Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire

May 20, 2008By Heidi EllisonDaytrips From Paris

Eclectic Estate

chaumont garden festival 2008
The “Eloge du Compost” garden includes a “dry toilet” (in the structure in the background). Photo: Eric Sander pour le Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire

Big changes are afoot at the Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire, a Loire Valley château/estate best known for its annual garden festival. Formerly the property of the French national government, the entire estate was devolved last year to the Centre region, which brought in a dynamic new director, Chantal Colleu-Dumond. She has already developed a program of art exhibitions for the estate, while leaving the highly successful Festival International des Jardins, now an institution in the world of garden design competitions, to peacefully continue on its way.

Only a two-hour drive or train ride from Paris, the garden festival is a favorite annual outing for many Parisians, but there are now so many things to do on the estate in summer that a visit might merit a weekend rather than a one-day trip.

Arty diversions
Three photo exhibitions opened at the beginning of May: Andreas Gursky’s monumental landscape photos made from digitally reworked negatives; Jean Rault’s handsome black-and-white studies of the espaliered fruit trees in the Potager du Roi (king’s kitchen garden) at Versailles; and a series of historical photos of community gardens by both famous and anonymous photographers.

In July, Rome-based Greek artist Jannis Kounellis, a proponent of Arte Povera, will begin a three-year stay on the estate as artist in residence. He has been commissioned to create works for rooms in the château that are not yet open to the public. And, as of July 1, visitors will be treated to two sound and light installations by Erik Samakh: “solar flutes” suspended in the trees will begin emitting sound effects at sunrise, using energy captured from the sun, while other devices, also using solar energy, will begin to sparkle like fireflies at dusk.

Monumental spiraling sculptures by Rainer Gross will be installed in the château’s park on July 1, and Victoria Klotz will create installations inspired by the estate itself, including an homage to Miss Pungi, the pet elephant of the château’s last private owner, the Princess de Broglie (née Marie Say). The installation will be set in the pet cemetery where the eccentric and extravagant princess buried her pet Pekinese dogs and monkeys.

Château stories
The late-Gothic, early-Renaissance château itself is interesting more for its massive fairytale exterior and the stories associated with it than for its interiors, unappetizingly redecorated by the princess (among the few exceptions is a series of fine 16th- and 17th-century Aubusson and Brussels tapestries).

Italian-born French Queen Catherine de Médicis lived in the château in the 16th century with her astrologers Cosimo Ruggieri and Nostradamus. It was during her stay that the château earned the nickname “Chaud Mont” (hot mount). After the death of her husband, Henri II, the queen forced his mistress, the beautiful and scheming Diane de Poitiers, to give her the Château de Chenonceau in exchange for Chaumont.

In later years, the château was frequented by a number of notable historical figures, including Benjamin Franklin, and Madame de Staël, who spent six months there with Benjamin Constant and Madame de Récamier in 1810.

Then, one day in 1875, the 16-year-old Marie-Charlotte Say (1857-1943) passed by the château just before her marriage to Prince Henri Amédée de Broglie. “I want it,” she said, and she got it. Among the guests of this fabulously rich sugar heiress were maharajahs, Queen Isabella II of Spain, King Edward VII of England, the Shah of Iran, actress Sarah Bernhardt and composer Francis Poulenc.

The princess was not particularly well-liked by the locals, however, because she had the village church and cemetery (which she replaced with the pet cemetery, whose tombs were desecrated by disgruntled villagers) moved away from her property – the noise of funerals was most disturbing to her beauty sleep. She didn’t need the church anyway because she had her own chapel and priest, who would wait patiently to hear her footsteps coming downstairs before starting mass when she slept in of a Sunday morning.

The princess later married true royalty, of the highly degenerate variety, Luis Fernando de Orléans y de Borbón, Infante de España, 31 years her junior (she was 73 when they married), who went through 70 million francs of his wife’s fortune in 10 years, ruining her for the second time. (When her financial advisors had insisted that she economize in 1905, she agreed to give up foie gras at teatime but not to give up the elephant, a gift from a maharajah, whose feeding and maintenance represented a huge expense.)

The infamous Infanto, who was arrested for ripping off the ear of a gigolo in Paris, left behind a souvenir at the château: when his car was being restored a few years ago, a vial of cocaine was found in it (and reportedly turned over to the local police). He served as one of the models for Marcel Proust’s Baron de Charlus.

The gardens
For most visitors, the main event is the garden festival, with its 29 small gardens designed by both famous and debutant landscape architects (the latter are selected by a jury). This year’s theme is “sharing,” which inspired many variations on the ideas of sustainable development.

The wittiest response to the theme came from a group of students from the University of Rome, whose “Repos Eternel” garden is based on the idea that the one thing we are all certain to share is death. Their lovely minimalist “cemetery” is equipped with extremely comfortable basket-weave lounge chairs on top of abstract grave sites in which visitors can enjoy a well-deserved (temporary) rest while reflecting upon the eternal rest to come.

Other highlights include “Le Jardin Bien Partagé” by Atelier Kaba-Team Zoo, which deals with the theme of sharing water in a though-provoking way and also offers intriguing cricket-like sound effects produced by glass jars holding solar captors, complemented by the croaking of the estate’s many frogs; invited landscape architect Florence Mercier’s “Graines de Conscience,” with varying spaces representing different continents and defined by handsome slate walls, steel mesh and mirrors; and “Réflexions,” by A.P. Art, with its glittering canopy of reflective strips fluttering in the breeze above a rusty metal jetty surrounded by a pond filled with water lilies and other plants.

If visiting the gardens doesn’t wear you out, you can take a walk in the château’s large park overlooking the River Loire or through the wooded “Valley of Mists,” or visit the tropical-plant-filled greenhouse or the experimental garden.

Lunchtime
For food lovers, the good news is that the estate’s new director has brought back François-Xavier Bogard, the chef who had made the garden festival’s temporary outdoor restaurant-in-a-tent, Le Grand Vélum, into a culinary theater that delighted the eye, the ear (some dishes came with recorded music on a Walkman), the taste buds and the imagination with his wildly creative dishes.

Heidi Ellison

Festival International des Jardins: Chaumont-sur-Loire. Tel.: 02 54 20 99 22. Fax : 02 54 20 99 24. Open daily through October 19, 9:30 a.m.-sunset. Admission: €9. www.chaumont-jardins.com/

Le Grand Velum: 02 54 20 99 79. Fixed-price menu: €32.

Getting there: By car: A10 Autoroute, Blois or Amboise exit. By train: from the Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris to Onzain (a 20-minute walk from Chaumont or by taxi: 02 54 20 94 87 or 06 07 36 76 07).

More outings.

© 2008 Paris Update

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