Garden travel starts with desire…you want all the beautiful gardens and exotic locations, delicious new foods and intriguing local culture. But after 10 years of leading garden tours, I know that this desire will be best satisfied when its balanced by restraint, as that’s what will give you the most holiday pleasure.
People often ask me how my garden tours are put together in terms of destinations and the gardens we visit. I’ve been leading garden tours for Travelrite International for more than 10 years, and yes, it is a fantastic job. It’s not my main job as I run my own business as a horticulturist, helping clients create beautiful gardens, and I write about gardens for The Weekend Australian, and for Australian House and Garden magazine. I do some talkback radio too, answering garden questions on air. In my spare time I like to garden and visit gardens. You get the idea. I lead one main garden tour to Europe each year, usually in May/June, and often take a shorter, more local garden tour later in the year to New Zealand, Tasmania or Western Australia.
Travelrite have been running gardens tours for 25 years so they have a large database of gardens to visit all over the world. The tours I do for them are a collaborative effort, with the planning done at least 18 months ahead.
Putting together an itinerary for a garden tour is a balancing act. There are so many desirable places to go, but restraint is needed. Tours that have too many destinations, changing hotels every night, are exhausting and hurried. Two, three and four night stays in each place are so much better, giving time to unpack, to have leisurely breakfasts, and to explore those fascinating towns on foot during the late afternoon and into the evening. In Europe most of the shops are open until at least 8pm so you can make the most of that extra time after the day’s excursions are done.
River cruising has been growing in popularity, and having taken my first river cruise with my tour group last year on the Seine River in France, I know why. Being able to unpack once and settle in is incredibly relaxing, but unlike ocean cruising, there are no rough seas and there’s much better access to towns and cities where we moor. They’re smaller, more intimate vessels, and you’re up close to the scenery of the region through which we travel. On the downside, you don’t stay long in any one place, and most meals are eaten on board so you don’t have the same culinary experiences and interaction with the local culture that you do with land-based travel. For me a mix of land-based travel and river cruise is ideal.
In Europe, an itinerary that mixes drawcard cities plus smaller towns and villages offers a broad range of experiences. Picturesque countryside? Certainly. Historic places? Yes please. Plenty of gardens of course, with a mix of personal, private gardens, grand palace landscapes and others filled with botanical treasures. Some modern, some centuries old, some formal, some romantic. But even garden tragics – and usually their partners – want more, such as regional wine tastings, museums and galleries, guided walking tours of historic towns, World Heritage sites, and importantly, some free time to explore privately or just enjoy a long lunch soaking up the atmosphere.
When it comes to choosing the gardens to visit, from my perspective it’s a privilege to revisit favourite gardens and share my knowledge of them. But it’s also fun to include some new gardens on each itinerary to broaden my own experience and keep things fresh. Buying a copy of 1001 Gardens You Must See Before You Die may have been a mistake, but it’s a great quest to have.
My 2016 garden tour to Europe
The 2016 garden tour is in two parts so you can do either part or both together. The first part is 10 days in Croatia along the fabulous Dalmatian Coast, a pre-tour option to relax ahead of the more serious garden visiting ahead. The main tour is 20 days starting in France, visiting Paris, the Burgundy region and Strasbourg; then into Germany to Regensburg and Passau where we board a 7-night river cruise to Vienna, Budapest and other towns along the Danube River.
I fell in love with Croatia the first time I visited and have wanted to go back ever since. The Dalmatian Coast is spectacular, dotted with islands in a sparkling azure sea that make it a yachtie’s paradise.
My memories are of sunny days, delicious cold beer and the freshest calamari simply grilled over hot coals and served with lemon wedges, as we sit by the water.
Croatia is laid back and relatively undeveloped, and still inexpensive. If you love Italy, you’ll feel right at home, as Italy controlled the Dalmatian Coast for centuries and many of the influences linger. Expect light Mediterranean dishes, lots of seafood, aromatic herbs, excellent olive oil and local wines.
