France - Normandy, Île de France, Pays de la Loire, Centre
A garden tour of five of France’s most beautiful and historic regions: the Île de France; Upper Normandy (Haute-Normandie); Lower Normandy (Basse-Normandie); Pays de la Loire, and Centre. Explore gardens from the medieval period to modern gardens as well as agricultural landscapes, villages, towns and great monuments. Garden highlights include Vau-le-Vicomte and Villandry, Le Jardin de Vasterival, Bennerville-sur-Mer, the International Garden Festival at Chateau Chaumont, and Le Jardin d'Angelique.

Gardens, Villages & Châteaux of North Western France




Rouen – 5 nights

Day 1: Saturday 10 June, Paris CDG – Lyons-La-Forêt – Rouen

Lyons-la-Forêt village & welcome lunch at Hôtel du Grand Cerf & Spa
Short Evening Orientation walking tour of Rouen
This morning we set out from Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport to the magnificent regional city of Rouen, to begin our journey through the gardens, great houses, villages and historic monuments of Northern France.

En route we visit Lyons-la-Forêt, one of France’s most picturesque villages. Most of its houses, many of which have façades featuring intricate wooden frames, are from the seventeenth century, but Lyons was once a Roman settlement and afterwards site of a castle built by Henry I of England, son of William the Conqueror. Kings were attracted to the region by its magnificent hunting grounds in the nearby beech forest. Lyons also has an excellent covered market from the eighteenth century which was used in both Jean Renoir’s and Claude Chabrol’s films of Madame Bovary. We shall also pass the house of one of France’s greatest musicians, Ravel. Ravel, Debussy and Erik Satie all derived inspiration from Normandy’s beautiful landscapes.

After lunching in Lyons-la-Forêt we continue our journey to Rouen, arriving at approximately 2.30pm. After checking into our hotel, and some time at leisure, we shall have a brief introductory meeting, followed by an orientation walk of Rouen within the vicinity of our hotel. (Overnight Rouen) L

Day 2: Sunday 11 June, Rouen – St-Georges de Boscherville – St-Pierre de Manneville – Montmain – Rouen

Romanesque Abbey of St-Georges de Boscherville
Manoir et Parc de Villers, St-Pierre de Manneville
Le Jardin d’Angélique, Montmain
Our excursion from Rouen takes us first to the Abbey St-Georges de Boscherville. A Celtic shrine existed here for several centuries until in the seventh century a chapel dedicated to St George was built over it. In the eleventh century the great chamberlain Raoul de Tancarville founded here a college for canons that was transformed into a magnificent Bénédictine abbey. We shall visit the abbey with its fine Romanesque carvings and explore its garden, dedicated to plants believed by the monks to cure souls.

The remainder of the day is devoted to visiting some magnificent country manor houses in Normandy. Our first visit is to the nearby Manoir de Villers, a beautiful half-timbered manor house begun in the time of Charles VII (1403-1461) and added to for three centuries. A special delight will be a guided tour of the manor’s interior in which the owners M. and Mme Robert Mery de Bellegarde will show you the magnificent family furniture collection. It is surrounded by themed gardens where we shall enjoy a light lunch prepared by our hosts.

Next, we travel to Montmain where the Jardins d’Angélique, owned by Mme Le Bellegard, are located. These gardens were created approximately thirteen years ago. In this splendid place paths meander through several hundred varieties of roses. Beautiful hydrangeas enhance the summer flower display. There is a second garden in the Italian style nestled behind the manor house. It is designed to complement not only the rear elevations of the house, but to provide marvellous panoramas of the surrounding countryside. In the late afternoon we return to Rouen, where the evening is at leisure. (Overnight Rouen) BL

Day 3: Monday 12 June, Rouen – Buchy – Bosc-Roger-sur-Buchy – Beaumont-le-Hareng – Rouen

Buchy village market
Le Jardin de Valérianes, Bosc-Roger-sur-Buchy
Le Jardin de Bellevue, Beaumont-le-Hareng
Evening meal at Restaurant La Couronne
A second day trip from Rouen takes us first to the small village of Buchy where we shall shop for our lunch in the Monday market. Like so many local markets in Normandy, Buchy’s Monday market features exclusively local producers. Many of these farmers specialise in organic products. The medieval covered market hall has fixed wooden tables that were originally butchers’ blocks.

Three kilometres outside Buchy, Le Jardin de Valérianes, tucked away in a corner of the countryside, was created by a couple of passionate gardeners, Michel and Maryline Tissait, who named the garden after their two daughters. This English-style garden of over 4000 square metres offers much visual pleasure with its combination of perennials, roses, trees and bushes.

We then drive on to Beaumont-le-Hareng where we shall visit Le Jardin de Bellevue. Le Jardin de Bellevue was created by the purist Martine Lemonnier in the 1980s and is famous for its collection of Hellebores (winter and Lenten roses). We shall not see these in bloom, but the garden also has an extremely important collection of Meconopsis, rare Himalayan blue poppies, which bloom in June. They are accompanied by over forty varieties of Asiatic primulas, whose white, orangeish, yellow and purple flowers are borne in tiered whorls. The Lemonniers have also planted a wide variety of Hydrangeas, many of them very interesting, in this garden which is arranged along the lines of a potager.

