20 May 2012

Our five French days seem so long ago – perhaps due to my two intervening Roman nights, tossing to the tune of passing voices and vehicles. Not sleeping makes everything so disjointed.

The Loire

That stretch of Loire from Saumur to Angers is remarkably lovely, with slate-roofed houses of the palest limestone clustered in elegant sprawl-free villages. We saw the river at its fullest – a presence both placid and massive in a green landscape, its water meadows on either side full of great willows and ash trees and seas of wild flowers.

Felix the Cat?

On the north bank, a high levée carries the road and railway track: driving along the top gives you a view over rolling fields of bright young corn and into levée-side houses, many of them at upper-floor-window level.

The vines

The south bank, on the other hand, is an exercise in topographical deception. The narrow-ish river-side strip is home to a string of those pretty villages, all swathed in climbing roses now, with a variety with a huge dark red bloom a favourite all the way. Behind the houses – in fact constituting the back wall of some – is a low-ish limestone cliff, with trees overhanging from the top and intriguing signs that the cliffs are riddled with caves and grottos. So complete is the scene, that it isn’t until you start wondering where all the local wine comes from that you begin to think there must be more than this. Climb to the top of the escarpment and voilà: beyond lies a vast plane of almost nothing but vineyards. A church spire here and there, some rows of trees, but little else.

For four nights we stayed in Saumur: elegant, with a large military presence in some areas due to officer training schools, but eerily quiet, even on a Saturday night when we walked through the centre wondering whether perhaps there was another part of town that had escaped our notice where things were actually happening. I suspect there isn’t.

Chaumont garden festival

From here I visited some chateaux and their gardens: Chaumont for the garden festival, of which I shall – when I get my act together – write for ThinkinGardens; Beauregard  where the garden designed many years ago by Giles Clement looks like he may never have bothered to go back to see the very higgledy-piggledy results of his theory of jardins en mouvement – moving gardens in which any plant which pops up in the ‘wrong’ place because nature shuffled it elsewhere should be allowed to stay where it wants; and La Chatonnière.

Potager, La Chatonnière

Willow walk, La Chatonniere

I would have been happy, too, to experience those great big chateaux-with-a-vengeance gardens, such as Villandry, but there simply wasn’t time. La Chatonnière amply made up for it. It’s not huge and it’s not pristine but you can feel the passion of the chatelaine and her Moroccan head gardener oozing through each quaintly named room of this wonderful place. The potager in the form of a giant leaf, with curvy beds delineated by tiny box hedges might look kitsch elsewhere but here it just slots in beautifully. The sinuous tunnel of criss-crossing live willow twigs is gorgeous, the abundance of roses – even now before they were all properly out – is superb. It’s a garden which, though open to the public, feels lived in and private and very much loved for its own sake.

But L was there for work, not to indulge my thirst for gardens, and that mean sightseeing and eating and drinking. This last we did most pleasurably with Cathy and Nigel at Le Tasting Room and with Micaela and Sue at their delightful B&B La Grande Maison with its beautifully ramshackle garden full of Nigella damascena and Centaurea cyanus (cornflower), with hollyhocks all but ready to burst into bloom. Eating we did all over – sometimes well, generally in that French way with blurred tastes and general fussiness which makes me long for something simple and Italian.

Eleanor of Aquitaine

Sightseeing included a chug/sail down the river, many moments contemplating the wonderful Eleanor of Aquitaine by her tomb in the Fontevraud abbey  and even more surveying the utterly extraordinary Apocalypse tapestry in the castle at Angers. This is a proper defensive structure, squat and solid and de-beautified centuries ago when it was decided to remove the fairy-tale conical tops from its many towers. Yet inside are rather sweet gardens (we shall draw a veil over the tacky extravaganza that some local parks and gardens person has decided to park at the bottom of the empty moat) and enough going on to be able to imagine being holed up in there.

Back in CdP, the situation could have been worse. First impressions (including the unsightly un-asked-for edging at the beginning of the path down from the carpark that Indi had decided to conjure up in my absence… clearly my message about flights of fancy not being appreciated didn’t sink in as well as I thought) made me feel slightly panicky. But it’s always amazing what a quick whip round with the lawn mower will do. A couple of hours and a record nine baskets of clippings made everything look surprisingly orderly. The roses are big clouds of bloom (though I see powdery mildew on some – when it stops raining I must treat them) and the perfume of honeysuckle and philadelphus as you come down the drive is powerful.

As always, I’m doing that thing of carefully selecting what I see and editing what I don’t like out of my field of view. But now that I’ve freed the potato plants from their weed straight-jacket, and begun putting up the cane frames for tomatoes (some of which I planted out) and beans (ditto), things seem to be on the road to being almost up to date.

Of course, the fact that it’s now drizzling and I can’t even go outside to let rip with anguish over what to do next does certainly help.

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About Gardens, Food & Umbria

I am a garden designer, working throughout central Italy. I have lived in Italy for over 30 years – for many years in Rome but now in the wilds of Umbria where I have fixed up one wreck of a house, am working on another, and tinker endlessly with two and a half hectares of land, some of which is my garden.
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