Only in France could a garden festival attempt to answer questions about the meaning of life.
The International Garden Festival of Chaumont-sur-Loire brings together a startling array of landscapers, gardeners, architects, set designers, movie directors, and even an anthropologist or two to create dozens of tiny worlds, or gardens, on the vast grounds of the Renaissance castle of Chaumont, 200 km (124 miles) southwest of Paris.
In 2018, the festival's 27th year, the theme is Jardins de la Pensée (Gardens of Thought), a witty play on the French word "pensée," which means both "thought" and "pansy." There are lots of pansies, but also loads of thrilling compositions of plants, flowers, sculpture, art, and commentary on ideas and the nature of reason. It's the kind of intellectual derring-do at which the French excel—and exactly the kind of spring-and-summer festival more tourists should know about.
The festival is not all art and high-concept wordplay. It's also an invitation into a vivid display of color and texture and fun. Each garden is always tucked away in a leafy enclosure that the visitor must seek out, turning the event into a cross between a garden show, an art installation, and a treasure hunt: in one spot, a glassy mirror basin framing a lonely red Japanese maple, making you contemplate eternity; elsewhere, fantastic "thought bubbles" made out of living shrubbery, where you can sit and contemplate; further on, an homage to Marcel Proust, and just next door, another to Harry Potter.
Even festival-less, these 42-hectare (104-acre) grounds harbor many permanent wonders that can be explored off-season. Head down a fern-lined trail to a misty forest (Vallon des Brumes) straight out of The Hobbit; toddle over to the Prés du Goualoup and you are on a vast prairie, bordered by yet more gardens including the Japanese garden, the Dalilah labyrinth, and the domain’s kitchen garden.
In the château’s former stables and outbuildings, you’ll find the Center of Arts and Nature, which offers year-round art expositions and curates the permanent collection of astounding sculptures and installations in the “historic park,” another section of the grounds that was created in the 19th century.
In this sprawling English-style garden, you might come upon an empty vegetal doorway that opens into distant greenery. Or you may encounter immense swirls of woven willow branches with windows and doors where some mythical creature might live.
When you can’t take any more, plop yourself in one of the inviting hooded beach chairs overlooking an awe-inspiring view of the Loire River. Traditional flat-bottom boats are manned by tour guides of the river’s rich ecological wealth.
Chaumont is also one of the many stops on the Loire à Vélo, an 800-km (497-mile) bike path that follows the river from Nevers all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.
And at any time of year, it would be a shame to miss out on a visit to this gorgeous château, with its 15th-century towers and racy history encompassing Catherine de Médicis and her arch-rival Diane de Poitiers, as well as a 19th-century teenage heiress who married an aging prince. The domain offers a two-day pass, so you can stay at a nearby bed and breakfast (here's one recommendation from Frommer's) or camp on the riverside and visit at a more leisurely pace.
The International Garden Festival of Chaumont-sur-Loire usually runs from late April to early November, and it shares its website with the château it calls home: www.domaine-chaumont.fr
For more stunning French gardens that make for sublime vacation ideas, check out our photo feature.
Photo: Eric Sander