Tonight we dine together at Restaurant La Couronne. Housed in a superbly preserved half-timbered home, it is considered the “oldest inn in France,” dating from 1345. (Overnight Rouen) BD

Day 4: Tuesday 13 June, Rouen – Giverny – Auzouville-sur-Ry – Rouen

Monet’s House and Gardens, Giverny
Le Jardin Plume, Auzouville-sur-Ry
This morning we depart Rouen for Giverny, in the heart of Normandy, where the great Impressionist Claude Monet lived for forty-three years. We shall visit the artist’s beautiful home and garden, a dominant theme of of his later paintings, when as an old man he was unable to travel. The water-lily pond and wisteria-covered Japanese bridge were of his own design and his favourite motifs. Monet’s house, Le Pressoir, and its gardens, have been faithfully restored and opened to the public. Your visit to his house will include a stroll through the garden with its thousands of flowers, including the Nympheas. You cross the Japanese bridge hung with wisteria to a dreamy setting of weeping willows and rhododendrons. Monet’s studio barge floated on the pond.

After lunch at leisure in Giverny, we drive to Auzouville-sur-Ry to visit Le Jardin Plume where owners Sylvie and Patrick Quibel have converted their orchard into a parterre. There is also a spring garden, summer garden and autumn garden. The summer garden is a kind of modern knot garden with a very formal layout of clipped box in a square edged pattern. Each ‘box’ is then filled with a very natural planting of grasses and perennials but the colours are superb. Lots of golden yellow, deep red, burning oranges. The overall mix of formal and informal, the sombre green of the box and the jewel-like colours of the flowers are really superb. Favourite plants here are dahlias, crocosmias, heleniums, kniphofias and of course grasses – giving the plumes the garden is named for. (Overnight Rouen) B

Day 5: Wednesday 14 June, Rouen

Guided walking tour of Rouen
Afternoon at leisure
This morning we meet our guide for a walking tour of this beautiful and very historic city. The city grew up as an important centre of Roman Gaul, called Rotomagus, a derivation of the Celtic name Ratuma. It became an important ecclesiastical centre from the third century and part of the Duchy of Normandy and then the Norman kingdom (1066), until lost to the French by King John in 1204. Rouen surrendered to Henry V of England in 1419 after a protracted siege, but was reclaimed by France in 1449. By the end of the fifteenth century it had become a centre of the French Renaissance.

Rouen has some of the finest Gothic architecture in France. The façade of its cathedral fascinated Monet, who painted it at different times of the day. Other churches include the fifteenth-century church of St Ouen and the church of St Maclou (1437), both notable examples of French flamboyant architecture. The Gros-Horloge is a Renaissance pavilion containing a fifteenth-century clock, and the Tour Jeanne d’Arc is where the Saint was imprisoned before her execution. The Hôtel de Bourgheroulde (1501-37) is the best example of the city’s medieval domestic architecture.

The remainder of the day is free for you to explore Rouen further, at leisure. (Overnight Rouen) B

Day 6: Thursday 15 June, Rouen – Tourville-sur-Arques – Doudeville – Sassetôt-le-Mauconduit

Château de Miromesnil, Tourville-sur-Arques
Parc et Château de Galleville, Doudeville
This morning we drive north to the Château de Miromesnil at Tourville-sur-Arques (near Dieppe), a splendid seventeenth-century (Louis XIII) château, where Guy de Maupassant was born. It is located within a large plantation dominated by a two hundred-year-old cedar of Lebanon, and contains a very fine kitchen garden. Its vegetable plots are surrounded by a bewildering variety of flowers. The park is enclosed by old brick walls and features fruit trees, rose trees, magnolias, arborescent peonies and a magnificent variety of clematis.

Following a light lunch at the Château de Miromesnil we continue to Doudeville. Here we visit the Château de Galleville, residence of M. et Mme. Gillet. The château, constructed as the residence of Marshall de Villars, follows the very unusual design of a late seventeenth-century manor. Its gardens are exceptional, highlighted by a wonderful pleasure garden that has incorporated scent into the design, as well as a floral orchard that has been cleverly conceived with exceptional under plantings. The treasure here is the kitchen garden, which has taken on the designation ‘gourmet’ owing to the wonderful collection of herbs and spices grown here.

Late afternoon we travel to the short distance to Sassetôt-le-Mauconduit where we stay for two nights in an 18th-century château set in twenty-eight acres of parkland looking on to the sea. Here the Austrian Empress Sissi lived during the summer of 1875. We shall eat in the château’s private dining room. (Overnight Sassetôt-le-Mauconduit) BLD

Day 7: Friday 16 June, Sassetôt-le-Mauconduit – Sainte Marguerite-sur-Mer – Varengeville-sur-Mer – Sassetôt-le-Mauconduit

Le Jardin du Vasterival, Sainte Marguerite-sur-Mer
Le Bois des Moutiers, Varengeville-sur-Mer
Varengeville-sur-Mer Church & Sailor’s cemetery
This morning, we drive to Marguerite-sur-Mer to visit the gardens of Vasterival, residence of the late Princess Sturdza. Vasterival is acclaimed to contain one of the finest plant collections in all of France. The gardens are strictly informal, consisting of some twenty acres surrounded by a natural woodland. Cleverly designed paths wander throughout the garden, through the rich underplantings of the woodlands, and issue into glades with countless surprises. The garden is world famous for its collections of rhododendrons, hydrangeas, maples, birches, viburnums and camellias.

