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THE LOIRE VALLEY



France's Valley of Kings

M
ention the Loire Valley and you conjure up visions of fairytale castles set against a backdrop of green fields and rows of poplars, hillside vineyards, and the swift-flowing Loire. The river, France's longest, gives the region its name; the Loire's waters nourish this land, the “garden of France,” a gentle, rolling landscape that seems to breathe peace and prosperity. The magnificent châteaux that suddenly appear on the horizon take one's breath away: these manmade wonders are surely as dramatic as any natural landscape could be. Built of “pierre de Loire”, the porous local limestone, each of the region's 300-odd châteaux played a role in French history, serving first as fortresses, later as elegant residences for aristocrats and royalty, and then as barracks or even quarries after the Revolution. Now the major châteaux have been restored and transformed into museums, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors each year from all over the world.

But the châteaux are not the whole story of the Loire Valley. This is the heartland of France, renowned for its tender light, moderate climate, and bounteous farmlands. The Renaissance poet Joachim du Bellay wrote of his longing for “la douceur angevine” of his native Anjou, and of how he preferred the modest house built there by his grandparents to all the palaces of Rome. Covered by the sea when the world was still young, the Loire Valley still shows its marine heritage in the rolling hills, fertile soil, and network of rivers left behind by the salty waters. This former sea bed is bordered by the Massif Central plateau to the south, Burgundy's Morvan range to the east, the green, green grass of Normandy and plains of Ile-de-France to the north, sea-battered Brittany to the west, and rural Poitou to the south. Within these boundaries, the pastoral landscapes of the Loire Valley display subtle but distinctive differences. The Orléanais boasts forests and fertile fields, streams and moors, and is famous for its roses: they not only enhance the beauty of the area, but also supply an export crop. From Orléans the Loire flows southwest to Touraine, with its vineyards, orchards, market and flower gardens. The Loire then meanders to Anjou, in whose most westerly reaches—known as Black Anjou—the countryside begins to resemble the wilder scenery of Brittany. White Anjou, however, remains firmly attached to the Loire Valley's pastoral tradition, with vineyards and gardens covering gentle slopes.

Turmoil, and a Golden Age

While the Loire Valley today may seem to be a haven of tranquility, this has not always been the case. Controlled by the Romans for the first two centuries AD, the Loire Valley fell prey to invasions by Huns, Franks, Visigoths, Vikings, and Saracens over the following centuries. Peace did not reign after the suppression of the barbarians, though, as the lords of Orléans, Blois, Touraine, Anjou, and the Maine continued to battle each other for control of the territory. In the mid-twelfth century Henri, Count of Anjou, seemed to have gained the upper hand when he was crowned Henry II of England and married Eleanor of Aquitaine, whose dowry brought him lands that reached as far as the southwest corner of France. His dominion did not endure, however, and the Loire Valley reverted to French control early in the thirteenth century. Still, the English did not relinquish the idea of owning the rich lands of France. They returned with a vengeance during the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453), inspiring Joan of Arc to take up arms to defend her king, Charles VII. The “Maid of Orleans” liberated that city, the last French fortress, in 1429. She was burned at the stake by the English in 1431, becoming a martyr who is venerated by French nationalists (and royalists) to this day.

The importation of the Italian Renaissance to France in the sixteenth century, in the relative peace after the Hundred Years' War, changed the face of the Loire Valley. Gloomy fortresses metamorphosed into graceful, light-filled castles that displayed their owners' wealth and power to best advantage. Kings Charles VIII, Louis XII, and François I brought the artistic ideals of the Italian Renaissance to the Loire Valley. To them we owe the renovation and construction of the great châteaux at Blois, Amboise, and Chambord. François I invited Leonardo da Vinci and Benvenuto Cellini from Italy to embellish his residences. Queen Catherine de Médicis, the Florentine wife of Henri II, continued the tradition of patronizing Italian artists.

The Renaissance was the golden age of the Loire Valley. When its importance as a royal seat diminished, the region reverted to its agricultural vocation. The gastronomic bounty produced by this rich land is nearly as celebrated as the châteaux. The Loire River yields shad, trout, pikeperch, eels, and (for a brief season each year) salmon. In the Orléanais and Touraine, the abundance of asparagus, leeks, strawberries, melons, pumpkins, apples, and more prove that this is indeed the garden of France. The Loire Valley is also wine country: Anjou boasts long-lived white dessert wines, aromatic reds, and tender rosés; from Touraine come tannic Chinons and Bourgueil, the best of which will improve with age. The ideal accompaniments to these wines are the region's excellent chèvres, from Selles-sur-Cher or Sainte-Maure, or the potted pork known as rillettes, a specialty of Le Mans.

Exploring the Châteaux

Originally a feudal castle, the château de Blois, located in the center of the town of the same name, became a royal residence in 1498 when Louis XII ascended the throne (he's the man on horseback above the château's entrance). Louis added a brick-and-stone wing to the château. The next tenant, François I, built yet another wing in the Renaissance style with an Italianate façade and a fantastic open octagonal staircase. The classical sobriety of the Gaston d'Orléans wing, added in 1635, contrasts with the exuberance of the Renaissance portions.

