The Loire river valley is known as “the Garden of France” due to its fruity wine, beautiful châteaux, historic towns, orchards, asparagus fields, artichoke crops, and more. When one envisions the romance of fairy-tale France, the Loire region will meet every superlative expectation. Notable towns include Amboise, Angers, Blois, Chinon, Montsoreau, Nantes, Orléans, Saumur, and Tours.
Neil and I took a day-trip to three châteaux located southwest of Paris, and I’ll cover each of them in their own post. I would go back to the Loire in a heartbeat. The châteaux and the towns contain everything I love: a fascinating and rich history, stunning architecture, beautiful gardens, and sweet wine.
I would like to pause for a moment to make a note on the use of castle/palace/château. In English, a castle is generally considered to be a type of fortified residence built in the Middle Ages (5th-15th centuries) in Europe or the Middle East by nobility. A castle was a feudal stronghold, and so function (thick, tall stone walls to fend off invading armies or unruly peasants) usually trumped appearance. A palace is a grand residence, usually for a head of state or church, designed for aesthetic rather than defensive purposes. Palaces were built typically during the Renaissance period (14th-17th century, although they continued being built as late as the 19th and 20th centuries) when siege warfare was no longer as popular a method of gaining or defending power¹. A palace impresses first and foremost with a display of wealth, a castle with physical might. Of course, this is a gross overgeneralization and there is a lot of overlap between the two terms. In English, a château brings to mind a specific style of building, usually Swiss-inspired, typically found on a white-capped mountain where people strap boards to the bottom of their feet and throw themselves down hills for fun. In French, a château could be a medieval fortress, a Renaissance palace, or a 19th century manor house. Château is generally used when a grand house is located out in the country, like the many examples found in the Loire valley, whereas palais would refer to a grand house located in a city. The Château de Versailles was so-called because it was originally located in the countryside, outside of Paris. However, today the building is firmly urban and doesn’t bear any resemblance to a castle, so in English it is usually referred to as the Palace of Versailles. There were a thousand châteaux spread throughout the Loire, all with their own style and architectural features, ranging in date from the early medieval to the late Renaissance periods.
The Loire region has been inhabited since the Middle Palaeolithic period (300,000-30,000 years ago). The Celtic Gauls arrived in the valley between 1500-500 B.C.E. The Loire river became an important trading route between the Celts and the Greeks. The Romans conquered the Gauls in 52 B.C.E. and began developing a settlement, Aurelianis, that is today known as Orléans. They also built the city of Caesarodunum, now Tours, in 1 C.E. Loire comes from the Latin word liger, which itself is a transcription of the Gaullic/Celtic word liga, meaning “silt, sediment, clay/silt/sand deposit.”
With the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, three Germanic tribes –the Franks, the Allemanni, and the Visigoths–moved in and fought amongst themselves. In 408 an Iranian tribe, the Alans (a nomadic pastoral people), crossed the Loire and settled near Orléans. Things got really exciting in the 9th century when the Vikings invaded the west coast of France and crossed the Loire river in their longships. In 853, they attacked and destroyed Tours. They raided Angers in 854 and 872.
The Loire river effectively sections France between north and south, and land holdings strategically developed to reflect that geo-political divide. During the Hundred Years’ War (English House of Plantagenet² versus French House of Valois, 1337-1453), the Loire marked the border between the French and the English. The Maid of Orléans, Joan of Arc, convinced Charles VII to drive the English out of the country in 1429. Breaking through and lifting the Siege of Orléans was the first major French military victory following a crushing defeat in 1415 (the Battle of Agincourt), and was the first campaign with Joan as a member of the army. It was a turning point in the war, which eventually led to French victory and English defeat. (Neither country seems to have forgotten this rivalry, which really churned up French and English nationalistic sentiment).
The Italian Renaissance came to the Loire Valley during the reign of François/Francis I from 1515-1547. Francis served as a patron to Leonardo da Vinci, and brought the Italian artist and inventor to Amboise in 1516. Italian art and culture were absorbed by the populace, and the construction of many châteaux in the Loire region were heavily influenced by Italian architecture.
When the French kings began building their large châteaux in the Loire valley, the nobility followed suit. In order to retain whatever scrap of feudal potency you had, you had to stay close to the King and the seat of power. You couldn’t afford to be “out of sight, out of mind.” And you had to keep up with the Duboises and all the fancy châteaux they were building. You fought to get the best landscape designer, to build the most elaborate staircase, to have the most ornate series of gables, the most impressive variety of flowers. The Loire Valley became known as the “Valley of the Kings.”
The importance of the Loire Valley began to decline in the 17th century. During the French Revolution (1789) and afterwards, many of the châteaux were destroyed and converted into prisons or schools. Around 300 remain, and some of the most notable ones open to visitors include the Château d’Amboise, Château d’Azay-le-Rideau, Château de Chambord, Château de Chenonceau, Château de Chinon, Château de Montsoreau, Château d’Ussé, the Château de Villandry, and so many others.
In 2000, UNESCO added the central part of the Loire Valley to its list of World Heritage Sites.
¹Castles stand up rather well to swords, poleaxes, and horses. But technological improvements in weaponry (gunpowder, cannons, airplanes, bombs) made fortress walls redundant. This is an oversimplification, of course.
²The English House of Plantagenet was French in origin (Norman, and Angevin–a province in the lower region of the Loire river). The English monarchs held titles and lands in France, and were thus vassals to the King of France. The property and rights held by the English monarchs were a source of contention between them and the French monarchs, who tried to check and strip their power and holdings whenever they could. In 1328, Charles IV died without any sons or brothers to inherit. His closest male relative was his nephew, Edward III of England. His mother, Isabella of France, was Charles’ sister. Isabella claimed the throne of France for her son. Unfortunately, in 1316, a law had been passed in France that denied women succession to the French throne, so the French didn’t think Isabella had the right to claim it. The French wanted a Frenchman to be King, not a foreign English prince, and so a male cousin, Philip, Count of Valois, became Philip VI of France (the first King of the House of Valois). However, disagreements between Philip VI and Edward III (Philip seized Edward’s land, Edward decided to press his claim) led to all-out war.
Featured image for this post is from Wikipedia, not my own work.