JOHN’S JOURNEYS: THE GLORY OF FRANCE I John Burke follows in the footsteps of her aristocrats.
There is no larger or finer museum of France’s masterpieces than in the valley formed by its longest river. It is that collection of forts and keeps, castles and mansions, citadels and palaces lyrically hailed as châteaux de la Loire. The vast area embraces the ancient provinces of Orleannais, Touraine, Anjou and Berry, which the French Revolution divided into six départements.
More than 600 leagues lie between easterly and early Gien (rebuilt in 1484), to the westernmost pile just before the Layon flows into the Loire as it nears the Atlantic. The time-span stretches from the ninth century, which saw the first fortifications, to the completion of a manor-house only fifteen years before the upheaval of 1789.
In the metric system it introduced, that total distance becomes 329 kilometres, while moated Bellegarde (1450), north-east of Orleans, is separated longitudinally by 100 kilometres from Loches which marks the southern limit of the historic assemblage.
There are a good thousand buildings of interest if country-houses are included, and UNESCO embraces 44 as a World Heritage Site. Touring only the 33 leading châteaux, of which eleven were royal residences, would be enough to defeat even professional visitors. They might be architects, studying mediaeval fortifications or the widespread Renaissance style, while artists would want to see for themselves why Renoir, Monet, Gauguin and even Turner from England were drawn to the luminous Loire.
The aristocratic residences also attracted such writers as Roland, Voltaire, Rousseau, Balzac, Dumas and Hugo. Chambord (1533), the most magnificent castle of all, saw performances of Molière, an early sign of the valley’s reputation for the best diction in France, so a student of her langage and literature might also be overwhelmed.
A historian too would be hard put logistically to cover a particular century or to find some continuity. Some strongholds owed their construction or destruction to the Hundred Years War, while both feudal and Renaissance castles saw widespread, random events long after serving their original purpose.
Most domains of the nobility were sacked, damaged and vacated during the revolution, but some still witnessed more history afterwards. For example, various châteaux were requisitioned as military headquarters or hospitals during the World Wars. Besides, there has been widespread restoration, right down to knick-knacks and other artefacts.
Amid all this culture, even the ordinary tourist should not overdo it, especially when the piles are surrounded by extensive and beautiful grounds. Three châteaux in one day is the absolute maximum for enjoyment and appreciation, given the profusion of
tapestries and furniture, canvases and ornaments, documents and utensils.
By the same token, since many a château merits a whole page in a guidebook or brochure, this article is the first of two. It concentrates on the 17 castles within easy reach of Orleans and before going beyond Tours which lies 117 kilometres downstream to the south-west.
Upriver of Orleans is massive and moated Sully (1610), soon the scene of a regent’s intrigue, and eventually the birthplace of President MacMahon whose descendents are the chatelains. Beaugency is a stark eleventh-century keep overlooking the Loire downriver, while barely twenty kilometers away is a Gothic pile at Talcy (1520) where the Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day is said to have been planned.
Back on the north bank of the Loire stands Ménars (1646) with its magnificent park and then Blois (1230) famed for its grand staircase but shamed by the assassination of Henry I. The two form part of a cluster of seven, the others being south of the river, with Beauregard (1545), noted for its fine grounds and portrait gallery, at the centre of a 17-kilometre radius.
Within this looms Chambord, already mentioned, whose park and lake are as impressive as its interior. Yet the most sumptuously furnished of all the Loire châteaux is Cheverny (1634) whose architecture belongs to Louis XIII’s reign. This is another stately home, its owner being the Marquis de Vibraye. And if Gien has its hunting-museum, hounds themselves can be seen in the kennels near Cheverny’s fine gardens.
In complete contrast is Fougères-sur-Bièvre (1470), a mighty fortress of many turrets; it replaced one abandoned by the English during the Hundred Years War.
Formidable too is the seventh castle, Chaumont (1511), from where Madame de Staël could gaze down on the Loire after exile by Napoleon. It is now a museum while the grounds laid out in English style see an annual festival of garden design.
Also overlooking the left bank is Amboise (1492) where a Huguenot conspiracy to abduct Francis II failed bloodily. Equally imposing as a royal residence is the above-mentioned Loches, but this is on the Indre, while Chenonceau (1411) actually forms a bridge of six arches over the River Cher. The latter was among châteaux to become military hospitals during the First World War. Another was Valençay (1540) whose architecture echoes both Chenonceau and Chambord, while the interior boasts several splendid reminders of Tallyrand’s residence much later.
Between there and Loches which was once captured by Richard the Lionheart, is the final château before Tours. This is the aptly named Montrésor (1005) which, after being rebuilt and then ravaged, was restored by a Polish count whose kinfolk guard his fine collection of memorabilia.