The Loire Valley has many chateaux, so what's special about this one? The gardens. Rather than a park with lawns and woods, which most chateaux have, Villandry boasts an extraordinary arrangement of formal gardens based on medieval and Renaissance designs, with each section having a symbolic significance. The potager, or kitchen garden, planted with serried ranks of perfect vegetables, forms the gardens' lowest level and stands for bodily needs; on the middle level, ornamental gardens formed from boxwood hedges represent reason and emotion; and the highest level, with its water garden, symbolises man's spiritual quest.
Why so cerebral? That's the way they thought about gardens during the Renaissance and when Spanish doctor Joachim Carvallo and his American heiress wife bought the property, in 1906, they wanted to recreate that style. The chateau's original gardens had vanished over the centuries and the couple devoted themselves to returning them to their former splendour, inspired by plans left by a notable 16th-century garden designer. This labour of love is still owned by the Carvallo family, with Joachim's great-grandson, Henri Carvallo, living in the chateau and managing the estate.
Today being Valentine's Day, what's love got to do with it? Quite a lot. Beneath the southern walls of the chateau lies Villandry's highlight, the Garden of Love (above), a green puzzle of boxed topiary and flower beds laid out in four squares, each representing a certain kind of love. The flat-clipped hedges of "Tender Love" are shaped like hearts and masquerade ball masks, symbolising love's playful beginnings, while in the "Passionate Love" square, shield-shaped hedges whirl in turmoil. In the "Fickle Love" square, hedges represent the fans and billets-doux of inconstant lovers. And then there's "Tragic Love", its pointed blade forms evoking the fights of rival lovers, mingled with beds of blood-red flowers.
Isn't the imagery a bit difficult to grasp? At ground level, yes. The thing to do is to view it from the terrace above the garden or from an upper floor of the chateau, from where you can see the complete patterns. Inside the chateau, with its 100 or so rooms, guests can also enjoy the highly coloured empire-style salons (below), once occupied by Napoleon's brother, Prince Jerome Bonaparte, an intricately carved Moorish ceiling brought from Toledo, in Spain, and an art gallery that includes works by Goya.
Anything else to see in the vicinity? Villandry stands beside the River Loire amid a galaxy of gorgeous valley chateaux. One that is especially beautiful, Azay-le-Rideau, lies within 10km, and near that is the Château d'Ussé, which inspired the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. A short drive onwards brings you to one of France's most historic castles, Chinon, where Joan of Arc famously first met the future French king, in 1429. The area is renowned for its white wines, with the vineyards of Vouvray and Saumur nearby. For urban pleasures, the lively university city of Tours lies just upstream.
What's the bottom line? Chateau de Villandry lies 10km west of Tours, which is just over one hour by train from Paris. Open daily from 9am to sunset; entrance to the chateau and gardens is €10.50 (HK$90), gardens only, €6.50 (reduced until March 31 to €8 and €4.50, respectively).
For more information, go to www.chateauvillandry.fr/en.