Depending on which way you define it, the three letters in the old saying known amongst Australian tourists “the ABC tour of Europe” can either stand for “Another Bloody Cathedral” or “Another Bloody Castle”.
When it comes to Europe’s great temples, even as a Christian my eyes glaze over at all the frills of Renaissance religiosity quicker than you can say “ABC”. Castles, on the other hand, are a different story. Whether they be foreboding fortresses atop lofty crags, princely palaces with large formal gardens or crumbling ruins that leave everything to the imagination, I’m spellbound by them all. And while a 1980’s red brick church in suburbia was for very good and practical reasons the inevitable venue for where my wife and I tied the knot, when it came to the expected romantic moment some months earlier where I brought out a ring and popped the question, that took place at a far more attractive ‘ABC’ – outside a twelfth century castle on the shores of Lake Geneva.
So it was with some excitement that I had finally made it to central France along the course of the River Loire, where by the time of the French Revolution aristocratic families had erected perhaps the greatest collection of stately piles on the whole continent. It was going to be impossible to check out the many hundreds that sit along a concentrated stretch of the Loire and its tributaries in a single weekend, but I was going to take a game stab at seeing a shortlist of some of the very best.
After a seven hour drive the previous night to my weekend base at Tours, I began the day at the château in the village of Villandry just a few kilometres to the south-west of Tours. While there is nothing left of the original fortress on this site that hosted the place of surrender of the King of England to the King of France in 1189, the earliest part that does survive is nothing shabby – a fourteenth century castle keep that forms an anchor of sorts for the rest of the mostly sixteenth century palace built around it.
Inside, most recently renovated as a family home just over a century ago, I found much of the downstairs living rooms oppressively dark and heavy – from the colours of the walls, the drawn drapes, sombre oil paintings and the weighty furniture – which all successfully managed to keep out the glorious warmth and sunshine of the mid-summer day outside. A single Moroccan themed corner room provided a nice counter-balance though, and the open windows of the upstairs bedrooms provided a gradual revelation of Château de Villandry’s real glory – the amazingly meticulous gardens that surround the palace.
I have no green thumb, and I must say no real desire to grow one either. With so little time to enjoy the fruits of the labour before it’s time to tend, weed and tidy all over again, gardening all seems like a bit too much hard work to me. But I can appreciate efforts that go into it, and the grounds of Villandry are easily the most impressive backyard I’ve ever seen, with greenery finely manicured to within an inch of its life and plenty of fragrant lavender and other seasonal flowers. Even the veggie patches were ridiculously smart, ringed by rose bushes and perfect box hedges.
After lunch in Villandry village I headed east along a small tributary of the Loire called the Cher. Here, in the mid-sixteenth century, King Henry II of France gifted the water-side residence of Chenonceau to his mistress Diane de Poitiers. I can only guess the queen, Catherine de Medici, must have looked enviously at the river while the mistress smugly told her to “build a bridge and get over it”, as between the two of them (on the death of the king, Catherine evicted the much older Diane and moved in to the place herself) they completed some fancy-schmancy extensions over the following thirty years to do exactly that.
I then headed to the town of Amboise, where a heavily fortified royal château of its own was the town’s impressive centrepiece along the riverbank of the Loire. Perhaps even more notably, it was here that Leonardo da Vinci spent the last three years of his life between 1516 and 1519 tinkering around under the sponsorship of King Francis I.
Intending just a quick pit stop, I found myself drawn to the attractive riverside town centre and an island that forced the Loire to branch in two around it. And with the temperature by this point pushing well into the high thirties, I was in serious need of re-hydration. With a café/bar on a little street right at the base of the château walls offering about twenty different frozen slushie flavours and a view directly up to the chapel where da Vinci is presumed to be buried, I spent far longer in town than I expected, drinking beer-worthy volumes of highly coloured sugar-ice while admiring the view and conversing for some time with one of the café staff in mutually ugly French until we worked out we were both Australian. When it came to inventive machines, da Vinci was a man many hundreds of years before his time, but I think even he’d be impressed with the ingenuity of a slushie maker on a stinking hot summer day like this.
