The house at Marqueyssac is a rather unprepossessing manor for a nobleman, but the garden gives it splendour. The pretty, lavender-blue wooden shutters and the ‘lauze’ (flat stone) roof of the manor are typical of old houses in the Perigord region of France. Some of the ground floor rooms of the manor have been furnished in 19th century style to help visitors get a sense of Julien de Cerval’s time. Photo - Rolf E. Staerck/Shutterstock.com
When it comes to box, this iconic French garden thinks outside the square!
No flowers, few trees, few paths, but amazing views – and more than 150,000 sculpted box.
I first saw Marqueyssac in 2006. I was on a reconnaissance mission for a new itinerary we wanted to develop that would sweep through the picturesque valleys of the Perigord, Dordogne and Lot rivers. Marqueyssac is in the Dordogne, in an area known as the Valley of the Châteaux for the thousand châteaux that still stand here. This part of the Dordogne valley features some of the loveliest medieval and renaissance villages in France - Domme, Beynac, La Roque-Gageac and Sarlat. On a cool and gentle Sunday morning in June I drove my little Citroen from Sarlat, where I was staying, across to Vezac, through pretty, undulating countryside dotted with shorn sheep, red poppies and golden bales of hay. Marqueyssac is in a magnificent position, perched on top of a rocky promontory overlooking the entire valley.
This is the sight that greets you as you walk up the steps from the car park and into the main garden. The valley falls steeply away and so the garden seems to float. The sculptured buxus plants need constant clipping to keep their shape and to maintain the integrity of the design. A team of five manages the job, using only hand shears. Photo - Rainbow/Shutterstock.com
I can’t remember exactly what I was anticipating when I arrived, but I was surprised, and challenged, by what I saw. No flowers, few trees, few paths, but a surreal interpretation of a 17th century garden featuring more than 150,000 trimmed and twisted boxwood (buxus). The rounded forms of the plants at times formed into heaving, curling patterns, and at other times reminded me of the sheep I had seen in the fields on my drive. This really was a unique and astonishing garden! Each box plant was meticulously sculpted to maintain the design, a design unlike any I had ever seen. I knew at once that this garden would be a highlight of the itinerary.
The garden wraps around a small 17th century chateau built in 1692 for Bertrand Vernet de Marqueyssac, who was an advisor to the King Louis XIV during the siege of Sarlat.The original French garden consisted of terraces, alleys and a kitchen garden. Its design has been attributed to a pupil of the famous Andre Le Notre, designer of Vaux Vicomte and Versailles. Some time around 1830 a small chapel was built and a grand allee, 100m in length, was made for horseback riding.
So far so typical for a château garden. Then, in the 1860s, Marqueyssac took a new direction under Julien de Cerval. Cerval was a military man who loved Italy and Italian gardens. He planted thousands of box at his newly-acquired property, adding to those that had been planted more than a century earlier. Cerval retained the grand allee and the chapel and planted linden trees, cypress and stone pine. He redesigned parterres and laid out five kilometres of scenic garden walks.
This rustic gate invites the visitor to explore the maze of interconnected spaces that make up the garden. The lumpy texture of this garden contrasts with the broad flat fields of the river valley below, and echoes the humped forms of the surrounding hills. The young pin oak in the centre of this view will grow to give this vista a strong focal point. Photo - stunned mullet/Shutterstock.com
Re-sharpening the shears
By its nature a topiary garden needs constant clipping, and Cerval’s dreamscape fell into disrepair in the second half of the 20th century. Fortunately, in 1996, a new owner, Kleber Rossillon, began restoring the gardens. Rossillon added a watercourse from the belvedere into a cascade and opened the gardens to the public. That first arrival of mine was just eight years after the garden had been re-planted. Jardin Marqueyssac is now listed as a National Monument. A team of five dedicated gardeners maintain the boxwoods with hand shears. It’s been almost 20 years since the renovation and the garden has grown back to what it was at the height of Cerval’s vision.
Peacocks wander freely through the garden. The green of the garden seems to accentuate the brilliant colours of the birds! Photo - Rolf E. Staerck/Shutterstock.com
That Sunday morning I walked the whole five kilometres of Cerval’s garden walks, captivated by the views of the valley below and the impressive chateaux in the distance. Since then I have visited this garden five times, and each time I am mesmerised by its charm, its idiosyncratic character and its impressive location.
The last time I visited the interior walls of the chateau were papered with petitions protesting a proposed new road that would cut through the heart of the Dordogne River valley and disturb the idyllic peace of this remnant of mediaeval magic. I do hope the protesters were heard.
Text: Sandra Ross