Exploring France's Châteaux
Published: June 2013
By Frank Rose
Along the garden paths and through the forest to nights in the châteaux.
We were in the middle of the woods when I began to comprehend the French passion for order. My wife and I were walking through the gently undulating farm country of Berry, on the upper reaches of the Loire. We had just driven down from Paris (two hours on the autoroute) and were expecting fairy-tale châteaux, rambles through the countryside, maybe a bit of history: Joan of Arc, the Renaissance court of François I . . . But here we were in the Bois de Cléfy, surrounded by a dense grove of chestnut and oak, standing in a grassy circle from which radiated a half-dozen arrow-straight walkways. Perfect symmetry. Classicism amid the trees.
What struck me was how magical it all was--the crazy sense of rationalism run amok. Only later did I realize that in this clearing I'd stumbled across the essence of France. Order, reason, fairy tales, France itself--all emerged from the Loire Valley during the chaos of the Hundred Years' War. In 1428, when Joan of Arc journeyed to Chinon to convince the dauphin to let her lead an army against the English invaders, the region was home to a wandering royal court about to be overwhelmed by its vassals--one of whom happened to be Henry VI, king of England. A century later, when François I restored Paris as the capital, this feeble government had evolved into an absolute monarchy ruling all of France. A century and a half after that, the Loire was a sylvan backwater, its deep forests and turreted castles remembered in the fairy tales told at Versailles--worldly parables like "Sleeping Beauty" and "Little Red Riding Hood" that had a moral at the end, the better to enlighten you with.
The next morning we ate breakfast at the 15th-century Château de la Verrerie, where we were staying, in a salon overflowing with ruffled tulips and purple lilacs. Our hostess, the Comtesse Béraud de Vogüé, offered to show us the rest of the château. In her gray pleated skirt and navy cardigan, the countess was the perfect complement to her husband, who'd strode past earlier in a tweed jacket and hunting boots, a black Lab at his heels. Though his family bought the estate in 1842, she explained, it dates to 1422. In the stone chapel, faded frescoes of the apostles adorned the walls; outside, a witch's hat of a steeple loomed ominously over the gravel courtyard.
Later, as we were packing to go, the count showed me the best route to Chambord, the grandiose hunting lodge built by François I in a walled forest. Leaving the pays fort, the hilly "strong country" of Berry, we would drive 50 miles across the pays faible, the "weak country" of the Sologne. A flat expanse of piney woods and sandy soil, bleak except during a few weeks of autumn color, the Sologne is known for its strawberries, white asparagus, wild boar, and marvelous chèvre. Following the count's directions, we arrived at Chambord on a road that cut arrow-straight through the trees to reveal, perfectly centered, the massive towers and fantastical turrets of the château.
That evening we sat surrounded by gilt and silk as the muddy Loire, swollen by two months of relentless spring rains, surged against its banks outside. Our hotel room at Le Choiseul, in the medieval town of Amboise, seemed a good spot to refine our itinerary. The visit to Chambord had been extraordinary, but a lot of friends had told us they'd come to the Loire only to end up chasing tour buses from one château to another. The valley has too many châteaux anyway; to attempt them all is to miss what makes it special--modest vineyards that have produced superb wines for centuries, platoons of white-jacketed waiters bearing tray after tray of tiny delicacies, the sense of order and humanism you might expect of the region that produced both Descartes and Rabelais. Far better to explore it on foot, we figured, and on our own terms--and if a monument historique presented itself, so much the better.
After dinner in Le Choiseul's formal pink-and-gold restaurant, we ventured out to the quay and saw the town--built, like most here in the Touraine, from the local limestone known as tufa--glowing white in the moonlight beneath the sheer stone walls of its château. The Loire is an aqueous region, adrift on its rivers--the Cher, the Indre, the Vienne, the Loir, the Loire itself. But its fabled douceur, the sweetness of its green fields and fertile soil and languid streams, is deceptive. Despite its bounty, this is a strangely mutable place, its skies unpredictable, its rivers untamed, its history capricious and violent. Take the Château d'Amboise, built as a fortress and transformed into a royal palace by Charles VIII, a vigorous and promising monarch who died at 28 after striking his head on a low beam. Today, little remains beyond the apartments he built in the late 15th century, a broad ramp designed to hold armored horsemen, and an exquisitely ornamented Gothic chapel poised on the ramparts, which for a memorable few days in 1560 were hung with the heads and carcasses of rebellious Huguenots.
