France // The Loire //

Château de Villandry

Even if gardens aren’t normally your thing, those at the Château de Villandry are unmissable. Thirteen kilometres west of Tours along the Cher, this recreated Renaissance garden is as much symbolic as ornamental or practical. At the topmost level is a large, formal water garden in the elevated Classical spirit. Next down, beside the château itself, is the ornamental garden, which features geometrical arrangements of box hedges symbolizing different kinds of love: tender, passionate, fickle and tragic. But the highlight, spread out at the lowest level across 12,500 square metres, is the potager, or Renaissance kitchen garden. 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. At the far end of the garden, overlooked by the squat tower of the village church, beautiful vine-shaded paths run past the medieval herb garden and the maze.

The elegant château was erected in the 1530s by one of François I’s royal financiers, Jean le Breton, though the keep – from which there’s a fine view of the gardens – dates back to a twelfth-century feudal castle. It’s worth a quick visit, but pales in comparison to its gardens. Le Breton’s Renaissance structure is arranged around three sides of a cour d’honneur, the fourth wing having been demolished in the eighteenth century.