The ubiquitous François I also pops up at Chambord, the most colossal of the Loire châteaux, with no fewer than 440 rooms. Originally a humble hunting lodge, François had Chambord enlarged to its present extravagant state in the early sixteenth century. The Italianate structure may have been influenced by Leonardo da Vinci, who had been a guest at Francois's court. Many perceive his genius in Chambord's celebrated double-helix staircase, which allows one person to mount and another to descend without running into each other. On Chambord's broad rooftop terraces, visitors may wander amid pinnacles, turrets, and fantasy sculptures, then pause to admire the view of the immense park that surrounds the château. Once the hunting grounds of royalty, the land is now a national wildlife reserve. Nearby, at the elegant seventeenth-century château of Cheverny, the hunt is still a vital tradition. After viewing the castle's richly furnished interior, one can stroll around the grounds and visit the beautiful hounds in their kennel.

Set high on a cliff, the château at Chaumont-sur-Loire is slightly older than Chambord but has a similar massive construction, with fat turret-tipped towers. Catherine de Médicis brought her Italian astrologer, Cosimo Ruggieri, to live at Chaumont. He beguiled his patroness by making the faces of the king and their sons appear in the moonlight, along with the number of years they had left to live (a precursor, perhaps, of today's “son et lumière” shows?).

Though the town of Chenonceaux is often thronged with tourists, its château is still very much worth visiting for its intrinsic beauty, interesting history, and the rare works of art it holds. Built plumb over the waters of the Cher River, Chenonceau stands on the foundations of a former mill. François I acquired the castle in 1535 as payment for debts owed the Crown. Henri II made a gift of Chenonceau to his beautiful and ambitious mistress, Diane de Poitiers, but upon his death in 1559, his widow Catherine de Médicis ousted her rival, packing her off to the less majestic château at Chaumont. Catherine had a two-storey gallery built on the bridge that links the castle to the opposite bank of the Cher. The gallery served as a hospital during World War I, and during World War II provided a precious escape route, for it spanned the line of demarcation between France's Free Zone and Occupied France.

Reflected in the tranquil waters of the Indre, Azay-le-Rideau is a romantic château that time has barely touched. The early Renaissance architecture shows Italian influences, and the military features—turrets, battlements, and such—serve a purely decorative purpose. Inside, period furnishings and Flemish tapestries embellish the rooms.

The château of Amboise is an impressive sight: set at a lordly height above the town, it affords an exceptional view of the river and the Loire Valley. François I established a brilliant court here, graced by poets and artists: Clément Marot, Pierre de Ronsard, and, Leonardo da Vinci. Just outside of Amboise, and well worth visiting, is Clos-Luc, where Leonardo spent the last years of his life. Visitors can admire models of his plans for a helicopter and other amazing inventions, but the real interest is in seeing the place where the great man lived and worked. The kitchen, where he liked to sit, is especially moving.

This is just a taste of the riches of France's “valley of kings.” Those interested in the region's earlier history should visit the troglodyte village of Trôo, which features cave dwellings dug out of limestone, grottos, a “talking well” (it has a startling echo), and Romanesque church. The château at Le Grand-Pressigny, a major prehistoric site, houses a museum with a fine collection of artifacts.

Apocalypse Now... And Forever

The cities of the Loire Valley hold their own share of treasures. Flower-filled Angers, situated on the Maine River in the western Loire Valley, is dominated by a powerful medieval fortress with seventeen striped towers. The castle houses the “Apocalypse Tapestries”, a fourteenth-century masterpiece depicting 70 scenes from the Book of Revelation. Light filters into Angers's Gothic cathedral of Saint-Maurice through magnificent stained-glass windows; those in the choir are especially fine (notice the Saint Christopher with the head of a dog).

Due east, in the heart of the Loire Valley, is Tours, a university town that makes a good base for both château and wine tours. Though Tours suffered bomb damage in World War II, many of its Renaissance town houses (the Hôtel Gouin is a fine example) and ancient half-timbered dwellings on Place Plumereau were spared. The cathedral of Saint-Gatien (named for Tours's first bishop) is a compendium of Gothic styles, with Renaissance towers for good measure. The glorious stained-glass windows date from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century. By all means make time to visit the Musée des Beaux-Arts in the former archbishops' palace, and admire a collection that includes works by Mantegna, Rubens, and Rembrandt in a precious setting.

Following the Loire River north and east takes the visitor to Orléans, a city whose main claim to fame is its association with Joan of Arc, who saved it from the English in 1429. Orléans sustained heavy bomb damage during World War II, but was meticulously reconstructed. The eclectic cathedral of Sainte-Croix (called “the ugliest in France” by one of Marcel Proust's characters), was built, destroyed, and rebuilt repeatedly over 600 years. Inside is a chapel dedicated to Joan. Those interested in the life of the warrior shepherdess will also want to visit the Maison de Jeanne d'Arc and the Centre de Jeanne d'Arc, which exhibit documents and memorabilia. Not surprisingly, Orléans hosts a Joan of Arc festival every year on May 7-8. The city's Musée des Beaux-Arts displays a Saint Thomas by Velázquez, and exceptional French portraits from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Completing the circle of the region's major cities is Le Mans in the north, between Normandy and Touraine. Its name is synonymous with car racing: the famous “24 Heures” takes place in June, at the Circuit just south of the town. Racing buffs should not miss the Musée de l'Automobile, also at the site. Le Mans's historic center, just west of the cathedral of Saint-Julien inside the ancient Gallo-Roman wall, holds a wealth of fine medieval and Renaissance houses. The cathedral itself is an architectural marvel, combining Romanesque and Gothic elements with splendid stained glass.


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