Natural wonder

Claire Masset falls under the spell of the gardens at the Ch�teau de Pange and talks to international designer Louis Benech about respecting nature

Claire Masset falls under the spell of the gardens at the Ch�teau de Pange and talks to international designer Louis Benech about respecting nature Tucked away in a little-known region of northeast France, the garden of the Ch�teau de Pange has recently undergone a quiet transformation. By respecting the site and listening to its owners, international designer Louis Benech has created a garden that blends many layers of history, while also being highly original. Pange is situated in the d�partement of Moselle, within the larger region of the Lorraine. It is a mere 30-minute drive from the attractive town of Metz. Once in the village, visitors may wonder if they have got the right place, as nothing indicates the presence of such an impressive house and garden.  Understated entrance gates lead you into a gloomy barn before emerging to view the central part of the garden: a huge green carpet that instills a sense of theatricality and recalls the French tapis verts of the 17th century.

Dramatic viewsWithin this area are wild flower meadows and two garden rooms’, the most striking of which is the chambre d’azur et d’argent that echoes the colours of the Pange family coat of arms. Here, borders edged with narrow paths and framed by silver-leaved willows offer dramatic views of the house and fields beyond. Diagonally opposite is a contrasting dark garden with shade-loving plants.  At the end of the tapis vert, a chambre des houx houses 19th-century statues of Pan and Flora surrounded by a superb butterfly-shaped holly hedge. White willows (Salix alba) create an almost shimmering backdrop, while in the centre of the tapis vert is a calm, reflective pool.  Directly in front of the house, the original cour d’honneur now graces another tapis vert punctuated by topiarian yew pyramids and graceful grasses. The effect is both sculptural and minimal: a 21st-century interpretation of an 18th-century court of honour, which would originally have been gravelled or paved. To one side of the house, an all�e of cherry trees is underplanted with wild flowers. The bucolic background is one of fields and rolling hills that are part of the 30-hectare Pange estate. The all�e reaches towards the meandering River Nied and beyond to the Bois de Pange with its majestic beeches and 300-year-old oak trees. Throughout the garden the wildness of nature is ever present. The river, fields and woodland, and the scattered ancient trees, form an intrinsic part of the design. “The countryside in a garden, a garden in the countryside,” is how the owner, Roland de Pange, describes it. But how did this unusual garden come to be created? A brief look at Pange’s history reveals a rich heritage, of which Benech was aware when designing the garden. His aim was: “To blend the classicism of the ch�teau with a contemporary landscape design while respecting the layers of history.” The 18th-century ch�teau belies the site’s more ancient past. Built in 1720 by Jean-Baptiste Thomas de Pange, the honey-coloured building was originally surrounded by the River Nied and located on a horseshoe-shaped island where a medieval fortress once stood. Pange’s garden history, meanwhile, can be traced as far back as the 18th century, when a formal garden was planned across the river. The design, however, was never executed due to the yearly flooding of the area. A second plan, again never carried out, shows another formal garden to one side of the ch�teau, with regular all�es and a salle de verdure in the shape of a butterfly – the inspiration for Benech’s chambre des houx.In the 19th century, what gardens did exist were transformed into a jardin � l’anglaise believed to have been designed by the Comte de Choulot (creator of the park at Le V�sinet on the outskirts of Paris). During World War II and shortly after, Pange was occupied in turn by Germans, Americans and Canadians. From 1947, the property became a children’s home and the garden a vast playground. After 30 years it closed and the ch�teau was finally returned to its owner, the Marquis de Pange, who would have sold it were it not for the determination of his young son, Roland.When the marquis showed the property to his daughter-in-law, �dith, in 1975, he warned her: “This is the most sinister place in the world.” Undeterred, the twenty-something couple moved from Paris to the village of Pange, with a view to bringing the family seat back to life. “I have never felt like the owner of Pange, but simply the trustee of a common heritage,” admits Roland de Pange. This is why in 1984, as soon as the ground floor was restored and the first floor transformed into a family home, he decided to open the ch�teau to visitors. Then, in 1998, a consultation between the owners and the Conseil G�n�ral de Moselle lead to a project to redesign the gardens, worth six million francs. A competition was launched to select the designer and Frenchman Benech was chosen. Self-confessed gardening novices, Roland and �dith showed a degree of courage when they took on the project. But they trusted the vision of Benech, who “immediately understood that we wanted the garden to merge into the landscape”. Benech describes himself as an interpreter: he listens to the landscape and translates the ideas of its inhabitants. “I aim to design gardens that the owners can reclaim’ as their own, in harmony with their history and their own perception of the space.”