The next morning in the shadow of the château, we discovered the Charcuterie St.-Hubert, where Michel Budts sells rillettes--a wonderfully funky spread of shredded, preserved pork--that has been cooked over a wood fire, as it has been in this region for centuries. We bought some rillettes, picked up a baguette next door, and headed off through town to the Forêt d'Amboise, about three miles away. On Rue Victor-Hugo, a narrow street lined with half-timbered tufa houses backed by limestone cliffs, we saw windows cut into the rock itself, trimmed with prim lace curtains on the inside and draped luxuriantly with wisteria on the outside. At a dip in the road we came to the Clos-Lucé, the fortified brick mansion where, at the invitation of young François I, Leonardo da Vinci spent the last three years of his life.
Leonardo was one of the spoils of war: no sooner had the French defeated the English in 1453 than they launched a series of fruitless military adventures in Italy that exposed them to the civilizing influence of the Renaissance. While the results can be seen at Chambord, parts of which were designed by Leonardo, they are even more apparent at the Château de Chenonceau, six miles southeast of Amboise, which we visited the following day. Built in the early 1500's by a financier of François I, it was transformed a half-century later into a pleasure palace on the Cher--first by Diane de Poitiers, mistress to Henri II, and then by his widow, Catherine de Médicis, who evicted Diane after his death. The only suggestion that it might once have been a fortress is a vestigial keep, marooned in a forecourt, that now houses a gift shop. Otherwise it is protected by water, not by walls: you encounter a moated forest, then the moated gardens, the moated forecourt, and finally the château itself, bridging the Cher.
During the Second World War, Chenonceau's strategic location--facing occupied France on the right bank of the river, its rear doors opening onto Vichy France on the left bank--made it an ideal escape hatch. But what the Nazis couldn't do, the weather had. A sign at the end of the castle's gallery said that for "security reasons"--heavy rains had brought the Cher to its highest level in 13 years--the rear entrance was closed. We looked out the windows at the massive stone piers supporting the gallery, the muddy waters swirling crazily around them. The path on the left bank seemed passable. Why not try it?
We drove a mile or so downriver, crossed a stone bridge, and parked. The path was a dirt road lined with buttercups, a wheat field on one side, the river and its flotsam on the other. Dodging puddles and muck, we made our way back upstream toward Chenonceau. Just beyond the château, we took a trail that veered into the woods. Fifty yards farther on, we found ourselves in a grove of tender young poplars arrayed in perfect rows, their pale green leaves shimmering above us. A light wind blew through the trees, the air sang with bird calls, and as we headed back to the river the sun emerged, turning the pale gray château a dazzling, glorious white.
The best way to experience the legendary white limestone of the Touraine, it turns out, is to sleep in it. Just outside Tours, in Rochecorbon, one of the more luxurious cave dwellings in France has been carved from the cliffs above the Loire. It's a hotel called Les Hautes Roches, and as you drive through the gates the rocks loom directly overhead. Our room had smoothly articulated walls, as if they'd been built of stone rather than excavated from it, and a faint mineral smell. Otherwise, only the rough-hewn ceiling and the extreme depth of the window wells suggested that we were actually inside the earth.
A mile down the road is the village of Vouvray, known for its Chenin Blancs. Like most Loire wines, Vouvrays are simple and unpretentious. The town seemed simple enough, too: a couple of narrow streets lined with modest shops, an old church, some neatly kept houses. Parking our rented Renault at a quiet intersection, we headed for the vineyards on foot. The road took us up past the cliffs to a wide plateau planted with vines. We found ourselves beneath a threatening sky, its towering clouds black and spitting raindrops one moment, peaceful the next. At one point a rainbow appeared, then vanished almost immediately. Here and there the road would pass old farmhouses surrounded by spring flowers--tulips, pansies, hyacinths, and peonies. We'd been walking a couple of hours when, at the outskirts of a hamlet called Le Grand Ormeau, we saw a sign in the middle of a vineyard: CHAMPALOU.
