Green-thumbers get weak in the knees at the mere mention of the Château de Villandry, a grand estate near the Cher River, thanks to its painstakingly relaid 16th-century gardens, now the finest example of Renaissance garden design in France. These were originally planted in 1906 by Dr. Joachim Carvallo and Anne Coleman, his American wife, whose passion resulted in three terraces planted in styles that combine the French monastic garden with Italianate models depicted in historic Du Cerceau etchings. Seen from Villandry's cliff-side walkway, the garden terraces look like flowered chessboards blown up to the nth power—a breathtaking sight.
Beyond the water garden and an ornamental garden depicting symbols of chivalric love is the famous potager, or vegetable garden, which stretches on for bed after bed—the pumpkins here are les pièces de résistance. Flower lovers will rejoice in the main jardin à la française (French-style garden): framed
by a canal, it's a vast carpet of rare and colorful blooms planted en broderie ("like embroidery"), set into patterns by box hedges and paths. The aromatic and medicinal garden, its plots neatly labeled in three languages, is especially appealing. Below an avenue of 1,200 precisely pruned lime trees lies an ornamental lake that is home to swans: not a ripple is out of place. The château interior, still used by the Carvallo family, was redecorated in the mid-18th century; of particular note are the painted and gilt Moorish ceiling from Toledo and one of the finest collections of 17th-century Spanish paintings in France.
The quietest time to visit is usually during the two-hour French lunch break, while the most photogenic time is during the Nuits des Mille Feux (Nights of a Thousand Lights, held the first weekend in July), when paths and pergolas are illuminated with myriad lanterns and a dance troupe offers a tableau vivant. There is a gardening weekend held in late September and a music festival in October.