Gardens of grandeur

Auvergne may be best known for its dramatic volcanic landscape, but the region also boasts some glorious parks and gardens. R�gine Godfrey searches out the stories behind the best

Auvergne may be best known for its dramatic volcanic landscape, but the region also boasts some glorious parks and gardens. R�gine Godfrey searches out the stories behind the best. When someone suggested to me that a trip to explore Auvergne’s parks and gardens was really worthwhile, I politely stifled an ironic smile. Awesome images of La Cha�ne des Puys came to mind. Auvergne is the land of a hundred volcanoes and, even though the last eruption happened 6,000 years ago, les puys still remain in the shape of magnificent green peaks, many capped by shallow craters. They’re ideal for hiking and enjoying the great, wild outdoors. Surely no one could have tamed areas of this landscape into something as refined and pretty as a park or garden? After investigating the claim further with the Comit� des Parcs et Jardins de France, I was surprised to learn that Auvergne had a wealth of 36 State or privately owned gardens open to the public. Autant pour moi, my mistake. Promptly unfolding my Michelin map, the Massif Central, sliced by countless rivers, spread in front of my eyes. Lying at its core, Auvergne encompasses four d�partements; Allier, Cantal, Haute-Loire and Puy-de-D�me.I headed first to the north of the region where the River Allier reigns amid a landscape of fields and thickly forested areas. Vichy, Allier’s elegant sous-pr�fecture, is a spa town long famed for its water, now exported worldwide. It was a favourite place of Napol�on III. His family tradition of coming to take the waters was started by his grandmother Maria-Letizia Bonaparte who would kill time in Vichy while her notorious son Napol�on waged his campaign in Egypt. As the thermal baths grew in popularity, the town became more and more ornate. Napol�on III was the catalyst for the development of the vast green belt in the heart of present day Vichy. On 27 July 1861, the Emperor decreed that a park covering 13 hectares of gardens � l’anglaise – as was the fashion at that time – was to be designed by Jean-Fran�ois Radoult de Lafosse. Incredibly, the mammoth task was completed in three years. Part of the Allier riverbed was drained, a dyke constructed to protect against floods, boulevards laid out, and chalets imitating British colonial houses built.

Eclectic nature Horticulturalist Marie de Moulins was appointed to landscape the park and it traded its very unoriginal old name of ancien parc for the name of the emperor. Vast alleys suitable for walking (early morning jogging in our modern times) were laid out; flower beds composed of rose bushes, geraniums and fancy leaved caladiums were planted; and a pond for swans and waterfowl was established among an impressive screen of trees. The park took on a eclectic nature, thanks to the plants often received as gifts by Napol�on III. These gifts were mostly mature trees around 25 years old, which posed a problem for Marie de Moulins. However, he surpassed himself, losing only one tree during his years of service. Needless to say, irrigation was key, and two local men had the answer. Aristide Barbier and �douard Daubr�e, originators of the future Michelin group, developed a complex system of suction and pressure pumps that allowed water to be delivered direct from the nearby Allier. The process was laborious as it took five or six days to irrigate the park. In 1910, the park was extended by a further eight hectares and the space was divided into four: Parc Napol�on, Parc Kennedy, Parc du Soleil and Parc des Bourins, all grouped under one name: Parcs d’Allier. After 69 years of private ownership by the Compagnie Fermi�re de l’�tablissement Thermal de Vichy, the French State took over park maintenance again. To date, its arboretum boasts 2,000 trees and provides an exceptional trail that can be enjoyed all year round. The small-leaved lime Tilia cordata struck a chord with me. This is the tree that 18th-century master woodcarver Grinling Gibbons preferred to use, because of its even texture and pliability. Soaring to more than 24 metres high, it has a profusion of fragrant summer flowers that attract bees, and its nectar, harmful or narcotic in other lime species, makes superb honey.