Didier Champalou is among the premier wine makers of Vouvray. Entering a walled farmyard, we found a workman in the barn--an athletic-looking man around age 40, with bristly black hair and deep-blue eyes: Champalou himself. Although he clearly wasn't set up for tastings, he insisted on fetching some glasses from the house. The wines he poured grew more and more intense--first a méthode champenoise, then a dry white, then a semi-dry, then a sweet moelleux--until finally he pulled out his '96 Trie de Vendange. It was a heady wine, richly honeyed, ambrosial on the tongue, and as complex and layered as the Loire itself.
Dinner that evening was at Jean Bardet, a Michelin-starred affair in Tours's 19th-century St.-Symphorien district. Bardet's Château de Belmont is a white tufa mansion set amid emerald lawns; inside, creamy yellow dining rooms are set off by spectacular bouquets of anthuriums and white lilacs. Bardet's cooking offers a health-conscious menu--heaps of fresh herbs, stocks in place of cream, that sort of thing--but it does not lack for conceits. Baby eel was glorious in its sauce of red Bourgueil wine; white asparagus topped with a poached egg and crisped Parmesan, even more so. We returned to Les Hautes Roches to discover a light dusting of limestone on the bureaus. It's easier to rationalize a forest, apparently, than the interior of the earth.
Our next stop, 30 miles downriver from Tours, was the Château des Réaux, a 15th-century fortified dwelling near Bourgueil. We crossed the moat to find our hostess, Florence Goupil de Bouillé, paintbrush in hand, beckoning us inside. The wainscoting glistened with a fresh coat of robin's-egg-blue paint: "It's a pretty color, don't you think?" she asked. We stepped over a pair of King Charles spaniels asleep by the doorway and followed her upstairs to our room. Looking around, I realized we were actually at the top of a square tower: the space between the battlements and the roof had been glassed in to make a room. Aperitifs, Mme. de Bouillé informed us, were at seven.
At the appointed hour we found her entertaining our fellow houseguests in the 17th-century drawing room. There was a thirtyish couple from Caen; a lawyer and his wife who'd retired from Paris to St.-Malo; two elderly women from San Francisco on their umpteenth trip to France. The Caennais spoke no English, the San Franciscans no French, but with the aid of Mme. de Bouillé's constant trilling sounds, we all got on famously. Eventually she led us downstairs to the dining room--a sunshine-yellow hall that once had been a stable--and disappeared. Moments later, two cheese soufflés came billowing out of the kitchen, followed by perfectly poached salmon with hollandaise, followed in turn by a heady selection of local chèvres. One of the San Franciscans, her tongue perhaps loosened by the marvelous bottles of St.-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil that kept appearing on the table, started telling us about her amatory adventures with the scion of one of Bourgueil's leading families. Even the Caennais laughed.
The next morning we drove to Chinon, a river town squeezed between the Vienne and the craggy heights that support its château. A few miles away, at the northern edge of the Fôret de Chinon, is the château that's supposed to have inspired Charles Perrault's "Sleeping Beauty." In the fairy tale, the sleeping princess's castle is hidden in a forest so thick with trees and brambles that only the tops of its turrets can be seen. In reality the forest seemed dark and more than a little desolate--the trees almost stunted, the few buildings we saw apparently abandoned. Nonetheless, we left our car by a half-ruined barn and started walking.
We passed an overgrown cherry orchard, and just beyond it, a stone farmhouse that hadn't been occupied in decades, its barns empty and forlorn. We'd been walking for an hour when the woods broke and we found ourselves in the tidy village of Rigny-Ussé. Soon we were staring up at the Château d'Ussé, whose terraced gardens and gleaming turrets stood in sharp relief against the deeply wooded hillsides behind it. At its feet, another road set off across the marshy Indre to the Loire. We continued walking, turning back from time to time to see the view: the pastoral farmland between the rivers, the forbidding forest rising above it, and in the middle the château, a magical hinge between the tamed and the wild. Sleeping Beauty's castle or not, it certainly looked the part.
We had one final walk mapped out: from l'Abbaye de Fontevraud, the 12th-century royal abbey a few miles west of Chinon, across the wheat fields to Candes-St.-Martin. Though the abbey is as extensive as most royal châteaux, its location in a fold in the hills gives it the appearance of humility. From the village you go down to Fontevraud, and the farther you descend the more extraordinary it becomes. Finally, beneath a soaring Romanesque nave, you encounter the polychrome death effigies of England's Plantagenet rulers--Henry II and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, their son Richard the Lion-Hearted at their feet. And it hit me that if it hadn't been for Joan of Arc, the United Kingdom would probably consist of England, Wales, Scotland, and France.