Feeling refreshed I drove along a road following the course of the Loire upstream to the north-east towards Blois, and here and there little hamlets and smaller châteaux hugged the river. I pulled up to admire the view of one such castle at Chaumont-sur-Loire, only later to discover that this was the poor substitute for a home that Catherine de Medici had given to Diane de Poitiers after turfing her out of Château de Chenonceau.
Just beyond Blois was the village of Chambord, where King Francis I had a humble little hunting lodge built for weekend trips away from Amboise with his mates. Who knows if the king really had a lot of friends or if they were all just rent-a-crowd (and by paying da Vinci to be in your crew then arguably it could go either way), but with a whopping 440 rooms to roam they could have easily foregone the woods and played hide-and-seek with pheasants and other game without even leaving the house.
The evening twilight was on the wane as I drove down the grand entrance avenue, and the ostentatious roofline of the château revealed itself beyond the road’s small incline. With most visitors now gone for the day, a free parking spot close by was easily had and I was soon able to appreciate the views of Chambord from across the main moat with almost no-one else around.
I wandered through the grounds and once it was dark more visitors arrived, some by chauffeured black Mercedes, all immensely well dressed in their evening finery. From within one of the château’s forecourts a classical concert soon commenced and filled the warm summer air with the sound of strings.
While I loitered to see if the château would be spectacularly floodlit in the dark (it was – but only on one side), the music ended and was replaced by rapturous applause. Taking this as my natural cue that the evening’s entertainment was at an end, I returned to the Loire River at Blois.
But there was music in a town square in Blois too, beneath its own royal château, though this was more folksy and contemporary than the concert at Chambord. Hundreds of people were eating, drinking and dancing, with teenagers congregating on steps and at the edges of the square sharing bottles of red wine liberally into individual white plastic cups. Though it was now beyond midnight, upstairs apartments fronting this scene all had their windows open, and the atmosphere was happy and convivial. No-one appeared obviously drunk, obnoxious or aggressive, and the number of police or security staff in attendance appeared to be zero. I couldn’t imagine such a carefree, civilised and unregulated evening taking place like this in Australia, and I left Blois in the early wee hours with considerable admiration at how the French can sometimes get the good life so right.
Although I had now spent two nights in Tours I had not really seen any of it, so before I left I figured should spend at least a little bit of time here before visiting my two final châteaux. Even on a Sunday morning, when I’m well used to Swiss cities having slipped into a coma overnight, it was busy with traffic, and the pressures of centuries of a growing city made it appear a bit more functional than historical. I was impressed by the size of the nineteenth century train station with its rows of grand iron arches, and there were a few examples of far older half-timbered houses dotted around the inner city, propped up on either side by later constructions.
Mindful of my lack of remaining time, I didn’t have to go far from Tours to get to my penultimate château. The Château d’Azay-le-Rideau was built on the site of a much earlier fortress on an island on the Indre River, easily allowing for a surrounding moat. Still unfinished based on its original design, inside it was perhaps the most interestingly restored of the châteaux I visited, with one upstairs bedroom decked out in a sixteenth century style and another from the seventeenth. Downstairs the main lounge and library was represented as of the eighteenth century and next door to that, my favourite of any room I saw over the weekend, was a grand billiards room from the nineteenth century.
As appealing as this decoratively turreted castle was, I was also taken by the village of Azay-le-Rideau at least as much, and I really had to drag myself away in order to allow for one last stop.
I was back in the general area of Blois, but this time in the village of Cheverny. As the inspiration for Captain Haddock’s manor in the Tintin comics that many of my classmates and I read voraciously in primary school, the grounds of this château were huge and the main household looked typically “I’ve got bucket loads of spare cash” sitting at the end of a long, long driveway. But once to the side of the house its footprint didn’t seem so imposing, and with no other accommodation wings leading out in other directions it was actually relatively modest compared to its peers.
And yet, my abiding memory of this final château was something outside – beside the working kitchen garden was a kennel of one hundred barking hounds, whose 100x strength pong of ‘odour de damp dog’ soon successfully encouraged me to embark on my long drive home before I had hit the point of becoming completely ‘châteaued-out’. Billions of blue blistering barnacles, they smelt bad.