French Affaires Update ~ French Kings and Queens Wednesday, Jun 1 2016 

Bonjour France friends! It’s been a very full spring at French Affaires which has meant a slight pause in sending out our French Affaires Weekly newsletters. We thank you for your patience and look forward to sharing a great line-up of new French cultural and travel features in the weeks to come. In today’s post, we thought we’d highlight the latest news including photos from recent group trips to France, our newly designed website which will debut very soon and also the big news that my husband and I are now living in France. Yes, we’ve got a real French house complete with a real French wine cellar and a real French puppy. More on all that below!

French Affaires kicked off the 2016 France travel season with our annual “Paris Antiques Trip” in March. Our great group of intrepid antiques lovers scored lots of fabulous finds all week. And our special decorative arts culture excursion featured a private guided visit to the exquisite Musée Nissim de Camondo, a gorgeous 19th century Parisian mansion filled with extraordinary furniture, art, sculpture, porcelain and more.

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Next up was our custom ”Springtime in Paris” trip for the darling ladies of the Dallas Garden Club. Our special week in and around Paris was filled with luscious gardens, flowers and châteaux. In particular, the ladies received a royal welcome at the gardens and château of Chantilly from Frederic Nancel, Director of Special Events, as well as a unique opportunity to tour with Chantilly’s head gardener.  The trip even included a private perfume workshop where we learned all about various floral elements and created our personal scent to take home. Talk about the ultimate Paris springtime treat!

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Then we kicked off our two-week “Provence Language and Culture Immersion” in historic and lively Aix-en-Provence. Our fun and enthusiastic group savored French lessons, art and culture excursions, culinary delights and daily living in France. Below is a charming view of Arles from our ‘In the Steps of Van Gogh’ visit one afternoon. The inhabitants of this Arles house should win an award for always having the best flower boxes in town! On another day, our group enjoyed art and afternoon tea at the stunning new Aix museum known as the Hôtel Caumont. A former aristocratic mansion then music conservatory, the Hôtel Caumont now hosts wonderful temporary exhibitions – the current show is on Turner – and features restored period rooms and beautiful gardens.

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This spring, we’ve also been hard at work on French Affaires’ new website which will be launching very soon. For those of you who are Instagram fans, we’ve been posting great travel and culture tidbits on the photo sharing app. Here’s a recent posting from May Day in France where everyone gives muguet – lilies of the valley – to their loved ones. For photos that will transport you to France at a glance, come follow us on Instagram at ‘french_affaires’ .

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Last but not least, the move to France! As many of you know, I’ve been spending a good amount of time here each year hosting Americans on special France travels, all the while teaching, speaking and sharing the best of France back in the U.S. This spring, my husband and I moved to a small village near Fontainebleau, about an hour south of Paris. It is a beautiful corner of the world out in the French countryside – see our 17th century house below in spring – but with Paris right on our doorstep.  I will continue to create one-of-a-kind stays in France and also will be in the States regularly to speak and teach (come join me for a special seminar on “French Kings & Queens” on June 15th at SMU in Dallas). The best of both worlds!

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With the launch of the new French Affaires website, I’ll have many stories and cultural happenings to share from life over here in la belle France. There will be some great features on our small village of Courances – population about 350! – and on our new neighbor, the stunning Château de Courances. In the meantime, we have just found out that our village is going to be on French TV on June 7th. It’s one of 13 French towns up for the “Le Village Préféré des Français 2016″ award on channel ‘France 2.’ Hosted by Stéphane Bern, the show began five years ago and each year, the charming candidates are presented via spectacular footage. Before the show airs, the French vote on their favorite and the winner is announced at the end of the show. Click here to see a short preview of the Courances segment (you might be able to see the entire show later on the French channel TV5 Monde if you subscribe to it in the U.S.). And YOU can vote too – please click here to vote for our village of Courances by June 3rd. Merci beaucoup!

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UPCOMING FRENCH EVENT IN DALLAS, TEXAS:

If you need a French fix soon, I’ll be in Dallas for various events and talks including the rich seminar “French Kings & Queens: A History of the Monarchy of France” that I am teaching on Wednesday, June 15th, for the SMU Continuing Studies program. See the lecture details below:

“French Kings & Queens”: Come join us for this exciting overview of French royalty throughout the centuries! Discover the essence of French history with this special course focused on the monarchy of France. Through illustrated lecture, Dr. Elizabeth Seitz will trace the French royal dynasties through the centuries such as the Valois and the Bourbons. We’ll learn about the lives of known and lesser known French kings and queens as well as the castles and monuments they built. Remarkable stories and intrigues of the French court will add color to the rich content of this class. You’ll also receive travel tips on how to experience French royal history in France as well as a reading and film list for further exploration. Advance registration is required through SMU. Please click here for more details.

 

France’s Best Garden Festival Friday, Sep 18 2015 

Following our last garden post on the marvelous Bagatelle in Paris, we just have to mention another not-to-miss garden experience in France – the stunning International Garden Festival of Chaumont-sur-Loire. Arguably the best ‘festival des jardins’ in the country (though of course there are many worthy contenders), Chaumont’s yearly garden extravaganza features remarkable landscape and garden designs created by specialists from around the world.

Located in the Loire Valley about 185 kilometers from Paris, the Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire comprises a magnificent 15th century château, 19th century stables, beautiful gardens and an extensive park. Designated a UNESCO world heritage site, the medieval fortress-turned-Renaissance pleasure castle overlooking the Loire river is worth a visit, but to my mind the real Chaumont star is its annual garden festival. Wild, elegant, interesting, thought-provoking, and just plain fun, the festival is a must for gardeners, nature lovers and France lovers alike.