A major hiking trail, the GR3, passes near the abbey. We followed it into the woods and took a farm road from there to Candes-St.-Martin, a mile or so farther on. The road had already begun to drop sharply toward the Loire when a sudden bend brought us to a cobblestone square. At its center stood the 12th-century Church of St. Martin, a shrine to the Roman centurion who gave his cloak to a beggar and ended up as bishop of Tours. The church was small but majestic, with vaulted ceilings, brilliant stained glass, and--more unusually--crenellated towers, added during the Hundred Years' War to defend it from attackers.
It was late afternoon when we left Candes-St.-Martin, and we still had to walk back to Fontevraud. The sky, which had been gray all day, began to spatter us with rain. We were due that evening at the Château de Noirieux, a Relais & Châteaux hotel outside Angers, which looked to be about a 1 1/2-hour drive. I had a vague recollection of being told that the château's gates closed at nine, and no memory at all of where I might have written down the code to get in.
As the abbey church at Fontevraud came into view across the ravine, the trail turned steep. Slipping downhill, we arrived at Fontevraud chilled, sweaty, and smeared with mud. But there was no time to wash up and no place to do it anyway, so we drove across the Loire, picked up the autoroute, and pointed our Renault toward Angers.
It was 8:55 when we pulled up to the château. In the fading light we could make out the river Loir overflowing its banks below us. Yet the grandly proportioned château, with its balustraded terraces, its terra-cotta epergnes brimming with pansies, its poplars in perfect rows, conveyed a reassuring sense of civilization, which we were definitely ready for.
My French, none too good at the best of times, failed me completely in my exhaustion, but the desk clerk didn't mind: "You can speak English now, sir," she said helpfully. Meanwhile, bellhops materialized. Bags were carried off. As the car disappeared, we were ushered to a gabled room in the manor house. A half-hour later, freshly scrubbed, we made our way to the restaurant, which was still busy enough to feel festive. We slept late the next morning, so late that the restaurant was closed when we went down for breakfast. No matter: waiters started carrying furniture into the bar and set up a table for us there. As we sipped our coffee, my wife told me about the dream she'd had: how we had set out on a hike and found at every crossroads a waiter from Noirieux bearing bottles of Perrier, or a delightful little snack, or a beautifully wrapped set of directions for the next stage of our trip. I had to admit, it did sound like the way to travel.
The pays de la Loire extends 150 miles from Bourges, across the Sologne and downriver to Angers. At its heart is the Val de Loire, the royal valley that's home to the great châteaux. Take the A10 autoroute from Paris or the high-speed TGV to Tours.
Château de la Verrerie Oizon; 33-2/48-81-51-60, fax 33-2/48-58-21-25; doubles from $168. A Scottish castle in the heart of France, complete with a Stuart sedan chair in the entrance hall.
Le Choiseul 36 Quai Charles-Guinot, Amboise; 33-2/47-30-45-45, fax 33-2/47-30-46-10; doubles from $164. An 18th-century compound on the Loire, with the Château d'Amboise rising behind it.
Les Hautes Roches 86 Quai de la Loire, Rochecorbon; 33-2/47-52-88-88, fax 33-2/47-52-81-30; doubles from $175. The best of all possible cave dwellings, overlooking the Loire just outside Tours.
Château des Réaux Le Port Boulet; 33-2/47-95-14-40, fax 33-2/47-95-18-34; doubles from $88. Less a hotel than a moated house party. Avoid the cottage rooms unless you really like trains.
Château de Noirieux 26 Rte. du Moulin, Briollay; 33-2/41-42-50-05, fax 33-2/41-37-91-00; doubles from $150. A 17th-century château made over in the 1920's as a luxurious country house, only to be made over again as an even more luxurious hotel.
Restaurant La Tour 31 Nouvelle Place, Sancerre; 33-2/48-54-00-81; dinner for two $70. A luminous 14th-century spot in a town whose name is synonymous with a delicious Sauvignon Blanc.
La Maison d'Hélène Château de la Verrerie, Oizon; 33-2/48-58-24-27; dinner for two $52. Marvelous country cooking in a half-timbered cottage in the park of the château.
Hôtel du Bon Laboureur et du Château 6 Rue du Docteur Bretonneau, Chenonceaux; 33-2/47-23-90-02; dinner for two $60. An ivy-covered inn whose specialties include braised veal sweetbreads.
