The Jewish Chronicle
Garde whirl Ner’s
From Unesco World Heritage sites to grand gardens, great cities, vineyards, ancient sites and world-class museums, there’s always a new treasure to discover on a trip to France, as Franck Ferrand has found over the past three decades exploring the country.
Author of new book Discover France in 100 Destinations, he has picked out his favourite 100 places across the country covering 11 separate themes — plus the highlights of Paris — to inspire readers, whether you’re planning a trip based on your interests or to showcase the unmissable spots to see in each area.
The trickiest part, needless to say, was to limit it to 100 entries. “It was a challenge to pick just one hundred from among the tens of thousands of incredible destinations throughout France, choosing the most representative and unmissable,” he says. “Inevitably I had to set aside some lesser known or quirkier sites, including a few that I hold dear.”
You’ll find Jewish sites mentioned, including the historic Carpentras synagogue, along with the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris, plus the country’s best chateaux, museums and artists’ homes, including some of France’s great writers.
But if you’re looking for more chances to get outdoors, there’s also a section on outstanding gardens. “From the Renaissance formal gardens of Villandry to the cutting-edge, minimalist format adopted at Valloires, these horticultural havens are sources of great inspiration with their innovative designs, green sculptures, exotic plantings, and sensual scents,” says Ferrand.
And while some, like Monet’s garden at Giverny, are well-known, there are plenty of gems yet to discover including this selection taken from his book.
GARDENS OF THE CHÂTEAU DE VILLANDRY
These gardens, surrounding the last Renaissance château to be constructed in the Loire, have been meticulously restored. The creators of the Gardens of Villandry never saw the full scale of their extraordinary work — only the angels, birds, and other winged creatures are able to fully appreciate it.
These elegant terraces, manmade waterways, and mazes dotted with statues are thrown into sharp relief the moment they are seen from above; suddenly, the whole magnificent pattern of colours and geometry takes shape.
This is the epitome of the French formal garden, designed to delight the château owners of Touraine in the Renaissance. However, you may detect a contemporary feel in the fruit and vegetable gardens with their attractive colours. That is because these gardens — which had been completely transformed during the 19th century to adhere to the untamed English style — are actually a reconstruction, remodelled by Joachim Carvallo in the early 20th century.
This brilliant Spanish doctor acquired Château de Villandry during the Belle Époque and devoted his life to recreating the floral delights of the Grand Siècle; as a result, these luxuriant arabesques show the undeniable influence of art nouveau. Today, his descendants continue to uphold that balance between tradition and modernity, with three new colourful terraces providing aesthetic meditations on love.
BOTANICAL GARDENS OF VAUVILLE
The Château de Vauville’s tower looks out to sea and the vast world beyond, from whence travellers brought back the most exotic plants. The Botanical Gardens of Vauville are a natural oddity: situated on the Cap de la Hague, right at the edge of Europe, on the Cotentin Peninsula, they enjoy a unique microclimate on the cool Normandy coast, thanks to the Gulf Stream’s warm breezes. In 1948, Éric Pellerin — botanist, perfumer, and keen traveller — and his wife took advantage of this exceptional location to create this extraordinary garden, with its collection of more than 500 species of plant from the furthest flung corners of the world.
Instead of visiting a tropical greenhouse or a giant herbarium, here visitors step right into a true oasis, where plants from all around the globe grow naturally and in complete liberty, thanks to the dedication and determination of three generations of nature-lovers. The original medieval keep of the Château de Vauville quickly disappears as visitors enter this jungle, becoming explorers as they go. In this Eden, palm trees cast shade over bamboo and aloes, cypresses from California and gunneras from Brazil.
You could, for a moment, believe you were in that biblical garden, surrounded by so many heady perfumes and colours, with startling purples, bright reds, and vibrant yellows set against a backdrop of green in a scene of skilfully executed poetic disorder. jardin-vauville.fr
TOPIARY GARDENS OF EYRIGNAC
Surrounded by the dark forests of the Périgord Noir, these gardens dazzle with their spectacular sculptures in branches and leaves. Sculpture is a favoured art form in France, with countless masterpieces made of bronze, marble, wood, and stone. Plants can also be the medium, as in the art of topiary — sculpting plants into ornamental shapes — and some of the most beautiful examples may be found in the Gardens of Eyrignac. While other materials form “permanent” statues, plant sculpture is an art that requires daily attention.
