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Festival International des Jardins

Festival International des Jardins, chaumont sur loire

A psychedelic vineyard by artists Anne and Patrick Poirier at the International Festival of Gardens in Chaumont sur Loire.

The annual International Garden Festival at the Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire has become a regular pilgrimage for many Parisians, but visitors who make the approximately ...

Festival International des Jardins, chaumont sur loire

A psychedelic vineyard by artists Anne and Patrick Poirier at the International Festival of Gardens in Chaumont sur Loire.

The annual International Garden Festival at the Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire has become a regular pilgrimage for many Parisians, but visitors who make the approximately two-hour trek to the estate, with its fairytale château and extensive grounds, should not expect to see just a lot of pretty flowers. Gorgeous blooms are certainly on show here and there, but this juried garden competition concentrates on the conceptual, with a new theme every year that is interpreted by the 22 winning candidates – most of them landscape artists, each of whom has been given a similar plot of land to work on – and a few invited guests.

This year’s theme is “body and soul,” which is, as usual, interpreted in every imaginable way. In the garden called “Metempsychosis,” for example, landscape architect Timothée Blancpain and artist Philippe Caillaud have provided a home for the reincarnated souls of Caillaud’s family, inspired by his grandmother, who put crumbs on her windowsill every day for the birds. She explained to her grandson that these weren’t just any birds, but the reincarnated souls of her relatives, whose individual personalities were obvious even in their new avian bodies: crabby Tante Léontine, greedy Oncle Marcel, musical Oncle Fernand, etc. Now Caillaud’s feathered family may find a new home in his Chaumont garden, planted with white flowers and populated with bird feeders, each one bearing a photo of one of the human originals.

“Homage to Lady Day” by Strootman Landschapsarchitecten of the Netherlands pays tribute to another dear departed personality: Billie Holiday. Visitors can sit on sofas while listening to her recording of “Body and Soul” and contemplating a grand piano planted in the middle of a field of flowers. (We were assured that the piano was on its last legs anyway and that “no pianos had been harmed in the making of this garden.”)

One of my favorite gardens was “Ma Terre, Mater,” by Marie Forêt, landscape engineer Olivier Hostiou and Laurent Weiss, a maker of stylish contemporary baskets. Visitors are invited to take off their shoes and follow a spiraling path

International Festival of Gardens, Chaumont sur Loire

The spiral path in "Ma Terre, Mater" leads to a cozy wicker nest in the center.

that takes them through different spaces with softer and softer colors and textures. They end up in the quiet inner circle, a sort of wicker nest with a soft sand floor where, having left their earthly cares behind, they can recline on wicker loungers and feed their souls while contemplating nature and listening to the birds sing.

Another garden that invites contemplation is “Cheveux d’Anges” by architect Christophe Marchalot and artist Félicia Fortuna. They have placed a few garden chairs in a shallow water lily pond. In a greenhouse in the middle of it, ethereal, silvery Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) grows without earth, roots or even its usual host tree.

Invited artists Anne and Patrick Poirier, known for their anti-monuments, have created a brain-shaped labyrinth vineyard (pictured at the top of the page), with the vines supported by tall wooden stakes in psychedelic colors, which contribute to a sense of altered reality and

International Festival of Gardens, Chaumont sur Loire

“Cheveux d’Anges,” by Christophe Marchalot and Félicia Fortuna, features Spanish moss in a greenhouse in the middle of a lily pond.

disorientation as you wander through the vines. Scattered here and there are fragments of sculpture and odd objects that relate to others you might stumble across elsewhere on the grounds or in the château (which provides the backdrop for this garden).

Another invited artistic team, Béatrice Saurel and Michel Racine, have created an eerie installation in the hillside forest behind the château. It refers to an age-old custom, probably of pagan origin but still practiced today in Northern France and other places, of tying pieces of clothing to trees called “arbres à loques” in hopes of curing a sick person.

Many of the gardens play with the therapeutic and nourishing qualities of various plants. While, as always, some are less striking than others, that may change during the season as the plants grow and flower.

Speaking of nourishment, chef François-Xavier Bogard, deservedly known as a “culinary architect,” is back at the restaurant Le Grand Vélum, open throughout the festival, and up to his wonderful tricks with food. Just one example: a dish of baby vegetables with bresaola is served under a glass bell (really a stemmed glass turned upside-down), which when lifted off, titillates the taste buds with a cloud of verbena-scented steam. A chocolate-lemon sauce is served on the side.

To read about the colorful history of the château’s former residents, click here.

Heidi Ellison

Festival International des Jardins: Chaumont-sur-Loire. Tel.: 02 54 20 99 22. By train from Paris: Gare d’Austerlitz to Onzain, then walk or take taxi. Open daily through October 17, 10am-8pm (château open 10am-6pm). Admission: €9.50 (garden festival and park); €9 (château and park); €15 (garden festival,château and park). Late-night visits to the illuminated gardens: Saturday, June 15-30 and September 1-15, 10pm-midnight; July 1-August 31, every evening except Friday, 10pm-midnight. www.domaine-chaumont.fr

Le Grand Vélum: 02 54 20 99 79.

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