Nothing you read can prepare you for the sight that awaits you at one of the most beautiful gardens of France at the Prieuré d’Orsan in Berry Province, Loire Valley. Medieval gardens and a gorgeous hotel that delight the senses says Janine Marsh as she visits one of the famous Loire gardens…
Driving through the gorgeous countryside of Berry Province in the Loire Valley, surrounded by fields of poppies and cornflowers, vineyards and walnut tree orchards and chocolate box pretty villages I am on my way to Maisonnais and the Prieuré d’Orsan.
Arriving late afternoon, I check in at the fabulous hotel which is not like a hotel, there is no reception desk, you ring the bell of the gate and someone comes down to greet you and show you to your room; there are only seven and they are all exquisite as is the wonderful little apartment.
The sun is out and I immediately head for the famous gardens that Monty Don, the famous British gardener calls “a grand potager.. a triumph… a glorious garden”. The Priory d’Orsan was created in 1107 by Robert Arbrissel, founder of the Abbey of Fontevraud. He died in 1116 and his heart was preserved as a relic, the gardens today are filled with heart shaped topiary designs and artworks and it is quite stunningly beautiful.
The hotel and gardens are the creation of a Parisian architect, Patrice Taravella. Starting from scratch, he and his small team of gardeners have spent the last two decades restoring the gardens and buildings and creating a Paradise regained. The designs are based on medieval monastic gardens dating back to the 12th Century and include 7.5 miles of hornbeam hedge all of which are cut by hand.
Every year the gardeners grow 2,500 saplings to make the gorgeous and inspirational wooden structures that are peppered throughout the garden including a fabulous chair with the heart shape emblem.
Some of the fruits are protected with special bags – they’re for the table I’m told, this helps to keep them perfect. A few of the pears tree branches have bottles tied on so that the pear grows inside and when the chef makes pear liqueur, the fresh pear will be kept in the bottle for added flavour and beauty, the attention to detail in the garden is nothing short of astonishing.
I see the chef picking vegetables and herbs for dinner that night and later, as I sit in the lounge, the smell of fresh baked bread wafts through the grand house. I find I can’t work anymore and give up to listen to the birds singing – the view from the windows catches my breath.
I talk to fellow guests Michael and Gail Kawaharada from Hawaii and they tell me this is their third visit and they absolutely love it here, it is says Michael “a very special place”. They say that when they come to stay here they’re made to feel at home as if they belong there and that’s a rare accomplishment indeed. The meal is delicious and accompanied by wines from the area, served in a beautiful dining room that leads onto the gardens. The hotel is romantic, tranquil, luxurious and beautifully renovated; an ancient stone spiral staircase leads up through the centre of the house and there is lots of light from the huge windows which overlook the magnificent gardens.
I get up early in the morning and have breakfast on the lovely terrace, it seems an awful shame to waste a minute here in this lovely place. There’s just time to wander once more, through an arch in which lavender is hung to dry, the aroma is overwhelming, out into the rose garden. I watch the gardeners climb their ladders and snip away, it is peaceful, the air is redolent with the scent of flowers, the birds are singing and the hotel cat who is 20 years old follows me. Michael from Hawaii is right – this is a very special place indeed.
Le Prieuré d’Orsan restaurant is open from March to November (book in advance). You can tour the gardens or take a guided tour by appointment; avid gardeners can attend workshops of one to three days focused on themes such as creating wooden structures like the ones in the gardens.
Details for times, openings, hotel, restaurant, workshops and visits: Prieuredorsan.com
Video of British gardener Monty Don’s visit to the Prieure d’Orsan:
Read our interview with French garden guru Georges Lévêque, the Monty Don of France
The fabulous vegetable garden of the Chateau du Rivau, Loire Valley
The magnificent hanging gardens of Marqueyssac, Dordogne