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Chateau de Villandry
By Chris Millikan
(For Travel Writers' Tales)

Our dream of a self-guided Loire Valley bike trip finally becomes a reality.

To simplify planning, Macs Adventure develops our ‘Chateaux and Gardens’ itinerary. With input from us, family-run lodgings, breakfasts, dinners, rental bicycles, helmets, maps and luggage transfers are all arranged. And we’re off!

Based in historic towns about 200-kilometers southwest of Paris, we explore in and around Blois, Amboise and Tours. Three nights in each provides ample time for exploration and reconnoitering. And two-wheeling it across the Loire Valley’s flat terrain proves exhilarating!

Daily pedals along a well-marked network of pathways introduce rural French landscapes, including quaint hamlets with stone churches and little boulangeries offering fresh picnic snacks. Our routes regularly skirt barley fields, pastures and small vineyards known for producing sweet white and sparkling wines. Sometimes workers merrily wave us onward.

A mix of sunshine, moderate temperatures and natural beauty prompts photo frenzies and spontaneous wine tastings. Best of all are unhurried visits to elegant ‘country’ palaces built long ago by an indulgent, itinerant royalty. One such grandiose house located outside Tours, the Chateau de Villandry also features authentic 16th century gardens.

Cycling through the city looks straightforward on our map; signage marks the way. Distracted, however, by morning traffic, bustling pedestrians and fellow cyclists, a crucial marker gets overlooked. We veer kilometers off track, until a friendly rider escorts us back to the missed junction.

Once on the Loire à Vélo trail, we sail easily on under arcades of trees along the Cher, a scenic tributary of the Loire. Birdsong serenades us through lush riverside forests. Sheep graze in meadows sloping to the water’s edge. Greenery frames a distant village. Later crossing its stone bridge, we admire one fisherman’s lucky catch.

Soon securing our bicycles in Villandry’s hedged ‘bike lot,’ we explore one of the last grand chateaux built in this World Heritage valley. Photos and engravings explain its evolution from the Middle Ages to the present day.

Retaining the foundations and stone tower of a medieval fortress, Finance Minister to King Francois I Jean le Breton built Villandry in 1536. Of note, rival monarchs Henry VIII of England and Francois I met privately several times in its 12th century ‘keep,’ forging an unexpected friendship.

Much later, the Marquis of Castellane updated the chateau, installing 18th century comforts, indoor water closets included. Silk-upholstered furnishings fill gracious, restored rooms; mullioned windows frame unique garden vistas. Downstairs, terracotta floors, enormous fireplace with roasting spit, rough oak table and polished copper pots maintain the great kitchens’ rustic flair.

From the ramparts, we marvel at patchworks of sculpted shrubs, multicoloured vegetables and espaliered fruit trees below. Current owners’ great-grandfather, Joachim Carvallo purchased the estate in 1906. Thoroughly researching, he restored these gardens to former Renaissance glory.

On upper terraces, we stroll alongside the water garden’s mirror-like pool accented with clusters of lime trees. Ornamental Italianate statuary and urns highlight arbours and flowerbeds.

The Love Garden’s shaped box hedges illustrate aspects of love. Hearts separated by stylized flames depict passion, tender love and broken hearts. Butterfly wings symbolize flighty love; crossed swords, rivalry in tragic love. Across the canal, musical notes, lyres and chandeliers suggest romance.

The decorative kitchen garden becomes our favorite. Here, profusions of flowers and vegetables form elaborate ‘checkerboards’ of colour. Monks in medieval abbeys had adopted this practice of cultivating vegetables in geometrically patterned plots, often crosses. Today’s trellised red roses commemorate their early aesthetic labours.

The traditional herb garden brims with aromatic, culinary and medicinal plantings. Signage names plants, identifies usage and provides instructive archaic meanings. For example, marrows denote fertility; pimientos aid indigestion. And cabbage implies spiritual corruption, but cures hangovers!

We learn this strict garden symmetry requires constant care. Of 115, 000 flowers and vegetables planted annually, more than half start in chateau greenhouses. “Putting just our box trees end-to-end measures 52 kilometers,” one gardener tells us. “All need annual pruning!” Four gardeners take three months to prune the estate’s 1,015 lime trees. To maintain garden perfection, restoration and renovation continues throughout the year.

Outside the chateau’s walls near Villandry’s pretty village, we munch cheese baguettes and decadent pastries at a trailside table. After rolling smoothly back into Tours, odometers show our daytrip totals 44-kilometers return. And as on every evening, regional specialties and luscious wines royally reward this pedal.

Cycling 200 plus kilometers in the Loire Valley enables our ‘up close and personal’ looks at France’s royal history, glorious gardens and palatial chateaux, culminating with wondrous Chateau de Villandry.


When You Go:

• Itineraries suiting every interest

• Access the Loire Valley from Paris by TGV train (1-2 hours); by car (2-3 hours)

• Authentic 16th century gardens

• Lodge in Tours at Hotel Criden

PHOTOS by Chris Millikan

Photo Key:

1.Villandry-distant stone hamlet along the cycle path to the chateau.JPG

2a.Villandry- beautiful18th century furnishings.JPG

2b.Villandry-rustic kitchens.JPG

3. Villandry-village outside the castle walls; elaborate authentic gardens inside.JPG

4. Villandry-unique geometric Renaissance gardens.JPG

5. Villandry- castle's kitchen gardens.JPG

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