Fifteen kilometers west of Tours and 150 miles east of the megaliths of Carnac in Brittany, the Chateau de Villandry (once called Paix de Colombiers in the Middle Ages) crowns the most beautiful- and largest- garden in the area known as the Garden of France, the Loire Valley. Countless castles abound in the Loire and is a castle lover’s paradise adorned in the beauty of their settings. Several of these castles are, indeed, the major castles, not just of France, but Europe overall.
I have mentioned that Villandry is my favorite castle and many "castlers" may puzzle over this, but I was so charmed by this castle and it’s gardens (I visited it on the day before my birthday, September 4th in 2001) I will never forget the day or the spell this castle cast over me! There was a surprise around every corner whether it was finding an intriguing portrait, or a slanting staircase- of which it has many. For a renaissance castle it is gargantuan, well laid out (logically), and the gardens, fountains and moats were extraordinarily beautiful. I took more photographs of Villandry than any other castle I visited on my 2001 trip.
Villandry became a renaissance castle in 1754 at the hands of the Marquis de Castellane, who was originally from a Provence family. He remodelled it to conform to the eighteenth century standards. Much of what you will see of the exterior and interior is what Castellane built. One medieval square tower remains from the original fortress which the Minister of Finance, Jean le Breton, saved back in 1536, when he built a new castle there. Visiting this tower is essential to get the best photos and panoramic view of the gardens. The keep is accessed from the second floor where the children’s accommodations and Castellane’s studio are situated. It is an historical landmark, as well, because the Colombiers Peace Treaty took place there on July 4, 1189, between Henry II (a Plantagenet) and King Philippe August, the French King.
Once you overtake the view from the ramparts of the tower you will be able to take in the entirety of the splend(if)erous garden which is comprised of four parts. The water garden to the farthest south end with a period mirror-shaped pooled lake, the ornamental box gardens, which are situated closest to the tower, the herb garden which is small by comparison, on the whole, but extensive nonetheless, and the kitchen garden which dominates most the the moated area of the land.The latter is quite colorful and delicious-looking by September! For anybody who has boundless energy and enthusiasm for it, a tour of all the gardens is recommended later, with your garden leaflet in hand. The leaflet explains all the meanings of the decorations and more!
Villandry does not offer guided tours but the literature you receive upon admission and self-discovery imparts enough information to guide you through every area with ease. I’m certain that you cannot get lost there, although you will be enchanted and not want to leave once you have done a thorough tour. After visiting the tower, you’ll want to see the rest of the house.
In 1906 the castle came into the hands of Dr. Joachim Carvallo, who set to returning the gardens to their former splendour and his grandson Henri Carvallo maintains it, scrupulously, to this day. With the gardens in harmony with the sixteenth through eighteenth century architecture of the house, the furnishings complete the era’s ambience.
From the second floor, navigating the house and it’s two L-wings should be easy because the main staircase, with its beautiful black forged iron railing, gives equal and easy access to both wings. On the rez-de-chausee, the Dining Room is elegance personified. The Louis XV panelling, using color variations to emphasize the dimensions, and the marble floor, contrast. The marble fountain came from the Marquis’s native Provence and compliments the terra cotta stove.
The Dining room leads into the Salon where guests were received, and the eighteenth century furnishings are well-placed. As a matter of fact, it has the ambience of having been received with your host due back any moment with tea and crumpets! The grand piano displays framed portrait photos of the Carvallo family, the wing chairs appear to be brocaded silk and I wanted very badly to sit down for my tea.
Back up the main staircase as one ascends you’ll see that midway up the first floor the ornamental iron railing has an initial signia of Michel-Ange de Castellane who created it. This iron work was listed back in 1934 but was most likely constructed by him about a hundred and eighty years before. The railing is like elegant tracery in contrast the the color schemes and the ormamented ceilings.
The first floor ( which would be the second floor to us) embodies Prince Jerome’s room, (of whom I believe I found his portrait and the photo I took is in the Villandry album), the vegetable garden room, the Moat room and the Art Gallery. Jerome Bonaparte, for whom the Prince’s room is named, was Napoleon’s younger brother who lived from 1784 to 1860. My understanding was that he put up money to pay off a debt for a friend, purchasing the house, but Jerome never lived in the chateau. The decor is set off by rich red watered silks and is the most elegant room in the house, according to my own taste.
I did not visit the Vegetable Garden room which gives a panoramic view of the said garden, but the Moat room, which was designed in the eighteenth century, was the personal residence of Dr. Carvallo’s wife, Ann Coleman. Three portraits hang in this room, which depict their children, Anne-Marie, Isabelle and Francois. All three were the work of Miclcendeau.
There is an art gallery in the western portion and wing of the first floor and there was an additional exhibit at Villandry on the day I was visiting. So, in addition to the resident Spanish collection of seventeenth century realist paintings collected by the Carvallos and the Roman/Slave sculpture (displayed in an enclave, see my photo album), I was treated with being able to see some modern impressionists and abstractionists, as well.
The Spanish Moorish ceiling on the first floor is dazzling Arabic art at its finest. It’s from the Ducs de Maqueda, constructed in the fifteenth century in Toledo. Joachim Carvallo brought this remaining ceiling (excluding two others, originally housed in the palace which was destoyed in 1905) to Villandry in 3,600 pieces and spent a year reconstructing it. The outline of the octagon are Arabic inscriptions on a dark background.
I became so intrigued by the logical layout of the house that I explored everywhere that it was not roped off and I never found any ropes- save a few. The backstairs to both wings have slanted staircases and landings for the servants. I surmised the purpose of this was to keep servants moving quickly. It’s highly effective. (You can see my photos of the in the album, as well.)
When I exited out of the castle from the back east corner I quickly accessed the Belvedere which runs all along the east side of the entire property down to the old and new greenhouses. Be prepared for couples who neck and kiss closest to the direct view of the "Gardens of Love"!
From the Belvedere every bit of the castle and gardens except the west side (which I’d already viewed) can be seen in diorama. It’s the best place, overall, to take your own photographs. Villandry exemplifies Ligerian fashions of the 1510s – 1520s + Ile de France influences. The view of the arcaded galleries, mullioned windows and rococo pilasters and dormer windows with sculpted gables are very much in keeping with a vernacular style of the Loire Valley. The steeply sloping roofs harken to the same style you would see in Azay-le-Rideau (also built by a finance minister, Francois Ist’s Gilles Berthelot) which was finished between 1518 and 1527. Both are Italianate influenced as a result of the French invasion of Italy in 1494. However, Villandry is primarily a simpler Henry IV French-style which shows in the indenture of the roofs and predates similarities to Anet and Fontainebleau.
Villandry’s unique concept, upon reflection, rests in the Italian Renaissance garden laid out so many years ago by le Breton, and the prodigious effort of Dr. Carvallo to save Villandry from being demolished.
By the time I was supposed to meet my group at the shop-exit in the front gate outbuilding, I found myself lingering and wanting to hide in the gardens. When I finally arrived close to the front entrance the shadows were beginning to crowd the sky along with the clouds and the gardens had taken on a lovely hue, particularly the cabbage heads in the vegetable garden and I felt a tear form in my eye for the first time in years as I went through the turnstile with my Rois de France genealogical poster under my arm. Tel: 02 47 50 02 09 info
Here’s looking at you! The Castle Lady
You can see my all my photos of Villandry in a photo album made exclusively for it. Click on photos to find it.
We will return to North England on Saturday, Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday the 31st! See you then.
Gardens and castle