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This past May, I had the great opportunity to take a lovely group of Dallas Garden Club ladies to Chaumont as part of a special garden trip to France. We were personally welcomed by the Director of the Domaine de Chaumont and its International Garden Festival, Chantal Colleu-Dumond, who gave us an up-close introduction to the incredible garden creativity and innovation going on there. We were also accompanied by French Affaires’ good friend and colleague Eric Sander, the celebrated garden photographer, who collaborates regularly with Chaumont on many projects (click here for a previous French Affaires’ interview with Eric).

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Madame Chantal Colleu-Dumond (right), Director of the Domaine de Chaumont

During our visit with the talented and enthusiastic Madame Colleu-Dumond, she described the background and impetus of the world-renowned garden festival. In existence since 1992, Chaumont’s festival is actually a competition, or ‘concours,’ where a few projects are chosen from hundreds of entries submitted by landscape and garden designers the world over. Innovation, invention, creativity, diversity, boldness and passion are just some of the driving forces behind the winning selections. This year’s theme of ‘Jardins extraordinaires, jardins de collection(“Extraordinary Gardens, Collectors’ Gardens”) showcases the love of collecting, saving and multiplying plant treasures. She noted that each garden project for 2015 is a fascinating interpretation of the collecting theme using innovative plant materials, designs and displays.

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Madame Colleu-Dumond led the way as we walked through several of this year’s 30 fabulous garden designs. Easy on the eyes was the ‘Bougainvillea Garden,’ a riot of pinks, reds and purples celebrating multiple varieties of this plant…

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The color and lushness of the bougainvillea was in stark contrast to the ‘Garden of Orpheus,’ an impressive though somber collection of various cacti and succulents seen from above thanks to a long raised pathway…

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Wonderfully intriguing was the ‘Porte-Bonheur’ or “Lucky Charm” garden which displayed an extensive collection of four-leaf clovers mounted in glass plates…

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Then we saw the clever ‘A Table’ – “Time to Eat!” - garden celebrating one of life’s greatest pleasures – sharing a meal. The long table was ‘laid’ with a collection of amazing heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables, many of which belong to very old species…

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Colorful and informative was the ‘Jardin du Teinturier’ or “Dyer’s Garden” which featured a collection of plants whose pigments form natural dyes. This garden reminded us of the usefulness and practicality of plants – and also human ingenuity in extracting the colors…

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Then there was the ‘Carnivore Parc,’ an unexpected display of carnivorous plants in a rich peat bog arranged like works of art. There was even a picture sign telling guests not to ‘Feed the plants,’ a clever twist on the usual ‘Don’t feed the animals’…

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My favorite design of the festival was the contemplative and thought-provoking garden called ‘Nuances.‘ The simple white frame with a stunning arrangement of lovely blue and green hued plants was presented as if it were a painting in a museum. A living painting. I was tempted to sit on the bench and take in the beauty for a while. Intriguing too was the photo below - which turned out to be frame within a frame within a frame…

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Finally, another very memorable garden was the visually arresting yet peaceful ‘Carré et rond,’ “Square and Round.” Appearing like a red ribbon in the landscape, the garden design highlights the juxtaposition of curves and straight lines to marvelous effect. And the pathway is walkable, inviting visitors to interact with the landscape itself…

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Putting on this over six-month long garden festival is no mean feat. From the choice of the yearly theme to the organization of the contest and voting by the jury to the installation of designs (every winning design is given a budget to carry out their vision) to the maintenance of the gardens over the spring, summer and fall growing seasons (a team of gardeners helps maintain and replace plants as needed) – it’s an amazing accomplishment. Our hats were off to Madame Colleu-Dumond and her colleagues at Chaumont for creating this extraordinary annual garden experience in France. When we asked her about her favorite garden among this year’s 30 winners, she wisely replied that they were all her favorites. “They’re like my children!” she laughed.

After our garden tour, we enjoyed a seated lunch in Chaumont’s gourmet restaurant Le Grand Velum. Of course, in true French style, the restaurant’s menu is inspired by the garden festival. When our strawberry dessert appeared, it reminded me immediately of the curved ‘red ribbon’ garden walk we had just experienced. What a superb way to end our beautiful day at the Chaumont festival!

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The Chaumont International Garden Festival runs from spring to fall each year. This year’s festival concludes on November 1 so there’s still time to catch this marvelous event. And if you don’t make it there this year, think about trying to see it next year. The festival’s 2016 theme has already been announced (designs are due October 16, 2015, for all the landscape designers out there!) and is ‘Jardins du siècle à venir’ - “Gardens for the Coming Century.” 2016 is also the 25th anniversary of the festival so it’s sure to be a great celebration.

Chaumont is open daily all year round except for Christmas and New Years’, with the Festival open daily during the festival dates. You can click here for information on how to get to the domaine. For a fantastic virtual visit of this year’s festival gardens (including designer names and plant varieties) in French, please click here – for English, please click here.

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French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter

A beautiful keepsake from Chaumont is the lovely book written by director Chantal Colleu-Dumond with luxurious photographs by Eric Sander. Written in both French and English, the inexpensive volume can be purchased on site at Chaumont or on Amazon’s French website by clicking here.

