Wednesday, 6 July 2005

Gardens at Villandry

Today we left Poitiers to travel to Tours in the valley of the Loire River, and on the way we stopped at "the most beautiful garden of the garden that is France," a phrase that was coined to describe Villandry. We were given tickets to get into the château, which was the last of the large castles built on the Loire during the Renaissance (completed about 1536 after demolition of a twelfth-century castle, leaving only the tower), as well as the gardens; however, the rather stiff breeze blew my ticket out of my hand, so I had to skip the château. The gardens are the main attraction, though, and I had no trouble filling the whole hour and a half sightseeing there. Here we are looking past the ornamental gardens to the kitchen gardens.

Garden of Love

The ornamental gardens consist of a beautiful combination of precisely sculpted box hedges and colorful flowers. Here is the "Garden of Love," whose four square plantings represent different kinds of love. On the left is "Tender Love," with hearts and the flames of love; farthest is "Passionate Love," with hearts broken and stirred up by fierce emotion. At the right is "Fickle Love," with fans to symbolize the shifting breezes of feeling, the horns that traditionally represent a cuckolded lover, and in the center the billets-doux, letters sent by the unfaithful lady to her lover. Nearest us is "Tragic Love," with blood-red flowers and the daggers used in duels between jealous rival lovers.

Kitchen Gardens

The monks of a medieval monastery would often plant their vegetable gardens in geometrical patterns, and the kitchen garden of Villandry is modeled on this, with box hedges and roses to define and compliment the different colors of the vegetables. The crops are grown in two plantings each year, with a three-year rotation of crops to keep the soil from becoming depleted of nutrients. There's also a garden of medicinal and cooking herbs, behind me as I took this photo.

Water garden

Farther up the gently sloping hillside is a "water garden," centered on a pool in the shape of a Louis XV mirror, with at least one swan in residence that I saw. There's also a green garden tractor here; we heard hedge clippers and lawnmowers going continuously while we were there, carrying out the never-ending task of maintaining the garden.

Palms in the hedgerow maze

There are also a few modern innovations farther up, like a playground for children, and a hedgerow maze. The Palms have found their way to the center!

At Maison Errard

After leaving Villandry, we stopped for lunch at the small town of Langeais. This town has a castle, and some of us walked over for a look there; however, most of us planted ourselves in restaurants near where the buses had stopped. A dozen or so of us lucked into the best food I have yet had on this trip, at a small restaurant called Maison Errard. The presentation was beautiful, the service was attentive (and helpful in surmounting the language barrier), and the food was outstanding! They closed the doors after we arrived, to avoid overwhelming the small kitchen staff; I hope we didn't displace any locals who arrived late at their favorite lunch spot!

Cloister of Fontevraud Abbey

Next we stopped at Fontevraud, a large monastery with an unusual history. It was founded in 1104 by a charismatic itinerant preacher named Robert d'Arbrissel; the order he founded here was a "double" order, with both men and women, based on the Benedictine rule. When he departed to continue his wanderings, he left a woman, the Abbess, in charge rather than one of the men, and thereafter the order was always headed by a woman. In the 16th century, rather than being chosen by the residents of the abbey from among their own number, the abbesses were nominated by the King of France, and were frequently chosen from wealthy families. This brought a lot of money in to the abbey, and allowed several expansion programs; here you can see the Renaissance style cloister at ground level contrasting with the older construction of the church and hall above.

Painting of the betrayal of Jesus

The powerful abbesses weren't shy about setting things up to their liking! This is one of several paintings in the chapterhouse, the headquarters of the order; you can see the two abbesses painted in the lower corners of this picture of Jesus' betrayal by Judas. Note the foot apparently emerging from the back of the Abbess on the right; she was painted right over the image of Peter attacking the Roman soldier's servant, artist's intent be damned.

Kitchen of Fontevraud Abbey

This unique structure is the only survivor of the original 12th-century construction. It is the kitchen, made all of stone to resist fire; its strange shape is due to the many chimneys from the great stoves inside. Its original purpose was forgotten some centuries after its construction, when newer kitchens were built inside the main buildings; one of the legends about its use was that it was the lair of a local bandit called Evraud, who supposedly placed a light at its top to lure travelers hoping for shelter and then rob them. Eventually, excavations revealed bones, cooking vessels, and other kitchen detritus which confirmed its use. By the way, the town originally appears to have been named for the "Fountain of Evraud," presumably a nearby spring.

Blocked doors in the church

After the Revolution, the abbey was expropriated by the state. Not being able to find a buyer, they decided to turn it into a prison. This led to a fair amount of alteration of the structure, as well as damage to the decoration; note the bricked-up fireplace and doors high up this wall in the abbey church, which used to open on higher floors of the prison. The prison still held prisoners through 1985, when it was restored and opened up for tourists. The acoustics of the church were excellent, and going in we spotted a cabinet of audio gear that is used for recording sessions.

Effigies of Eleanor and Henry

Also in the church are four effigies that would have been placed on top of the tombs of the people represented: Eleanor of Aquitaine and her husband King Henry, shown here, and their son Richard the Lion-Hearted and the second wife of his brother John Lackland, named Isabelle d'Angouleme. When the Revolutionaries came by to trash all things royal or clerical, the local people hid these effigies in the fields or in barns. The tombs were destroyed and it's not known where the remains of Eleanor's family now are; the effigies survived, though. Eleanor is shown reading a book to indicate that she was one of the few women of the time who were literate.

Singing beside the effigies

We were allowed a very brief time to sing a few songs; mostly we were the only ones present, but a few other tourists wandered by. The acoustics, as I noted above, were particularly fine! Thanks again to Steve Campbell for the photo. Afterward we got back on the buses and continued to Tours; since we arrived late and then had an even later dinner, I again just did email and went to bed, so once again I'm having to post-date this webpage.

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new 8 July 2005