Last summer I visited a cluster of Dordogne gardens. Now in gloomy January my thoughts have turned to the blue skies and warmth of those visits.
In the 1970s the Dordogne was a magnet for Brits converting old farmhouses into second homes. With my parents for a brief time I was part of that crowd… sunshine, blue skies, wonderful wine, abundant vegetables and fruit, cheese, nuts and all manner of fish, fowl and beast, were the culinary attractions of this fertile river valley. At that time gardens to visit were few and far between. Today all that has changed and last summer I was delighted to return to the Dordogne region as a garden visitor… and what amazing gardens they are.
Variety was the key – private, public, large, small, themed and abstract but all within easy access of the main towns in the region and the airport at Brive (www.aeroport-brive-vallee-dordogne.com).
First stop near to Brive was Les Jardins de Colette (www.lesjardinsdecolette.com) in Varetz. Dedicated to Colette, the 20th-century writer, the garden opened in 2008. Its five hectares of flowers gardens are themed on the regions of France that were important in Colette’s life and writings. Herbs, vegetables, flowers, trees and paths lead through six areas where Colette put down literary and social roots – Burgundy, Franche-Comté, Brittany, Correze, Provence and Paris. Today this young garden attracts some 66,000 visitors.
Sand, gravel, grassy paths, blue eryngiums and swathes of Verbena bonariensis, backed by stone walls, conjure up the rocky coastal landscapes of Brittany
A highlight for me in the Provençal garden was the scent of roses, the aroma of lavender and the fresh smell of pines, all set against the soft grey foliage of avenues of mature olive trees. One of the roses that thrives here is Rosa ‘Colette; created by the renowned French rosarian Meilland in 1995.
Colette loved being in Provence, although she felt that it was difficult to concentrate on her writing since she always wanted to be outdoors. The garden’s designer has imagined a blue room known as the ‘outdoor bedroom’ to convey a terrace where a writer might sleep and work outdoors.
As you would expect there is much for children to enjoy, including a maze. There is a garden shop and an elegant tearoom that opens onto the garden. And if you want to immerse yourself further in Colette’s life you can stay or dine nearby at the Chateau of Castel Novel (www.castelnovel.com). It dates from the early Middle Ages and Colette’s connection to it is through her marriage to Henri de Jouvenel in 1912. She loved its beauty and the tranquility of the countryside, and it was here that her daughter Bel Gazou, the heroine of several of her novels, was born and spent her childhood.