Botanical treasuresThe next Garden of Eden recommended to me was most enticing. The Arboretum of Balaine is situated near the border between Auvergne and Burgundy and is the oldest privately owned botanical park in France. It has been cared for by Louise Courteix-Adanson since 1971. “It has always been une affaire de femmes” she smiles, “but to tend 2,500 plants on 20 hectares, one lifetime isn’t enough!” Agla� Adanson, her charismatic great-great-grandmother, founded this treasure trove of botanical wonders. She was the daughter of naturalist Michel Adanson, one of the first explorers to Senegal in the mid-1700s, who assisted Bernard Jussieu at Le Petit Trianon in Versailles and who supplied Louis XV’s garden with more than 300 plants he found in Africa. Agla�’s arrival at Villeneuve-sur-Allier in 1804 was brought about on the finalisation of her divorce. Retiring from Parisian life, she settled down in the Ch�teau de Balaine, paid for by a wealthy family friend. Eager to put her botanical knowledge into practice and continue her father’s passion for nature, she decided to lay out a park � l’anglaise behind the Bourbonnais-style castle. Massive excavation work included draining the soil and channelling the precious water away, coppicing and positioning wind breakers. She also studied books on agronomy in order to establish a vegetable garden capable of sustaining the estate. Agla� never ceased to toil and experiment, acclimatising foreign plants and trees such as camelias, rhododendrons, Japanese maples and liquidambars to a new environment. In fact only ten per cent of Balaine plants come from France, 20 per cent from Europe and the rest from afar.Despite the blockade of Napol�on Bonaparte’s Europe by the British fleet, Agla� managed to acquire exotic seeds from all around the world. Explorer Fran�ois Andr� Michaux sent her many interesting ones, such as Taxodium, a flood tolerant member of the cypress family. The trees of this genus are extremely resistant to rot and termites, and their heartwood contains a substance acting as a natural preservative. One example is the bald cypress, Louisiana’s official state tree and symbol of the southern swamps. In 20 years, Agla�’s hard work increased Balaine’s collection from 800 to 2,000; her father Michel would surely have been proud. As Agla�’s notoriety grew, she published books giving advice on how to grow vegetables, propagate plants and keep a house and garden in good order. In 1827, she co-founded the Soci�t� d’Horticulture de Paris and committed herself in similar societies in Nancy, Angers, Lille, Rouen and London.

Preserving the pastHaving enjoyed perfect harmony away from the hustle and bustle of life, it was with a sigh of regret that I left Balaine. On the way back to Vichy I stopped at the Domaine de La Chaize where sheep farmers and horticulturists Fran�oise and Jean de Boissy cultivate 80 varieties of flowers destined for dried flower arrangements. Their gardens are a maze of delphiniums, ornamental grasses, peonies, poppies, sunflowers and cockscombs. The natural colour of these plants is carefully preserved through an ingenious process by which the flowers are heated in an oven. Madame de Boissy then turns the dried flowers into elegant compositions. In her own words: “We immortalise spring and summer.”They also grow a surprising m�lange of bamboos, blueberries, corn and rice, with the underlying mission of educating the public about Mother Nature. I found the common flax particularly fascinating, I never imagined that the source of linen produced such a delicate blue flower.The d�partement of Puy-de-D�me is a driver’s dream with its four gardens within easy reach of the autoroute A71. It was an eye-opener too, to find that the properties were so sheltered from city life, despite being relatively close to the major towns of Riom, Clermont-Ferrand and Issoire. All have been enthusiastically and painstakingly restored to preserve a style of garden that would otherwise be lost for good. While they differ in design and size, they do have some elements in common: all have a historical dwelling, a box tree, water, volcanic stone and unique vistas to strongly unite them.The Ch�teau d’Opme (pronounced without the p) is, without doubt, the oldest of all four sites and dates from the 11th century. It was owned by the counts and dauphins of Auvergne, and by Antoine de Ribeyre, treasurer to King Louis XIII. Its gardens are split in two levels connected by a grand flight of steps. The upper classical garden features a vast circular basin surrounded by box trees and lawns. The lower Renaissance garden is made of four geometric squares filled with fruit trees, herbs, vegetables and flowers. A good example of topiary art is situated close to the castle: it is a courtiseuse, an igloo-like niche carved out of a yew tree where young lovers can sit away from prying eyes. Here at Opme, the views are paramount. With my back to the castle, I gazed out over the Gergovie plateau where Vercing�torix defeated Caesar. Facing the ch�teau, the omnipresent backdrop of the towers and keep fill the scene.Another ch�teau of historical importance is Portab�raud, which has a turbulent past. First a stronghold for Mozac Abbey, it was chosen for the signing of a treaty between King Louis XI and his vassals. It was razed a century later and finally reconstructed by the Mercier family during the Age of Enlightenment. Despite its scars it has managed to retain the charm of a vast domaine interspersed with the essential vegetable garden, rose garden and horse chestnut trees. Near the town of Issoire, the Ch�teau de Beauvezeix stands in an oasis of tranquillity. The 17th-century hydraulic system that fetches water from under a lava layer is an amazing tour de force and well worth a visit. Steps link four terraces and magnificent trees surround bodies of water; in brief, the whole ensemble radiates elegant simplicity and romanticism. When I arrived at the Ch�teau d’Hauterive I was in for another surprise. The garden is set against a magnificent view, perched above the town of Issoire. It was the property of an abbey in the 10th century, and its 14 hectares are divided into eight sections, each with something special to offer. The sections are divided by box trees and include a central basin, lawns, a fruit orchard, copses, a vegetable garden turned into allotments for Issoire’s inhabitants, an ice house and avenues of limes and Corsican pines. It was a wonderful place to lose oneself for a couple of hours and, like all the gardens of the Auvergne, the ideal setting in which to appreciate the efforts of the passionate gardeners from the past and present who have tamed pockets of the dramatic Auvergne landscape and created pretty areas of floral beauty and tranquillity. Getting thereBy rail Eurostar to Paris Gare du Nord and transfer to Gare de Lyon for frequent connecting trains to Vichy or Clermont-Ferrand. Rail Europe Tel: 08448 484 064, www.raileurope.co.uk Car hire Hertz Tel: (Fr) 4 70 97 82 82.www.hertz.comBy ferry Vichy is about a seven-hour drive from Calais.Parks and gardens Parcs d’Allier Boulevard des �tats-Unis et Bd du Pr�sident Kennedy03200 Vichy Guided visits of the parks from June to September, €6. Contact the Office de Tourisme, 19 Rue du Parc, Tel: (Fr) 4 70 30 17 87www.ville-vichy.fr Arboretum de Balaine 03460 Villeneuve-sur-Allier Tel: (Fr) 4 70 43 30 07www.arboretum-balaine.com Jardin remarquable – a classification awarded by the Minist�re de la Culture et de la Communication since 2003.