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Paris’s Best Kept Garden Secret Friday, Sep 4 2015 

It all started with a bet. French queen Marie-Antoinette wagered her brother-in-law that he couldn’t build a château on his large property west of Paris in less than three months. Famously, the Comte d’Artois won. Sparing no expense, he had his petit château built in a record 64 days in 1777.

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To celebrate the completion of his folie known as the Bagatelle (or ‘little trifle’) the Comte d’Artois threw a housewarming party in honor of his brother king Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. Unfortunately, he was able to keep his pleasure abode and its beautiful gardens for only a few years as he was forced give up the property during the French Revolution. Miraculously the Bagatelle château and park survived the revolutionary mobs and several owners in the ensuing years.

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In 1905, the City of Paris purchased the Bois de Boulogne property to save and maintain this architectural and bucolic jewel. In addition to keeping harmony and beauty of the preceding garden designs, it also set out to turn the Bagatelle into a botanical paradise. Special gardens showcase peonies, irises, clematis, perennials – plantes vivaces, in French – and roses. Today, I think the Bagatelle is one of the best kept Paris garden – and château! – secrets as many visitors to the French capital don’t even know it’s there.

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Come warmer weather, one of my favorite Bagatelle garden views is the fluffy clouds of white wisteria…

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The Bagatelle’s hundreds of blooming peonies are a also must-see in Paris in the spring…

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And the irises! Beautifully trimmed hedges surround the iris garden, giving it the feel of an outdoor ‘iris room’…

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But the Bagatelle park’s pièce de résistance is the magnificent rose garden, renowned for its more than 10,000 rose bushes comprising 1200 different species. Every June the Bagatelle hosts one of the most famous international rose competitions in the world. Of course, to really understand what these roses are all about, I find it helps to organize a visit with a premier English-speaking French garden expert in Paris – who also happens to be a Bagatelle rose competition judge!

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In addition to the floral and botanical riches of the Bagatelle, there are many other wonderful garden features including grottoes, rocks, bridges, waterfalls, ponds, peacocks, and a 19th century Chinese pagoda. A beautiful orangerie also graces the grounds.

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To keep the gardens looking their best, Bagatelle patrons are gently reminded de ne pas piétiner les plantes de bordure – not to walk on the border plants…

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Or on the grassy areas where bulbs come up in spring!

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So how does one visit this fabulously romantic garden getaway practically a stone’s throw from the Champs-Elysées? Located in the Bois de Boulogne, the park is open to the public every day from 9:30am to 5, 6:30 or 8pm, according to the season. Entrance is free unless there is a special exhibition going on at that moment. The easiest transport to the Bagatelle is by taxi. Or for public transportation, you can take the 43 bus direction ‘Neuilly-Bagatelle’ to the stop ‘Place de Bagatelle.’ Alternatively, you can take the metro to the stop ‘Porte Maillot’ on line 1 and then catch the 244 bus direction ‘Rueil Malmaison RER,’ and get off at the stop ‘Bagatelle – Pré Catelan.’ From the bus stops, it’s a short walk to the park grounds.

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It is good to know that while the gardens are open every day, the exquisite château is not. Guided visits of the gardens and château take place every Sunday and major holiday at 3pm from April 1 to October 31 for 8 euros per person. Or if you want to treat yourself to an extra special Paris experience, French Affaires can help organize your own private guided visit of the gardens and château according to guide availability.

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Last but not least, as if the gardens and little castle weren’t enough, you can enjoy the Bagatelle with music. Every summer, the Chopin Festival takes place at the Orangerie of the Bagatelle. This year’s festival marked the 32nd anniversary of the piano concerts that take place over three weeks in June and July.

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There is also a lovely chamber music series in late July and August. And right now, classical music lovers can head out to the Bagatelle for the charming ‘Solistes à Bagatelle 2015.’ This festival celebrates young up-and-coming piano talent from all over Europe. The current concerts go on through September 13th, 2015. Enjoy!

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Route de Sèvres à Neuilly
75016 Paris

French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter

For your own lovely copy of the Parc de Bagatelle brochure, please click here to download. (Note that it’s in French!) It includes a detailed map of the gardens and also a wonderful guide to when the various flowers are in bloom each year. The brochure is available at the Bagatelle as well for a nominal fee.

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Parc de Bagatelle
Route de Sèvres à Neuilly
75016 Paris

A French Friday in Fontainebleau Tuesday, Jun 30 2015 

This past weekend, I was in Fontainebleau for the wedding of the daughter of some very dear friends. It was a fabulous event and also a great time to reconnect with this charming French town located about an hour south of Paris. While Fontainebleau is dominated by the royal château of the same name, the town itself is well worth a visit.

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I began the day with petit déjeuner at the Grand Café on Fontainebleau’s pleasant main square…

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It sits next to the historic Fontainebleau hotel the Aigle Noir. Celebrated French poet Jacques Prévert wrote his famous poem “Presque” while staying here.

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After breakfast, I ambled over to Fontainebleau’s lively outdoor food and shopping market that takes place every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday. Residents and visitors alike enjoy the various offerings by local vendors at the Marché St. Louis.

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Of course, I was more tempted by the antiques auction house located nearby. Osenat typically holds les ventes aux enchères in Fontainebleau every Friday and Sunday with viewings the day and morning before. I breezed through the galleries and saw lots of beautiful old French furniture, paintings and objets d’art

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Then I headed across the street to the real historic experience, the Château de Fontainebleau. Situated in the center of the former royal forest of Fontainebleau and nestled up next to the town, the castle showcases 700 years of French monarchs and their history. The various architectural styles of the château invite visitors to meet the successive French kings and queens who lived and sojourned here throughout the centuries.