Following lunch at a restaurant located in the grounds of the Château de Varengeville, we visit the house, park and gardens of Le Bois des Moutiers. The residence and garden have been in the possession of the Mallet family since 1898. At that time, a young English architect, Edwin Luytens, who was to become famous for his houses and for the layout and architecture of imperial New Dehli, was asked to modify both the residence and the garden. Luytens designed Munstead Wood for Gertrude Jekyll, and the influence of both of these great English designers is evident in the gardens of Le Bois des Moutiers. The influence of Gertrude Jekyll is seen everywhere, including the design and plantings of the front garden which slopes toward the sea.

From the Bois des Moutiers, we drive a short distance to the Varengeville-sur-Mer Church and sailors’ cemetery. Varengeville is an astonishing commune perched atop white limestone cliffs. It has attracted many artists, including Claude Monet, and is famous for its church, with its stained-glass windows by Georges Braque. From the sailors’ cemetery, where Georges Braque, Albert Roussel and Porto-Riche are buried, there is a superb view of Dieppe and the cliffs towards Le Tréport. (Overnight Sassetôt-le-Mauconduit) BLD

Bayeaux – 4 nights

Day 8: Saturday 17 June, Sassetôt-le-Mauconduit – Étretat – Le Havre – Honfleur – Bayeux

La Côte d’Albâtre & Étretat
Musée d’Art Moderne André Malraux, Le Havre
Time at leisure: Old Port of Honfleur
If you plot the landscapes painted by the Impressionists on a map of France, their locations correspond to the railway lines that led out from Paris along such corridors as the valley of the Seine, for the Impressionists were creatures of the bourgeoisie’s discovery of rural and coastal France, made available to it for the first time by steam trains. The landscapes of middle-class recreation were also reached by the new railways. One aspect of the bourgeois discovery of France was the development of seaside resorts and one of the greatest painters of the beach was Eugène Boudin.

A ubiquitous motif in painting of the period that owes its popularity to the development of seaside recreation is the famous cliffs at Étretat, painted regularly by such artists as Monet. We drive along the famous Côte d’Albâtre to Étretat where we shall enjoy a walk along the seaside promenade and explore the old village centre.

After a pause for coffee we continue to Le Havre, situated on the right bank of the estuary of the river Seine, on the English Channel. Here we visit the André Malraux Modern Art Museum which contains the second-most extensive collection of Impressionist paintings in France. There are paintings by Claude Monet and other artists who lived and worked in Normandy including Camille Corot, Eugène Boudin (with the largest collection of his works in the world), Eugène Delacroix, Gustave Courbet, Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Gauguin, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro, Paul Sérusier and Édouard Vuillard. Modern art is also well represented with works by artists such as Henri Matisse, Albert Marquet, Raoul Dufy, Kees van Dongen, Fernand Léger, Alexej von Jawlensky and Nicolas de Staël.

At approximately 1.00pm we continue to Honfleur, where many Parisians spent their holidays. There will be time at leisure for lunch and to explore the old, picturesque port, characterised by its houses with slate-covered frontages, painted by many artists including Gustave Courbet, Eugène Boudin and Claude Monet. The Sainte Catherine church, which has a bell tower separate from the principal building, is the largest church made out of timber in France. Honfleur’s other attractions include its Saturday markets and the town is also famous for its chocolates.

In the late afternoon we continue our drive to Bayeux, our next base in Normandy, which is famous above all for its tapestry. (Overnight Bayeux) B

Day 9: Sunday 18 June, Bayeux – Juno Beach & Omaha Beach – Arromanches – Castillon – Bayeux

Cathedral Notre-Dame & historic centre of Bayeux
Juno Beach
The Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches
Omaha Beach US Sector
Jardins de Plantbessin, Castillon
Today’s program begins with a walking tour of Bayeux’s historic centre and fine Cathedral of Notre-Dame. This gem of Norman architecture was consecrated on 14 July 1077 by Bishop Odo of Conteville, in the presence of his illustrious brother, William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy and King of England.

Mid-morning, accompanied by our local expert, we tour the coast and beaches that were the sites of the Normandy Invasion landings of World War II. We visit Juno Beach, one of the five designated landing areas of the Normandy Invasion, which was assaulted and taken from defending German troops on 6 June 1944, and Omaha Beach, where thousands of Americans were killed during the invasion’s first day.

We also drive to Arromanches, where the remnants of the prefabricated ‘Mulberry’ harbour, a remarkable feat of engineering and ingenuity, can still be seen.

