One of the most extraordinary examples of the code of chivalry had its origins at the château of Saumur in the 14th century. In July 1360 the king of France, John the Good, a prisoner of the English for four years, was released to raise his own ransom and left his son, Louis of Anjou, in London’s White Tower as surety in his place. John promised his son the château of Saumur for his sacrifice but in 1363 Louis, tired of waiting for his reward, escaped. Without hesitation John the Good returned to London and captivity to preserve his honour, and died there a few months later.
At Saumur Louis, although disgraced, inherited the château and made it his capital. At first its towers were round but he progressively replaced them with polygonal shaped towers, much less vulnerable to the burgeoning cannonfire of the day. However it was the 16th century Italian engineer, Bartolomeo, who did the most to strengthen the fortifications. He built star-shaped bastions close to the ground, which were resistant to shelling and tunnelling and offered a formidable field of fire. Bartolomeo was far ahead of his time, and some uncharitable military experts believe that a century later, the famous French engineer, Vauban, got the idea for the design of the ring of forts he built in the reign of Louis XIV from a surreptitious visit to Saumur.
The château is open to the public. From the Place Saint Pierre and its lovely 12th century church, a steep street of medieval houses with wooden overhanging roofs leads to a remarkable tiered stone ramp, once used by knights in full armour to reach the castle entrance on horseback. The riding skills they must have shown, especially in wet weather, are part of a tradition at Saumur preserved to this day. Its riding academy has the largest indoor arena in Europe and is the home of an elite French cavalry regiment, the Cadre Noir. They can be watched in training, and, if you are particularly fortunate, in a full competition of jumps and dressage.
Saumur’s equestrian museum is in the château, which has a superb view of the confluence of two rivers, the Loire and the Thouet, from its upper floors, reached from the courtyard by a wonderful Gothic staircase. Perambulators have been known to find their way up in the goods lift, which in order to raise the cage cords has wooden wheels linked together with gears, one of the earliest examples of its kind. At the furthest point in the opposite direction, deep underground, is a series of particularly forbidding oubliettes, holes where prisoners were thrown down and literally forgotten.
Among the other museums in Saumur is the Musée des Blindés, the largest armoured vehicle museum in Europe. It owes its foundation to Saumur’s connection with the cavalry and has over 200 fully operational vehicles, including many rare French and German models, and the oldest running tank in the world, the Schneider.
In the Musée du Champignon visitors are shown the various stages in the production of button mushrooms, a famous Saumur delicacy collected along the sandy banks of the Loire. The mushrooms are stored in long galleries in the Tuffeau stone from which many troglodytic dwellings were formed upstream along the left bank of the river. Early man lived here and the caves are still inhabited, many millennia later. Twenty-first century dwellers have installed a number of creature comforts, including fully glazed windows complete with net curtains, and fireplaces with little chimneys poking out surreptitiously at the top of the cliffs.
The caves are also used to store and mature casks of the local wines, bottled by the Caves de Saumur, the largest of the municipality’s distributors. Among the best wines are the Rosé de Loire, Crémant de Loire, Saumur-Champigny and the dry sparkling Saumur Brut, expensive but superb. Saumur’s wine makers all use traditional methods. For example, the Crémant de Loire harvest must be transported in small récipients non étanches, non-watertight crates, and the wine must spend twelve months in laid-down bottles before release. The Saumur-Champigny appellation, created in 1957, produces a superb stony red, at its best for cool summer drinking.
The town is ideally placed for visits to the finest châteaux of the Loire. They include the three most remarkable: Chenonceaux, with its gallery spanning the river Cher; the royal, but unfurnished, hunting lodge of Chambord, with its famous doublehelix staircase where those going up never meet those coming down; and Amboise, huge, forbidding, the scene of grisly murders and executions. For those with more time on their hands, equally accessible is the ruined château of Chinon, overlooking a summer steam tourist railway to Richelieu, whose bar carriage dispenses vintage wines by the glass. Blois has the most notable blend of different styles; Villandry the finest gardens; Azay-le-Rideau and Cheverny the richest furnishings; and Loches the grimmest of dungeons. Saumur is the most westerly but more than holds its own with the Loire’s elite.
© Delphine Verneau