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French gardens to delight visitors in the bright, cold days of winter

Where to see frosty topiary, magical light shows and tropical glasshouses for a December gardening fix

Parterre and tree-lined avenue at Château Villandry, Touraine; Domaine national de Saint-Cloud, Paris hosts its third annual ‘Lumières en Seine’ Pic: Guillaumette Mourain / Lumières en Seine

Generally very few gardens are open for visits in winter and, while that is understandable, it is a shame. 

Winter is the perfect time to admire the framework of a garden without the upholstery of leaves and flowers. You can admire the tracery of branches, see the architecture of the trees and shrubs. 

Imagine a bright, cold day, seed heads and leaves rimed with sparkling frost, hedges dark against a blue sky or a misty morning in chateaux gardens, strolling parterres with a touch of Gothic romance. 

There are also special illuminations for winter in various locations around the country.

Read more: Visit epic Terra Botanica - France’s magical biodiversity theme park

Illuminations at two Paris venues

At the Domaine national de Saint-Cloud (92), which has ‘Remarkable Garden’ status, there will be the third annual ‘Lumières en Seine’. 

Running from November 17 until January 14, from 17:00 to 23:00, the immersive interactive trail is about 2km long with lights, music, floodlit sculptures and installations. 

There are ‘chalets gourmands’ (food shacks) along the route with hot and cold drinks, snacks and a magnificent carousel. 

Although the organisers say the route is passable (but difficult) with a pushchair, they advise the use of a sling or backpack as there are some pebbly or gravelled sections and a few slopes – Saint-Cloud is a large natural park with a forest and cascades. 

You need to book tickets (adults €20, children €16 lumieresenseine.com) and entry is through La Grille Clémenceau. You need to arrive by public transport as there is no onsite parking. 

Photo: Immersive interactive trail at Domaine national de Saint-Cloud is 2km long with lights, music, floodlit sculptures; Credit: Lumières en Seine

The nearby Jardin des Plantes in Paris also has illuminations running from November 22 to January 21 from 18:00 to 22:00.

This year’s theme is the jungle so expect a showcase of the biodiversity of tropical rainforests. Their illumination trail features animals and plants from four continents.

Tickets are from 15€. Further information can be found at jardindesplantesdeparis.fr 

Topiary animals, parterre and maze in Brittany

The historic gardens of Château de la Ballue in Brittany near Mont Saint-Michel at Bazouges-la-Pérouse (35) were first laid out in 1620. 

After centuries of neglect following the Revolution and two world wars, the gardens were restored and expanded in 1973. 

Now classified as a ‘Remarkable Garden’, it has parterres full of truly incredible box topiary in which to wander, including the ‘poulailler’ (chicken run) with topiary animals, temples, gateways and a maze. 

There  is a green tunnel of cypress trunks and a crinkle-crankle hedge surrounding an outdoor theatre. 

The only snag is that you will need to be a guest in the luxurious boutique B&B – pamper yourself in their spa and pool. Laballuejardin.com

Read more: France’s finest chateaux gardens and parterres are magical in December

300 world-famous topiary in the Périgord

In the heart of the Périgord, the gardens of 17th century Manoir d’Eyrignac were completely redone in 1965. 

They have 300 world-famous topiary, sculptures and parterres in yew, box, hornbeam and ivy. 

Eyrignac has been opening its gates to the public since 1987. 

The gardens are open in the winter every day from 10:30-12:30 and 14:30 until dusk. 

You don’t need to book in advance although it can be cheaper. Prices are reduced in winter and dogs are admitted if on leads. 

At the end of an avenue of majestic sombre hornbeams there is a Chinese pagoda with a verdigris roof, vividly contrasted against its red lacquered woodwork. 

Winter’s low sun will cast enormous shadows of the geometric-shaped topiary: cones, spheres, cylinders, pyramids and spirals are combined in complex patterns. 

Elsewhere in the gardens, in a less formal setting, the gardeners have created a topiary farmyard of ducks and geese, a dog, sheep, a squirrel, a peacock, chickens and rabbits. 

Although there is a restaurant and tea rooms on site, sadly they are both closed in the winter. All details can be found at eyrignac.com

Innovation and tradition Touraine

The gardens (and there are many) at Château Villandry are open all year but if you want to visit the chateau too you will need to go between December 2 and January 7 (excepting Christmas Day) when you can see all the Christmas greenery festooning the interiors, from the dining room to the bedrooms in their special exhibition ‘A Noël, la Nature s’invite au château!’ (Nature steals into the chateau at Christmas).

In the formal kitchen gardens you can see ornamental cabbages and leeks, and wander through parterres, separated by clipped hedges, which from above look like a huge pieced quilt. 

Photo: The parterre at Château Villandry is best seen from above; Credit: Guillaumette Mourain

There have been gardens since the Renaissance at Villandry but at the beginning of the 20th century they were redesigned by Joachim Carvallo, who blended innovation with tradition to create his sumptuous masterpieces. 

You can get a sense of the scale of it by scrolling through their Instagram or for more information, visit chateauvillandry.fr Adults €8 (€13 with chateau entrance), children €5.50 (€7.50), under 8s visit for free.

Palm house and orangery near Bois de Boulogne, Paris

If you would like to escape the winter weather, you could visit the glasshouses at the southern edge of the Bois de Boulogne. 

The site first served as a botanical garden from 1761, in the reign of Louis XV. The turquoise-coloured Serres d’Auteuil were constructed by architect Jean-Camille Formigé at the end of the 19th century. 

The largest glasshouse contains a palm house, an orangery and a tropical garden. There are now a further six contemporary greenhouses near the Roland Garros tennis stadium. 

The gardens are open from 8:00 (weekends 9:00) until 17:00 daily – the glasshouses shut at 16:00. 

Details, including an article entitled ‘Around the world in one day and six greenhouses’ on paris.fr

Rare aquatic plants in Lyon

In Lyon, in the middle of the park ‘Tête d’Or’, a greenhouse was constructed in 1888 to house the South American (Victoria amazonica) waterlily. 

The first of its kind in France, it was the pride of Lyon’s botanical garden, one of the largest municipal gardens in France. 

Its leaves are so big that rainforest deer can stand on them. The specimen at Kew was famously photographed with a rather sulky Victorian child sitting on it, complete with hair bow and pinafore. 

In 1982, to improve its growing conditions, a network of metallic veins, mirroring those of the underside of the lily itself were added to the roof. 

Now there are more than 150 aquatic plants including Egyptian lotus, star lotus and prickly waterlily.  

Open every day from 9:00 until 16:30 jardin-botanique-lyon.com

3000 species growing in Nice’s botanic garden

In Nice, the exceptionally temperate climate means you can enjoy the city’s botanical gardens all year round – the tropical and Mediterranean plants don’t stop flowering. 

Created in 1983, with over 3,000 species it covers an area of 3.5 hectares. You can reserve a place on a free guided tour which lasts about 90 minutes. 

The gardens hold national collections of sages and of agaves. 

Closed on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, the gardens are otherwise open from 8:00 (9:00 Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays) until 17:00. 

Free parking and free entry but no dogs nice.fr

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