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The place is so rich historically and visually, I could come here over and over and see something new every time. But the best part is that the Château de Fontainebleau usually has a reasonable amount of visitors, meaning that you can come here and really enjoy what you are seeing…

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For example, I had the stupendous Galerie François Ier (above) – King Francis I had this part of the château constructed from 1528 to 1530 – practically all to myself on Friday, high season in this part of the world. Such a feat would NEVER happen at the galerie des glaces (Hall of Mirrors) at Versailles!

French king Francis I left his mark all over Fontainebleau as did Napoleon. You can visit the French emperor’s extraordinary throne room in the château. Interestingly, it’s the only throne room in France that still retains all its original furniture.

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The Château de Fontainebleau also hosts temporary exhibitions. There was just a terrific one on Napoleon and Pope Pius VII and the pope’s two visits to France during  Napoleon’s reign. It’s the story of an epic power struggle, if there ever was one.

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While small, the exhibition was very well done. The best touch was putting the marble busts of the two ‘rulers’ facing off in the center of the show (below left).

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After visiting the château, you can stroll through the extensive grounds of the royal estate. Part of the gardens were designed by the famous French landscape artist André le Nôtre. You might also see preparations for a special event happening at the château. The day of my visit, party planners were setting up for the big gala that night for the French gendarmes – evening attire required!

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Later that afternoon, I walked up Fontainebleau’s main street la rue Grande to check out the French boutiques and restaurants. It’s a good time to shop in France as the twice-yearly big sales just started last week and run through the beginning of August.

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If shopping and town are not your thing, the area around Fontainebleau is horse country. You can find some stables and go for a ride or check out the numerous equestrian events that often take place in the neighborhood. Hiking and walks are also available due to the abundant walking trails in the beautiful forest of Fontainebleau. And rock climbers are big fans of the large granite rock formations found in the forêt de Fontainebleau.

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All in all, the town of Fontainebleau has a lot going for it and is worth a day or weekend detour from the French capital. Only 45 minutes away by train and about an hour by car, Fontainebleau is a great mix of town, country and history all in one place. Bonne visite!

Provence Blooms Thursday, Feb 26 2015 

Move over lavender, poppies and sunflowers, it’s mimosa season in Provence. Walk by a bucket of mimosa flowers (pronounced ‘mee-moh-zah’) at a Provençal market right now, and you would swear it was the height of summer. The sprays of bright yellow blooms and heady, honey-like scent seem to advertise sunny days and warm nights. The sun part is a given – Provence boasts approximately 300 days of sunshine a year – but warm nights are a ways off yet. The French mimosa tree flowers in February and March, bringing a riot of jaune (yellow) and printemps (spring) to an otherwise wintry southern France landscape.

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This past week, the cheerful yellow pompoms were on display in Mandelieu-La Napoule, la capitale du mimosa – the mimosa capital of France. Situated on la Côte d’Azur (the French Riviera) just west of Cannes, Mandelieu hosts a yearly festival celebrating the mimosa tree complete with a reine du mimosa (Mimosa Queen), parades, processions, mimosa walks, dancing and a carnival.

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I am a fan of the scheduled “Walks Around Mimosa Country” which are organized as part of the festival. They take you on the trails of the Tanneron massif, home to the largest mimosa forest in Europe. Though they are guided and commented only in French, the two-hour randonnées in the Provence hills among the fragrant mimosa trees under the azure blue sky of the Mediterranean winter are not to be missed. During mimosa season, you can also drive la route du mimosa (the mimosa road), a winding route that begins in Bormes-les-Mimosas east of Toulon, wends its way through Mandelieu-la Napoule, and ends in the perfume town of Grasse.

Originally from Australia, the mimosa was brought back to Europe by Captain Cook and eventually found its way to the gardens of English aristrocrats wintering at their sumptuous villas along the French Riviera. The welcoming climate facilitated the spread of the mimosa which is part of the acacia family. Today, the Cavatore nursery near Bormes-les-Mimosas specializes in the plants. And note to plant lovers, they welcome visits to their garden center!

Just driving around anywhere in Provence right now, you can have your own route du mimosa. The brilliant sun highlights the yellow splashes of color covering the hillsides. One mimosa season, I captured the pretty flowers at the St. Paul de Mausole monastery near St. Rémy where Van Gogh spent a year before his untimely death. The blooming mimosas contrasted starkly with the solemn chapel and neighboring dormant trees.

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Fortunately for everyone in France needing a mid-winter pick-me-up, mimosa bouquets are not just available in Provence. They are also sold all around the country in season. Here is a flower vendor at a market in Normandy with the perfumed yellow flowers for sale. Also as part of the Mandelieu festival, one can order four bouquets sent directly to one’s home in France for only 26 euros, shipping included. So next time you are in France in February or March, be sure and pick up a bouquet or order some for your hotel room or apartment. It’s a breath of spring perfect for chasing away those winter blues!

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For more information on the 2015 French Mimosa festival, click here. This year’s festivities ran from February 18 to 25. Flower and garden lovers may want to make plans to attend next year’s festival that will be held about the same time!

A French Winter Garden Sunday, Dec 8 2013 

With the winter storm currently blanketing the U.S., I was reminded of an extraordinary cold and misty December day my husband and I spent at the gardens of Eyrignac in southwest France four years ago. For this week’s post, I pulled the following article from the French Affaires’ archives describing this magical, though chilly winter adventure. Enjoy – and stay warm!

