While we were off the ship, it moved from Challones sur Loire to Bouchemaine, the furtherest point of our navigation of the Loire. Beyond Bouchmaine, the river is too unpredictable to be reliably navigable in all seasons. From Bouchmaine, we spent the next day traveling through the Chateau country, visiting the Chateau of Azay le Rideau, the fabulous gardens at Villandry, and touring the small castle at Usse that is said to have been the inspiration for Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. The largest and most impressive of the three is Villandry. The other two are more compact and ‘manageable’ for such a short itinerary – Usse is still a family home and in use, in part, as such by the current owners, a Duc and Duchesse who live most of the year in Paris, but keep a wing for the family’s use and have the rest open for tourism. Azay le Rideau is largely encased in scaffolding on the exterior, but the interior is interesting and gives some insight into what life must have been like for the elite back in the days before the Revolution, as well as giving you a pretty good notion of why the peasants revolted in the first place. There is a lot of evidence of the level of conspicuous consumption that went on in the era of the construction of these great chateaux, particularly when you consider that the ones we are visiting are among the more modest!
The truly ‘great’ chateaux are too far above the navigable part of the river to make a viable day trip, so those will have to wait for another trip. Villandry is the closest we got to a truly royal chateau and it is staggering, but even it doesn’t hold a candle to the likes of Chambord, Cheverny, Chenonceau, and Amboise. Nonetheless, the three chateau we visited here, plus those in Nantes, Angers, and even Clisson, are all part of the over 300 chateau and castles that are included in the UNESCO World Heritage designated Loire River Valley site, and are a real statement about life in royal Renaissance France.
Chateau and castle building in the Loire started in the 10th century, but had its great flowering in the Renaissance when the kings of France built their elaborate residential palaces and where they were followed and imitated by the nobility. Many of the chateau were looted and some were destroyed during the French Revolution, and those that remain today are largely maintained as tourist attractions and historical monuments and museums.
Only such smaller examples as Usse continue in use as even part time residences, and even Usse is largely used as a museum and tourist attraction today. The owners have an arrangement with a local costumer – our guide wasn’t sure if the costumes were period or reproductions – and seasonally, mannequins are set in the various furnished rooms, dressed in period wear to give a sense of what life was like in various eras at the Chateau. During our visit, it was late Victorian/early Edwardian and the clothes, authentic or reproduction, were stunning.
Our first visit was to Azay le Rideau. Never completed as originally designed, Azay le Rideau was constructed between 1518 and 1527 on the site of a 12th century fortification, on an island in the Indre River, a tributary of the Loire. The site was acquired by Giles Berthelot, mayor of Tours and Treasurer General to King Francis I, and he began construction in 1518. The site was difficult, with soft mud and silt into which the foundation had to be sunk, and ultimately, the chateau rests on stilts driven into the mud. Progress was slow, and the chateau was incomplete in 1527 when, due to the arrest and execution of a relative, Giles Berthelot’s political fortunes changed and he was forced into exile. Azay le Rideau passed into the hands of another of Francis I’s courtiers, one Antoine Raffin, who elected to leave the chateau with only two sides of the planned quadrilateral building completed, resulting in the unique L shape that it retains to this day.
The fortunes of the chateau waxed and waned over the centuries, as ownership passed to the Biencourt family, and, after a period of decay during the Revolution, a major restoration was undertaken by Armand Biencourt in the 1800s. The last remains of the 12th century castle were removed and a tower added on the east corner.
In 1899, the Biencourts were forced, by financial difficulties, to sell the chateau to a wealthy businessman from Tours who wanted to sell the contents, including a collection of over 300 historical portraits, for profit, and the chateau was stripped of its furnishings and artwork and then was acquired by the French state in 1905 for 250,000 francs, and declared an Historical Monument
It was nearly burned during the Franco-Prussian war, served as the seat of the Education Ministry during World War II, Today, it is largely encased in scaffolding while renovation and preservation work is being done to the exterior.