Renowned for its sumptuous châteaux, the relics of royal days gone by, the glorious valley of the Loire is rich in both history and architecture. As the Loire runs through the heart of France, so the region embodies the essence of the French way of life. Its sophisticated cities, luxuriant landscape, and magnificent food and wine add up to a modern paradise. The Loire has long been described as exemplifying la douceur de vivre: it combines a leisurely pace of life, a mild climate, and the gentle ways of its inhabitants. The overall impression is one of an unostentatious taste for the good things in life.
POINTS OF INTEREST
The ancient port of Nantes was the ducal capital of Brittany for 600 years but is now considered a part of the Pays de la Loire. Many of its fine 18th- and 19thcentury buildings were built on profits from the slave trade. Modern-day Nantes is a lively city, with good museums, chic bars and stores, and open spaces. Construction on the Cathédrale St-Pierre et St-Paul was begun in 1434, but not completed until 1893. It is notable for its sculpted Gothic portals and Renaissance tomb of François II (1435–88), the last duke of Brittany. The Château des Ducs de Bretagne, now with a museum documenting the town’s history, was the birthplace of Anne of Brittany, who irrevocably joined her fiercely independent duchy to France by her successive marriages to Charles VIII and Louis XII. A smaller royal lodging lies to the west of it. It was here, in Brittany’s Catholic bastion, that Henri IV signed the 1598 Edict of Nantes, which granted all Protestants freedom of worship. The Musée des Beaux-Arts has a splendid array of paintings representing key movements from the 15th to the 20th century. Packed with mementos, books, and maps, the Musée Jules Verne is dedicated to the life and works of the writer (1828–1905).
Three of the greatest battles in French history were fought around Poitiers, the most famous in 732 when Charles Martel halted the Arab invasion. Today, the town is a dynamic regional capital with a rich architectural heritage. Behind the Renaissance facade of the Palais de Justice is the 12th-century great hall of the palace of Henry II and Richard the Lionheart. This is thought to have been the scene of Joan of Arc’s examination by a council of theologians in 1429. Notre-Dame-la-Grande, whose west front is covered with superb 12th-century Poitevin sculpture, stands out among the city’s churches, as does the 4th-century Baptistère St-Jean, one of the oldest Christian buildings in France. The latter contains Romanesque frescoes. The Musée Sainte-Croix has archaeological exhibits, as well as paintings and sculptures. Just 7 km 4.5 miles north of Poitiers, Futuroscope is a theme park dedicated to state-of-the-art visual technology, including the largest cinema screen in Europe.
ABBAYE ROYALE DE FONTEVRAUD
Fontevraud Royal Abbey, founded in 1101, was the largest of its kind in France. It now hosts concerts and exhibitions. The abbey’s nuns lived around the Renaissance Grand Moûtier cloisters, and the leper colony’s nurses were housed in the St-Lazare priory, now the abbey’s hotel. Little remains of the monastic quarters, but the St-Benoît hospital survives. Most impressive is the octagonal kitchen in the Tour Evraud, a rare example of secular Romanesque architecture. In the abbey church you can find the painted effigy of Henry Plantagenet (1133–1189), Count of Anjou and King of England, lies by those of his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who died here in 1204, and their son, Richard the Lionheart (1157–1199).
The pleasant cathedral city of Tours is built on the site of a Roman town and became an important center of Christianity in the 4th century under St. Martin. In 1461, Louis XI made the city the French capital. However, during Henri IV’s reign, the city lost favor with the monarchy and the capital left Tours for Paris. The medieval old town, Le Vieux Tours, is full of narrow streets lined with beautiful half-timbered houses. St. Martin’s tomb lies in the crypt of the New Basilica, built on the site of the medieval Old Basilica. Two towers, the Tour Charlemagne and the Tour de l’Horloge, survive from the earlier building. The foundation stone of the Cathédrale St-Gatien was laid in the early 13th century. Building work continued until the mid-16th century, and the cathedral provides an illustration of how the Gothic style developed over time. The Musée des Beaux Arts, housed in the nearby former archbishop’s palace, overlooks beautiful gardens. The impressive collection features works by the likes of Rembrandt, Rubens, and Degas. The Château Royal de Tours, a royal residence between the 13th and 15th centuries, houses modern art exhibitions and exhibits, which explain the history of Tours.
A powerful feudal stronghold in the 12th century, Blois rose to glory under Louis XII, who established his court here in 1498. The town remained at the center of French royal and political life for much of the next century. Today, Blois is the quintessential Loire town. The partly pedestrianized old quarter is full of romantic courtyards and fine mansions. Home to kings Louis XII, François I, and Henri III, Château de Blois has the most sensational history of all the Loire Châteaux. It was here, in 1588, that the ambitious Duc de Guise, leader of the Catholic Holy League, was murdered on the orders of Henri III. The building itself juxtaposes four distinct architectural styles, reflecting its varied history. Among Blois’ most impressive religious monuments are the beautiful three-spired Eglise St-Nicolas, formerly part of a 12th-century Benedictine abbey, and the Cathédrale St-Louis, which dominates the eastern half of the city. The cathedral is a 17th-century reconstruction of a Gothic church that was almost destroyed in 1678.
CHÂTEAU DE CHENONCEAU
Chenonceau, stretching romantically across the Cher River, is considered by many to be the loveliest of the Loire châteaux. Surrounded by elegant formal gardens and wooded grounds, this pure Renaissance building began life as a modest manor and watermill. Over the centuries, it was transformed by the wives and mistresses of its successive owners into a palace designed solely for pleasure. On July and August evenings, the Promenade Nocturne allows visitors to stroll about the gardens accompanied by classical music.
CHÂTEAU DE CHAMBORD
The brainchild of the extravagant François I, the château began as a hunting lodge in the Forêt de Boulogne. In 1519, the original building was razed and Chambord begun, to a design probably initiated by Leonardo da Vinci. By 1537, the keep, with its towers and terraces, had been completed by 1,800 men and three master masons. The following year, François I began building a private royal pavilion on the northeast corner, with a connecting two-story gallery. His son, Henri II, continued the west wing with the chapel, and Louis XIV completed the 440-roomed edifice in 1685. The innovative double-helix Grand Staircase was supposedly designed by Leonardo da Vinci. The two flights of stairs ensure that the person going up and the person going down cannot meet.
Orléans was the capital of medieval France, and it was here that Joan of Arc battled the English in 1429, during the Hundred Years’ War. Later captured by the enemy and accused of witchcraft, she was burned at the stake in Rouen at the age of 19. Since her martyrdom, Joan has become a pervasive presence in Orléans. A faded grandeur lingers in Vieil Orléans, the old quarter, bounded by the imposing Cathédrale Sainte-Croix, the Loire, and the Place du Martroi. The Maison de Jeanne d’Arc was rebuilt in 1961 on the site where Joan lodged in 1429. Inside, audiovisual exhibits and a short film recreate her life. A selection of European art from the 16th to the early 20th century is on display at the Musée des Beaux-Arts.
According to art historian Emile Male, “Chartres is the mind of the Middle Ages manifest.” Begun in 1020, the Romanesque cathedral was destroyed by a devastating fire in 1194. Only the north and south towers, south steeple, west portal, and crypt remained. Inside, the sacred Veil of the Virgin relic was the sole treasure to survive. Peasant and lord alike labored to rebuild the church in just 25 years. Few alterations were made after 1250 and, fortunately, Chartres was left unscathed by the Wars of Religion and the French Revolution. The result is an authentic Gothic cathedral. A program of renovation is ongoing and may result in partial closures.