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Wherever I am in France, I never pass up the chance to visit a garden. Even in winter, I find French landscapes and gardenscapes enchanting on many levels.

The Sunday after Christmas, my husband and I set out to experience the gardens of the Manoir d’Eyrignac (Eyrignac Manor) which boasts of le plus beau jardin du Périgord, or the most beautiful garden in Périgord. Located in southwest France, Périgord is the land of truffles, foie gras, walnuts, prehistoric sites, medieval villages, cliff-top castles, and the Dordogne and Lot rivers. Although the privately-held manor and its 18th century gardens are located on a back country road, numerous signs point the way to this verdant extravaganza near the picturesque town of Sarlat.

I had the Eyrignac gardens on my agenda as they are renowned for some of the finest topiary art in Europe. Various shades of green are highlighted throughout the four seasons with the artfully trimmed bushes and trees. It takes a team five full time gardeners to maintain the various ‘outdoor rooms’ on the grounds.

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Not a soul was at the Manoir d’Eyrignac when we arrived. Even the woman selling entrance tickets had to hike over from the business office to open up as she didn’t expect any visitors on this frosty, misty morning. We decided the 9,50 euros per person to get in was worth it to have the 4 hectare (10 acre) gardens to ourselves, cold or no cold.

The exquisite jardin français lies in front of the 17th century manor house. It was originally designed to be best seen from the second floor of the dwelling. Since I don’t know the owners and couldn’t see it from the house (!), my view is from the gardens back towards manor. Still, I think this was my favorite ‘room’ of the gardens.

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The gardens are accented by other old buildings on the property. The anciennes écuries (former stables) are situated next to the spring fed pond which provided water for the horses once upon a time…

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Two pavillons flank the courtyard in front of the manor house. There is the romanesque chapel which is still consecrated and where all the family members have been baptized…

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And the former dovecote was a sign of nobility in olden times…

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Another ‘outdoor room’ is the Allée des vases which is named for the Italian ceramic vases that line the grassy “path.” At this time of year, the bases are wrapped in black plastic to protect them and the plant roots from the cold. The tall evergreens lining the allée give a secret air to this part of the gardens.

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Next to the Allée des vases is a wide lawn with topiary bushes and fancy arabesques. I wonder if creating these shapes is a bit like painting or embroidering with plants??

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In other parts of the gardens, Asian-inspired elements complement the classical French garden designs. Several red lacquer archways provide eye-catching perspective points in the rose garden…

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And the red lacquer pagoda at the end of this trimmed garden path gives a touch of the exotic to les jardins. But the winter mist has toned down the red this particular morning…

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Even though the weather was a bit nippy and damp, we loved our ‘private visit’ to the jardins d’Eyrignac. We found it hauntingly beautiful on this winter’s day…and I think we will be spoiled when we go back in warm weather and have to share it with other garden lovers. But of course, there is more than enough beauty to go around in this lovely spot in France. Just to be sure to mind the signs to stay off the grass!

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The Jardins du manoir d’Eyrignac are open every day of the year. You can visit the web site for specific hours and directions: www.eyrignac.com.

This post originally appeared on January 8, 2010.

The Language of French Gardens Sunday, Feb 3 2013 

French gardens have a spirit and a presence all their own. I have walked and wandered in dozens of French jardins over the years – in the ‘biggies’ such as Versailles, Fontainebleau, Vaux-le-Vicomte, Chantilly, St. Germain-en-Laye, Sceaux, St. Cloud, and the Tuileries, and in smaller ones cradling manor houses and petits châteaux in various corners of France. And the regal yet neighborhoody jardins du Luxembourg in Paris is still my favorite for a daily jog in Paris.

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The magnificent gardens of Versailles

To this day, entering a French garden takes my breath away. It is a visceral as well as an emotional experience. There is a moment of awe and surprise – surprise at the arresting beauty…and also surprise that human beings have mastered a natural space so eloquently – followed by a deep sense of plaisir (pleasure), paix (peace) and bien-être (well-being).

I’ve often asked myself what it is that makes French gardens so captivating. At first glance, one could say it’s quality of the light and climate that makes these green spaces worlds unto their own. But truth be told, the pleasure of French gardens has much to do with their flawless grasp of space, symmetry and harmony. The French perfected these aspects of French garden design in the 17th and 18th centuries when the royals and other nobility laid out spectacular formal gardens around their châteaux. The French use of perspective and order provides a superb foundation for additional decorative elements that, once they’re there, seem to have always been destined for that particular place in nature.

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Many of these principles of French garden design have survived and flourished over time resulting in a ‘language of French gardens’ that is alive and well. Before you next visit a French jardin, you might want to familiarize yourself with these garden terms and then see how they play out in various garden locations in France:

Allée – A straight path, or alley, often lined with trimmed trees for an architectural effect. Allées typically accentuate the lines of perspective radiating from the house or château and leading off into the horizon.  This is one of my most favorite parts of French gardens.

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Our French Affaires’ travel group exploring the Gardens of Villandry last fall

Banc – French gardens provide places to stop and savor the moment. Benches, or bancs, are often the focal point of ‘outdoor garden rooms’ and offer a peaceful resting spot amidst nature.

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Bassin ­– Water is essential in French garden design. A bassin (pond) acts as a mirror to the sky, adding a shimmering effect to surrounding greenery and reflecting the nearby château.

Bosquet – A small ‘wood’ or group of trees usually set some distance from the house or main building.

