CHÂTEAUX OF THE LOIRE VALLEY – PART I
The Loire Valley once marked the edge of the Kingdom of France, with the Loire River an important boundary between rival territories. So important was this region that the capital used to be situated in the valley. Even when the capital moved to Paris, however, the Loire remained a crucial territory. The valley’s exceptionally fertile land and strategically important location meant it was closely guarded by France’s nobility. This required lots of fortresses and citadels to built here during the early Middle Ages; and what began as defensive fortresses were then expanded, reworked, and renovated repeatedly as France flourished. In an over-the-top game of one-upmanship, the châteaux of the Loire Valley gradually became more and more extravagant, until the end result is a region peppered with an incredible array of magnificent stately homes, castles, palaces, and manors. France’s lavish royal past is everywhere in the gentle landscapes of the Loire Valley – as we saw today.
We began our explorations of the Loire Valley today with a visit to 2 of the regions châteaux: Azay le Rideau and Villandry. Both these castles lie to the east of Tours and, on our way there this morning, we found ourselves passing through storybook scenery: small Medieval villages clustered around small churches; woodlands and forest where rabbits, boar, and deer still run wild; and fields of wheat, barley, sorghum, corn, and millet – their crops already harvested and the rich soil left to run fallow for the winter.
Along the way we also saw a few châteaux nestled in amongst the fields. Many of these are privately owned estates and not open to the public (only 75 of the 300 or so castles in the area can be visited), and of those that ARE open to the public, only a handful are accessible by public transport. This helped make our decision of which castles to visit a bit easier and we do prefer to see things at our own pace and on our terms, starting this morning with Château de Villandry.
The Château de Villandry is a large castle famous primarily for its gardens. A defensive fortress was built on the site in the 14th century, but this was later expanded by the ruling family of the area and turned into the magnificent palace we saw today. Only the tower from the original fortress remains and has been incorporated into the 17th century château.
After its construction the chateau and gardens at Villandry passed through various hands including, at one point, those of Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother. By the 19th century, however, the castle had fallen into disrepair. Fortunately it was saved from complete devastation when a Spanish-born doctor named Joachim Carvallo purchased the property in 1906. The doctor poured an enormous amount of time, money and devotion into repairing Villandry and creating what many consider to be the most beautiful gardens in France.
Château de Villandry is still owned by the Carvallo family, though these days the family lives in a relatively small villa, housed in the former stables, whilst the main castle and its gardens are open to the public for visits.
The gardens are huge and include a water garden, ornamental flower gardens, and vegetable gardens. All of which we explored, despite the drizzle and cold autumnal weather. The gardens are divided into terraces, with long avenues of linden trees separating the 4 levels of gardens. Along the edges of each terrace, grape vines provided us with shelter as we strolled between the themed gardens.
The Sun Garden in the upper terrace is designed to capture the colours and effervescence of a sunny day. There wasn’t much sun about today, but we got the idea none-the-less.
The water garden, situated on the next terrace, is a classic creation based around a pool representing a Louis XV mirror and surrounded by an avenue of linden trees.
Numerous canals and waterways carried water around the gardens, adding another element of beauty to the arrangement.
On the lower levels the decorative gardens were bright with flowers, framed by box hedges and yew trees.
One of the gardens was designed to represent the many facets of love, including tender love, passionate love, fickle love, and tragic love.
Our favourite garden, however, was the edible garden. Colourful and aromatic, the entire garden was made up of medicinal and edible plants, including vividly purple cabbages, bright orange pumpkins, and green banks of herbs. Interestingly the plants in the edible garden are all grown organically, and food harvested from there is donated to a local charity group that provides food for the poor and homeless. What a great use for all that marvellous produce!
Having explored the gardens of the Château de Villandry we continued on to the Château d’Azay le Rideau, a small castle built in 1527 and set on an island in the middle of the Indre River. (We didn’t realise until we got there that Azay le Rideau is currently under renovation, which meant most of the castle was “under wraps”!)
The current château of Azay le Rideau occupies the site of a former feudal fortress. The original defensive structure was built on the site during the 12th century, to protect the road where it crossed the River Indre. In 1518, however, the property was bought by Gilles Berthelot, the Treasurer of the King’s finances. Desiring a residence that reflected his wealth and status, Berthelot set about reconstructing the building in a way that would incorporate its Medieval past alongside the latest architectural styles of the Renaissance.
As with Villandry, the château of Azay le Rideau fell into disrepair after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. In 1905 the estate was purchased by the French state and was used as a base for the national Ministry for Education during World War II when they, like many other French ministries, withdrew from Paris. The château of Azay-le-Rideau is now one of many national monuments under the protection of the French Centre des Monuments Nationaux, and also forms part of the Loire Valley UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Despite most of the building being enshrouded in canvas due to renovations currently taking place, the château of Azay le Rideau is definitely one of the prettier castles we’ve seen in our travels. Its pointed, conical turrets, and ornate sculptural decorations make it seem like something out of a fairy tale. And the high ceilings, grand central staircase, and monumental fireplaces, lend it an air of grandness that is unexpected given how small (relatively speaking) the castle is.
Most of the rooms in the castle are open to the public for visits and are decorated in a 19th century style. The rich furnishings and ornate furniture certainly gave us a sense of how the noble who once lived at Azay le Rideau might have lived.
For us the gardens around Azay le Rideau made it even more charming. The waters of the River Indre surround the castle on all sides, creating ample opportunities to enjoy reflections of the castle in the stream (even if half of it looked like a canvas-wrapped box!). And the large garden, though much simpler than those at Villandry, made for a lovely place to amble.
After our tour through Azay le Rideau we made our way back to Tours for another quiet night in our sleepy little town. It was a little dreary today, so perhaps not the best day to go exploring fairy tale castles, but we still had a great time and are looking forward to seeing a few more of the Loire Valley’s best châteaux over the next couple of days. Join us tomorrow for more castles!