The Loire Valley: Villandry Castle
Château Villandry, the last of the great chateâus built in the Loire Valley during the Renaissance, is best known for its exquisite gardens.
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The Loire Valley: Villandry Castle
The Loire Valley is an outstanding cultural landscape along a major river which bears witness to an interchange of human values and to a harmonious development of interactions between human beings and their environment over two millennia. It is noteworthy for the quality of its architectural heritage, in its historic towns such as Blois, Chinon, Orléans, Saumur and Tours, but in particular in its world-famous castles, such as the Château de Chambord.
The basin of the River Loire occupies a huge area in central and western France, stretching from the southern part of the Massif Central to an estuary on the Atlantic coast. Some 200 km of the central part of the main river valley, stretching from Sully east of Orleans to the junction of the Loire and the Maine near Angers in the west. Essentially this is the 'new' Loire, for the river originally drained north-eastwards into the Paris basin. This length now lies in two regions, Centre and Pays de la Loire, and four departments. Along the Loire between Orléans and Angers, the valley is characterized by low cliffs of tufa and limestone and, often below one or more river terraces, there is a flood plain dissected by old channels. The valley has a long history of periodic catastrophic flooding, carefully recorded as stone-cut water levels at numerous places along it, and even today its inhabitants live perennially under threat of severe inundation. Much contemporary river management is concerned to minimize that risk.
For most of its length in the World Heritage site the Loire is confined within dykes. Its banks are also punctuated at intervals of only a few kilometres by a series of villages, small towns and cities. Notable among the urban settlements are (from north-east to south-west) Sully, Orleans, Blois, Amboise, Tours, Saumur and Angers. Land use is extremely varied, from urban density through intense horticulture to vineyards (some reliant on flooding) to hunting forest.
The Roman impact on the landscape was massive, and it today still strongly influences settlement location and urban form and road communications. The Loire was one of the most important arteries for communications and trade in Gaul. In the late Roman period St Martin, Bishop of Tours, founded an abbey at Marmoutier around 372, and this was to serve as the model for many other monastic settlements in the Loire Valley in the centuries that followed.
The sanctuary at Tours was one of the most important pilgrimage centres in Europe until it was superseded by Santiago de Compostela. The many monasteries served as focal points for settlement in the Middle Ages. Seigniorial power developed in the 10th century and made a profound impression on the landscape. Land allotment followed the patterns of feudal society and strongly fortified residences were built by the overlords; these, too, acted as focal points for settlement.
The Loire Valley was a frontier zone during the Hundred Years' War and the scene of many confrontations between French and English. The castles were rebuilt and extended to become massive fortresses, the forerunners of the chateaux of today. The ever-present danger to Paris from the English during the war resulted in the royal court spending long periods at Tours. With the end of the war in the mid-15th century the valley was an ideal place for humanism and the Renaissance to take root in France. This involved inter alia the dismantling of the massive medieval fortresses and their reconstruction as palaces for pleasure and recreation.
The 17th-18th centuries saw the development of a secular commercial economy based on industry, crafts, trade, shipping, the river, and the towns alongside the feudal survival of the Ancien Régime. The late 18th century also saw the first water-management controls introduced in the valley; these were intensified throughout the 19th century. The romantic representation of the valley in the 19th century by writers and painters led to the Loire becoming a magnet for tourists, first from France, then Europe, and then in the 20th century the rest of the world.
When the Spanish physician Joachim Carvallo purchased Château Villandry in 1906, the 16th-century château and its gardens showed signs of decades of neglect. Carvallo immediately set about refurbishing the château, but he was not content merely to repair the gardens, which Villandry’s previous owners had styled after English parks of the 19th century. He wished to completely restore the gardens to their original Renaissance form.
Château Villandry is located 256 kilometers (159 miles) southwest of Paris, in the westernmost section of the Loire Valley. It was built as a country residence in 1536 by Jean le Breton, an ambassador to Italy and a finance minister under King François I. Le Breton demolished the whole of a 12th-century castle that stood on the site of his planned residence except for the castle’s main tower, which he incorporated into the château. The rest of the château is in the Renaissance style characteristic of the Loire Valley, with a steep, dark slate roof topping a stately building that frames a courtyard on three sides.
Villandry originally had a series of formal terraced gardens, each with its own distinctive character. A “water garden,” centered around an oval-shaped pond, was situated on a terrace above the other gardens, supplying their fountains with water. Two ornamental gardens, restored as a “music garden” and a “love garden,” contained boxwoods sculpted into symbolic shapes and were designed to provoke conversation about the subjects represented. The present-day love garden, for instance, is divided into four squares, each representing with uniquely appropriate flowers and patterns “tender love,” “passionate love,” “fickle love” and “tragic love,” respectively. Villandry’s original gardens also included an herb garden and a “kitchen garden,” or potager garden, a formal vegetable garden laid out in varying geometric patterns. The kitchen garden at Villandry now includes nine squares of color-coordinated vegetables and occupies an area of roughly 1 hectare (2.5 acres).
Joachim Carvallo spent ten years restoring Villandry’s gardens, staying faithful to their original layout and, where particular details of the gardens’ composition were unavailable, he turned to other Renaissance gardens as models. The present-day gardens at Villandry are among the most magnificent in the Loire Valley.
3 Rue Principale, 37510 Villandry
Tel: 0033 2 47 50 02 09