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 and half-timbered townhouses 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. However, the tree-lined promenades and hilltop château are undeniably pretty and the growing population of English expats bring an international flavour to the many cafés, restaurants and bars.
Chinon’s château, strictly speaking, is actually a fortress, rather than a typical Renaissance castle, perched high on a hill over the town, with a stunning view over the Vienne.
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, includes the apartments of Charles VII and Mary of Anjou, and visitors can also explore the middle castle, the Fort Coudray and the Fort Saint George. There’s also an excellent Joan of Arc museum on site, where you can see fragments of bone said to have been rescued from under the stake where she died.