JOHN’S JOURNEYS: THE GLORY OF FRANCE.II
John Burke continues westward along the Loire
As chronicled in my previous article, most of the leading châteaux de la Loire are treasure-houses of paintings, ceramics and furniture as well as tapestries and other art, while some are also models of landscaping. My description of the 17 within a 137-kilometre radius of Orleans explained that even those bare of furnishings are also magnificent examples of varied architecture.
The same goes for the other historic 16 built west of Tours, whose very cathedral incorporates three styles. Half of these châteaux lie south of the Loire, and the nearest of these to the city is Villandry (1532) which is famed for its gardens par excellence. The interior has paintings from the Venetian and Spanish schools.
The next nearest is elegant Azay-le-Rideau (1518) which, sitting on an island of the River Indre, replaced a fortress razed a century earlier. Lavishly furnished, it has belonged to the state since 1905. Downstream stands Ussé (1557), so much like a fairy-tale with its turrets and terraces that Charles Perrault made it the setting for his book Sleeping Beauty.
Really living there happily ever after (the Revolution) are descendants of the House of Blacas. Starkly different is a half-ruined fortress commanding the River Vienne. This is Chinon (AD 954) where waxworks portrays how Joan of Arc identified the French crown-prince there.
Close to the last two châteaux but on the very banks of the Loire is Montsereau (1440), a forbidding quadrilateral which houses a museum to Moroccan cavalrymen (Goums). There is an even stronger equestrian tradition at Saumur (987), which has been Protestant stronghold, Royal garrison, Napoleonic prison and riding-school in turn.
This squarish structure stands high above the river which is joined downstream by the Thouet on which stands Montreuil-Bellay (1025), divided into old and new castles that once formed a walled town. The loftiest structure, however, is Brissac, having been rebuilt after the Hundred Years War (1463). Although damaged again during the Wars of Religion and ransacked by the revolutionaries, it belongs once again to a descendants of the Brissac dynasty.
A further eight châteaux are among the total of 14 north of the Loire, and two of them lie just west of Tours. One is the former feudal fortress of Luynes, still inhabited by the ducal dynasty. The other is Langeais (AD 992), again rebuilt after English bombardment as a magnificent marcher castle, but rendered obsolete by Charles VIII’s marriage to Brittany’s ruler, Duchess Anne.
Much further north is an isolated pile that is located only 44 kilometres down from Le Mans. This is Le Lude (1298), yet another château to evolve over centuries and also to remain the residence of aristocrats whose direct descendants are Count and Countess de Nicolaÿ.
Their stately home overlooks the near namesake – Loir without an e – of France’s longest river, while three more châteaux are sited on or just west of other tributaries just before they flow into the Loire. One of them is Angers (AD 851) whose 17 towers did not rise above the River Maine until the thirteenth century. Anti-revolutionary Vendéens were incarcerated in the castle which now displays the magnificent, mediaeval tapestry of the Apocalypse.
East of there stands Montgeoffroy (1772), a manor-house with wide lawns whose Irish owner, Countess Walsh, played hostess to Napoleon and Josephine. Then there is a contrast between the two country-estates with almost identical names.
Not far from the Mayenne is Plessis-Macé which evolved from a fortified castle into a Gothic residence in 1450, whereas Plessis-Bourré (1468) is a white-walled and moated castle slightly west of the River Sarthe. It is a favourite location for historical films.
Completing this sextet is the last of the Renaissance castles, Serrant (1546), which is also the westernmost of all 33 – excluding Nantes on the estuary. With a unique collection of art and 12,000 books, this is the residence of the Prince de Mérode.
Yet there is a minor stately home near the Indre that must be remembered for an event in modern times. Candé, ten miles south of Tours, is where the abdicated Edward VIII married Wallis Simpson in 1937. I saw a splendid assembly of their belongings to mark the seventieth anniversary of what was a scandalous affair.
© JOHN BURKE