Last week I took some much needed R&R away from my desktop to do a little sightseeing in the local region.
About one hour from where I live is the popular Dordogne river with its many medieval châteaux, prehistoric settlements and lovely gardens.
This October I will have lived here for nine years but - he says with embarrassment - I've barely scratched the surface in terms of garden visits.
You may remember my visit to Château de Losse at Thonac, on the Vézère river, a little under three years ago?.
The most visited garden in the Dordogne
I've been wanting to visit the topiary gardens at Château de Marqueyssac since one of our guests left a leaflet in our gite about four years ago. This week I finally got my wish...and it seemed as though everyone else decided to go on the same day, after all these are the most visited gardens in the Dordogne.
A bit about Château de Marqueyssac (courtesy Wikipedia)
The Château de Marqueyssac is a 17th-century château and gardens located at Vézac, in the Dordogne Department of France.
The château was built at the end of the 17th century by Bertrand Vernet de Marqueyssac, Counselor to Louis XIV, on cliffs overlooking the Dordogne Valley. The original garden à la française was attributed to a pupil of André Le Nôtre, and featured terraces, alleys, and a kitchen garden surrounding the chateau. Between 1830 and 1840, Julien Bessières constructed a chapel and a grand alley one hundred meters long for horseback rides.
In the 1860s, the new owner, Julien de Cervel, began to plant thousands of boxwood trees - today there are over 150,000 - and had them carved in fantastic shapes, many in groups of rounded shapes like flocks of sheep. He also added linden trees, cypress trees, and stone pine from Italy, and introduced the cyclamen from Naples. Following the romantic style, he built rustic structures, redesigned the parterres, and laid out five kilometers of walks.
In the second half 20th century the house was rarely occupied and the gardens were not well maintained. Beginning in 1996, a new owner, Kleber Rossillon, restored the gardens to their old character and added some new features including an alley of santolina and rosemary and, in the romantic spirit of the 19th century, a course of water descending from the belvedere and ending in a cascade. The gardens were opened to the public in 1996.
Since 1997, the gardens have been classified amongst the Notable Gardens of France by the Committee of Parks and Gardens of the French Ministry of Culture.
Every Thursday evening during July and August the gardens stay open until midnight and all of the walkways and topiary is lit up by 3,000 candles.
We arrived at just after 7.00pm on a blisteringly hot and cloudless day.
As we left our house, just after 5.30pm, the temperature on the car's thermometer read 40C and the temperature was still above 30C when we returned at 11.30pm.
The car park was already filling up - because the château is set on a high plateau above the Dordogne river the car parking area is set out like a zig-zag on the opposite approaching slope - with a steady stream of visitors heading the 300 metres or so to the garden's entrance. Tall walls towering above meant there was little to see, except the the top of the impressive but simple château, until one had actually entered the garden.
As we got closer it became apparent that the candlelit evening was very popular. A growing queue of people stretched some 70 metres up to the turnstile and as we tagged on the back, scores of people also joined the queue behind us.
The cost of entry on a Thursday evening is €13.00 per adult and €6.50 for anyone under seventeen. Normal entry price for any other time is €7.60 for adults and €3.80 for children - a note of warning: that if you buy a ticket before 7.00pm you are not entitled to stay for the evening so be careful.
Once inside though it became apparent that the level of maintenance and attention to detail, perhaps, justified the cost. Hoards of staff were on hand; many walking around with blowlamps, lighting and re-lighting the candles - although the candles were in jars, the by now gusting wind kept blowing them out and it certainly seemed challenging, as it must have been frustrating, trying to keep all of the candles lit.
Some staff were actually walking around re-aligning the candles along the straight paths where guests had inadvertently kicked them out of line. I must admit, because of the accuracy of the straight pathways it was necessary to maintain the candles in a straight line too.
We were told that there was a restaurant within the château grounds so our plan had been to arrive and have a leisurely meal, watch the sunset, and then amble around the gardens under candlelight. Sadly, for us, the restaurant only served beer, ice cream and pastries: there was also a sandwich bar along the woodland walk about one kilometre away.
We decided a sandwich would do and off we strode along the pathways lined with box hedging and topiary. I'll come back to the best bit of our visit later.
The gardens were called the hanging gardens for good reason because at their highest point they are about 150 metres above the Dordogne valley. For this reason the edges of the upper footpath around the rocky boulders was secured with a very strong galvanised fence. It was a quite a relief too as I don't like heights and the thought of slipping over was too scary to contemplate.
Along this walk there were places to stop and look out over the Dordogne valley or take in a bit of art, theatre or singing, at one of the many mini-shows put on for visitors.
Even though I say there were many visitors the gardens, at 22 hectares, could easily take the numbers and there felt like plenty of room to move without feeling on top of each other.
All-in-all the atmosphere was very, well, atmospheric and made all the more enjoyable by the beautiful blue cloudless sky, even if it was still extremely hot. There is plenty of shade to hide.
Arriving at the sandwich bar we were now faced with a dilemma. Another long queue meant it would be at least 30 mins before we could eat, and only a sandwich at that. The question was, do we try and make do with little sustenance or move on earlier than planned and get a meal somewhere else?
We opted instead, reluctantly, to cut short our visit and move off toward home, stopping off for a meal en route.
It is worth saying at this point that you can take food and wine with you if you wanted to picnic somewhere in the gardens. In hindsight, this would have been a better option, although you are then forced to carry stuff around with you.
(image: The gardens overhang the Dordogne valley)
Before we did eventually leave we took over an hour for what we had really gone to see....and that was the absolutely stunning highly manicured box topiary gardens.
The woodland walks didn't really float my boat but to see the hedging in such a setting was really worthwhile.
Even though the way in forces you past the the formal topiary gardens after entering, we we opted to rush by because our plan, initially, was to come back when it was dark and see the gardens lit up.
Even at 9.15pm the light was still strong so we spent at least 45 minutes taking in the wonderful topiary.
If you come to the Dordogne on holiday and you love gardening then you've just got to visit the topiary gardens at Château de Marqueyssac.
There are so many shapes, shadows, contrasts and structure that it's almost impossible to take everything in.
One thought I'd like to leave you with is how it's possible to use plants, especially hedging - in this case box - and create structure, height and form, without reverting to hard materials: the gardens at Marqueyssac are a fine example of how this is achievable.
Of course the problem now is that because of the way box evolves through the season I'm going to have to return again and again. I'd especially like to see all of the hedges before they are cut when they're in that state of fluffy flux...and again in the autumn mist when the due and cobwebs conspire to create a little drama.