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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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

France Travel 2012 ~ Favorite French Places Thursday, Jan 12 2012 

I often get asked about my favorite places to go in France. With the amazing variety of options the country offers, that is indeed a tough question! In fact, it is said that in France the landscape and cultural character of the place changes every 30 kilometers. For a country about the size of Texas, that is quite extraordinary if you think about it.

Given the riches found all over France, I still have landed on my favorite places – places where I have lived. Places where I was a student. Places where I put down my French roots. Places that sustain my creative soul.  Places home to my good French friends. Charming places that I return to again and again. Places so special they have to be shared with other travelers to France.

With that in mind, I am excited to spotlight two of my absolute favorite French locales for our French Affaires’ insider trips this year. Provence, which has been my cultural and creative home for over 25 years, is our first destination. Provence could be described as heaven on earth. It is the land of French sun, fabulous landscapes, marvelous colors, extraordinary food and wine, deep history, and cultural offerings of every kind. And I’d also say that just sitting outdoors and enjoying an aperitif in Provence is a vacation in and of itself. If you have never been to southern France or if you’ve been but wish to experience it in a more meaningful and personal way, you’ll want to make plans to join our small group for this lovely week of “Provence bests” in September.

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Our second destination this year is the Loire Valley, also known as the “garden of France.” French kings in the Renaissance made it their favorite destination and built sumptuous châteaux surrounded by exquisite gardens. It has been one of the top travel spots in France ever since. Our trip includes visits of famous châteaux such as Chenonceau, Villandry and Rivau and also includes wonderful lesser known manor houses and gardens for a very intimate feel. We’ll also enjoy a couple of days in Paris to experience gardens there as well as a visit to Monet’s  Giverny just outside the capital. Late September, early October is one of the best times to visit France with fewer tourists, delightful weather and another garden viewing season. Joining us for this trip will be Jane Holahan, a Loire Valley gardens specialist and former resident of the Loire Valley.

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French Affaires’ trips to France are small, personal and full of magical experiences. Our French friends and colleagues pull out all the stops to show us what is special about their part of France. Just as important, our trips include just about everything for your stay. So you feel like you are visiting friends or family in France rather than running around as a paying tourist!

Below are overviews of both France excursions with links to the full trip descriptions. And with the euro currency at historic lows right now, we are able to offer a discount of $200 off each trip price for those signing up by February 3, 2012. See the full trip description for pricing and details.

The Best of Provence with French AffairesSeptember 21 to 28, 2012 – Join Dr. Elizabeth New Seitz of French Affaires for a once-in-a-lifetime insider excursion to southern France. Possibly the most beautiful and rewarding region in all of France, Provence is known for its picturesque villages, stunning countryside, flavorful cuisine, wonderful wines, colorful and fragrant gardens, superb fountains, and relaxed culture. On our itinerary: the delightful towns of  St. Rémy, Les-Baux-de-Provence, Avignon and Aix-en-Provence; gourmet Provençal meals; wine tastings; private cooking class; shopping open-air markets; art tour with Provence artist Jill Steenhuis; the gardens of Château Val Joanis, and of course, enjoying the spectacular landscape and ambiance of Provence. Our hotel, the Château des Alpilles, is located just outside the charming town of St. Rémy for that winning ‘stay-in-the-French-countryside-with-the-town-nearby’ experience. Our group size is limited to 12 for a very special and intimate travel experience. An unforgettable personal and special immersion into the best of southern France. Please click here for the full itinerary description.

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Great Gardens & Châteaux of the Loire Valley” plus Monet’s Giverny & Paris Gardens September 30 to October 6, 2012 – Join us for this spectacular trip to France featuring great châteaux and gardens of the Loire Valley. We’ll take in the beautiful architecture of châteaux such as Chenonceau known for its soaring arches over the Indre River. 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. Other trip highlights include two days based in Paris. From there, we’ll enjoy guided visits to Monet’s gardens and manor house at Giverny in Normandy—if you’ve never seen them in the fall, they are a must at this time of year! We’ll also have a walking tour of Paris’s amazing Luxembourg Gardens in the heart of the Left Bank. Not to miss as well are Paris’s finest garden stores and garden bookstores. Our group size is limited to 12 for a very special and intimate travel experience. Don’t miss this insiders’ trip to the Loire Valley and Paris seen through fabulous French gardens, châteaux and manor houses! Please click here for the full itinerary description.

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For questions about either trip or to be sent the full itinerary and registration form, please email us at info.french@frenchaffaires.com. We look forward to hearing from you!