Au Coeur de La Touraine

The morning we went to Azay-le-Rideau we had the pleasure of finding ourselves in a very agreeable commune.  Azay-le-Rideau is at the heart of the 8 villages which make up the appellation for the Touraine white and rose wines, the latter of which I am rather fond.   The village has delights to offer as does the chateau of Azay-le-Rideau which was built from 1515 to 1527, being one of the earliest French Renaissance châteaux. Built on an island in the Indre River, its foundations rise straight out of the water.   The writer Balzac, who lived nearby and was occasionally a guest at the château, deeply admired the building, describing it as ‘a facetted diamond, set in the Indre.


Compared to other chateaux we have looked at Azay-le-Rideau is relatively small, divided into two sections, the main central body and a wing at right angles to it, and displays a blend of architectural styles. The château’s most prominent feature is the grand central staircase, the escalier d’honneur , but the one I am much more taken with is the beautiful spiral that climbs up through a corner turret.   Another special feature can be seen in the attics, where the charpente (in French), or the hand-crafted wooden frame supporting the roof, has been recently restored (2010–11) and can be viewed alongside an exhibition explaining the complex techniques of its construction.

The current gardens were designed in the 19th century and consist of a large landscaped park in the English style.   Our access to the grounds was restricted by some mechanical earth movement and re-landscaping of the large lawned area at the rear of the chateau.  We walked beneath some huge trees, ‘des vrais venerables’, and quizzed a gardener who was watering a bed of shrubs, notably hydrangeas.   I bought cookery books with recipes for courgettes and pumpkins.  At the end of the morning we walked up to a bar at the top of the small road which leads down into the chateau drive and drank a glass of wine.  Then we repaired to the gite where Bri and I made lunch then chilled for the afternoon and the men fished the small lake in the grounds and caught small roach (gardons).


None so Beau as Chenonceau

Just a glance at the aerial shots of this stunning Chateau, which you will find on the Chenonceau website, are enough to remind me of the grandeur of this special chateau which arches over the River Cher.  With more time to give to our visit today (and why should one ever dare to rush such excursions) Georgy, Nick, Brigitte and I explored the chateau interior and I marvelled at the sumptuous furnishings and there is some stunning art including the oh-so-pleasing Three Graces” by van LooThere are fresh flowers everywhere and when you visit the gardens later in your visit you can see that most of the raw material for the arrangements is grown on the estate.  I remember this chateau, too, for the kitchens with gleaming copper everywhere.  And lots of decadent four-poster beds.

Despite the grand and noble impression, the splendour, you gain from Chenonceau, it has a notoriously autocratic and permissive past.  The chateau was host to skullduggery, debauchery and its documented history is revelation that, where prominence in affairs is concerned, women aren’t necessarily a whole lot sweeter than men.

Henri II bought Chenonceau for Diane-de-Poitiers, once his governess, now his mistress and, though 20 years his senior, still bewitching. She bathed often in asses’ milk, apparently. Diane created gardens and put the bridge across the river, so that she might hunt on the other side.

On Henri’s death, his widow Catherine-de-Médicis (stout and not beautiful) evicted Diane, and took Chenonceau for herself. She added the gallery to the bridge. She also threw world-class garden-parties (transvestites, nymphs, satyrs) to showcase the monarchical power of her three sons.

The formal gardens are lovely but cannot match the structured and precise exuberance of Villandry.  The box hedged area is very pleasant to walk around but the gardens at Chenonceau keep their best behind the scenes, where many of the plants that have been on show in the house, including the autumn fruits, not least the gourds, are being cultivated.  Especially the Curcubitaceae: all shades of orange, yellow, green………. they are smooth, ridged, knobbly, spiny, quite otherworldly.  As if they have a mind of their own and take flights of fancy and imagination in their growing.  Everyone slightly different from its fellows on the same plant.

In the grounds there are massive and ancient trees and widespread carpets of autumn cyclamen form the blush of pale pink that is the ground flora of the tree-lined avenue to the chateau entrance.  Over decades, centuries indeed, they multiply and are incomparable in their contribution to the autumnal flowering.

The afternoon draws on and in the end you reach saturation point.  Legs are heavy and the iPad is overloaded with images.  Time to retreat to our very agreeable gite and wind down.  Tomorrow is another Chateau.




Villandry…………..that is all

At 8a.m. sharp Georgy and Brigitte arrived at 104 ready to scoop us up for a small road trip.  We are going to visit the Loire Valley to see the Chateaux and the wine growing areas.   Georges is going to be our chauffeur as well as our companion for the trip which is a huge treat for the Lights.  We make good time on the excellent French roads and arrive at Chinon in time to find a good restauration location where it is evident the working French retreat at lunch time.  We eat the menu of the day, my only disappointment being the inferior Paris Brest which isn’t a patch on our boulangerie back home.

After lunch we drive to Villandry and how divine an afternoon I spend.

The Château de Villandry is a castle-palace constructed around the original 14th-century keep where King Philip II of France once met Richard I of England to discuss peace. The château has passed through several owners and in 1906, Joachim Carvallo bought the property and poured an enormous amount of time, money and devotion into repairing it and creating what many consider to be the most beautiful gardens anywhere. These famous Renaissance gardens include a water garden, ornamental flower beds, and vegetable gardens. The main gardens are laid out in formal patterns created with low box hedges. This being a Renaissance garden there are layers of symbolism – love, sex, corruption – apparently a quality of cabbages. Meanwhile, the chateau itself, whose interior we did not feel we had the time to visit,  falls under Spanish influence.   In 1934, Château de Villandry was designated a  Monument Historique. Like all the other châteaux of the Loire Valley, it is a World Heritage Site.

Still owned by the Carvallo family, the Château de Villandry is open to the public and is one of the most visited châteaux in France.  We bought tickets for the garden only; how wise this was.  The gardens are vast, terraced and laid out with geometric formality; they could have been created with set-squares, protractors, compasses rather than garden tools. The lines, the swirls, the colours, the designs, the precision feed the eyes and leave almost all the senses exalted. Seen from the château battlements above, the gardens resemble a gigantic puzzle-page from a colouring book, brilliantly filled in.

Here are the masterly plantings of vegetables in geometric shapes bordered by low box hedges.  At the time of our visit, where beds have been emptied of an earlier crop, plump princely pumpkins are ranged in orderly fashion, each perched on a flat stone tile.  After what has probably been a clement growing season cabbages are kings, huge, regal and perfectly formed.   Aubergines, purple, green and white grow alongside several varies of chilli pepper.  Leaf and root celery.  In the herb garden perhaps dozen varieties of mint, several of sage.

Come time to go, just a quick look along the racks of plants for sale.  It is a modest selection and really, what a let-down!  Very ordinary offerings of the everyday plants that have been used for edging here and there and some of the common herbs.  None of the unusual varieties of Tradescantia, for example, offsets of which I saw elderly French ladies nicking as they passed by.  Oh well, honesty doesn’t always pay!!!

We drive back to Huismes near Chinon where we are booked into a gite Georgy found on the internet.  This is a nice pad, tending to shabby chic in the bedroom department certainly, with a nice terrace where we can sit and take apero.  We cook what we brought for supper, good Cumberland bangers and follow this with a hand or two of Spite and Malice and take to our beds ready for another day.