By 1943, the Germans were retreating on all fronts. In the early months of 1944 the war had reached stalemate: the Russians were waiting for spring to resume their offensive, while the British and Americans were advancing painfully slowly in Italy, encountering huge difficulties at every turn. The only way to change the course of the war and make a swift and decisive victory possible was to invade the northern coast of Europe – precisely where the enemy had its strongest defences. Hitler had ordered massive defensive structures to be built along the entire coastline, forming the ‘Atlantic Wall’. The Allies had had a foretaste of its effectiveness during the disastrous failed landing attempt at Dieppe in August 1942. The terrible losses they sustained made them realise that the Channel ports were too heavily fortified to be captured, although this was the sine qua non if they were to keep a larger landing force properly supplied. The strategists outlined an ambitious plan codenamed Overlord, which was accepted by Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt in August 1943. Thirty divisions would be landed in Normandy. The cornerstone of this plan was the construction of two so-called Mulberry Harbours – artificial ports that would guarantee supplies for the troops once they had landed. The Mulberries comprised floating roadways and pierheads which went up and down with the tide. In order to avoid rough seas, huge hollow concrete blocks and old hulks were sunk in order to form a breakwater.

Just beyond Omaha Beach, we stop to enjoy a catered picnic lunch at the Château d’Englesqueville, which was home to the 600 men of the 147th Engineer Combat Battalion during the days after D-day. The current owners, M. and Mme Lebrec, are producers of cider and calvados and we will have the opportunity to sample their produce.

Our day ends with a drive to Castillon to visit the Jardins de Plantbessin, created by Colette Sainte Beuve as a water garden to complement her plant nursery. Here you will find a marvellous treasure trove of plants that includes beautiful samples of Japanese plants as well as herbs and heather, situated on a site which measures less than a quarter of an acre. (Overnight Bayeux) BL

Day 10: Monday 19 June, Bayeux – Caen – Saint-Gabriel-Brécy – Bayeux

Abbaye-aux-Hommes & its abbatial church Saint-Étienne, Caen
Le Musée des Beaux-Arts, Caen
Château de Brécy, Saint-Gabriel-Brécy
This morning we drive to Caen to visit the excellent small art museum (with works by Van der Weyden, Perugino, Poussin and Veronese), which is built within the ruined walls of William the Conqueror’s castle, and the Abbaye-aux-Hommes, and its church Saint-Étienne. This masterpiece of Romanesque church architecture, which survived the 1944 Allied bombardment, was begun by William the Conqueror as his mausoleum. One reason for the finesse of this building, which influenced many later Romanesque churches, was the abundance of good building stone in the region.

After some time at leisure in Caen for lunch, we return to Bayeux via the gardens of Château de Brécy, residence of M. and Mme Didier Wirth. This will be a perfect introduction to the formal French garden; intimate in scale and exquisite in detail. Set in a wooded hamlet, the château would resemble a Norman farmhouse were it not for the pedimented entrance. The house dates from the seventeenth century, when it belonged to the Le Bas family, friends and associates of the great French architect after whom the distinctive pitched roof is named, François Mansart. The house bears many hallmarks of Mansart’s architecture. The garden, which is immediately behind the house, consists of five terraces, fine stone work, elegant parterres, pools, topiary and wrought-iron gates that provide views into Normandy’s countryside. (Overnight Bayeux) B

Day 11: Tuesday 20 June, Bayeux – Cambremer – Mézidon-Canon – Bayeux

Bayeux Tapestry Museum
Les Jardins de Pays d’Auge
Parc & Jardins du Château de Canon, Mézidon-Canon
This morning we visit the special museum dedicated to the Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde (Matilda, wife of William the Conqueror), which chronicles the Norman invasion of England. This Anglo-Saxon work, presented by the Queen to Bishop Odo in c.1080, was inspired by manuscript scrolls and the continuous narratives of the antique columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius in Rome. It chronicles events from the promise of Harold Godwin to bequeath his kingdom to William to the death of the Saxon king on the field at Hastings; it is fascinating for its detailed depictions of arms and the eleventh-century methods and machinery of warfare.

Next, we travel east of Caen to discover the heart of the Pays d’Auge, with its stunning half-timbered farms, manors and châteaux and lovely agricultural landscape dominated by such elements as orchards and hedgerows. The Pays d’Auge is best known as the heart of production for some of Normandy’s best food products including the rich and aromatic cheeses of Camembert, Pont l’Évêque, and Livarot. It is also famous for its alcoholic cider and for its calvados, an apple brandy created from cider in the same manner that cognac is made from wine; through double distillation in copper stills. The brandy, which is 70 percent alcohol, is aged from 3 to 25 years in oak casks and then bottled.

We follow the designated ‘Route du Cidre’ to Les Jardins de Pays d’Auge, located outside the village of Cambremer. This series of themed gardens is situated around a seventeenth-century farmhouse and other half-timbered buildings, typical of Norman architecture. Listed as one of the ‘Jardin Remarquable’ in the Calvados region, this verdant 3-hectare estate lies adjacent to the Calvados Huet distillery.

