The river Dordogne takes in many beautiful sights as it winds it’s way about 500 km through Auvergne, Limousin and several other departments to end in Bordeaux. In the Perigord Noir region of the Dordogne the views from the river are spectacular, with glorious vistas like the cliff top villages of Domme, Roque-Gageac, Saint-Julien de Cenac and the Castelnaud castle. One of the most magnificent places to view the river is at the Jardins de Marqueyssac known as the hanging gardens of Marqueyssac thanks to the way in which the plants and trees cling with tenacity to the steep slopes on which they grow.
Marqueyssac Castle Park is a remarkable place with a lemon coloured castle, built on the eve of the French Revolution with 22 hectares of gardens and 6 km of pathways – but it is the boxwood plants that grow here that make it so astounding.
Teased, Trimmed and Trained Topiary
Teased, trimmed and trained into topiary displays of undulating rows, box shaped lollipops, balls and waves, these ever-green shrubs create a true wow-factor view at any time of the year. This is a topiary display like no other you will have seen as 150,000 boxwood plants grow on the slopes – and have done for more than a century.
As anyone who has ever grown a boxwood cutting will know, the growth rate is of the order of a snail’s pace but here the boxwoods are so old that a few that have been left to grow wild and untampered with have reached the quite flabbergasting height of 10 metres – they are in fact boxwood trees. The majority however, although as old as these unusual trees, are pruned into groups, shapes and artistic artworks by the dedicated gardeners who do everything by hand with manual cutters.
Dotted amongst the displays on the southern side of the slopes are trees like umbrella pines, pistachio, strawberry, juniper and Montpellier maples. On the northern side are rural maple trees and holm oaks – those tall trees with dark foliage which inspire the title “Black Perigord” by which the area is known.
The gardens were the work of Julien de Cerval. He inherited the chateau in 1861 and, inspired by his time as a soldier in Italy, was motivated to create a formal garden with an Italian feel. The chateau itself is very pretty with its roof typical of the area – pile upon pile of tile slotted one on top of the other to create a covering weighing more than 300 tons! The roofing slates are found locally and have been used since the 16th Century. Not far from Marqueyssac, near the medieval village of Donzenac the slate is produced to this day and in the quarry, soaring 100m cliffs have been carved by the workmen in their quest to cut out the slate over the centuries.
Follow the paths at the gardens of Marqueyssac and inevitably you will end up at the belvedere, a towering viewpoint overlooking the river and offering magnificent views over rocky medieval villages. Some of the walkways are steep – people with limited mobility should make certain to use the map that is available and shows which paths are suitable. Through arches, in and out of amazing topiary displays, a small maze, the routes of the hanging gardens are a riot of green of every shade and hue but nothing can prepare you for the view over the valley to the front of the gardens. The fields of green topiary balls, undulations, wiggles and boxes – the green shapes are mesmerising and as visitors round the corner and see the view for the first time you hear them say “oh” or “wow” – it really is that special.
Candlelit nights in the gardens at Marqueyssac
In the summer the gardens undergo a night time transformation as more than 2000 candles illuminate the shapes, throwing them into a magical, shimmering labyrinth of green contours and silhouettes. The paths are lit with the twinkling, flickering glow of a myriad of candles bringing a fairy-tale air to gardens that are already full of enchantment. Every thursday night through July and August the candlelit nights take place, the gardens will play host to jazz bands, actors and musicians and guests can relax in the piano bar and listen to the Marqueyssac peacocks join in the singing…
At Easter there is a great Easter egg hunt, rock climbing, arts and crafts workshops, an acrobatic cliff circuit and a lovely tea room. These gardens are the most visited in the south of France and it’s easy to see why… magnificent Marqueyssac is stunning.