Our tour starts in the best possible way with four nights in Dubrovnik, at the southern tip of Croatia’s long coastline. Dubbed the ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’, this ancient walled city is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. It combines natural beauty and rich history, but best of all we can wander its streets in the late afternoon and evening when the crush of day-tripper visitors have returned to their cruise ships. We visit one of the small islands, and travel by private boat to visit an arboretum with spectacular views over the coast.
Moving up the coast, we head for the island of Hvar, rated as one of the most beautiful islands in the world, where lavender and olive trees grow to perfection. The old town of Hvar, where we stay, encircles a small harbour with a pretty piazza at its centre. It’s one of those places where you don’t know what to do first – just sit and soak up the atmosphere, climb up the hill to explore the historic fort and see the view, or follow your nose among the winding streets, poking in tiny shops selling handcrafted wares.
Catching the ferry to Split puts us back into city mode, although Split is not your average city. It grew up around Diocletian’s Palace, built in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, so the ruins are part and parcel of the city itself. Local guides are invaluable in explaining the rich history and culture on a walking tour, and in the evening there are strings of open-air restaurants along the harbour’s edge. In the area of Kastela, developed around seven small fortified villages stretching along the coast, an olive tree estimated at more than 1500 years old still thrives and a botanic garden in the grounds of a remarkable primary school is a precious resource. Nearby, the historic town of Trogir is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, set on an island now connected to the mainland. Fascinating, beautiful and a must-see.
From Split, our group will fly to Paris to meet up with the main garden tour, which starts there. There’s been more written about Paris than I can possibly add to, but I will say that if you are visiting Monet’s garden at Giverny outside Paris, then you simply must also visit his water lilies series of paintings in Paris.
Musée de l’Orangerie in the Tuileries Gardens was adapted specifically to house these paintings in two oval rooms. Few people realise how monumental in scale they are – the panels are 2m high and total 91 metres in length. They are awesome, breathtaking, moving and simply beautiful. I’ve been there many times and still shed a tear when I have to drag myself away.
The simplicity of the oval rooms and the natural light that emanates through the ceiling “immerses visitors in a state of grace”, as the museum’s website so aptly describes. If they aren’t enough, there’s a small and exquisite collection of paintings on the floor below. There are a few Picassos, some Renoirs, plus others by Sisley, Modigliani, Matisse, Rousseau, Utrillo and Cezanne. Not so many it blows whatever is left of your brain after Monet’s triumph, but superb. Recover in the light and airy café, which is next to an excellent shop, offering, as most art galleries do, good quality mementos and gifts.
A favourite garden of mine is at Chateau de Bagatelle, which is in the Bois de Boulogne, the green lungs of Paris. The exquisite little chateau, built as a pleasure house, is not open to casual visitors but our group gets a guided tour of its sumptuous interior and precious furnishings. The garden is large, covering 24ha, in the English landscape style, with ponds, waterfalls, bridges and follies, wooded glades, fine trees and expansive lawn areas.
The rose trial grounds are host to a prestigious international competition for new roses in June each year. The formal rose garden has more than 10,000 roses in bushes, huge standards and climbing roses draped along rope supports. Next to it a walled garden is devoted entirely to irises, which fortunately have been in full flower each time I’ve visited. This leads to a further series of garden rooms such as a French-style potager, with low hurdles of espaliered fruit trees and walls clad with roses and clematis. My greatest excitement though is the peony garden, perhaps a 80m long, crammed full of fat, luscious blooms of every variety – some blowsy, others regal in their simplicity, some fragrant, some so heavy with petals they can’t hold up their heads. Even though I’ve photographed them all before, I can’t help taking more shots. I have serious peony envy, living in a climate where it is impossible to grow them.