Our final visit for the day is to the gardens of the Château de Canon, residence of M. Alain de Mezerac. Here, an eighteenth-century house is surrounded by contemporary gardens and a park, created by Jean-Baptise-Jacques Elie de Beaumont and his wife Anne-Louise. The family has owned this property since the Middle Ages. Their alterations of the house to the Neoclassical style, which brought on a lawsuit, resulted in a splendid two-storied structure, while pavilions and statuary in the garden landscape are English in style. (Overnight Bayeux) BL

Bagnoles-de-L’Orne – 2 nights

Day 12: Wednesday 21 June, Bayeux – Le Mont Saint-Michel – Bagnoles-de-L’Orne

Mont Saint-Michel
Spa village of Bagnoles-de-L’Orne
One of the highlights of the tour is a visit to the Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel, which perches upon a great, isolated granite cone rising from the Bay of Mont Saint-Michel, the sands of which are bared at low tide. There are quicksands here from which, according to a depiction in the Bayeux Tapestry, Harold Godwin saved some Norman soldiers. Believed by the Celts to be a resting place to which the departed were ferried on an invisible boat, it became the site of a hermitage after an apparition of St Michael to St Aubert, Bishop of Avranches (708). A Carolingian church was built in the tenth century, followed by a Romanesque basilica in the eleventh. Count Richard I of Normandy established a Benedictine Abbey here in 966 and it became a major seat of learning in the eleventh century. It was progressively fortified in the Middle Ages. We shall visit the small village below the Mount and then participate in a tour of the Abbey, visiting its church, refectory, ancient scriptorium, and cloister.

After visiting Mont Saint-Michel we shall pass a short time in the spa village of Bagnoles-de-L’Orne. The “Belle Époque” Quarter in Bagnoles-de-l’Orne constitutes a rather well-preserved example of what could be classed as a typical early twentieth-century French bourgeoise residential area. Built between 1886 and 1914 and located in the southern part of the town, it is filled with superb villas with polychrome façades, bow windows and unique roofing.

We stay for the next two nights in a lovely small heritage hotel, Le Manoir du Lys, at Bagnoles-de-L’Orne owned by a family noted for their fine cuisine, which we shall sample at our evening meals. The hotel is set in a pretty garden on the edge of the Andaine Forest. (Overnight Bagnoles-de-L’Orne) BD

Day 13: Thursday 22 June, Bagnoles-de-L’Orne – Saint-Christophe-Le-Jajolet – Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei – Bagnoles-de-L’Orne

Jardins et Terrasses du Château de Sassy, Saint-Christophe-Le-Jajolet
Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei village & lunch at the Auberge des Peintres
Les Jardins de La Mansonière, Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei
A day trip today takes us to yet more lovely Norman villages and gardens. We begin with the gardens and terraces of the Château de Sassy at Saint- Christophe-Le-Jajolet. This is a spectacular formal garden, a benchmark of the French formal style, featuring clipped yews. It was designed in the first decades of the 20th century by the famous Achille Duchêne for Etienne d’Audriffet. The designer took his inspiration from the great Le Nôtre, who was responsible for the gardens of Versailles and Vaux-le-Vicomte. The garden, which rolls out like a great carpet below an 18th-century château, is located in the Pays d’Argentan between hedged farmlands and the vast plains of the north. Its strict formality beautifully counterpoints a pastoral landscape of hedges and clumps of fruit trees where thoroughbred horses graze. A deep perspective of terraces with intricate broderies (‘boxwood embroideries’) planted in the shapes of Arabesques passes tiers of moats and features a round pool. A lovely small pavilion flanked by two monumental fastigiate yews and rows of shaped lindens forms the perspective’s centrepiece.

We next drive through the majestic Forêt d’Écouves to the village of Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei. In the 6th century an Italian anchorite, Céneri, established a hermitage here and this grew into the village of Saint-Céneri which is now considered one of the most beautiful villages of France. In the 19th century, its stone houses, Romanesque church with beautiful frescoes of the twelfth and fourteenth centuries and its small stone bridge attracted many artists, including Camille Corot, Gustave Courbet and Eugène Boudin. We shall have lunch at the charming Auberge des Peintres and take a guided tour of the village before making our way to the Jardins de la Mansonière.

Overlooking the river Sarthe, the Jardins de la Mansonière are composed of a sequence of discrete chambers which have as their theme the enchantment of nature. There are the Rose Garden; the Garden of the Moon; the Garden of Calm; the Garden of Perfume; the Garden of Contrasts; the Garden of Nut Trees and the Gothic (vegetable) Garden. These creations use the distinct colours of a great variety of flowers to create a poetic sequence of delightfully different moods. We shall also spend some time in the village, whose medieval past has inspired elements of the gardens like the Gothic vegetable garden. (Overnight Bagnoles-de-L’Orne) BLD

Le Mans – 1 night

Day 14: Friday 23 June, Bagnoles-de-L’Orne – Ballon – Le Mans

Jardins du Donjon de Ballon
Le Mans: Guided tour of Old Plantagenet City incl. Cathedral Saint-Julien and private gardens
Today we drive out of Normandy toward the Loire Valley. Our first visit is to the gardens of the Donjon de Ballon, an important frontier fortress built by Guillaume Ier de Bellême in 1005, the first to be encountered by the Normans in their attempts to expand their territory. It was seized by William the Conqueror in 1064, two years before he invaded England; and in the eleventh century it changed hands twenty-five times! In the twelfth century the family of Chources, allies of the Kings of England, established control of the fortress which was to endure three centuries. During the Hundred Years’ War the castle was controlled by armed bands and contested by the English and French until the companions of Joan of Arc, Olivier de Prez, châtelain of Ballon, and his nephew Ambroise de Loré finally subdued it and its territory. The development of artillery rendered this type of fortress, composed of a high keep and prominent towers, outmoded.

