Sunday, March 24, 2013

Extreme gardening in Versailles

April is around the corner, but there's no use whatsoever in trying to change my wardrobe and wear something lighter for the spring, because it's not going to happen yet. Nope. It's officially spring here in Versailles, starting with the 20th of March equinox, but outside it's still completely freezing and only about a week ago we had a day of snow that wreaked havoc in the entire France. Yes, those little tiny 20 centimeters of snow stopped trains from working, closed whole institutions and provoked desperate announcemnts at the radio practically begging people not to go to Paris!...

But freezing or not, it's now the time to plant our gardens, balconies and terraces, or pots and jardinieres for some less fortunate (like me). The trees are starting to bloom (I have no idea how they manage to do it with these polar temperatures) and the camellia in front of my building is even starting to fade away (the blame goes again to that one day of snow). So I head to the local gardening festival, Esprit Jardin, braving the cold, wearing a light, springtime scarf. Big mistake!!!

After a small walk in the Place Saint-Louis, in front of the Saint-Louis Cathedral where the festival takes place, I decide to go visit the Potager du Roi, King's fruits and vegetables garden. The King mentioned in the title is (or more accurately, was), of course, Louis XIV. I'm not sure what led Louis XIV to have such a megalomaniac personality (I mean if it was nature or nurture) but that guy was completely out of his mind and if you're not 100% convinced of that after having visited his castle, you should definitely go see his garden, where the inner principle of the French style garden is perfectly materialized. Here are a few pictures from the festival (click to enlarge):

And here's the Potager du Roi:
Not only the mere mortals had to obey the almighty king, the plants had to be obedient too! Check out those fancy tree shapes (especially the last fan-shaped one), it is done with a rigorous technique consisting in the selection and cut and bending out the branches over time, poor things! Some of the trees in the garden are over 80 years old! Just WOW!!! And this is not over: Louis XIV's son, Louis XV, ordered the erection of the Saint Louis Cathedral on a North-South direction (and not an East-West one, as it is customary), because it had to "look" at the Sun King (whatever its name, it obviously runs in the family!).

The Sun King, Louis XIV, was very fond of his garden and used to do long walks around, almost every day. Literally around, because what he meant by "walks in the garden" was really a long walk on the terraces that surrounded it which surpassed the lower part where the actual plants grew, meaning that tens of gardeners were tending to them. Looks like Louis XIV liked watching people from above and didn't like to mix with the commoners, as he never actually descended *in* the garden. His path began at the castle by descending the 100 steps stairways near the Orangerie, he then walked along the Pièce d'Eau des Suisses (Swiss Pond) and entered the fruits and vegetables garden through a richly decorated gate, that includes his initial, L, gold plated. This gate is the only one that survived to our days, as the ones from the castle had a very crude destiny: they were melt into cannon bullets during the French Revolution.
There are many varieties of strawberries growing in the royal garden (among which there's the Versailles strawberry, an old, wild species, created for the king's sweet tooth) and it is said that he loved strawberries so much that he once ate one too many and he developed a rash after which the royal doctors had to forbid him to touch it. He was forced to relinquish in the end (even though he continued to eat some behind doctors' back) but a sun king is never defeated! What he did, he just shifted his passion to another sweet, hard to find fruit: the fig.


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