The Hanging Gardens of Marqueyssac, there’s a ring to the name, mystery and a touch of the mythical. I have been there several times over the years and each time I suck my breath in as I step up the ramp to one of the most iconic topiary gardens in the world; but I have yet to be disappointed. This is a garden which hits the spot every time – a bubbling cauldron of boxy baubles which seem to shift slightly, as if to ease the aching body of a giant creature curled up in sleep. But Marqueyssac is more than its famous clipped buxus; it is a little world of its own, set high up on a promontory over the River Dordogne near Vézac in France, with gardens which lead the imagination on a journey through the pages of a fairy tale, from dark and fearsome landscapes to gentle, verdant walks.
It all starts with the big bang; there is no way to avoid the box garden. If you imagine the site as caterpillar-shaped, the pointy head is the entrance and the Buxus parterre of the Bastion are the large, dominating eyes. (Talking of caterpillars, the garden was saved from the threat of the south-east Asian box-tree moth Cydalima perspectalis by the use of Bacillus thuringiensis var Kurstaki, a natural bacterium, not a chemical insecticide.) It was Bertrand Vernet de Marqueyssac who made it possible to grow a garden on this rocky site by building rampart-like walls to support its four main terraces after he acquired the chateau in 1692. Rumour had it that he called in André Le Nôtre to design the gardens but this has been debunked. It was, in fact, a pupil of the great man, a Monsieur Porcher, who worked on the design, basing it on his master’s for the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, in a similar setting above the Seine. A new chateau was built by Bertrand’s descendants on the eve of the French Revolution, incorporating part of the older one. This building survived that period of turmoil and was designated a ‘Monument Historique’ in 1948 for its façade and amazing roof, tiled in local limestone flags weighing over five hundred tons, a style known as lauzes. As in all the great houses, each generation adds something, but every now and again someone of real energy and talent comes along and transforms the place. In the case of Marqueyssac, that person was Julien de Cérval (1818-1894).
One of the advantages of writing about gardens is that I am sometimes invited to come and enjoy it out of normal hours. It is such a privilege to be alone in an historic site and my arrival in Marqueyssac in early June, at six thirty in the morning, was extraordinary. It occurred to me that Julien de Cérval would have experienced the fantastic mists that rose from the river, shrouding the garden in a ghostly veil, muting its colours and diffusing the light. Spider webs decorated the topiary like spun bunting and a whole galaxy of tiny snails, their shells swirled with vortex markings in shades of white, pink and brown, studded the space between. Something of this magic, half horror – half enchantment must have inspired him to infuse the site with ideas from the European Romantic style when he inherited Marqueyssac in 1861. Much of him, however, was devoted to Italy and the gardens he had studied there having joined the Legion Romaine in 1849 to defend the Pope’s estates – a group often known as the nineteenth-century Crusaders. The garden demonstrates these two influences, plus Cérval’s passion for, and deep knowledge of, agronomy.
The team of gardeners arrived just before 7 am, dressed smartly in their uniform and each carrying a rucksack containing the tools of their trade, including their dedicated pair of shears which they take home every night to clean and restore to razor-sharp perfection. By 7.30 am feet could be heard crunching on the gravel paths and the tap-tap of hand shears at work began for the day. Julien de Cérval was somewhat obsessed with Buxus and planted tens of thousands of them throughout the estate, some in the parterre, others bordering long walks or forming green tunnels, and some growing freely through informal woodland. The amazing box garden which wows visitors today replaced the old potager of the Bastion area as a ‘terrasse d’agrément’, an ornamental space with serpentine paths passing through beds of undulating box forms, punctuated by the strong verticals of cypress and pines. I can see how walking through this wonderland for the household would have been a distraction from the real world, with constant small changes wrought by the weather, season or time of day keeping the experience fresh.
Mention is often made of the Italian influence here, but it is not the symmetrical, formal Italy of Medici Villas; the feel for me is more of the Romantic Italy of Poussin and Claude Lorraine. Perhaps the informality of the box shapes recalls ancient hedges which time has sculpted – Cérval would have known that the Emperor Augustus had box hedges and topiary in his gardens in Rome around 27BCE. He would also have been aware of the opening in 1867 of the new Parc aux Buttes-Chaumont in Paris with its many sinuous paths, Temple of Sibylle perched atop a cliff fifty meters above an artificial lake, and its relaxed, informal box hedging clipped in waves. Unfortunately, we have no archival evidence to back up any of these theories – Julien didn’t even leave a note of the gardens he particularly admired – however the Bastion Garden with its roiling forms says it all; you are in a place dedicated to the emotions. Scenic vistas, winding paths, bucolic glades, and rustic retreats suitable for solitary contemplation – Marqueyssac has all the features of a garden created in the late Romantic spirit.
