This articled appeared in The Good Life France website this Autumn. But here with photos I took on the day.
Over twenty years ago I visited the Chateau du Rivau. In its first stages of renovation by owner Patricia Laigneau, a Versailles trained garden designer with a passion to restore the chateau to its former ancient glory, the chateau remained in my memory as an enchanting place. Patricia took on the chateau in 1992 and her work has earned the site UNESCO status. Reminiscent of fairy tale castles, the gardens were full of secret spaces, tiny arbours, little shining stones hung from tree branches so they bowed down to make delicate arching arms to catch your hair as you ran through the long grass. Wild flowers were allowed to flourish and the garden had a sense of innocence. I adored it. Nothing like the formality of the Loire Chateau, but just a short drive south and often missed on the chateau list.
This year, my birthday, I could choose a chateau to visit. I chose the Chateau Du Rivau to be enchanted again. We drove from our new home in France, Creuse, South of the Loire and stayed overnight at the town of Richelieu to ensure a full day at the chateau. A lovely town, laid out in a grid, was a revolutionary style of town created by the famous cardinal. The town was a convenient distance from the Chateau and it happened that the Cardinals sister was married to Jacques De Beauvau. This powerful marriage liaison connected the Cardinal to monarchy, as the Beauvau family had ancient ties, supporting the French royal families during the hundred year war with England. The chateau stables bred war horses, and Joan of Arc in 1429 chose her steeds from here, to vanquish the English after receiving a vision from God. There is an exhibition all about the stables on site.
The Chateau draws on its history with visual and audio images – rooms dedicated to the teenage Saint and others with contemporary paintings. The juxposition was a little jarring, but beyond these the chateau itself is charming and could easily be re-imagined as a wonderful home. Beyond the walls the garden is the focal point.
If you come in early summer the front of the chateau is awash with lavender. The courtyard displays the first hint of pumpkins and other vegetables and a few of the famous roses climbing archways. If you’re feeling romantic you can place a love lock. White peacocks display in the inner courtyard leading to a lovely shadowy seating area where grape vines grow in gnarly splendour.
Below are the famous rose gardens. Over 500 varieties are tended here, including ancient roses from Andre Eve, who resurrected many long lost varieties and successive blooming roses by Chelsea flower show winner, David Austin, who from the 1950’s specialized in cultivating roses for their scent. You will find the roses Cardinal Richelieu here, Queen Elizabeth, Anne Boleyn, and more modern – Geoff Hamilton and Alan Titmarsh from the famous UK gardening programmes. Many of the gardens flowering changes seasonally and the natural garden almost daily. The gardens are classed as remarkable, due to its predominant planting of ancient species and many horticultural societies support the chateau.
The chateau itself has many gardens dedicated to its fairy-tale themes. A maze for Alice in Wonderland, a tower sculpture for Sleeping Beauty and gigantic wellies and a flower pot in honour of Gargantua the giant in Rabelais’s novels. The chateau was mentioned in the tale as a gift. In the wooded area, giant legs stride through the trees and there is a lovely display of terracotta pot characters for children. Within and without the chateau there are regular exhibitions from contemporary artists, evoking thought provoking messages.
At the back of the gardens there are beehives for the Chateau to produce its own honey, along with its own Chinon wine. The gardens are botanical, natural and chemical free and produce enough vegetables for the regular catering the Chateau supplies – up to 500 diners at one sitting, drawing from local farmers meat and cheese to keep the faire local and seasonal.
The chateau has a lot more plans to expand the gardens, but its annual highlight, apart from the memorable rose displays is the September pumpkin festival.
The chateau grows over 43 varieties – round ones, oval ones, squat, turban, warty ones including the giant orange Cinderella pumpkin – Rouge Vit d’etampes weighing upto 125KG, La Melonette Jaspee, Le Bleu de Hongrie, Pleine de Naples and the Spagetti Longue de Nice. Pumpkin, squash, gourd, all interchangeable names, are here – heirloom ones that are difficult to germinate, have un-uniform shapes but character flavour and more popular pumpkins that are used in the Chateau’s restaurant to make soups, gratins, stuffed and sautéed. Grown in full sun, the pumpkins are cured for 10 days to harden their skins and they are good through the winter.
Chateau Du Rivau is a perfect place for a quiet stroll, a light salad lunch, browsing the lovely gifts they sell, learning about roses and gardening. I liked that you could escape from the summer heat and sit under the trees, or relax near the Chateau and listen to medieval music, under the vines.
My return to the chateau was as lovely as the first visit and if you’re a little overwhelmed by Loire Chateau and Valois history and the crowds, take a short detour and have a magical day instead, a little slower and a little more relaxing.
When I returned home, it was time to make pumpkin soup. Simply made with a little garlic, onion, pepper, salt, a small chilli to add a little heat, cumin too and slow cooked, blended to a smooth creamy consistency and served with warm crusty French bread.
And the love-locks…Tony my husband added ours – romantic as ever!