France: Flowers and Scents

Be it public parks, gardens of grand chateaux or village window boxes, flowers fill the French scene, pleasing the nose as much as the eye. This is a country where visitors should take time to smell the roses.

Right in Paris, clients can stroll any number of parks and gardens. Those who know the more familiar spots might explore the themed gardens of Parc Andre Citroen, frequently described as futuristic. Comprising 35 acres of flowers, trees, shrubs, ornamental pools, fountains and a canal, this is a relatively new addition to Paris' green world.

In addition to the popular Bois de Boulogne, 33-1-40-67-90-80, with its walled garden of iris, water lilies and more than 8,000 roses, and the Left Bank's Jardin du Luxembourg, there is the Bois de Vincennes, Paris' largest green expanse. Once a royal forest, it was declared a park in the mid-1800s by Napoleon III. There is a chateau and its Parc Floral encircles a lake.

Most chateaux boast magnificent gardens and several are near Paris. At Versailles, 33-1-39-50-36-22, statue-lined paths lead past fountains and gardens, the latter designed by the famed Le Notre. Often termed a Garden of Eden, Versailles represents the best of French formal landscaping with geometrically designed flower beds enhancing ornamental lakes and canals. A path leads to the Orangerie with hundreds of palm and orange trees.

The Loire Valley offers flowery scenes par excellence. The International Parks, Gardens and Landscape Conservatory at Chaumont sur Loire, 33-2-54-20-99-22, is a likely place to begin. Situated at a refurbished 19th-century farm, it encompasses all facets of landscape gardening.

Guidebooks frequently name the Loire's Villandry, along with the Tuileries and Versailles, as the three "must-see" gardens of France. Villandry's gardens, more famed than its chateau, are spread over three terraces, dividing into a kitchen garden planted in colorful designs and rich with aromatic herbs, vegetables and fruit trees; an ornamental garden whose clipped greenery represents the theme of love, and a maze.

Other important Loire Valley gardens are those of Chateau d'Azay le Ferron (featuring interesting topiary); Chenonceaux; St. Jean de Beauregard (a walled potager, or kitchen garden), Castle du Pin, and Fontevraud Abbey.

Normandy claims its share of beautiful gardens, starting with the weeping willows and water lilies viewed from graceful bridges at Monet's home in Giverny. Between March and November, Le Bois des Moutiers in Varengeville sur Mer becomes an array of rhododendron, azaleas and magnolias, while the 24-acre Arboretum d'Harcourt, between Brionne and Neubourg, is filled with 400 species of trees and shrubs.

The Scent of Lavender
Clients can follow lavender trails from the Vaucluse to the Alpes de Haute Provence and the Drome Valley. Passing by such lavender-growing areas as Luberon, Mont Ventoux, the Verdon Canyons, Lure Mountains, the Barronies and Die, visitors view a purple and blue sea with a fragrance all its own.

Whichever route clients choose, they encounter picturesque villages, medieval castles, centuries'-old abbeys and numerous lavender farms and distilleries which are open to the public. They could try lavender honey, especially in the village of Valensole where it is a specialty.

Museums, gardens, village markets and fairs pay tribute to the important lavender trade. From June to September, distilleries explain the transformation of flowers into perfume.

If timing is right, visitors might join festivals such as the Corso de la Lavande in Sault, 33-4-90-64-01-21 (Saulte Office de Tourisme), the first Saturday and Monday of August, celebrating the area's favorite plant with flower-decked floats, music and traditional dances.

Grasse and perfume
Since the 16th century, Grasse and perfume have been intertwined. Today, three-quarters of all perfume contains essences distilled here. The countryside provides roses, jasmine, lavender, mimosa and violets which local laboratories convert into oils for the country's top perfumeries. 33-4-93-36-66-66 (Grasse Office de Tourisme).

In Grasse, the International Museum of Perfume presents the industry's history from ancient times to the present. Major manufacturers, including Fragonard, Molinard and Galimard, offer guided tours and museum visits. At some factories, fragrances can be purchased before famous names and elegant bottles add to the price. Recently, Fragonard opened a Museum of Fashion and Jewelry of Provence, 33-4-93-36-44-65 (Fragonard factory), in a restored 18th-century building next to the perfumerie. Fragonard and Galimard also welcome visitors in the village of Eze between Nice and Monaco.

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