No trip to the Loire Valley would be complete without visiting at least one spellbinding château. That though creates its own dilemma: with so many extraordinary château to visit, which one is the one? We went to the magnificent Château de Chenonceau two year’s ago, which was swamped with tour groups by mid-morning but is still an amazing place to visit. I did some research over dinner and decided the Renaissance glories of the Château de Villandry would be an appropriate Loire finale before driving back to the Netherlands.
While this is one of the most beautiful, and certainly one of the most visited, of all the Loire’s château, people don’t really come for the building. At Villandry, people visit for the spectacular gardens. The château sits close to the Cher river, about 40km away from my base in Amboise and, despite arriving just after it had opened, the car park was already pretty busy. I made my way in, just sneaking ahead of a large school party, and soon found myself clambering to a terrace with exquisite views across the gardens.
The elevated view provided sweeping vistas over the 9 hectares of manicured grounds that are divided into six distinct gardens. They are mostly formal gardens, but there is also a kitchen garden of herbs and vegetables, and an area furthest from the château that is more like a wild garden. On the terrace you can see the symbolism of the garden designs. The jardin de l’amour is a patchwork of boxed hedges filled with flowers that are symbols for Tender Love, Fickle Love, Tragic Love and, of course, Passionate Love.
Not for nothing is the Château de Villandry known as one of the most romantic of all France’s châteaux. The flower colours match the type of love: yellow for betrayed love, red for love rivalries that ended in bloodshed. It’s ridiculously picturesque, but also has a love story and great romance to go wth it. Joachim Carvallo, a Spanish doctor, and Ann Coleman, met and fell in love while they were living in Paris, where she worked in his medical research team.
She also happened to be heiress to a US steel empire, which was convenient when they fell in love with the dilapidated château in the early 1900s. They ploughed both their money and passion into returning Villandry to its past glories. The love garden reflects their passion for each other and the château itself. I’d timed my visit well, the gardens were in full bloom. I left the terrace and spent a couple of hours meandering around the grounds. It was very peaceful.
The château was built in the 1540s on the site of a much older castle, which in 1189 was the site of one of the great moments in Anglo-French history. At Villandry, Henry II of England – the king who had Thomas Beckett murdered – surrendered to Philip II of France. Henry’s son and future King of England, Richard the Lionheart, had defied his father to support Philip II, whose daughter, Alice, Richard was supposed to marry. He, of course, left for the crusades and never married Alice. Complex things, royal families.
The new château and gardens were built by Jean Le Breton, who served François I of France as finance minister, and was the first of many illustrious owners. Villandry was also home to the Marquis de Castellane, who served as ambassador to Louis XV. Later, Jerome Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon, would take up residence here. The buildings and gardens are today an UNESCO World Heritage Site, an honour that, despite all of Villandry’s famed owners and history, properly belongs to Joachim Carvallo and Ann Coleman.