Broderie ­– Meaning ‘embroidery’ in French, broderie indicates a curlicue pattern within a parterre often created out of boxwood or yew bushes.

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Escalier - Stairs lead from various garden levels to another. Some French garden designers also create ’stairs’ of water out of canals and fountains to add further depth to the garden experience.

Orangerie – Since the time of Louis XIV, French formal gardens have included exotic plants from various locales, in particular orange trees. To help them survive the winter, they were placed in an orangerie, or serre (greenhouse), and kept warm until spring.

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The orangerie at the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris

Parterre – A square or rectangular planting bed containing ornamental designs of flowers, bushes, green lawn, and/or gravel. Elaborate parterres often include scrollwork, various geometric shapes or fanciful designs to enchant the eye.

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A view over the various parterres at the Gardens of Villandry

Pelouse – French gardens include simple manicured green lawns juxtaposed against more decorative elements for a balanced and calming effect. Note that it is often interdit (forbidden) to walk on tender French lawns as it might spoil their beauty – a small sign at ground level indicates this.

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Potager – A French vegetable garden is known as a ‘potager.’ This is different from a jardin, jardin de fleurs or jardin d’agrément (ornamental garden) where flowers, trees and other plants take center stage.

Sculpture – French gardens are adorned with pieces of sculpture, often with roots in mythology, to entertain the eye and/or mark important places or pathways within the garden. This bird is certainly entertained as he sits on the mythological god’s head.

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Terrasse – Terraces are incorporated into classical French gardens as places to take in the beauties of the entire garden, especially the parterres, at one glance. They are also perfect for taking photos…

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Topiaire – The French love to combine their artistic talents with their desire for order by pruning yew trees into fantastic shapes. As a result, their topiary achievements are second to none in the gardening world. All French formal gardens contain topiaries of some sort, inspiring awe and wonder at how these creations come into being – and at how they are maintained!

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French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter

A final French garden expression of note is ‘jardin remarquable,’ or Noteworthy Garden. The French have awarded this distinction to 361 special French gardens located throughout France. They are well worth a visit – our French Affaires’ trip to the "Great Chateaux & Gardens of the Loire Valley & Paris" features several jardins remarquables, including Villandry, Rivau, Valmer, Versailles among others. 

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There are a few spots still open on this remarkable journey – don’t miss this personal and inside view of garden delights, memorable châteaux, gourmet meals with wine and much more. Click here for trip dates, details and photos. Come join us at the height of French garden beauty in June!

Travel to France in 2013! Thursday, Jan 3 2013 

It is the new year – Bonne année to all! – and the perfect moment to put France on the calendar. I invite you to join me and Garden Specialist Jane Holahan for this year’s very special trip to the Loire Valley and Paris from June 7 to 14, 2013. It is one of French Affaires’ most spectacular sojourns in France and includes exclusive visits and inside tours of fabulous gardens, châteaux, manor houses and more.

 

We’ll take in the beautiful architecture of châteaux such as Chenonceau known for its soaring arches over the River Cher. We also will be treated to guided visits of well-known gardens such as Villandry—notably the most magnificent and inventive garden in all of France—and lesser-known private gardens not usually accessible to the public. Our stay in the Loire Valley will be made all the more special by our lovely accommodations in château hotels in the region and gourmet meals with wine. Other trip highlights include two days based in Paris with guided visits to the King’s Vegetable gardens of the Château de Versailles and the exquisite Parc de Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne.

Included here is the trip itinerary with gorgeous images to tempt you. The Fall 2012 version of this trip sold out quickly, and our June 2013 offering will be our last Loire Valley and Paris trip for some time. If you have never been to the Loire Valley or feel your previous visit didn’t do it justice, then consider joining our once-in-a-lifetime trip. This region is one of the top 10 places to see in all of France – and the gorgeous gardens are a MUST in June!

Great Châteaux & Gardens of the Loire Valley, Plus Versailles & Paris

Day 1: Friday, June 7 – Depart your home city for Paris. Dinner & breakfast en route.

Day 2:  Saturday, June 8 – Arrival in Paris, Group pickup the Loire Valley.

Morning arrival in Paris! Gather your bags & take your TGV train from CDG airport to the Tours St. Pierre des Corps train station. Your trip hosts Elizabeth Seitz & Jane Holahan will meet you upon arrival in Tours. Pre-arranged transport to our hotel for the next two nights, the magnificent Château d’Artigny. This sumptuous château was built by the famous perfumer François Coty in 18th century style. Late afternoon guided visit to the Château de Villandry, a marvel of Renaissance architecture with superb gardens. NOTE: The French family who owns Villandry will give us a personal tour of their home – both the castle interior & the exterior grounds. Return to our hotel for a welcome aperitif followed by gourmet three-course dinner with wine. Turn in & get a good night’s sleep! (D)

Day 3:  Sunday, June 9Gardens of La Chatonnière, Château du Rivau & Elsie De Raedt

This morning, we will enjoy a guided tour of the lovely gardens of  La Chatonnière followed by an elegant picnic lunch with wine under the chestnut trees. After lunch, we’ll visit the 15th century Château du Rivau in its extraordinary setting. In the past 20 years, the château has been completely restored & its gardens recreated in the spirit of the Middle Ages. The collection of over 400 scented roses mingle with fruit trees, iris, lavender & lilies. Our visit will include a tour led by the owners. Later that afternoon, we will drive through the forest of Chinon to visit the special gardens of the charming Elsie de Raedt, writer & expert on old roses. We’ll then enjoy “afternoon tea” of a rose kir & local “tarte aux vignerons” at her home before returning to our hotel for a wonderful gourmet dinner with wine. (B, L, afternoon tea, D)

