[Walk in the park] In the footsteps of impressionist master, French kings
Claude Monet left behind over 2,000 artworks, many of them considered masterpieces, especially those related to his own garden.
“Monet’s garden in Giverny was a source of his inspiration,” said Philippe Lefort, ambassador of France to Korea, in an interview at his residence in Seoul. “After buying a house there, an area down the road from his home catches his attention. Monet goes on to buy that area in 1893. That today is where we see the same water lily pond of his time.”
Monet, who is quoted to have said, “My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece,” spent many hours in his gardens in Giverny, not only painting his famous water lilies and willow tree reflections on the water, but doing what any passionate horticulturalist would do – planting, weeding, and putting his own stamp on the earthen canvas.
Nearly a century has passed since his death, but his abode is a major tourist draw, with as many as 500,000 people visiting it every year.
“Once you’re there, you’ll experience something that feels out of this time,” Lefort said, recalling his multiple visits to the gardens. “It’s a place of a spirituality that is derived from what we know of the painter himself but also from memories of his works.”
As Paris, Nice, Bordeaux and other French destinations began welcoming back tourists this year, Lefort sat down with the Korea JoongAng Daily to offer his recommendations on gardens and parks in his country, and clues they may hold to the French ways of eating, living and loving.
The garden that gave birth to Versailles
The birthplace of the French formal garden was not Versailles, but the grounds of a château a few miles southeast of Paris.
“It was Nicolas Fouquet who first hired André Le Nôtre, the man behind the gardens of Versailles,” said Lefort. “But what befell the man who recognized the genius architect, history tells only too well.”
Fouquet, at the time serving as Louis XIV’s finance superintendent, a role known today as the finance minister, hired Le Nôtre and two other men to design and build the Château of Vaux-le-Vicomte and its 33 hectares of gardens in 1658. Completed by 1661, the dazzling estate welcomed a host of guests that year, including the king.
Accounts differ a little from here on whether the king was jealous or if his closest confidants were, but Fouquet was sent to jail for the rest of his life for “misuse of public funds” and Louis XIV hired the three men who built Vaux-le-Vicomte to design Versailles.
Devoid of its owner, the château and gardens fell into a desolate state. In 1875, a man named Alfred Sommier bought them and began a restoration process. One of his descendants and owner of the estate today, Count Patrice de Vogüé, opened it to the public as a museum in 1968.
“Restoration of the château and the gardens to their full glory was possible because of the precise paintings of them by Israël Silvestre,” said Lefort. “Visitors will be getting a look into the very beginning of the French formal garden, whose style was soon adopted in palace gardens all around Europe, from Madrid to St. Petersburg and Berlin.”
While the French envoy said a visit in spring or fall is most recommended, finding the château and its grounds covered deep in snow in the winter would give a visitor a unique experience and perhaps a more accurate look of the estate that has weathered many winters of its own.
To find the château and its gardens, visitors can take a 30-minute train from Gare de Lyon to Melun and a short cab ride from the station, or sign up for a direct bus ride from Paris to the estate via its website. The estate also holds candlelit evenings on some weekends, when the gardens and the château are lit with some 2,000 candles.
Reservations are required for all visits.
Kitchen gardens of Chambord
Altogether with its vast formal gardens, Château Chambord exudes all the regality and pomp associated with France in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Built on the orders of Kings Francis I and Louis XIV, the château and its grounds were named a Unesco World Heritage site in 1981.
“The château is located in the Loire Valley, which was a cultural hub of the time,” Lefort said. “It was where French culture met influences from the rest of Europe, including Italy.”
This becomes evident as one walks around the gardens on the estate.
In addition to the geometrical order typical of a French formal garden, the grounds also have gardens in the English landscape style, as well as some kitchen gardens.
“These vegetable gardens at Chambord were the source of food for everyone living on the estate,” said Lefort. “Some patches would even be used for the gardeners to experiment with new and exotic types of vegetables brought in from abroad.”
Some types of vegetables, like a specific type of zucchini being grown today in these gardens, are the exact types grown on the estate’s grounds in the 17th century.
“There is some ongoing work at estates like Chambord to try to preserve these types of vegetables and to try to go back to the organic ways of growing them.”
As the original designer of the château remains unclear to this day, with some records even pointing to the possibility that Leonardo Da Vinci might have been the brain behind its architecture, visitors are encouraged to explore the mystery behind the château’s creation through 60 rooms open to the public with over 4,500 art works.
The estate is open every day of the year except Jan. 1, Nov. 28 and Dec. 25. Reservations are mandatory for visits inside the château.
Gardening at the French residence in Seoul
The Covid pandemic and prolonged lockdowns gave many people plenty of time in their gardens, some finding their way back to their old hobbies and others discovering a new interest in growing their own food at home.
“It’s so important to keep the ecosystem healthy and I think gardening is part of that effort,” said Lefort. “Though it is not to the scale of the kitchen gardens of Chambord, the French diplomatic residence also has its own kitchen garden, where we’re growing vegetables and fruits that end up on our dinner tables.”
It was in the the depth of the pandemic that the French diplomats decided to take their gardening up a notch.
“Bees travel some 2 kilometers from their hive to gather pollen from flowers, which means that you will see quite a few close to the French residence,” said Lefort, speaking of their beekeeping activities at the residence.
“We’re hoping to create a more friendly ecosystem around here for the bees and other insects, and therefore for the birds and trees as well,” he added.
The diplomatic residence, undergoing renovation since 2021, signed a contract with the construction company to ensure that workers don’t intentionally kill insects and trees.
“Gardens have been a part of mankind’s efforts to live in harmony with nature, and I hope that we can share our gardens at the French residence with the public once the renovation work is completed,” Lefort said.
BY ESTHER CHUNG [email@example.com]