Usse – The Sleeping Beauty Castle

IMG_2867IMG_2836The final stop of the day was at the Sleeping Beauty Castle – Chateau Usse. Like most of the chateaux, this one also started life as a fortification somewhere in the 11th century. It passed through several families and a variety of redesigns, reaching more or less the present form under the ownership of the d’Espinay family, begun by Jacques and completed by his son Charles in a combination of Renaissance and Gothic styles in the 1600s.IMG_2827 It changed hands again in the 17th century when Louis de Valentinay demolished a portion of the northern end of the complex to open an interior court to the spectacular over the parterre terrace, a garden design by Andre Le Notre, a famed landscape designer of the period.IMG_2831

It is traditionally held that Usse was the castle that inspired Charles Perrault in writing The Sleeping Beauty, and one of the towers is devoted to the fairy tale and stocked with mannequins illustrating key elements of the familiar story. It is certainly the case that Usse was one of the inspirations for Walt Disney when he designed the various Disney castles.

There are also mannequins throughout the portions of the chateau that are open to the public, dressed in period costumes – our guide indicated to us that these changed regularly, but during our visit, they were done up in costumes of the Belle Epoque. IMG_2854IMG_2845IMG_2846IMG_2843 Our guide was unsure as to the authenticity of the costumes – that is if they were really period clothing or reproductions. In either event, they were gorgeous, even if the overall effect was slightly creepy.  The rooms are done in period furnishings that have belonged to the family and various items from their travels and collections are also displayed.  I was particular taken with a IMG_2839series of miniatures featuring notable monuments and buildings from around the world, but there were also weapons from a variety of locations and cultures around the world, military and other honors, and a vast collection of china.

IMG_2838In 1802, Usse was purchased by the duc de Duras and in 1813 was the scene of a number of meetings of a group of Bourbon loyalists about the possibilities of a Bourbon Restoration following the reign of Napoleon. Other notable guests included Francois Rene de Chateaubriand who stayed at Usse while working on his Memoiers d’Outre-Tombe as a guest of the duchesse Claire de Duras.IMG_2841IMG_2817IMG_2834

In 1885 the chateau was bequeathed by the comtesse de la Rochejaquelein to her great-nephew, the comte de Blacas. Today the château belongs to his descendent Casimir de Blacas d’ Aulps the 7th Duke of Blacas. He and his wife make their principal home in Paris, but maintain a wing of Usse for their personal use and they and their extended family usually spend a few months there each year.

Famed for its picturesque aspect, Usse was the subject of a French railroad poster issued by the Chemin de Fer de Paris à Orléans in the 1920s, and it was classified as a Monument Historique in 1931 by the French Ministry of Culture.IMG_2832

Gardens of Villandry

Our second stop of the day was the Chateau de Villandry. Owned by the Carvallo family since 1906, the Château de Villandry is open to the public and is one of the most visited châteaux in France; in 2007 the château received about 330,000 visitors, and while the interior is open for touring, our particular visit was restricted to the gardens, which are the most famous element.

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The property was acquired in the early 16th century by Jean Le Breton, France’s Controller-General for War under King Francis I, and, as with Azay le Rideau, a new château was constructed around an older fortification, a 14th-century keep where King Philip II of France once met Richard I of England to discuss peace. The Le Bretons maintained ownership for around two centuries until shortly before the French Revolution when the chateau was acquired by the Marquis de Castellane. He was dispossessed during the Revolution and the property was confiscated and in the early 19th century, Emperor Napoleon acquired it for his brother Jérôme Bonaparte.

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In 1906, Joachim Carvallo purchased the property and poured an enormous amount of time, money and devotion into repairing it and creating the famous Renaissance gardens that were our tour objective.

 

These include a water garden, ornamental flower gardens, vegetable gardens, and a maze. The gardens are laid out in formal patterns created with low box hedges and the vegetables are as ornamental as the flowers, planted for color and shape, not for consumption.

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In 1934, Château de Villandry was designated a Monument Historique and it is part of the Loire Valley Chateau UNESCO World Heritage site.

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Bouchemaine and the Chateau of Azay le Rideau

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.

Plan of the chateau
Plan of the chateau of Azay le Rideau
Tapestry
Tapestry
Detail of salamander crest
Detail of salamander crest of Francis I
Dressing Room
Dressing Room 

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.

Bedchamber
Bedchamber
Mantle with salamander crest Azay le Rideau
Mantle with salamander crest Azay le Rideau

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

Interior staircase Azay le Rideau
Interior staircase Azay le Rideau

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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Azay le Rideau
Azay le Rideau
Azay le Rideau
Azay le Rideau
Azay le Rideau
Azay le Rideau
Azay le Rideau
Azay le Rideau