative about the Chenanceau gardens, there is one garden attraction here which I don’t think is to be missed (although we almost did). It is the lowly potager, or kitchen garden, which is hidden off to the side of the castle park. This area is bordered by quaint old farmhouses on one side, and alternating hedges and open countryside on the other. It’s the perfect setting for this garden, and a great antidote to the rigidity of the formal gardens. Huge vegetables were bursting with health (I guess the gardener must spend all his time in this garden) and were combined with densely planted rows of flowers. Old fashioned dahlias and zinnias in rich colour combinations of velvety purple and bright orange just glowed in the perfect lighting provided by the setting sun.

Oh, and there was one more feature of Chenanceau which is worthwhile – the entrance allée. Nothing beats a really impressive allée, and this must be one of the best.

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