In 2000, the central expanse of the Loire River, from Sully-sur-Loire, east of Orléans, to its confluence with the Maine at Chalonnes-sur-Loire, just west of Angers, was inscribed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, adding to the already long list of such designations in France. Straddled by the regions of Centre and Pays de la Loire, and meandering through four different départements, this stretch of the Loire has along its banks some of the most colourful and historical towns of France: Orléans, Blois, Tours, Saumur, and Angers, as well as gliding nearby many of the châteaux for which the area is world-renowned: Chambord, Chenonceau, Azay-le-Rideau, Ussé, and Chinon. An area rich in history since Roman times, this western stretch of the Loire valley truly justifies its UNESCO citation, awarded on the criteria of its architectural heritage, its status as an outstanding cultural landscape illustrating the interaction of humans and its landscape over two millenia, and for its embodiment of the ideals of the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment in European culture.
Much has been written about the more famous châteaux of the Loire, but many of the lesser-known châteaux are also well worth visiting. The Renaissance Châteaux Serrant, at St-Georges-sur-Loire on the opposite bank of the Loire from Chalonnes, features a fine staircase, nobly furnished apartments (in contrast to the draughty, vacant interiors of many of the more prominent châteaux), some marvellous tapestries, and a magnificent library boasting a first edition of the 18th century Encyclopedia edited by Diderot. The nearby Abbaye St-Georges is a noble building dating from the 12th century, and now houses the Mairie. The 15th century Château du Plessis-Bourré was built as a country estate for Louis XI’s first minister Jean Bourré in a mere five years, giving it an exceptionally harmonious feel. It boasts a still-functional drawbridge, and a unique painted ceiling in the Guards’ Room, with a colourful panoply of alchemist symbols, allegorical scenes, and grotesque and humorous figures. In contrast, Château Brissac was originally built by the Counts of Anjou as a fortress in the 11th century, and subsequent renovations and additions in later, more florid, styles give the château a somewhat startling hybrid appearance; it is also the tallest château in the Loire, reaching seven storeys in part. The interesting guided tour takes you through elegant furnished apartments, the picture gallery including a portrait of the famous Veuve Cliquot, a 17th century-style theatre built by a family ancestor who fancied her own soprano voice and purported to claim among her friends several famous composers of the day, and ends in the wine cellars with a more-or-less mandatory tasting session.
Near the western end of this delightful region is the charming town of Angers, the capital of the Maine-et-Loire département, and the historical capital of Anjou, the heart of the 12th-13th century Angevin Empire which at its height extended from Ireland to the Pyrenees, and the hereditary domain of the Plantagenet dynasty, which included among its notables Richard the Lion-Heart and came to a bloody end on Bosworth Field in the person of Richard III. The site of the prodigious Château d’Angers has been occupied since ancient times, and the fortress dominates the medieval old town and the Maine River. Built by Louis IX between 1230 and 1240, it is ringed by seventeen mighty round towers, and you can wander around most of the ramparts overlooking the former moat, now laid out into beautiful formal gardens. The Château houses a major work of medieval decorative artistry, the Apocalypse Tapestry, in a specially-designed gallery. The largest and oldest surviving work of its kind, it was based on cartoons from the Flemish tradition, and probably executed in Paris in the late 14th century. All of everyone’s favourite characters from St John’s fevered vision appear: angels, monsters, dragons, the chosen, the damned, the Beast, the Whore of Babylon, and of course running the show from on high, Christus Pantokrator. It is a fascinating narrative of contemporary events as well, if you know where to look; a good guidebook is de rigueur to appreciate its full grandeur.
The Cathedral of St-Maurice in Angers dates from the 12th century, and is the birthplace of a daring new architectural concept named after the town. The Angevin vaulting in the ceiling (also known as Plantagenet vaulting) sees the central keystone of each ribbed vault placed at a higher level (about 3 metres higher) than the top of the transverse arches, giving an airy, spacious feel to the interior, and without sacrificing structural integrity. This design was a great success; Gothic church architecture, especially in western France, became henceforth lighter, more graceful.
At the western end of the UNESCO Heritage Site is Chalonnes-sur-Loire, a charming village of Gallo-Roman origins. The Tour St-Pierre, built by the Count of Anjoy in an unsuccessful attempt to keep the Normans out, was badly damaged in the 100 Years’ War. It was restored by Hadouin du Beuil, and in 1422 was the scene of the wedding feast of newlyweds Gilles de Retz, otherwise known as the infamous Bluebeard, and Catherine of Thouars after their wedding in the nearby Eglise St-Maurille, named after the 5th century hermit and Bishop of Angers. The riverside setting is delightful, with pleasant views from the quayside.
The other great attraction of the Loire is, of course, wine, and the area around Angers produces some of France’s finest. There are nearly thirty different AOC vintages from Anjou; nearly all of the white wines are Chenin Blanc, and the reds mainly Cabernet Franc, but there are interesting and delicious variants. Especially delectable are the dry white wines from Savennières – if you can find them. And to round off that excellent répas, or even as an apéritif, the world’s most famous triple sec orange liqueur Cointreau has been produced in St-Bartholémy-d’Angers since 1849 – a firm local favourite.
© OKIO CDTA
Château de Brissac
© ALT J-S Evrard
© ALT J-S Evrard
© OKIO CDTA