The gardens of Ballon have been curated since 1960 by the a’Weng-Guéroult family. They are made up of a number of parts. The Alley of the Linden Trees, with large rectangular beds, leads to the Court of the Lions named for the lions which guard the donjon’s drawbridge. The Jardin Clos sits within the ramparts and is in the transitional Medieval/Renaissance style. It is made up of three sections: the geometrical Jardin du Puits which surrounds the forty-five metre well which supplied the castle with water; Le Jardin du Milieu, inspired by Renaissance gardens, with ancient standard roses, aromatic plants such as hyssop, kitchen and medicinal herbs, and plants for dyes such as rose madder; La Motte Féodale (the feudal moat) which leads to the location of the very first wooden fortress, precursor to the stone donjon. There are beech groves here and the moats themselves are planted with fruit trees from around the world. This garden section, high on the castle crag, commands stunning panoramas of the forests of Normandy and Maine. Below this is the rose garden and surrounding the whole complex is a beautiful wood.

Following a light lunch in the Donjon du Ballon, we next drive a short distance to the city of Le Mans, which lies on the banks of the River Sarthe. We are now in the region of Maine, of which Le Mans is the old capital. Surrounded by the modern city, the historic centre is dominated by the magnificent cathedral of Saint-Julien. This building has a Romanesque nave and west end and a marvelously light Gothic east end with some of the most magnificent flying buttresses in France. The cathedral also has excellent stained glass from the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It is surrounded by a lovely precinct of timbered houses whose façades boast intricate patterns and some excellent carving. At points along the Sarthe are to be seen remnants of the city’s Gallo-Roman walls, Le Mans having been an important Celtic town before Julius Caesar invaded, and Augustus pacified Gaul. A local specialty is the famous ‘Rillettes du Mans’, made with pork meat cooked in its fat and best served simply with a farmhouse loaf. (Overnight Le Mans) BL

Day 15: Saturday 24 June, Le Mans – Louplande – Angers – Chissay-en-Touraine

Gardens of the Château de Villaines, Louplande
Château d’Angers, Apocalypse Tapestry
This morning we drive to the Château de Villaines, built on the ruins of a twelfth-century feudal castle, of which all that remains is part of the defensive moat on the southern side. The present buildings date from the mid seventeenth century and the Château de Villaines is typical of châteaux from that period, oriented with the main facades facing precisely north and south, and being long and slim to allow light to penetrate from windows on both sides, making it very light and airy. The main buildings comprise the Château itself, the orangery in the northwest corner of the garden, and a large dovecote to the southwest.

Marc and Marie-José Forissier have been the owners since 1997 and are responsible for developing the garden as it appears today. Before they began work there was an English landscape garden in front of the house; this has been replaced by a formal French garden with clipped box topiary and lawns. To the right of the house is a recently planted orchard, to the south the remains of a large moat and many newly planted trees. However, its main feature is an extraordinary potager en carrés, a highly formalised and decorative fruit and vegetable garden divided into dozens of raised square beds and surrounded by a high wall. This garden covering 2.5 acres was restored by the present owners and includes a fine array of peonies, espaliered pear trees and apple trees trained in cordons. An attractive collection of Old Climbing Roses trail across arches giving the garden height. In 2005 it was awarded the prize for best potager garden in France by the French Horticultural Society (Société Nationale d’Horticulture de France).

Following a light lunch at the Château de Villaines, hosted by the owners, we drive to the ancient city of Angers, the historical capital of Anjou and for centuries an important stronghold in northwestern France. The old medieval centre is still dominated by the massive castle (c.1238), which boasts a magnificent Tapestry Museum, the focus of which is the important Apocalypse Tapestries, a series of seventy scenes completed in 1380 by Nicholas Bataille for Louis d’Anjou, brother of Charles V. This comprehensive cycle, based upon St John’s Book of the Apocalypse, is one of the masterpieces of the International Gothic style. In contrast to terrifying visions of the Apocalypse on the tympana of pilgrim churches like Saint-Lazare, Autun, these works display an opulent, exquisite, courtly grace. Their magnificent reds and blues rival the colourism of the Unicorn Tapestries in the Musée de Cluny, Paris.

In the Loire valley we stay for three nights in the Château de Chissay. Chissay, an archetypal Touraine château of an aspect similar to the marvellous palace-fortresses depicted in International Gothic manuscripts, including the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. Like many continuously lived-in houses, however, it has changed over six centuries in which at times its fortunes have been intimately linked with those of France. It was built by Pierre Bernard, chancellor to Charles VII (1435-61), at a time when the monarchy, recent victor over the English in the Hundred Years’ War, was beginning to transform feudal France into a modern state with a professional administration and permanent army. This assertion of monarchical power found its eventual expression in the great royal châteaux of this region. Both Charles and his successor, Louis XI, stayed here. Chissay was then owned by a succession of seigneurial families and it was here that a number of crucial French government meetings took place in 1940, as Nazi Germany was invading France. In 1986 Chissay was transformed in order to provide luxury accommodation. It has a number of lovely public rooms such as a ‘guard room’ and ‘Gothic room’, and its bedrooms, with nineteenth-century furnishings, look out on the surrounding 25-acre park. (Overnight Chissay-en-Touraine) BLD

