Chinon lies on the north bank of the Vienne, 12km from its confluence with the Loire, and is surrounded by some of the best vineyards in the Loire valley. While the cobbled medieval streets give a marvellous sense of history, it’s a quiet town, and the actual sights won’t keep you occupied for any more than a day or two. Chinon’s medieval streets with their half-timbered and sculpted townhouses are pleasant enough to wander through, or you could duck into one of the town’s low-key museums.
Chinon’s château, strictly speaking, is actually a fortress, rather than a typical Renaissance castle. High on a hill over the town, with a stunning view over the Vienne, the fortress was closed for years but after a lengthy restoration process is now fully open for business.
A fortress existed here from the Iron Age until the time of Louis XIV, the age of its most recent ruins. Henry Plantagenet added a new castle to the first medieval fortress on the site, built by his ancestor Foulques Nerra, and died here, crying vengeance on his son Richard, who had treacherously allied himself with the French king Philippe-Auguste. After a year’s siege in 1204–5, Philippe-Auguste finally took the castle, from the English King John, ending the Plantagenet rule over Touraine and Anjou.
Over two hundred years later, Chinon was one of the few places where the Dauphin Charles, later Charles VII, could safely stay while Henry V of England held Paris and the title to the French throne. When Joan of Arc arrived here in 1429, she was able to talk her way into meeting him. The story depicted in a tapestry on display on the site is that as Joan entered the great hall, the Dauphin remained hidden anonymously among the assembled nobles, as a test, but Joan picked him out straight away. Joan herself claimed that an angel had appeared before the court, bearing a crown. She begged him to allow her to rally his army against the English. To the horror of the courtiers, Charles said yes. The reality is rather more prosaic: records show that Joan attended a small meeting with the king, so already knew who he was.
The fortress has been sensitively and impressively restored. The Logis Royal, or royal quarters, used to be spread over three buildings but now the only surviving part is the south wing which housed the apartments of Charles VII and Mary of Anjou. From the Logis, you go on to explore the middle castle, the fort Coudray and its towers and the Fort Saint George. Video projections, film and lighting provide good atmosphere and there are excellent information points which you can access via a modern smart-chip swipe-card information booklet. The site includes also a very good Joan of Arc museum dedicated to the many images of Joan and to false relics, including fragments of bone said to have been rescued from under the stake where she died.