Monday, July 14, 2008

Valley of Castles

Detail of the ceiling of the Salle des Etats Generaux (Hall of the Estates General) of Blois Castle

I've always been fascinated by castles (possibly from the fairy tale stories I've read as a child) and the Loire Valley region is famous for its royal and seigneurial châteaux (castles) with several of them still inhabited. Being the "seat" of power of French rulers and influential lords, these historical edifices played a role in shaping the history of France. So putting together history and my interest in castles, I’d like to give you a short overview of the Loire Valley area as a small tribute to the cultural richness of France.

Val de Loire (Loire Valley) can be roughly divided into five areas --- the Orléanais, the Berry, the Blésois, the Touraine and the Anjou regions. Well, the Orleanais region was ruled by the Capetian Dynasty for several centuries, home to several seigneurial (feudal) châteaux and the setting of Joan of Arc’s heroic feat that made France win the Hundred Years War. Next to it, along the Loire River, is the Blesois section where more than 600 castles (whether big or small) are located like the royal châteaux of Blois with its four wings from different periods and Chambord which is the most famous for its size, symmetry, rich decoration, and of course the well-known helical openwork staircase. In the south of these two areas is the Berry district (not strictly part of the Loire Valley but whose history is closely related to the kings of France) which acted as the border between the English and the French territories during the Hundred Years War and the home region of Jacques Coeur, the successful and influential but doomed French merchant. The Touraine sector is laced by three rivers --- Cher, Indre and Vienne where many beautiful châteaux were built along or over one of these rivers. Two of the most popular are Chenonceau which straddles the river Cher and Villandry with its magnificent garden. And as the Loire River nears the Atlantic, we enter the Anjou section where you can find the tallest castle of the Loire Valley (Brissac Castle) and the largest tapestry in the world (Castle of Angers) among other things. (source: Guide Jaune: Châteaux de la Loire du Reader’s Digest, 1997)

I won’t be able to write here everything about these castles because there are a lot of interesting things to be said. I believe each château deserves an entry or two, and still, I think it won’t be enough. Suffice it to say that Loire Valley is rich not only in architecturally worthy monuments but also in history. We don’t have high mountains or deep canyons; our region is even far from the sea, but I believe the rolling landscape and the sweeping countryside with its charming towns and splendid castles more than make-up for the lack of white sandy (or rocky) beaches and high-altitude air.

Visiting châteaux might seem like a laid-back activity to some. But if you think of the time and effort you spend walking around the castle and its grounds/gardens and having to absorb the beauty and the history of the paintings, tapestries, furniture and the castle itself, I believe it’s not really an easy pursuit as it appears to be. Well, I’m not here to convince those who aren’t interested in this kind of recreation. As they say, each to his own. All I can say is that visiting these castles and gardens is like going back in time and reliving a certain period in history where modern knowledge is not yet available, and still, towns flourished, long-lasting infrastructures were built, and valuable works of art from small hand-painted porcelains to meters of hand-woven tapestries were created.


Davidlind said...

Very interesting post. And I love this portrait. You really do have some wonderful adventures. Thanks for sharing them with us.

lareine said...

hi david! the portrait can be found in the musée des beaux arts (art museum)in one of the wings of château de Blois… and the good thing about the museum is that you can take photos of portraits, paintings and tapestries as long as you don’t use the camera’s flash… a little bit tricky to take a good shot (photos come out blurred), which makes digital cam handy --- you can take as many photos as you want until you finally have one clear image :)

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