Day 16: Sunday 25 June, Chissay-en-Touraine – Amboise – Sasnières – Cheverny – Chissay-en-Touraine

Sunday market in Amboise
Jardin du Plessis-Sasnières
Château de Cheverny
This morning, we drive to the nearby town of Amboise on the banks of the Loire, where Leonardo da Vinci spent his last years. Dominating the town is the fifteenth-century Château d’Amboise, which combines Gothic and Renaissance architectural styles. But the main purpose of our visit this morning is to attend its Sunday market, one of the largest in the region. We shall explore the market stalls set up along the river bank and sample some of the local specialties for our picnic lunch today.

Nearby we visit the Jardin du Plessis-Sasnières, created in 1975 by Rosamée Henrion. Nestled in a small, discrete valley, this eleven-hectare English landscape garden centres on a pond. A section of the park abutting the pool contrasts to the parkland. It consists of an earlier potager (vegetable garden) that has been transformed into an enclosed garden of roses, annuals and vivacious flowers planted to create a symphony of different colours. Following our visit of the gardens we shall enjoy our picnic lunch in these beautiful surroundings.

We then travel to the early seventeenth-century castle of Cheverny, distinguished by its extraordinary symmetrical architecture and beautiful interior designed by Jean Monier. Unlike many châteaux in the Loire, Cheverny is still occupied by its owners, who open some of their sumptuous rooms for the public including the dining room and King’s Chamber. Thirty-four painted wood panels around the walls of the dining room depict the story of Don Quixote (the hero of the Cervantes novel). On the first floor, the King’s Chamber displays a particularly sumptuous design; the coffered ceiling shows scenes from the myth of Perseus and Andromeda and the panels depict the legend of Theagenes and Chariclea.The park holds an interesting collection of trees including cedars, redwoods and lindens. A pleasure garden has been created between the château and the orangery. (Overnight Chissay-en-Touraine) BD

Day 17: Monday 26 June, Chissay-en-Touraine – Chenonceaux – Villandry – Chissay-en-Touraine

Château de Chenonceau
Château de Villandry
Our morning is dedicated to visiting the Château of Chenonceau, one of the most picturesque of all great houses; it literally bridges the Cher River. Built by Thomas Bohier on the site of a mill between 1513 and 1523, it was given by Henry II to Diane de Poitiers, who commissioned Philibert de l’Orme to construct the section which spans the river, but was then forced to surrender it to Catherine de Medici. Chenonceau became the locus of an important salon in the eighteenth century. It has beautiful gardens and fine interiors with some excellent furnishings.

We next drive to the Château de Villandry, whose 16th-century style gardens (actually developed in the twentieth century) rival those of Versailles and Vaux-le-Vicomte. On arrival, we shall enjoy a picnic-style lunch set up for us in the garden. We then visit the gardens, modelled by Villandry’s twentieth-century owner, Dr Joachim Cavallo, on images of gardens by the great seventeenth-century print-maker and illustrator of châteaux, Androuet du Cerceau. A visit to these gardens will give us the best possible understanding of what a vast formal garden was like, with its discrete flower and vegetable gardens set against perspectives which remind us of theatrical stage sets. (Overnight Chissay-en-Touraine) BLD

Augerville-la-Rivière – 3 nights

Day 18: Tuesday 27 June, Chissay-en-Touraine – Chaumont-sur-Loire – Augerville-la-Rivière

International Garden Festival, Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire
This morning we visit the International Garden Festival held at the Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire. This is also home to a landscaped park designed by Henri Duchêne. Founded in 1992, the International Garden Festival has been providing an astonishing panorama of the state of landscape creativity all over the world. Each year, international teams of artists, landscape architects and designers create around 30 ephemeral gardens on a single theme. The aim is to surprise, entertain and enchant you and offer ideas for your own garden. Next to the Festival, the ‘Valley of the Mists’ (Vallon des Brumes), the ‘organic vegetable garden’, the ‘wild iron pathway’ (Sentier des Fers Sauvages) and certain banks show permanent experimental gardens that change throughout the seasons.

At the conclusion of this visit we continue our journey north to the elegant Château-Hotel d’Augerville, where we spend the next three nights. This evening, we shall dine together at the hotel. (Overnight Augerville-la-Rivière) BLD

Day 19: Wednesday 28 June, Augerville-la-Rivière – Fontainebleau – Lardy – Augerville-la-Rivière

Château de Fontainebleau
Le Jardin d’Anne-Marie, Lardy
We begin today with a visit to the great royal Château of Fontainebleau, a monumental ensemble of buildings constructed between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, set in a seemingly endless royal forest. Of medieval origin – the Capetian kings hunted its forest – the present complex was constantly enlarged, enriched and inhabited by François I, Henri II and Catherine de Medici, Henri IV, Louis XIII, Louis XV, Louis XVI, Napoleon and Louis-Philippe. Even Louis XIV, who of course preferred Versailles, commissioned Le Nôtre to improve its gardens. During the late Renaissance, the château saw the translation of the Italian Mannerist style to France through the School of Fontainebleau.