Les Jardins du Domaine de la Chaize 03120 Le Breuil Tel: (Fr) 4 70 99 06 03 www.domainedelachaize.com

Jardins de Portaberaud  63200 Mozac Tel: (Fr) 4 73 38 57 79www.chateaudeportaberaud.com 

Parc du Ch�teau de Beauvezeix Route de Champeix63114 CoudesTel: (Fr) 4 73 96 93 07

Jardins du Ch�teau d’Opme 63540 Romagnat Tel: (Fr) 4 73 87 54 85Jardin remarquable

Parc et Jardins du Ch�teau d’Hauterive 63500 Issoire Tel: (Fr) 4 73 89 22 77Jardin remarquableWhere to stayLe Moulin du ChassaingRue Jean Zay63200 MozacTel: (Fr) 4 73 38 04 68€60 for two people per nightTwo chambres d’h�tes in an ancient watermill constructed in Volvic lava stone. The atmosphere is wonderful in the dining room: a glass viewpoint allows you to see the river cascading before it disappears under the house. Madame Christiane Ziessel Chambre d’h�tes37 Rue de l’�glise63320 Montaigut Le BlancTel: (Fr) 4 73 96 29 31 or (Fr) 6 84 09 15 04Constructed in an old priory, two bedrooms with a private lounge tastefully decorated with Madame’s paintings. Delightfully situated garden within the medieval village. A truly zen stay.

H�tel Les Nations 13 Boulevard de Russie03200 VichyTel: (Fr) 4 70 98 21 63www.villadells.comThe hotel is ideally situated in the heart of Vichy within a stone’s throw from the Parcs d’Allier.

Where to eatRestaurant La Vigne Place de la Grande Charreyre63114 MontpeyrouxTel: (Fr) 4 73 96 63 46www.restaurant-lavigne.fr Situated on a hill, the fortified sandstone village of Montpeyroux, 20km south of Clermont-Ferrand, is one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. Owner Rudi started his catering career in Bristol, Isabelle fronts the show with elegance. Succulent, inventive meals taken in the vaulted rooms.Demeure des Payratons Chambre and Table d’h�tes 03150 Saint-G�rand-le-PuyTel: (Fr) 4 70 99 82 44An imposing mansion where Madame Christiane Poulet has won awards for her confr�rie du p�t� de pommes de terre, potatoes in cr�me fra�che wrapped in pastry.

ADDITIONAL?INFORMATIONOffice de Tourisme d’AuvergneTel: (Fr) 4 73 29 49 66.www.auvergne-tourisme.info

Comit� des Parcs et Jardins de FranceTel: (Fr) 1 53 85 40 47www.parcsetjardins.fr

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