The garden divides quite neatly along the length of the caterpillar shape into two ‘atmospheres’: one which is hot and dry and Mediterranean in character along the south flank which follows the line of the river; and the other is much more humid and temperate. I like to take the path along the hot and dramatic cliff walk, passing the little chapel where members of his family are buried to this day. The chapel had been built by a previous owner but Julien gave it a gothic makeover and dedicated it to, (I am tempted to say himself), Saint Julien, considered the patron saint of lost travellers, ferrymen, innkeepers and circus performers – I wonder which of these appealed most to him. A rustic gate sees you through to the dramatic cliff walk with its overhanging viewing platforms, one of which is the start of an even scarier walk known by the Italian name, Via Ferrata, ‘a mountain route equipped with fixed ladders, cables, and bridges in order to be accessible to climbers and walkers’.
The chalk escarpment is populated with a limited number of species which have made themselves at home here, including Acer campestre, Quercus robur, Quercus ilex and Arbutus unedo, the strawberry tree. The dark leaves of the Holm oak, common in the region around Sarlat, have given the area its name; the ‘Perigord Noir’. Here, they stand out in contrast to the pale rock – conjuring menace and a frisson to add to that of the sheer drop to certain death on the other side of the path. What a gift this topography is to anyone wanting to induce the fear and awe essential to a garden of the emotions. Think Gothik Horror film with the innocent beauty taking this percorso pericoloso to meet her lover by moonlight, with the frightening shadows of dark oaks chasing her, and the mists rising from the river below. Today, discrete Perspex signs ensure you won’t get lost and give a bit of botanic guidance, remarking plants such as Helianthemum vulgare – Rock rose, and education for children about the geology and fauna.
Pathways string ‘event’s together like coloured stones on a necklace. Viewing platforms, sculpture or built structures such as a Cabane en Brande (hut made from heather), the Asile du Poète (poet’s retreat) or the Cabane en Cloche, a wonderfully constructed traditional dry-stone shelter with a bell-shaped roof, are the reinvention of the eighteenth-century practice of creating temples and grottos. Steps and linking corridors encased in arched box connect the dry and dramatic south-facing side to the damper and cooler north. This cooler, more humid micro-climate allowed Cérval to work with a different palette of plants and trees such as Elms, Laburnum anagyyroides, Platanus x hispanica and Cercis siliquastrum. In fact, he cleverly cools the whole design down too, culminating in a four-metre wide, completely flat and straight, (one might say Cartesian), ride, flanked by shady trees and on one side a rock face wall of hewn blocks hosting moss and ferns. Which brings us back to the chateau.
It also brings us to another energetic and exceptional person, the current owner of the site Kléber Rossillon, who had the vision and energy to completely renovate Marqueyssac from its post-war state of total dilapidation to what we see today. It opened to the public in 1997 after a number of years’ work. He is also responsible for Castelnaud, the marvellous medieval chateau-fort (castle), on the other bank of the river. Rossillon’s story is worth a detour on google but it is his design for a modern topiary artwork which we come to at the end of the circuit which I will finish with. Le Chaos is said to have started life when a box of the rectangular sugar cubes popular in France spilled onto the breakfast table. I don’t know how true this story is but I would love it to be. A number of scrubby trees were cleared on the slope behind the chateau, yet more Buxus planted and frames were installed to guide the topiary. Today it is fully grown and an interesting, crisply geometric, juxtaposition to the curves of the old parterre.
As usual, I have left features and aspects of the garden for you to discover but, if you intend to visit, I think this is garden worth getting up early for, or seeing on one of their candlelit evenings in summer – or indeed at any time of year because this is truly a garden for all seasons, and deservingly listed as a National Historic Monument.
Address: Les Jardins de Marqueyssac, 24220 Vezac, France
Phone: +33 5 53 31 36 36