We shall visit the extensive, sumptuous apartments like the Gallerie François Ier which was decorated by the great Italian Mannerist Rosso Fiorentino. These give an unsurpassed overview of the development of French panelling, wall painting, tapestry, and furniture. We shall also stroll through the different courtyards of the complex, observing the varied architecture of façades and visit gardens such as the secluded Jardin de Diane, the Jardin Anglais, and the vast parterre with canals, and the Basin du Tibre. Following our visit of the castle, we shall have some time at leisure for lunch in the animated town of Fontainebleau.

After lunch we continue to Lardy and Le Jardin d’Anne-Marie. Anne-Marie and Yvon Grivaz bought this beautiful place beside the river in 1976. Five years later planting began and a French style cottage garden was created. Mellow gravel paths wind through lawns and borders, which are a glorious mix of shrubs and perennials in soft colours. Pergolas support a profusion of roses, and there are bridges, terraces and summerhouses. In 2007, the garden was awarded the prestigious Prix de Jardinier d’Île-de-France. (Overnight Augerville-la-Rivière) BD

Day 20: Thursday 29 June, Augerville-la-Rivière – Château Vaux-le-Vicomte – Courances – Augerville-la-Rivière

Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte
Domaine de Courances
This morning we shall explore the unsurpassed seventeenth-century château, Vaux-le-Vicomte which was the precursor to Louis XIV’s Versailles. Vaux-le-Vicomte was built in 1658-61 for Nicholas Fouquet, the finance minister of Louis XIV by the architects were Louis Le Vau (1612-1670) and Jules Hardouin-Mansart; the gardens were designed by the great André Le Nôtre (1613-1700) and Charles Le Brun (1619-1690) painted the interior. Fouquet was arrested shortly after the opening celebrations of the château, and Louis XIV afterwards employed its designers for his palace and gardens at Versailles. The house has pronounced corner pavilions as well as a projecting oval central pavilion that is crowned by an ovoid, domed roof. The interiors were elaborately decorated under the supervision of Le Brun. Set within a huge green space which extends around one-and-a-half kilometres from the entrance gate to the furthest statue of Hercules, (and measures a sixth of this in width), the château dominates from whatever distance it is seen. Such a ‘reigning’ position over this large area symbolises the power of the master of the house.

Le Nôtre and Le Vau created from forty hectares of countryside a perfect harmony between architecture and its environment for the first time in the seventeenth century. Le Nôtre’s first masterpiece, the vast garden perspective is divided into a sequence of terraces, forming an orderly composition of sculpted box gardens patterned after motifs from Turkish carpets. There are bordered flower beds, shrubberies, grottos, lawns, lakes and fountains. If no other garden of the period were to have survived, Vaux-le-Vicomte’s gardens would suffice to illustrate the principles of landscape gardening in this age of elegance.

This afternoon we visit Courances, where General Montgomery resided following the Liberation of France. This is a charming garden also designed by Le Nôtre, with elegant canals edged by avenues of plane trees and beautiful lawns. The components of its landscape are simple in the extreme, but the result is a setting of superb verdure and refinement, one that will be appreciated by travellers who enjoy simple, beautifully proportioned gardens.

We return to our château, where there will be some time at leisure before concluding our tour with a farewell meal. (Augerville-la-Rivière) BD

Day 21: Friday 30 June, Augerville-la-Rivière – Paris (CDG)

Our tour ends. You may continue your travels in Europe or join the coach transfer to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport for your flight back home to Australia. B

  • ASA Gardens, Villages & Châteaux of North Western France 2017 Download

"We thought this was a brilliant tour. It offered great insight into the history and culture of the region and the program was so interesting. The tour leaders were extremely competent in their fields and passionate speakers. Accommodation and meals provided were all comfortable and interesting. We have no hesitation in encouraging prospective travelers to consider this tour, which has so many positives and traverses attractive French countryside”
Haydn, ACT

"This was a comprehensive tour, with excellent supporting information and great leaders. Garden visits were greatly enhanced by the guidance of garden owners and ASA chose site visits very well and with great variety. The Chateau accommodations were also excellent and novel”
Doreen, NSW

Tour Price

AUD $11,780.00 Land Content Only

AUD $2500.00 Double (as single) Supplement
For competitive Economy, Business or First Class airfares please contact ASA for further information.

Tour Price (Land Content Only) includes:

Accommodation in twin-share rooms with private facilities in 3-4 star hotels
Meals as indicated in the tour itinerary where: B=breakfast, L=lunch & D=evening meal
Drinks at welcome and farewell meals. Other meals may not have drinks included.
Transportation by air-conditioned coach
Airport-hotel transfers if travelling on the ASA ‘designated’ flights
Porterage of one piece of luggage per person at hotels (not at airports)
Lecture and site-visit program
Entrance fees
Tour Notes
Use of audio headsets during site visits
Tips for the coach driver, local guides and restaurants for included meals.

Tour Price (Land Content Only) does not include:

Airfare: Australia-Paris, Paris-Australia
Personal spending money
Airport-hotel transfers if not travelling on the ASA ‘designated’ flights
Luggage in excess of 20 kg (44 lbs)
Travel insurance
Visas (if applicable)