Loire Insider: Nicholas Tomlan, Botanical Director at Chenonceau

How did an American end up as the botanical director of Chenonceau, the most-visited private chateau in France? Nicholas Tomlan, who worked at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania for fifteen years before moving to France, would say he planted the right seeds. At Longwood, Tomlan worked in five different areas in the garden and met the French woman who he would become his wife. After they were married in 2004, he started visiting France and French gardens, and in December of 2014, they took the plunge and moved to France with their two young daughters. “I was fortunate enough to find an amazing opportunity at Chateau de Chenonceau in the Loire region,” he explains. “Here I’m responsible for creating new displays, managing and enriching the botanical collection, and also planning the plant combinations in large formal gardens next to the chateau.” Here Tomlan shares some of his local knowledge with Indagare.

What is the most surprising thing about being at Chenonceau?

The one-and-a-half-hour lunch breaks! No, I’m just kidding but it isn’t too bad actually. The most surprising thing is how everything fell into place with finding a job and moving and schools for our daughters. It wasn’t without complications, but we honestly couldn’t have expected anything more. My wife walks the kids to school, our town has five bakeries, a market on Friday mornings, and great wines all around us, what else do you need? As far as Chenonceau goes, getting to look at archives, and visiting rooms not open to the public are pretty cool perks, and I can say that surprising things are all around you when you work somewhere built in the 16th century.

What are the most unique elements of the Loire? The Loire region is special obviously because of the chateaux everywhere, but also because of the laid-back elegance that you find here. There’s no rushing around like in Paris, here people take their cues from the lazy rivers that slowly flow across the region. It’s calm countryside mixed with beautiful chateaux and gardens.

Do you have favorite restaurants or vineyards in the area? My favorite restaurant is actually the Orangerie at Chenonceau! I am lucky enough to be able to eat there from time to time and the food is amazing. I got to know Chef Canati who started here a couple of months before I did, and he is really starting to turn heads. I would definitely plan on visiting Chenonceau at lunchtime.

There are so many vineyards around the Chateau that make everything from amazingly affordable, easy-to-drink whites, rosés and reds to more complex and luxurious wines. Nearby Chenonceau is the town of St. Georges sur Cher. Just drive through the town and you’ll see signs for vignobles (vineyards) and the ‘Route des Vignobles Touraine-Val de Loire,’ a driving tour of the area’s vineyards in the area, many of which are open for tastings. The views over the vineyards and the Cher River are beautiful. The winery of Antoine Simoneau (21 Rue des Vignes; 33 2-54-71-36-14) is worth a stop with affordable wines that are quite good. I personally like Domaine Jean-François Mérieau (30 Route de la Vallée; 33-2-54-32-14-23) in the town of St. Julien de Chedon. They have a huge variety and the wine is amazing.

Where do you take friends when they visit?

When friends visit, we obviously go to Chenonceau among other castles like Chaumont sur Loire (33-2-54-20-99-22), which has a famous garden design festival every year. Bourdaisiere (25 Rue de la Bourdaisière; 33-2-47-45-16-31) has a large vegetable garden that specializes in tomatos. They have a tomato bar where you can lazily dine next to a field of dahlias. Cheverny (33-2-54-79-96-29) and Chaumont (33-2-54-20-99-22) are two other favorites. Also, there are lots of great towns to visit in the area. Within an hour of Chenonceau, you’ve got Tours (I like to call it a mini Paris), Blois (the former royal capital of the French kingdom) and smaller towns as well like Amboise (with another beautiful castle and a huge market on Sunday mornings). There are also lots of antique dealers, and I’ve been told that the best options are in Blois. If you’re lucky, you’ll see signs for a ‘broquante,’ which is like a huge garage/antique sale, often taking up entire towns. It’s quite the scene, and there’s always good food associated with any sort of event here.

What are some of your favorite gardens in the rest of the world? I would actually have to start back where I grew up. Longwood Gardens (1001 Longwood Rd; 610-388-1000) of course, but nearby is Chanticleer Garden (786 Church Rd; 610-687-4163), which is a plant lover’s dream, and also the campus of Swarthmore College (500 College Ave.) is actually a beautiful arboretum. There’s also WinterthurMorris (100 E Northwestern Ave; 215-247-5777) and Tyler (515 Painter Rd; 610-566-9134) arboretums among others. In France, my personal favorite has to be Le Jardin Plume (790 Rue de la Plaine; 33-2-35-23-00-01) in Normandy. It’s an amazing mixture of formal and wild that will surely impress you. Others in France are of course Versailles, Vaux le Vicomte, Courances (13 Rue du Château; 33-1-64-98-07-36), Villandry (3 Rue Principale; 33-2-47-50-02-09) and Chaumont sur Loire (33-2-54-20-99-22) among others. Gardens I’m dying to see would be in Tuscany, all the famous gardens of England and the beautiful Dutch gardens. Luckily now we can either hop in the car or train and Europe is there to explore!

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