For travelers to France this year, there’s a big birthday bash you won’t want to miss. 2013 marks the 400th anniversary of André Le Nôtre, the father of the jardin à la français (the French formal garden), and the Île-de-France region is honoring the man who left a profound mark on French cultural heritage. This rock star of the garden world (if such a thing exists) experimented with landscape design on a grand scale; the Louis XIV's royal playgrounds became Le Notre’s blank canvases. Wildly ambitious, Le Nôtre leveled landscapes to open up endless perspectives, diverted rivers, and created incredible fountains – complete with powerful jets – that continue to mesmerize visitors today. Here's a round-up of celebratory events, many of which make for fabulous day trips from the French capital.
Jardin des Tuileries in Paris
As the son of the chief gardener of the Jardin des Tuileries, Le Nôtre was raised in the shadow of the Louvre. First engineered by his grandfather in 1594, the Tuileries was radically transformed by Le Nôtre under the reign of Louis XIV, and today it’s considered one of his masterpieces. This is where 17th century aristocrats paraded in all their finery, and today the Tuileries garden is still the place to see and be seen (just ask the couture labels that set up catwalk shows there during Paris Fashion Week).
The Event: To pay homage to the garden’s creator, a free exhibit has been organized along a promenade that guides visitors "In the Footsteps of Le Nôtre in the Tuileries." Running until September 30, this 13-step exhibit highlights Le Nôtre’s unique style and numerous innovations.
Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte
There is perhaps no better place to see the fruits of Le Nôtre’s ambition than at this magnificent, privately-owned castle, just 35 miles southeast of Paris. The precursor to Versailles, Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte (pictured above) took 18,000 workers five years to build (1656–1661). As the story goes, Finance Minister Nicolas Fouquet invited Louis XIV as the guest of honor at his housewarming party, and the Sun King was so blown away by the château’s opulence and artistry, that he went into a jealous rage and threw Fouquet in jail. The king then recruited the same top talents – architect Louis Le Vau, painter Charles Le Brun, and landscape architect André Le Nôtre – to start work on the palace at Versailles.
The Events: One of the best times to gape at the chateau is on Saturday evenings, when thousands of candles illuminate the gardens and state rooms. Taking place until October 5, these "Candlelight Evenings" conclude with a fireworks display. A special Le Nôtre birthday celebration will take place on September 14th, when a dinner party will be thrown around the Mirror d’eau in the garden. Bring your own dinner and table settings, dress to the nines (in green and white), set up your spread...and you might just win the prize for "best table." Le Nôtre fans will also appreciate the comprehensive exhibit housed in the château’s basement, showcasing some of his original architectural plans. Tickets to the chateau and gardens cost 16 euros (around $21).
The Palace of Versailles
Often imitated, never duplicated, Versailles is the big daddy of all the French chateaux. The royal residence where Marie Antoinette famously frolicked (and had a menagerie of exotic animals) today inspires awe in visitors who ogle the Hall of Mirrors, bejeweled Grands Appartements, not to mention the sprawling gardens dotted with sculptures and fountains.
The Events: Versailles is feting the King’s Gardener with a jam-packed program of concerts, dance performances, and fireworks displays throughout 2013. For the occasion, Versailles has even introduced a new mobile app. Four major exhibitions will shine the spotlight on Le Nôtre’s work. Every year Versailles hosts a major contemporary artist – like Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami – whose work graces the palace and gardens. This year Versailles invited Giuseppe Penone, whose tree sculptures are displayed throughout the gardens, creating "crisscrossing perspectives" with Le Nôtre's allées. The other exhibits include a look at the Labyrinth Grove; an examination of the royal court’s passion for botany in the "King’s Flowers"; and "Le Nôtre in perspectives: 1613–2013," which will be the grand finale of the year when it opens on October 22. Because of the popularity of Versailles, I highly recommend buying tickets online prior to your visit. Prices for adults start at 15 euros (about $20).
Other Gardens in the Paris Region
The father of the French formal style garden also waved his wand over the gardens at the Domaine de Sceaux, the Chateau de Chantilly, the Château de Fontainebleau, the Domaine Nationale de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and the Domaine National de Saint-Cloud...all of which are celebrating Le Nôtre with exhibits and events this year.