Previously – Part 1. Châteaux and Chenin Blanc
Welcome to Part 2.
Château de Chenonceau
The château is built over the River Cher just outside the village of Chenonceaux. Here you can saunter through an enchanting private forest before reaching the deliciously manicured gardens and breathtaking château which Gustave Flaubert described as floating over the water and in the air.
Not without justification has it been described as the most beautiful house in the world.
If you indulge in painting, sketching or photography during your travels, you would have to search long and hard to find a more picturesque subject than Chenonceau, a château which proudly flaunts its French Renaissance architecture and embellishment, blended with French Gothic “leftovers”.
And you can visit Chenonceau in the low season. In fact low season is thoroughly recommended since it is the only time you can take a photograph of the château without other visitors getting in the way of your shot!
A visit here is an invitation to step back into the 16th and 17th centuries. Works by Reubens, Jordaens and Correggio punctuate the furnishings, fireplaces and Flemish tapestries, augmenting the mood. And the black-and-white chequered tiles of the 60-metre long grand gallery spanning the River Cher conjure up images of kings, queens, mistresses and sundry courtier-pawns indulging in games of marital chess.
If you crave yet more atmosphere, take your bicycle on the train and head for Château d’Azay-le-Rideau. It surely vies with Chenonceau for the title of the world’s most beautiful house. Even when beneath overcast skies, the reflections of this most narcissistic of châteaux are almost flawless.
The fairytale Château d’Azay-le-Rideau is truly a breath of fresh air in a modern day “info-angst and ruled-by-my-smartphone” world. Where Romanticism has all-but absconded from our lives and frogs no longer become princes. Her beauty is a Post-Industrial panacea.
I stayed a week at Résidence le Balzac in the town of Azay-le-Rideau, using it as a base for my bicycle forays into château country. Entire days were spent exploring country lanes and tiny villages which even Google Maps struggled to find. Often the only sounds I heard were the languorous grind of pedals and the rustle of a deer as I rode by.
Even near Azay, lesser-known châteaux and manoirs leapt at me as I rounded bends in the road: Vonne, Château du Gerfaut, Château de Saché.
At Saché, I almost expected Honoré de Balzac to appear in the doorway and ask me in for a glass of red, served with liberal portions of literary discussion and philosophy. (Did Balzac drink the local reds? I wonder….. After all, Balzac did spend much of his writing life at Saché).
No matter how tired I was at the end of each day’s 30-kilometre-stretch of cycling and wine-tasting (a most tiring pursuit), amidst the Loire Valley châteaux, I always returned to the Château of Azay-le-Rideau. Here each beautiful sunset I gazed in awe once again, marvelling at her perfect reflection melted into the tranquil waters of the River Indre.
After a leisurely ride from Azay-le-Rideau through the entrancing Forêt de Chinon, you will stumble across the romantic 15th century château which inspired Charles Perrault’s fairytale La Belle au Bois Dormant (The Sleeping Beauty). The privately-owned Château d’Ussé cannot seem to decide whether it is an imposing château-fort of military function or a romantic fairytale castle.
At the end of the day, I guess the result of Ussé’s indecision also depends upon the mood you’re in, the angle from which you view it, and how many glasses of wine you’ve already “tasted”.
For my part, I found the best viewing angle to be over the top of a glass of St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, sitting next to my bike on the opposite bank of the River Indre, eating Ste-Maure chèvre (the king of Touraine goat’s milk cheeses!) and Touraine mushrooms on a baguette. Hmmmmmm….decision’s been made: I reckon the fairytale wins the day.
Château de Langeais
Should ramparted mediaeval castles be more your penchant, rather than the serene beauty of the more stately châteaux, don’t miss Langeais. It is a very pleasant (and short!) bicycle ride along the banks of the River Loire from Ussé.
Rumour has it that Langeais is the castle used by the Monty Python team in the infamous “cow hurling” scene between the French garrison and the “silly English k-niggits” in Monty Python And The Holy Grail. Certainly having seen Langeais and the film, I am yet to find any evidence whatsoever that could convince me otherwise!
Neither should you miss the castle at Loches, south of Tours. This château comes complete with labyrinthine passages, dungeons, grotesque torture chambers and suspended iron cages. It is a salient reminder of the inhumanity that pervaded much of mediaeval Europe.
A word of caution: Don’t expect to see all the châteaux in the département of Indre-et-Loire. There are more than 1000 châteaux in the Loire region, and tired legs and an aching “bicycle seat backside” had me thinking that that the lion’s share of these must surely lie in Indre-et-Loire.
But there is one more “must see”: Villandry.
While the château itself at Villandry is interesting, the ornamental terraced gardens (replete with elegant maze) are absolutely superb. Whether in spring, summer or autumn, the gardens at Villandry surpass any other, except perhaps those of the other “big V châteaux”, Vaux-le-Vicomte and Versailles.
To travel the Loire Valley châteaux region too quickly would be akin to reading one of Honoré de Balzac’s novels a double-page at a time, instead of every word on a page.
It is for this reason that I recommend dissecting only one département on your travels, and to do so…..leisurely. Comme il faut.
Granted, some of France’s most magnificent châteaux – Blois, Chambord, Saumur, Angers and Chaumont – are located in neighbouring départements.
But then, there’s always next time, isn’t there?!
For once you have sampled the history, sights and tastes of Indre-et-Loire, the lure of a subsequent trip to the Loire Valley will be almost impossible to ignore…