For 500 years, to the rhythm of the seasons, this château’s gardeners have tended to these shapes in all their verdant beauty, passing down their expertise from generation to generation. The 300 statues of impeccable geometry — in yew, hornbeam, and cypress — are maintained daily, by hand, with shears, string, and plumb line, in order to create an inspired architectural extension to this classical-style château. Living monuments to the Renaissance, they extend for several acres along paths embellished with elegant fountains, delicate flowers, and charming arbours, demonstrating evolving styles in garden design and floral fashions since the 18th century.
Even the Enlightenment passion for “chinoiserie” is represented here: magnificent red pagodas contrast strikingly with the green colour palette of rare species and the delicate white of the rose gardens. eyrignac.com/en
ORIENTAL PARK OF MAULÉVRIER
Europe’s most stunning Japanese garden can be found in Anjou. In the spring, blooming cherry trees transform the green pathways of this 72-acre park into a magical white carpet. Azaleas, rhododendrons, and camellias intermingle with Japanese maples and other Chinese larches in this calm and serene garden, and water features are omnipresent. So exotic are the surroundings that it is difficult to remember that you are actually in the heart of the Loire Valley.
Just next to Château Colbert, the Oriental Park of Maulévrier is the most significant Japanese garden in Europe, filled with nearly 400 varieties of plant and displaying sacred objects. It is worth recalling, even briefly, the garden’s history: at the beginning of the 20th century, architect Alexandre Marcel — who designed the Cambodia pavilion at the 1900 World’s Fair — was commissioned by the château’s owner to create a vast Japanese-inspired garden.
Sadly, it was only haphazardly maintained through the war; its essence was lost and it was eventually abandoned. There was even talk of turning it into an amusement park. However, a handful of enthusiasts saved it from destruc
tion and began maintaining it once more with exceptional care. By the end of the 1980s, the garden’s rejuvenation was complete, and it was perhaps even more beautiful than before. Today, you can experience its serenity for yourself parc-oriental.com/english
The ground-breaking Valloires Gardens reimagine the relationship between man and nature. Everyone is familiar with the 17th century French formal garden, the 18th century English garden, and the botanical gardens of the modern era, but Valloires is a garden of the 21st century.
It was designed by Gilles Clément, one of the most influential landscape gardeners of recent decades, who cocreated the Parc André-Citroën, the gardens of the Musée du Quai Branly, and those at Château de Blois.
Here, around an 18th-century Cistercian abbey, Clément brought some exceptionally innovative ideas to his designs, including his notion of the “moving garden” — an ecological concept in which the gardener works with nature, rather than against it.
This entails the rejection of unified parterres, the constant evolution of the garden according to the seasons, taking account of the soil type and local wildlife, and, above all, an inclusion of the greatest possible diversity of plants; the Valloires Gardens are an exemplary realisation of all these principles.
The gardens include more than 2,000 plant species, including rare and exotic specimens from
Japan, China, and North America, but also common plants native to this region of northern France. The result is entirely unique, while retaining the minimalism characteristic of contemporary designs. baiedesomme.fr
EXOTIC GARDEN OF ÈZE
Far above sea level stand the ruins of a fortified castle that are home to a host of prickly inhabitants. Èze rock — an imposing, craggy cliff that falls sharply into the Mediterranean — would look equally at home in a tale of medieval knights or in a Western. The ruins of a 12th century fortress top the cliff, offering one of the most beautiful views of the region.
In the 1950s, the then mayor decided to enhance it further and commissioned Jean Gastaud, who had designed the Exotic Garden of Monaco. Together, at the foot of the ruins, they created one of Europe’s most original gardens, composed entirely of cacti, aloes, and other succulents, decorating the heath with improbable colours: a luxuriant mosaic of yellows, greens, and fluorescent pinks. Set in this hard, light grey stone, beaten by sea breezes, this alternative fortress composed of tall thorns, spiked bulbs, and bristling leaves is right at home in the dry climate of the Riviera.
But at Èze, all is not harsh — there is also room for gentle reflection, even introspection. Punctuating the space between colourful plants are 14 spectral statues of nameless women by the contemporary artist Jean-Philippe Richard.
With their smooth bronze curves and otherworldly expressions, they seem to be waiting patiently for something — although no one knows what. They stand in a contemplative silence that is broken only by the song of the cicadas and the distant sound of the waves.