Straddling a spit of land between the rivers Loire and Cher, the ancient cathedral city of Tours is the chief town of the Loire valley. It has the usual feel of a mid-sized provincial city, with some discordant shifts between the strikingly grand and stripped-down modern. It has its charms, however, with some good bars and restaurants. It also has some unusual museums – of wine, crafts, stained glass and an above-average Beaux-Arts museum – and a great many fine buildings, not least St-Gatien cathedral.
The city’s two distinct old quarters lie on either side of rue Nationale, a busy shopping street which forms the town’s main axis. The quieter centre part is around the cathedral, while the main tourist area lies around picturesque place Plumereau, some 600m to the west. Tours is also the main transport link to the great châteaux of Villandry, Langeais, Azay-le-Rideau and Amboise.Read More
Twenty kilometres upstream of Tours, Amboise is one of the highlights of the Loire region, with its beguiling mix of beauty, excellent food and drink and a genuine sense of history. The château dominates the town, but there are many other attractions, most famously Leonardo da Vinci’s residence of Clos-Lucé, with its exhibition of the great man’s inventions. Amboise draws a busy tourist trade, which may detract from the quieter pleasures of strolling around town, but does mean it’s a lively destination.
Rising above the river are the remains of the château, once five times its present size, but much reduced by wars and lack of finance; it still represents a highly impressive accomplishment. It was in the late fifteenth century, following his marriage to Anne of Brittany at Langeais, that Charles VIII decided to turn the old castle of his childhood days into an extravagant palace, adding the flamboyant Gothic wing that overlooks the river and the chapelle de St-Hubert, perched incongruously atop a buttress of the defensive walls. But not long after the work was completed, he managed to hit his head, fatally, on a door frame. He left the kingdom to his cousin, Louis XII, who spent most of his time at Blois but built a new wing at Amboise (at right angles to the main body) to house his nearest male relative, the young François d’Angoulême, thereby keeping him within easy reach. When the young heir acceded to the throne as François I he didn’t forget his childhood home. He embellished it with classical stonework (visible on the east facade of the Louis XII wing), invited Leonardo da Vinci to work in Amboise under his protection, and eventually died in the château’s collegiate church.
Henri II continued to add to the château, but it was during the reign of his sickly son, François II, that it became notorious. The Tumult of Amboise was one of the first skirmishes in the Wars of Religion. Persecuted by the young king’s powerful advisers, the Guise brothers, Huguenot conspirators set out for Amboise in 1560 to “rescue” their king and establish a more tolerant monarchy under their tutelage. But they were ambushed by royal troops in the woods outside the town, rounded up and summarily tried in the Salle des Conseils. Some were drowned in the Loire below the château, some were beheaded in the grounds, and others were hung from the château’s balconies.
After such a colourful history, the interior of the château is comparatively restrained, though the various rooms still retain some sense of their historical grandeur. The last French king, Louis-Philippe, also stayed in the château, hence the abrupt switch from the solid Gothic furnishings of the ground floor to the 1830s post-First Empire style of the first-floor apartments. The most recently renovated part of the château are the underground passageways, which have been both dungeons and larders in their time. The Tour des Minimes, the original fifteenth-century entrance, is architecturally the most exciting part of the castle. With its massive internal ramp, it was designed to allow the maximum number of fully armoured men on horseback to get in and out as quickly as possible. These days it leads down to the pleasant gardens, which in turn lead to the exit.
Château de Villandry
Château de VillandryEven if gardens aren’t normally your thing, those at the Château de Villandry are unmissable. Thirteen kilometres west of Tours along the Cher, this recreated Renaissance garden is as much symbolic as ornamental or practical. At the topmost level is a large, formal water garden in the elevated Classical spirit. Next down, beside the château itself, is the ornamental garden, which features geometrical arrangements of box hedges symbolizing different kinds of love: tender, passionate, fickle and tragic. But the highlight, spread out at the lowest level across 12,500 square metres, is the potager, or Renaissance kitchen garden. Carrots, cabbages and aubergines are arranged into intricate patterns, while rose bowers and miniature box hedges form a kind of frame. Even in winter, there is almost always something to see, as the entire area is replanted twice a year. At the far end of the garden, overlooked by the squat tower of the village church, beautiful vine-shaded paths run past the medieval herb garden and the maze.
The elegant château was erected in the 1530s by one of François I’s royal financiers, Jean le Breton, though the keep – from which there’s a fine view of the gardens – dates back to a twelfth-century feudal castle. It’s worth a quick visit, but pales in comparison to its gardens. Le Breton’s Renaissance structure is arranged around three sides of a cour d’honneur, the fourth wing having been demolished in the eighteenth century.
Château de Langeais
Château de LangeaisTwenty-three kilometres west of Tours, the small riverside town of Langeais huddles in the shadow of its forbidding château, which was built to stop any incursions up the Loire by the Bretons. This threat ended with the marriage of Charles VIII and Duchess Anne of Brittany in 1491, which was celebrated in the castle, and a diptych of the couple portrays them looking less than joyous at their union – Anne had little choice in giving up her independence. The event is also recreated in waxworks in the wedding hall. The main appeal here is in the way that the interior has resisted modernization, to give a genuine sense of what life would have been like in the fifteenth century. There are fascinating tapestries, some rare paintings, cots and beds and a number of chaires (seigneurial chairs). The banqueting hall has a large U-shaped table, piled high with imitation food, while in the huge marriage chamber, the gilded and bejewelled wedding coffer of Charles and Anne is carved with a miniature scene of the Annunciation and figures of the apostles, the wise and foolish virgins depicted on the lid.
Even without its striking château, the quiet village of Azay-le-Rideau would bask in its serene setting, complete with an old mill by the bridge and curious, doll-like Carolingian statues embedded in the facade of the church of St Symphorien. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has become a magnet for tourists. On its little island in the Indre, the château is one of the loveliest in the Loire: perfect turreted early Renaissance, pure in style right down to the blood-red paint of its window frames. Visiting the interior, furnished in mostly period style, doesn’t add much to the experience although the grand staircase is worth seeing, and it’s fun to look out through the mullioned windows across the moat and park and imagine yourself the seigneur. In summer, the château’s grounds are the setting for a restrained and rather lovely son et lumière.
Fourteen kilometres west of Azay-le-Rideau, as the Indre approaches its confluence with the Loire, is the Château d’Ussé in Rigny-Ussé. With its shimmering white towers and terraced gardens, this is the ultimate fairy-tale château – so much so that it’s supposed to have inspired Charles Perrault’s classic retelling of the Sleeping Beauty myth. The exterior resembles nothing so much as a Disney fantasy; you half expect to see Beauty and the Beast emerge. Inside, things are more restrained, apart from the rather kitsch tableaux telling the story of Sleeping Beauty. The most recent renovations are the attic areas, which are now open to visitors where you can see antiques and paintings. The château’s vineyards are also now producing wine, a sparkling Cuvée Prestige Brut, which is for sale in the grounds. The gardens, designed by Le Nôtre, are pleasant to wander in. The loveliest feature of all is the Renaissance chapel in the grounds, shaded by ancient cedars.