Jean Bardet Château de Belmont, 57 Rue Groison, Tours; 33-2/47-41-41-11; dinner for two $140. A temple of gastronomy, with the emphasis on worship. Twenty-one guest rooms (from $168) upstairs offer the best lodging in Tours.
Au Plaisir Gourmand 2 Rue Parmentier, Chinon; 33-2/47-93-20-48; dinner for two $88. In an old tufa house hidden in a tiny courtyard, Jean-Claude Rigollet artfully balances the earthy with the refined.
Le Toussaint 7 Place Kennedy, Angers; 33-2/41-87-46-20; dinner for two $77. Michel Bignon gives us a heady taste of old France, in a town house overlooking the strikingly grim fortress of Angers.
Charcuterie St.-Hubert 26 Place Michel Debré, Amboise; 33-2/47-57-23-71. Michel Budts makes his rillettes the old-fashioned way.
Charcuterie Hardouin 25 Rte. Nationale 152, Vouvray; 33-2/47-52-60-24. Earthy rillettes, ethereal spinach and salmon quiche, rice salad redolent of mussels and squid.
Vignoble Champalou 7 Rue du Grand-Ormeau, Vouvray; 33-2/47-52-64-49. Vouvray's best producers do wonders with Chenin Blanc, and Champalou's--particularly his sweet moelleux--are extraordinary.
Domaine Olga Raffault 1 Rue des Caillis "Roguinet," Savigny-en-Véron; 33-2/47-58-42-16. Chinon's leading wine maker produces reds that are fruity and delicate.
Art and Architecture in France 1500-1700 by Sir Anthony Blunt (Yale University Press)--The aesthete's tour of the French Renaissance, with Britain's most notorious spy as your guide.
A Wine and Food Guide to the Loire by Jacqueline Friedrich (Henry Holt)--Essential reading for the discerning Rabelaisian.
Anjou's 14th-century Apocalypse Tapestry, commissioned by Duke Louis I of Anjou. On display at the Château d'Angers, these panels vividly depict scenes from the Book of Revelation, with the beasts of the Apocalypse as hydra-headed English lions.
On the Web
La Touraine Insolite (www.calvacom.fr/touraine/) Restaurateurs Jean and Sophie Bardet direct you to their favorite châteaux, vineyards, and shops.
The French do love to walk: the country is crisscrossed by some 75,000 miles of hiking trails known as randonnées pédestres (from randonneur, "rambler") maintained by 1,600 local clubs. There are grandes randonnées (the interstate-equivalents), grandes randonnées de pays, and petites randonnées, each with its own distinctive blazes. All are long-distance trails: the GR3, for example, follows the Loire from its source in the mountainous Massif Central, in south-central France, to the Atlantic, more than 930 miles away. For information and guidebooks (known as topo-guides; available only in French), contact the Fédération Française de la Randonnée Pédestre, 14 Rue Riquet, Paris 75019; or call 33-1/44-89-93-93, fax 33-1/40-35-85-67.
Even more useful than the topo-guides, especially if your French isn't so good, are the detailed Série Bleue maps published by the Institut Géographique National. These maps show every house, every farm road, every forest trail. They don't show fences, and since some of France's forests are privately owned, that can be a problem. But they're great for the levees that line the Loire and its tributaries--say, at Villandry, known for its spectacular Renaissance gardens. There, a walk down a tree-lined lane takes you to an all-but-deserted levee from which you can view the village and the château, with a bucolic cow pasture in the foreground. Very Marie Antoinette.
An excellent source for both maps and guidebooks is the bookstore Géothèque (6 Rue Michelet, Tours; 33-2/47-05-23-56, fax 33-2/47-20-01-31. If you just want to ramble through the countryside for a few hours, however, your best bet may be to go to the Comité Départemental du Tourisme in one of the larger towns--in Tours (9 Rue Buffon; 33-2/47-31-47-48); in Blois (5 Rue de la Voûte du Château; 33-2/54-78-55-50); or in Angers (Place Kennedy; 33-2/41-23-51-51). In any event, don't worry too much about getting lost: this is an eminently civilized landscape, where trees tend to grow in rectilinear patterns and trails cut neatly through the forests. The important thing is to bring a crusty baguette, some chèvre or rillettes, and a good local wine.