Château de Villandry

Even if gardens aren’t your thing, those at the château de Villandry are
definitely worth a visit – and the château itself is a beautifully restored Renaissance
gem. Even getting there can be a pleasure, as Villandry is a superb cycle
ride from Tours, 13km east along the Cher, following dedicated cyclepaths for
most of its route.

 

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The best way to get to Villandry is to cycle along the charming “Loire à Vélo”
path (see p.42), which avoids even the modest traffic on the D7 for most of its
route – the only drawback is making your way through the suburbs of Tours. In
summer you can take a minibus directly from Tours (t02.47.70.37.37); the
service leaves from the tourist office
The château

The château de Villandry (daily: Jan, Nov & Dec 9am–5pm; Feb 9am–5.30pm;
March 9am–6pm; April–June & Sept 9am–7pm; July & Aug 9am–7.30pm; Oct
9am–6.30pm; château closes 30–60min earlier, and is closed mid-Nov to mid-
Dec; e8 château and gardens, e5.50 gardens only; wwww.chateauvillandry
.com) is one of the highlights of the region, so if you want to explore in peace,
arrive early, late or at lunchtime.
The château was erected in the 1530s by one of François I’s royal financiers,
Jean le Breton. Like so many of the court’s banker-accountants, Le Breton was
eager to legitimize his new status – and launder his fortune – so he purchased
and then knocked down the twelfth-century château des Colombiers (see box
p.102), preserving only the feudal keep as a symbol of his arrival as an aristocrat.
Le Breton’s Renaissance structure still abuts this keep, arranged around three
sides of a cour d’honneur, the fourth wing having been demolished in the eighteenth
century, at the same time as the apparently Renaissance details around the
windows and dormers were recarved. The square towers closing off the courtyard,
which look more like eighteenth-century work, are actually an extremely
novel part of Le Breton’s original scheme – by the time that Le Breton began
building here, the court had quit the Loure Valley for Fontainebleau, and the
sober architecture of Paris and its Ile-de-France region was in the ascendant.
Little is known about the original design of the gardens, as they were totally
remodelled in the nineteenth century in the then-fashionable style of an
English country park. In 1906, however, the château was bought by an American
heiress, Ann Coleman, whose husband, Joachim Carvallo, a Spanish
doctor, decided to re-create a French garden in the grandest and most historically
accurate style.
The gardens
Carvallo’s research led him to believe that gardens were as much symbolical as
ornamental or practical, so at the topmost level, very much in the elevated
Classical spirit, is the water garden, a large pond surrounded by neat lawns and
meticulously pruned lime trees. Water flows down from it through a small canal
that runs underneath the walls of the old keep and fills the château’s moat. Next
down, at the level of the château itself, the ornamental garden “serves as an
extension of the salon”, according to Carvallo. It reflects the middle state of the Four geometrical arrangements of immaculately trimmed box hedges symbolize
different kinds of love: tender, passionate, fickle and tragic – the dark green
of the box enflamed by red flowers in summer. At the top end of this section
are three crosses – Maltese, Languedoc and Basque – while another box garden
on the opposite side of the canal acts as a less successful allegory of music.
The highlight, spread out across 12,500 square metres of perfectly flat ground,
is the potager, or Renaissance kitchen garden. Symbolically and physically, it
may be the lowest and most vulgar part of the gardens, but it is the most fascinating.
Carrots, cabbages and aubergines are arranged into intricate patterns,
while rose bowers and miniature box hedges form a kind of frame. Even in
winter, there is almost always something to see, as the entire area is replanted
twice a year. Sadly, the vegetables are not sold for consumption, but when the
beds are thinned out in the summer months you can often find tomatoes,
aubergines, peppers and the like in a box in the far southeast corner of the
garden – just leave a coin for the gardeners’ annual dinner. Other vegetables are
simply mulched. Up close, keen amateurs can admire rare and beautifully
presented varieties, while city-bred kids may get a kick out of trying simply to
work out which vegetable is which – placards provide a key. At the far end of
the garden, overlooked by the squat tower of the village church, beautiful vineshaded
paths give onto the medieval herb garden and the maze. Just beyond,
there’s a children’s playground.
There are various festivals throughout the year, notably the potager weekend,
at the end of September, with lots of workshops and demonstrations, and the
Nuits des Mille Feux, on the first weekend of July, when the gardens are lit by
hundreds of candles at night.
The interior
It’s worth paying the extra to visit the château, if only for the unmissable
turret-top view over the gardens and out to the confluence of the Loire and
Cher. Inside, the château is the epitome of eighteenth-century elegance, Carvallo having decided that restoring Renaissance standards of comfort
wouldn’t make for an ideal home. The dining room suggests the transition
from inside to outdoors, with its Provençal marble fountain and bizarre terracotta
stove, and windows looking onto the ornamental garden. The nearby
staircase is an eighteenth-century addition, replacing the unfashionably medieval
spiral staircase which used to stand in the cour d’honneur. The exquisite
bedrooms on the first floor offer improved views over the gardens. The long
gallery is lined with the Carvallos’ collection of Spanish paintings, many of
them distressingly religiose, and leads to a stunning Mudejar ceiling, which
was brought to Villandry from a fifteenth-century palace in Toledo and painstakingly
reassembled. On first sight, the intricate arabesques and geometric
patterns in gilded and coloured wood are pure Moorish work, but Spanish
Christian motifs recur, notably the scallops – the symbol of St James of Compostela – that frame each corner.

 

The last days of Henry Plantagenet
By the summer of 1189, Henry II, king of England and ruler of the great Angevin
empire, was old, fat and suffering from a severe anal abscess, but he hadn’t lost his
appetite for fighting. His son, Richard the Lionheart, had joined forces with his archenemy,
the French king Philippe-Auguste, and their combined armies had captured Le
Mans, Henry’s beloved birthplace. Henry watched as the city burned, cursing God
“thou hast vilely taken away the city I loved best on earth … I will pay thee back as
best I can.” The French armies pursued Henry as he fled south towards his castle of
Chinon (see p.112). They captured Tours on the way, leaving Henry nowhere to hide.
Philippe-Auguste summoned Henry to a conference at Colombiers, modern Villandry,
and demanded that he do homage to the French king for all his territories on the
Continent. Further, Richard was to be confirmed as heir, and would be allowed to
marry his betrothed, Alais – who had become Henry’s mistress. Henry could hardly
remain upright on his horse but refused to dismount. As he agreed to submit to the
terms, and bent forward to give his son the kiss of peace, he whispered, “God grant
that I may not die till I have had a fitting revenge on you.” He was then carried back
to Chinon, where he plotted vengeance even as he lay dying. But when he learned
that his youngest son, John, had also joined the rebellion, Henry turned his face to the
wall saying, “I care no more for myself nor for aught in this world.” Hours later, he died
in delirious agony, shouting over and over, “Shame, shame on a vanquished king.”