Back home again after two weeks in France’s beautiful Loire Valley, its sights and sounds are still singing in my mind. Most of all I remember the ducks quacking gleefully as they zoomed in to land on the still green waters of the River Cher, then the soft splashing as they sailed off to go about their daily business. Some mornings they were in groups of ten or twenty.
I remember the bell tolling on the hour – and the half-hour – in the old church next to the “gite” in which we stayed. It’s set to ring automatically. Maybe this is a sign of the times.
I still have in my mind’s eye the paddocks – sorry, fields – of sunflowers and corn rolling away into the distance. Because I was there in early autumn the sunflowers were dark brown and black, ready for harvest. But there were still a few giant smiling faces looking up to the sky. Never have I seen such a bright yellow!
The corn was similarly on the turn, a bit desiccated and rusty. One afternoon, walking to the tiny village of Montresor, we spotted some promising-looking heads, ready to pick with tassels drooping. We sidled into the tall stands and, to our shame, nicked enough for dinner. It looked OK when peeled, but had no flavour and was full of grit. Cattle fodder! Serves us right.
There are scarcely any fences in this part of France. The fields run right to the road verge. The plantings are regimentally straight so that the divisions stand out visually, taking your eye back to the wonderful forests on the horizon. This gives such a feeling of freedom.
The forests are quite different to ours. I was told most are privately owned, long-established, with their trees – oaks, birches and the like – being selectively felled so that the shape and atmosphere of the place is not damaged. There are few straight lines, and walking or driving through is a dreamy experience. So many shades of green.
And then there are the flowers! Window boxes to die for in all the towns, on houses and shops, brimming with shape and colour, petunias and geraniums and all kinds of annuals that I couldn’t begin to name. Still holding their heads up even at the start of autumn, and immaculately maintained.
These window boxes helped get my mind into gear for the treat that is Villandry.
Best-known for its immense vegetable gardens, both decorative and practical, Villandry is steeped in history yet strangely contemporary. The layout around the chateau – which is part 13th century and the rest Renaissance, disinterred 100 years ago from 18th and 19th century alterations – is formal, the atmosphere relaxed. There are clipped trees and hedges, water that’s both rushing and still, gravelled paths and shady trellised walkways, sharp geometry in box-hedged planting beds filled with bright annuals, and in the spectacular one-hectare vegetable garden (which includes annuals, roses and fruit trees). You can stay there for hours and still not take it all in.
Created early in the 20th century by Dr Joaquim Carvallo, a Spaniard who moved to France to study medicine and whose family – led by great-grandson Henri Carvallo – is still in charge, this is one of the finest garden experiences of France. And for me, a startling contrast to those amiable ducks and sunflowers, and the not-so-sweet corn.