 

Day 4:  Monday, June 10 – International Garden Festival at Chaumont-sur-Loire & Town of Amboise

After breakfast, we check out from our hotel. Then we head to the International Garden Festival at Chaumont-sur-Loire. In its 22nd year, this International Garden Festival celebrates a different theme annually and includes creative & whimsical gardens of every style. Lunch as a group at Chaumont’s Festival Restaurant, Le Grand Velum. Next, we’ll make the short drive to our next château hotel, the marvelous Hôtel le Choiseul in the picturesque town of Amboise. Free time to explore the sights in Amboise including Leonardo da Vinci’s house & final resting place. Good shopping in town as well with lots of charming boutiques. Dinner on your own in Amboise, plenty of suggestions provided. (B, L)

Day 5: Tuesday, June 11Fairytale Chenonceau & the gardens of Château de Valmer

After breakfast, it is only a short drive to the magnificent Château de Chenonceau on the River Cher & the fabulous gardens of Catherine de Medici & Diane de Poitiers. After a guided tour of the château – including the amazing kitchens! – & grounds, we’ll buy a picnic lunch & enjoy it on site. That afternoon, we continue to Chançay, northeast of Tours, to visit the 16th & 17th century gardens at Château de Valmer. French owner & Countess Alix de Saint Venant, an acclaimed landscape designer & specialist in heirloom vegetables will be our guide. Madame de Saint Venant is wonderfully personable and welcoming – you will love meeting her and having her show us around her centuries-old gardens. We’ll also be treated to a wine-tasting of the delicious wines made and bottled at Valmer. Return to the Hôtel le Choiseul for our gourmet dinner with wine. (B, D) 

Day 6:  Wednesday, June 12Travel to Paris & Free Afternoon

After breakfast and hotel checkout, we will depart for Paris and the last two days of our France adventure. Check in at the casually elegant Hôtel Duc de St. Simon on the Left Bank. Free afternoon to explore & shop. Dinner on your own, plenty of good suggestions provided. (B)

Day 7: Thursday, June 13 – Gardens of the Château de Versailles, Parc de Bagatelle & Final Celebration Dinner

This morning, we’ll visit the inspiring & breathtaking gardens at the Château de Versailles, with a special tour of the Potager du Roi which began with Louis XIV & today produces over 50 tons of fruits & vegetables!  We’ll purchase lunch on site at Versailles & enjoy a picnic in the gardens. Then, we’ll return to Paris to visit the rose gardens of the Parc de Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne. This garden of Marie Antoinette now displays 1200 varieties of roses & will be resplendent during our June tour. Late afternoon return to Paris. Free time to shop or sightsee as desired. This evening, our group will gather for a farewell celebration dinner with wine at a local Parisian bistrot. (B, D)

Day 8:  Friday, June 14Departure for the U.S.

After breakfast, check out of our hotel. Pre-arranged transport to Charles de Gaulle airport for flights back to the U.S. Lunch & snack en route.

For the "Great Châteaux and Gardens of the Loire Valley, plus Paris" registration form and further trip details, please email me at info.french@frenchaffaires.com . The trip cost is $4450 per person double occupancy and includes our first-class hotels, all breakfasts, most lunches and dinners with wine, cultural excursions, airport /train station transfers, guides and transport. Single supplement additional. Our trip size is small for an outstandingly personal experience. Feel free to call me with questions at 214-232-5344 - I’d be happy to discuss the trip details with you!

To see more about the special places on our Loire Valley and Paris itinerary, please browse the list of web sites below:

Villandry: http://www.chateauvillandry.fr/

La Chatonniere: http://www.lachatonniere.fr/index.php?lang=fr

Rivau: http://www.chateaudurivau.com/fr/

Elsie de Raedt: http://www.elsiederaedt.com/ewelcome.htm

Chaumont: http://www.domaine-chaumont.fr/index.php

Chenonceau: http://www.chenonceau.com/fr

Valmer: http://www.chateaudevalmer.com/

Versailles: http://www.potager-du-roi.fr/site/potager/

Parc de Bagatelle: http://parcsetjardins.equipement.paris.fr/Parc_de_Bagatelle

 

Garden Decor Indoors Wednesday, Nov 7 2012 

In France, the word “château” conjures up visions of large stone castles with turrets located out in the countryside. (By contrast, a ‘château-like’ building in a city such as Paris is known as a palais, or palace.) These grand château residences all over France often have deep historical roots tied to the nobility or high bourgeoisie who owned them. And too, châteaux were typically surrounded by large domains, or terres (lands), reflecting the wealth and stature of their owners.

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The Château de Chenonceau in the Loire Valley is a picture-perfect example of the fairytale French castle surrounded by beautiful gardens and woodlands – with a colorful historical past to boot. At every visit, I am always astounded by the refined architecture and exquisite interior rooms of the château. In fact, I could spend hours taking in the beautiful furniture, ornate moldings, wondrous stone fireplaces, magnificent kitchen rooms, and more. In addition, the sumptuous formal gardens outdoors provide infinite views of beauty and horticultural creativity.

But on my recent visit to Chenonceau a few weeks ago, I was unexpectedly éblouie (dazzled) by the ‘indoor gardens’ inside the château. I had forgotten that all year round, visitors are treated to gorgeous floral arrangements in every room. The idea is to make the castle seem comme une demeure habitée (like a lived-in dwelling).

