The Chateau of Chenonceau is famous for its floral displays. Every room is exquisitely decorated with scented, utterly stunning bouquets made by a master florist in the Chateau’s floral workshop.
Of course, all those flowers and fruits used in the spectacular displays have to be grown. Largely the flowers come from the stunning gardens of the Chateau de Chenonceau. The gardens are overseen by American gardener Nicholas Tomlan. He came to France for this job from Longwood Gardens, Pennsylvania – named the best botanical Gardens in America by USA Today. He’s now the brilliant botanical director at the chateau. I met with him on a stormy day at the Chateau de Chenonceau….
The gardener at the Chateau de Chenonceau
“In the old days, they’d grow root vegetables here” says this affable gardener (above left) “no flowers”. Looking around at the formal beds with a mix of vegetables and flower and roses spilling over walls in what is now the walled vegetable garden I can’t imagine it any other way. But, it wasn’t until the renaissance days that flowers were grown simply to look good and to decorate the interior. Ancient owners Diane de Poitiers, mistress of Henry II and Catherine de Medici, wife of Henry II, both had flower displays in the chateau. Records tell us that some of them were “monumental” taller than a man, flamboyant, colourful and showy.
“Nowadays it’s a mix of flowers and veg for the displays and also for the restaurant” says Nicholas as he stoops to pick a lettuce to put in his basket to give to the castle’s restaurant chef. “The queen would have never visited the vegetable gardens, but the flower gardens – absolutely”.
I’m sure she would have approved of Nicholas’ work and would recognise the style. These gardens were recreated using drawings from the late 1500s. There are gorgeous giant wicker bird cages in which flowers grow, wild flower meadows, formal parterre gardens and the most beautiful arrangement of colour and blooms. The seven gardeners here grow more than 130,000 plants each year and the gardens are as important a place to wander and admire as the chateau itself.
“Do you ever feel anything ghostly here” I asked him. “Not really” he says, then adds “We do have a small greenhouse that has a double lock and we only ever turn the key once. But, every week, on at least one occasion, the greenhouse has been double-locked, and we’ve never been able to explain it”. The ghost of the gardens perhaps, I suggest. Would it be Diane or Catherine I wonder and decide Catherine, she was said to be a very determined woman.
Magnificent gardens of the Chateau de Chenonceau
Diane’s Garden, as it’s called, is on the right-hand side of the chateau. Catherine’s garden is on the left-hand side. Clearly their rivalry wasn’t just contained to Henry. There is also a maze commissioned by Catherine and a grand Green Garden with tall trees in which sits the historic Orangery. In the 16th century this part of the estate is where the animals and Catherine’s aviary were kept.
L’Orangerie Restaurant at Chenonceau
Nowadays the orangery is L’Orangerie restaurant and it is fabulous – both for the food and the interior. You’ll certainly enjoy Nicholas’ handiwork here, every dish seems to be adorned with fruit or leaves and it’s so beautiful you feel bad breaking up the artwork! The cheese cloche which is wheeled around for diners to pick what they fancy is a masterpiece. Don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s all just good looks, it’s not. The chef makes amazing dishes, the pastries are created by a master and the cheese is chosen by a legendary affineur (someone who matures cheese until perfection – a very French thing).
Every table is decorated with a bouquet made by Jean-Francois and his team. I have to tell you – I’d go back just for the restaurant!
Inside the Chateau de Chenonceau
The chateau is gorgeous inside. There are tapestries, paintings and exquisite furniture. The kitchen looks as though a chef of medieval times has nipped out for some more vegetables and will be back at any moment to prepare a feast. But the flowers are truly the star of the show.
Practical information for visiting the Chateau de Chenonceau
Website for the Chateau de Chenonceau: www.chenonceau.com
Read more about the Chenonceau castle of flowers and how it comes to be filled with magnificent bouquets each day.
Botanical tour with Nicholas Tomlan and floral workshop with master florist at the castle Jean-François Boucher is exclusively for small groups, by reservation only: events @ chenonceau.com
L’Orangerie restaurant can only be accessed once you’re inside the chateau grounds. You can book in advance at: restaurants @chenonceau.com
Where to stay near the Chateau de Chenonceau
Nearby Amboise makes for a perfect base to visit the Chateau de Chenonceau, it’s about 20 minutes by car. I stayed at the lovely Hotel Bellevue which has a great little restaurant and fabulous bar and is a stone’s throw from the incredible Chateau d’Amboise in the centre of this historic town.
If you stay in Amboise, don’t miss out on a meal at the nearby Le Parvis restaurant (3 rue Mirabeau) where the appetite you’ll build up walking around will be well satisfied!
How to get to the Chateau to Chenonceau
Trains from Paris run to Amboise, nearby Tours and to Chenonceaux station which is right by the chateau (making for a great day trip): UK-Voyages-SNCF.
For more information on the area: www.amboise-valdeloire.co.uk; www.valdeloire-france.co.uk; uk.france.fr