By Rick Steves
With age and wisdom, I’ve learned to take some of my own advice: On any trip, I slow down and smell the roses or tulips.
Wandering through a European garden is one of the better ways I’ve found to unwind. Gardens soften the edges of life.
Here are a few of my favorites.
In France’s Loire Valley, Villandry is an average chateau, but its Renaissance gardens make the estate a showstopper.
The original builder, a wealthy 16th-century finance minister, installed the famously formal gardens as an interlocking series of flower and vegetable beds.
The eye-popping, geometric plantings are as manicured as a putting green.
On the other end of the valley is the Chenonceau chateau, France’s first great pleasure palace.
King Henry II built it for his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. The girlfriend immediately got to work, planting extensive flower and vegetable gardens, but when Henry died unexpectedly in a jousting accident, his wife, Catherine de Medici, kicked Diane out and planted her own garden.
Today, there’s a “Diane” garden and a “Catherine” garden on the estate, each lovingly maintained and safely separate.
For a full-fledged urban break, nothing beats Luxembourg Garden in the middle of Paris. It’s a color-filled impressionist painting brought to life.
After a day of pounding the cobblestones, I like to slip into one of the green chairs that ring the central fountain and admire the first flowers of spring, all the while watching Parisians being French.
The best British gardens are an unabashed assault on the senses. My nose always thanks me for detouring to the fragrant gardens at Hidcote Manor, in England’s Cotswolds area.
Hidcote is where garden designers pioneered the idea of outdoor “rooms.”
For another take on traditional English gardening, seek out Sissinghurst Castle, near Dover.
In the early 20th century, the writer Vita Sackville-West transformed the grounds into the quintessential English “cottage” garden.
The best show is in June, when the famous White Garden bursts with scented roses.
The granddaddy of the European bloom parade is Keukenhof. This 80-acre park between Amsterdam and The Hague has the greatest bulb flower garden on Earth.
For two months in spring, Keukenhof’s 7 million tulips, hyacinths and daffodils conspire to thrill even the most horticulturally challenged visitor.
Go in late afternoon for the fewest people and the best light.
It’s possible to rent a bike here and head out in the surrounding Dutch landscape, where signposted bulb routes range from 3 to 15 miles.
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© 2013 Rick Steves/Tribune Media Services, Inc.