When I got on the plane in January, I still wasn’t quite certain what to expect. I’d done all the research, but some things can’t be looked up. I couldn’t know what my host family would be like, if I’d like the food, or the weather, or how busy the commute would be. I only had a vague idea of my classes, because they didn’t have syllabi. But one thing I wasn’t expecting at all was how beautiful the traditional French gardens would be.
In class, we covered notable French artists and architects who influenced paysagisme, landscape architecture, like Jacques Boyceau, Claude Mollet, and André Le Nôtre. I learned about the jardin à la française, it’s evolution from French Renaissance gardens, and it’s influence on the developing neo-classical British garden. But old pictures in a textbook hardly compared to visiting them with my own eyes.
The first garden I visited was at the castle of Saint Germain-en-Laye, and between the view overlooking Paris, the long circuit, the formal flower gardens, and the forest I thought it was one of the best gardens I had ever had the privilege to visit. Despite that, every garden I visited after that amazed me in new and exciting ways. When I visited the gardens of Versailles, I was blown away by the scale and intricacy of the garden. Each path led to another garden and each garden had more paths, and it just kept going. The size and grandeur were amplified by the detail worked into every elegant statue, pond, bench, and wall. I loved the peacefulness of the garden at Mont Sainte-Odile, the wind rustling the leaves and petals as it blew over the mountain. The openness of the garden at Chantilly was invigorating, and the diversity of the gardens showcased centuries of evolution in landscape architecture. Stretched along the grand canal was the Jardin anglais, from the 19thcentury, the jardin français de Le Nôtre, from the 17th century, and the Jardin anglo-chinois from the 18thcentury. The farmstead, hedge maze for meditation, reflecting pond, and woods were also exquisite; I could have spent a week there if I had the time. The chateau de la Roche-Guyon was a step even further back in time, with the oldest sections dating back over a thousand years, although the garden there was created in 1697.
I also visited the Jardin des Tuilieries, Le Jardin du Luxembourg, the hospital garden at Arles where Van Gogh often visited, and Monet’s Water Garden.