Beautiful jobHis respect for “people and place” may explain why he is one of the world’s most sought-after garden designers. In the past 20 years, he has created more than 200 parks and gardens in such diverse places as Korea, Canada, Panama, the United States, Greece, Russia and Morocco. Most famously, he worked on the restoration of the Tuileries Gardens and redesigned Versaille’s Trianon Palace gardens. “I adore working with historic sites,” he says. “Gardening is the most beautiful job in the world.”After studying law to satisfy his father, Benech crossed the Channel to take up an apprenticeship at the famous Sir Harold Hillier Gardens in Hampshire. In 1990, just five years after completing his training in the UK, he won (with a friend) the hotly contested competition to restore the Jardins des Tuileries. “This has seriously helped me in my life,” he admits today. Key ideas capture the essence of his work: simplicity, a respect for the site and its history (and also, importantly, for its future), and a personal sense of beauty. “I like to create gardens that have a simple, almost immediate beauty.” At Pange, this concept expresses itself in wildflower meadows, fruit tree all�es and green carpets; each of these simple elements helps either frame a view or lead the eye. Pange is, in many ways, a painter’s garden – a feature which harks back to English 18th-century landscaped gardens with their theatrical scenes.

Respect for natureBenech is a masterful metteur-en-sc�ne. His vision is of a particular beauty, one that is soft and subtle. “I want to give pleasure to visitors; for this reason I aim to create soft, peaceful gardens.” It is hardly surprising that the dominant colour at Pange is green, the most relaxing colour of all. Deep-green woods are the perfect backdrop for grey-green willows while dark-green yews contrast with the soft greens of Miscanthus sinensis.Beauty is sometimes only skin-deep, but this particular one has been inspired by a respect for nature. “I want to create gardens that will last, which implies a knowledge of the site’s ecosystem. A garden must never become a burden for the gardener,” he explains. Benech was careful to choose weather-proof varieties – essential in an area which can experience highs of 35�C in the summer and lows of -25�C in winter. The meadows burst with hardy, indigenous flowers and, on a site prone to flooding and close to a river, moisture-loving willows are an ideal choice.Benech’s work here may be over, but Roland and �dith make sure the site remains both appealing and interesting. They act as lively guides to the gardens and ch�teau, offering a personal welcome (complete with free drink!) to all visitors. �dith is currently writing a book on the Pange family and has plans for the garden; she would like to develop it further and make use of the willows to create baskets. One of their sons is responsible for the mighty task of cutting all the hedges, while two more gardeners look after the grounds and manage the estate’s woodland. Five years after it opened to the public, the garden at Pange has matured beautifully and attracts increasing numbers of visitors each year. Concludes Roland: “Visitors sit down, contemplate and enjoy, a clear sign that this garden is a success.” FRANCOFILEGETTING THERECh�teau et Jardin de Pange57530 PangeTel: (Fr) 3 87 64 04 41www.chateaudepange.frThe garden at Pange, 18 kilometres east of Metz, is open every day (except Mondays) between 1 May and 31 October (10am-12 noon; 2-6pm).For more information on getting there, see the Holiday Planner on page 88.

Where to stayH�tel de la Cath�drale25 Place Chambre57000 MetzTel: (Fr) 3 87 75 00 02 www.hotelcathedrale-metz.frSome rooms in this character-packed, friendly hotel have beautiful views of the cathedral.

IN?THE?AREADown the road from Pange is the Jardin des Saveurs, a charming contemporary take on a traditional fruit and vegetable garden.

Le Jardin des Saveurs4 Rue Bourger et Perrin 57530 LaquenexyTel: (Fr) 3 87 35 01 00www.jardinsfruitiersdelaquenexy.comOpen every day except Mondays (10am-7pm) between 5 April and 31 October.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATIONMetz Tourist Office2 Place d’Armes57007 Metz Tel: (Fr) 3 87 55 53 76http://tourisme.metz.fr