It’s not far from Paris to the Burgundy region, home to famous wine names such as Nuit St George and some beautiful countryside. There’s a garden visit on the way at the Abbey de Fontenay, the oldest preserved Cistercian abbey in the world, surrounded by 1200 ha of landscape park. This is a new visit for me but it was transformed by landscape architect Peter Holms in 1977 and classified as a Remarkable Garden in 2004. Beaune, where we are based, is a handsome walled city whose inviting streets that radiate from the central Place Carnot, are best navigated on foot. Apart from wine, it’s famous for the remarkable Middle Ages architecture of its Hotel-Dieu, which was founded as a hospital in 1443. It still houses a rather grisly museum of early medical instruments among its other treasures. The old apothecary and dispensary are also fascinating with earthenware pots from 1782 labelled with bewildering ingredients such as woodlice powder, eyes of crayfish and vomit nuts powder. There are also wonderful tapestries from Tournai, Brussels and Aubusson. The town is full of “caves” or cellars of individual wineries that offer wine tastings, or go to the Marche aux Vins and taste a degustation of the regions reds in an ancient church. Gourmet shops sell local cheeses and charcuterie, fruit liqueurs, mustards and truffles. We have a walking tour of the town with a local guide and later that day travel out through the Cote de Nuits wine region to one of the chateaux for a wine tasting.
One of the gardens we visit north of Beaune is the 18th Chateau de Barbirey. It still contains the service quarters, stables, dovecote, presses and barns that are part of its history and has an envy-inducing kitchen garden, which is enormous, laid out in the traditional grid. It overflows with vegetables, berries and flowers, while the orchard is filled with stone and pome fruit. Strasbourg is a little further on, just short of the border with Germany, in the Alsace region. It’s known as the “Venice of the North” for the way the branches of the Ill River wind their way in and around the city, and while the Venice comparison might be an exaggeration, it is incredibly pretty, especially the area called Petite France where half-timbered houses from the 16th and 17th centuries front the waterways and lean over the cobbled streets. From the spire of the Gothic Notre Dame cathedral in the historic centre you can see weeping curves of the Rhine River. It’s storybook Europe.
On a day trip from Strasbourg we visit the Chateau de Kolbsheim, which will be a new garden for me. It mixes a formal French garden in the upper part, with an English park in the lower garden, and has been restored by its current owners. We also drop in to the historic rose garden at Saverne, a treat for noses and eyes, with more than 500 different varieties.
Delving into Germany, we head for Bavaria, stopping on the way to visit a very personal, contemporary garden, that of Waltraud And Hans Fahrion. With a professional background in landscaping and garden design, they planned their own garden meticulously when they built their home. They’re keen on pruning plants into different shapes, including a marvellous cut-leaf beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Laciniata’) formed into a large, round ball. A doublefile viburnum (Viburnum plicatum ‘Mariesii’) has been expertly shaped to emphasise its graceful, lateral growth form, limiting it to one metre in height to preserve the distant view of the valley when seated at the outdoor table. It was 2009 when I last visited here and I believe they have continued to improve the garden with help of son Alexander.
From here on we’ll be in new territory for me, with two nights in Regensburg on the Danube River. The medieval centre of the town is heritage listed by UNESCO, but vestiges of its earlier time as a Roman garrison remain. In 2014 Regensburg was listed among the top travel attractions in Germany and friends who have visited loved its character and history. The Palace and Gardens of Thurn and Taxis are on our itinerary, as well as Max Buchhauser sculpture garden.
The final segment of the trip is the 7-night river cruise on the Danube starting at Passau and stopping at Vienna, Budapest, Esztergom, Bratislava (capital of Slovakia) and Durnstein. Our ship carries just 170 passengers and features floor to ceiling windows in the lounge and restaurant, as well as the fully covered Sky Lounge at one end of the sun deck. Details of the itinerary are in the Garden Tour Hub listing, so I won’t repeat them here. But I think it’s a wonderful way to finish, when the prospect of unpacking and thoroughly settling in for the last week, with all onboard meals and entertainment, is particularly appealing.
This post is sponsored by Travelrite. You can read the enticing full itinerary of Helen’s tour at 2016 Garden Tour of France & Germany with Danube Cruise