The Garden of France.
The county of Kent, in the South East, is well known as being the ‘Garden of England’, with its warm climate, fruit orchards, castles and wonderful gardens to explore. But just a hop and a skip on a ferry and an easy 3-hour drive downwards (or south) from the French port of Caen, brings you to the picturesque ‘Garden of France’, known as the Loire Valley.
With the new ‘normal’ of Coronavirus ever present though, would any holiday, especially one abroad, be in order in 2020? Well, I would like a break away before next ‘lockdown’ and we both love France but not by plane this year, thank you. I know - let’s drive to the Loire Valley in France - somewhere that is warm in September, but not too far away.
With the car ferry and gite booked only a fortnight or so before, of course the latest travel Covid-19 restrictions came in. Quarantine for two weeks when we get back to England. Do we go? Don’t we go? We did - me and hubby. Me, to take in the gardens and him, the fortresses, history and the wildlife.
Where to begin though, with over three hundred chateaux, numerous gardens and historic forts to choose from, all set around the impressive Loire river and its tributaries. The source of the Loire starts in the Massif Central meandering through the Loire Valley for 280km, although in its entirety it is over 1000 km. The river winds its way northwards and eastwards to Nantes, the estuary and Jade coast, before joining the Atlantic Ocean in Saint Nazaire. Long ago the whole of the Loire Valley was once under the sea which is why I kept finding seashells on the deep sandy riverbanks so far inland.
Chateau Villandry - with its magnificent and immaculately maintained renaissance potagers and formal box beds. Chateau Chenonceau - calm, elegant and designed by five ladies over the centuries. Chateau Rivau - fabulously quirky gardens and even more quirky art displays. Puy Girault Gardens - down to earth gardens within gardens. All were highlights. But the whole region, on both sides of the Loire river, is breathtakingly beautiful in a simple and natural traditional way. No fuss, no flags, just rural tranquillity and a sense of bygone history. So much to see and only two weeks to do it - working mushroom caves, troglodyte sites, brocante Sunday markets, daily rustic food markets, wine tasting vineyards, and for hubster, the huge Blindés armoured tank museum in Saumur, the mind-blowing tufa stone sculpture caves - Pierre et Lumière and canoeing.
But back to the Loire Valley itself, -the land is fertile and productive, with many crops grown on the relatively flat agricultural lands with sweetcorn (maize), wheat, barley, sunflowers, asparagus and canola, a type of rapeseed, being the most popular grown. Market gardening is big business too with large greenhouses dotted at intervals with vegetables grown to sell at local markets or ornamental plants grown to sell on to garden centres. Bunches of Mistletoe (Viscum album), grows in abundance on fruit trees, poplars and hawthorn and like in the UK seems to be concentrated in one small area of trees, then it pops up again a few hundred yards away on another clump of host trees.
I saw field after field of sunflowers, their stalks standing gracefully, if a little forlornly, with their bright yellow faces of mid-summer, now, in the most part, faded away, replaced by bowed golden heads of ripening seeds in the calm, balmy sun-filled September days, waiting to be harvested for their nutritious seeds.
Having the car meant we could travel when and where the mood took us, exploring villages and smaller towns along the riverbanks, particularly around the Saumur area and I could see immediately that the folk of the Loire are definitely garden lovers. They were pretty, practical and relaxed affairs. Not immaculate, as in straight-line neatly mown lawns, fencing and a border, but used and cared for, with most properties having vegetables patches, vines and colourful flowers growing happily alongside one another. Very noticeable was that lack of fencing with gardens blending into one another rather than being closed in, thus giving a more coherent, natural look. Roses must be handed out to everyone at birth in the Loire because they are present in almost every garden. Hybrid tea bushes, elegant climbers, rambling ramblers and multi-floriferous floribundas and in mid- September, all still blooming their heads off… Roses are such a good value plant.
Cycling along empty country lanes with centuries old forests punctuating the landscape was such a joy, with green woodpeckers, colourful jays and red squirrels appearing tantalisingly close up at regular intervals to delight us. Birds of prey sat on telegraph wires and swooped down in front of us to catch their unsuspecting quarry. The odd farmhouse popped up every so often and without fail, the gardens had pots of marigolds or tumbling red or pink geraniums, a dog woofing at us half-heartedly but content to stay sat on a warm step, and open windows with French chatter tumbling out. They do like a long lunch in France.
If you ever want to know what will grow well where you live, just walk, cycle or drive around the neighbourhood and see the plants that are positively glowing and growing well in their surroundings. I saw countless hibiscus shrubs in numerous shades of pinks, reds, whites and mauves with their simple but effective paper-like petals. Alstroemerias, hollyhocks and lavender lined boundary walls and adorning village and town community roadside beds were, to my delight, clouds of white and pink Gaura, billowing grasses and sizzling Salvias - ‘Hot Lips’ a favourite. And pots? Large pots. Ginormous pots. Colourful pots. Some 5ft high, overflowing with summer bedding plants vying for position – Bidens, geraniums, coleus, ipomoea, calibrachoa, morning glory vines, verbena, grasses and more.
Owned by a charming, friendly and fun English couple, and their son, from Essex, who left the cut and thrust of London to seek ‘the good life’ in France fifteen years ago, we stayed in one of four rather lovely gites, (details below) set in five acres of mature trees next to a forest. Furnished in traditional French farmhouse style but with all mod cons, our days rolled gently from one to another and consisted of a trip out in the morning with a long lazy lunch and then back to the pool for a swim and a snooze in the hot afternoon sun. Deer and wild boar have roamed through the ‘garden’ in the past. Alas, not this time, but a peahen and her three youngsters patrolled the borders everyday and mother stopped to check her reflection in our glass door as she passed by and we heard ‘twit’ twooing’ owls in the evenings, so close by, I thought they were going to fly through the open bedroom windows.
Picnicking was such fun by the glassy clear river on still, hot September days as we whiled away the time spotting static stooping herons, catching more than a glimpse of the bright blue and orange flashes of kingfishers swooping up and down the river bank, as well as cormorants, dragonflies and egrets. Darting about in the shallows were frogs and tiny tiddler shoals of fish with the more solitary larger carp and zander (a type of perch pike) taking the more dignified approach of gently swimming against the current.
All in all, a memorable holiday, and hardly another Englishman (or woman) in sight the whole time. The Loire was the perfect destination for a history/sun lover, him, and a garden/sun lover, me. Although time seemed to stand still in the calm, quiet, rural Loire Valley, we came back to earth with a bump - ‘house arrest’ in England for two weeks - but all was good with extended sunshine, lots of gardening to keep us busy at home, Sainsbury’s delivering the essentials and even more time to wallow in the sunshiny September days.
Our accommodation was at Logis du Pressoir in Brion, France.