Festival at Domaine de Chaumont-Sur-Loire

By Yvonne Michie Horn
This item appears on page 55 of the April 2016 issue.
Château de Chaumont-sur-Loire overlooks the village of Chaumont-sur-Loire in central France. Photo by Yvonne Michie Horn

This is the last in a series of four articles on Loire Valley gardens. The first was on Chédigny, a village designated in its entirety a Jardin Remarquable (Oct. ’15, pg. 55). The second featured Château du Clos Lucé (Dec. ’15, pg. 49) and described a garden with roots to Leonardo da Vinci. The third was about Jardin du Plessis, located near the village of Sasniéres and part of a larger property under family ownership since the 15th century (Feb.’16, pg. 53). — YMH 

During my 6-week stay in the Loire Valley, headquartered in the city of Blois with the goal of improving my French language skills, I often passed the nearby Château de Chaumont-sur-Loire’s fairy tale of turrets as I drove the riverside road on explorations into the countryside. The château, high on a bluff, gracefully proclaimed its supremacy on the village of Chaumont-sur-Loire below while admiring its reflection in the waters of the Loire. 

Pretty and smallish among the Loire’s profusion of over-the-top, architecturally grandiose edifices, there was nothing about the château that enticed me to cross the bridge and take a look until I was nearing the end of my stay at the tail end of April 2015. Once again, for the 24th year, Château de Chaumont-sur-Loire would be throwing open the gates for its Festival International des Jardins. 

For the 2015 festival, more than 300 landscape architects and designers, located worldwide, threw their trowels in the ring, each hoping that their proposal would be one of 24 selected for installation in an assigned 700-square-foot plot. 

From its beginning in 1992, the festival’s stated reason for being has been to breathe new life and energy into garden artistry. Each year has presented a different theme. The theme for 2015 was Collectors’ Gardens. 

To collect is to become enamored with a certain genre and gather examples of it together. Collectors seek out what is precious to them — rare, unique, diverse, original — amassing their treasures together. So it can be within the world of plants. 

2015’s festival gardens 

 Following the map through the festival’s 24 gardens, I found no two even remotely alike.

The Garden of 101 Pelargoniums paid tribute to the diversity of flowers, fragrances, leaf shapes, textures and colors within the Pelargonium family. With each in its own labeled barrel, I wandered past Bird Dancer, Purple Gypsy, Meadowside Midnight and 98 others, sinking my nose into the aptly named Cola Bottles and Chocolate Peppermint.

Dozens of sieves, the botanist’s essential tool for sorting seeds, hung from wires and were mounted on posts in the Seed Collector’s garden. The sieves displayed seeds’ visual diversity, some resembling large, winged insects, others surprising in their color or decorative markings, all containing the potential to become living plants.

The À Table! garden celebrated the sharing of a meal. A long table was filled with a collection of extraordinary fruit and vegetable varieties, most belonging to very old species virtually unheard of today. What I first took to be Chinese lanterns decorating the garden turned out to be carnivorous plants enjoying their own à table experience. 

Botanical sieves provided the design element for the Seed Collector’s garden. Photo: Yvonne Horn

Noah’s Ark was in the process of loading, this time not with animals boarding two by two but with the finest plants chosen from his collection. Inside, the ark was transformed into a jewelry box of green treasures arranged in wooden enclosures to protect them from the coming storm. 

On it went, with each garden presenting an imaginative and surprising take on collections. 

Permanent gardens

So fascinating are the festival gardens that one might be tempted to skip the six, large, permanent installations by international designers in the Prés du Goualoup. Fortunately, I’d read my map wrong and found myself there at the beginning of my visit to the château. 

Located on 2½ acres, the gardens of Prés du Goualoup are designed to be developed over time. The theme remains constant: gardens inspired by the great gardens of civilization. Instead of reproducing gardens typical of a specific area of the world, installations explore a contemporary take on the traditional. 

For example, traditional Korean gardens each define themselves as “a large vessel for a mystical empty space.” In the Jardin Coréen, the concept is turned on its head. Dozens of not-large-at-all, identical ceramic vessels are gathered together and placed around structured ponds bordered with flowering shrubs. 

More places to explore

I was surprised at the extensiveness of the château’s surrounding grounds, making me regret that I’d not crossed the bridge earlier in my stay. 

Wooden walkways and stairs took me deep into a canyon lush with greenery and filled with birdsong, where I would have liked to linger longer. 

I walked quickly through the Parc Historique, 50 acres in the “English style” of gently rolling terrain — designed by Henri Duchêne, one of the great French landscape architects of the late 19th century — enhanced today by large pieces of contemporary sculpture placed throughout the park. 

As for the château, itself, alas, its interior failed to match the expectations of its fairy-tale exterior. I hurried through its rooms; my day at Chaumont-sur-Loire was going fast and I wanted to return to the festival for a second look at several of the gardens.

Dates for the 2016 Festival International des Jardins are April 21 through Nov. 2. The entrance fee is 14 (near $15) for the festival only or 18 to visit the entirety of the domain. 

Yvonne Horn walking a boardwalk through the Japanese Garden, one of six gardens on permanent display in the Prés du Goualoup.

Château de Chaumont-sur-Loire (phone +33 [0] 264 209 922, www.domaine-chaumont.fr) is located about 12 kilometers south of the city of Blois, in the Loir-et-Cher region of central France. F

Email Yvonne Michie Horn c/o ITN. Also visit www.the travelinggardener.com.