To Chantilly, just northeast of Paris, for the first autumn edition of the Journées des Plantes de Courson. The Château de Courson, southwest of Paris, was the birthplace, 30 years ago, of France’s answer to the Chelsea Flower Show, the key event in the country’s gardening year. Its begetters are a brilliantly creative couple. Patrice and Hélène Fustier, who conceived it as a day for keen gardeners to meet to discuss and exchange plants. In those days, gardening was very much a minority interest in France, with of course fashionably anglophile overtones. I remember, at the Coursons of the ’80s, the startling sight of Range Rovers and green wellies – rare sights around Paris in those days.
The Fustiers invited British judges for competitions (Roy Lancaster has starred at every one.) Specialist nurseries (then rare birds in France) joined in with enthusiasm. Soon the stable yard overflowed into the park and plants of all kinds congregated like party guests among the old oaks; there should have been a Renoir or a Matisse to paint the scene.
This year the Journées des Plantes had a spectacular upgrade. The Château de Chantilly is properly described as ‘princier‘ – princely – rising in faux-Renaissance grandeur among vast lawns and immense moats beside the Newmarket of France, the country’s greatest racecourse and most grandiose stables. The château is also France’s second greatest museum of masterpieces, after the Louvre, thanks to the collectios of the Duc d’Aumale, son of the last king of France.
Chantilly has conference hotels, restaurants and above all the space that Courson could not provide. And the translation, all seem to agree, is a triumph. Patrice and Hélène Fustier continue to preside, with the help of Prince Amyn Aga Khan, and the setting, under and among a grove of ancient oaks and beeches, beside the enormous moat, makes a wonderful frame for the plants.
Sadly the weather last week did not cooperate. A cold spell that saw snow in Belgium and Germany reached an icy finger towards Paris. On the first day it was 7°C and drizzling. Yet somehow the dim misty light made the warm colours of autumn fruit and foliage glow with inner fire.