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To that end, a team of fleuristes (floral designers) creates stunning arrangements twice a week from the cutting gardens and greenhouses located on the property. The outdoor gardens are brought indoors, so to speak. In my opinion, the best way to visit Chenonceau is to build suspense and first walk through le potager des fleurs (the cutting gardens), then continue through the formal gardens and finally enter into the château itself. By following this itinerary, you experience the exquisite harmony between man and nature as only the French know how to do.

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The abundance of floral possibilities in the cutting gardens means that every arrangement is color coordinated with the room it inhabits…

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One of my absolute favorites was the spray of pampas grass blooms set in front of an antique woven tapestry. The colors and textures enhanced each other so well that it was hard to look away. When traveling, it’s amazing how the simplest vision can be incredibly memorable.

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Chenonceau’s private chapel was also a picture of simplicity with its floral creations of white and green.

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Another favorite was the small library which displayed all manner of prints, sketches and illustrations of Chenonceau throughout the centuries. The fireplace mantel was embellished with a horizontal masterpiece of flowers, greenery and natural decorative elements. Even the container was a work of art with local chestnuts, leaves and lichens arranged upon it. I had never seen luscious brown chestnuts used in this way – c’était vraiment magnifique!

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And if you’re in need of a lily fix, then the Château de Chenonceau would be a must. The entry room to the castle was awash with multiple arrangements of pink lilies. The largest arrangement alone must have contained more than 300 blooms. Of course, the scent was heavenly.

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And it’s hard to go wrong with white lilies on their own…

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All this to say, Chenonceau is a definite destination stop in France – for the castle and for the outdoor gardens. But since the indoor garden decor is as stunning as the rest, I would visit the château any day just for that.

For more information on visiting the Château de Chenonceau, please click here.

French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter

The floral studio at Chenonceau is a treasure trove of inspiration. Materials and flowers are at the ready for bringing blooms indoors. I wanted to spend a week there just observing the floral team at work.

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If you’re in need of a ‘French floral fix,’ then consider joining the French Affaires’ summer trip to the Loire Valley next June. We’ll take in the most beautiful of French gardens and châteaux including Chenonceau. Our trip dates are June 7 to 14, 2013. For more information about this special France travel opportunity, please email us at info.french@frenchaffaires.com .

And the next time you are in Paris, you might consider taking a floral arranging class offered by La Belle Ecole. While the classes are conducted only in French, it would be worth the visual experience just to attend. For more information on their offerings, please click here.

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The French Pumpkin Patch Saturday, Oct 27 2012 

The French love squash, both in the garden and on the table. And fall is the season when all sorts of colorful winter courges start to appear. This month, our French Affaires’ fall trip-goers were treated to a cornucopia of beautiful squash in ‘pumpkin patches’ around the Loire Valley.

At the Château de Villandry, the squash decor was a real head-turner. For those who are not familiar with this Loire Valley jewel, Villandry could arguably possess the prettiest gardens in all of France. The Renaissance château is surrounded by a stunning tapestry of ornamental and vegetable gardens and draws thousands of visitors and gardeners each year. (More on this and other Loire gardens in future posts!)

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Villandry’s potagers (kitchen gardens) included bright orange citrouilles (pumpkins) scattered in beds outlined by tailored boxwoods. In the château’s courtyard, winter squash of every variety topped this sculpted stone urn. Ripe grapes from local vineyards and other vegetables completed the photogenic view of fall’s garden bounty.

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Another stop for our camera-clicking group was the storybook medieval castle and gardens of Château du Rivau. French owner Patricia Laigneau gave us a personal tour of her family’s home and grounds. The château’s large kitchen garden featured winter squash and pumpkins in expected – and unexpected – places.

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Patricia also had her squashes lined up with labels identifying the specific type of courge d’hiver. It was a nice touch for the gardeners among us with visions of growing squash in home gardens. The simple display took on a decorative touch of its own.

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Finally, at the Château de Valmer, owner Countess Alix de St. Venant showed us around her two-and-a-half acre potager and terraced gardens dating from the 16th and 17th centuries. Her passion for kitchen gardens is contagious, and she is well known in French gardening circles and beyond for her expertise in heirloom vegetables.

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At the time of our visit, Madame de St. Venant’s winter squash had been harvested and was awaiting decorative placement for the upcoming weekend’s garden festival.

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I came away from our fall garden tours inspired by so many things but particularly by the colors and shapes of the winter squash. Halloween aside, it is safe to say that the French have perfected the decorative touch with their autumn harvests – even though it probably helps to have a 15th century wall or moat handy for effect! This fall and Thanksgiving, I’m going to pay homage to the French talent and put together some French-styled squash creations of my own.

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A mini-citrouille on the moat wall at Rivau

French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter

A short primer on pumpkins in France:

Citrouille – This type of pumpkin is round and orange…the pumpkin of Cinderella, or Cendrillon in French, fame. Typically not used in cooking as it lacks flavor and is stringy.

Potiron – This pumpkin is more flat than the round citrouille and is ridged around the sides. The potiron comes in a range of colors from orange to green. The flesh is sweet and silky making it perfect for making soups, tarts and other dishes.

Potimarron – This small pumpkin looks like an oversized orange fig or pear. It too can be used in various sweet and savory recipes.

To grow your own pumpkins, Botanical Interests in the U.S. offers a wonderful variety of heirloom and organic seeds. Click here for the list on their mail order website.

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 The Pumpkin variety Musquée de Provence

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