Chinon

You could be forgiven for thinking that CHINON, 52km southwest of Tours,
was still a Plantagenet fief. More than 100,000 tourists visit each year, ten times
the local population, and an unusual proportion of them are English. The physical
attractions are obvious – the huge ruined castle, the medieval streets, the
noble situation on the banks of the smooth Vienne, the excellent local vineyards
– but many Chinonais believe that something deeper is at work, an abiding
sense that Chinon, for all its quintessential provincial Frenchness, is in some way part of the English patrimony. Increasingly, it actually is: scores of the fine old
manor houses in the countryside round Chinon now belong to English people,
both holiday-makers and permanent residents.

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The train line from Tours and Azay-le-Rideau passes through the beautiful,
thickly wooded Forêt de Chinon before terminating at Chinon’s gare SNCF,
which lies to the east of the town. From here, ave Pierre Labussière and rue du
11-Novembre lead to the gare routière on the large place Jeanne-d’Arc, ten
minutes’ walk away, at the eastern edge of the old town. Keep heading west,
either along the riverbank or across place Mirabeau into rue Rabelais, and you’ll
soon reach the old quarter. The tourist office is on place d’Hofheim, off the
central rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau (May–Sept daily 10am–7pm; Oct–April
Mon–Sat 10am–noon & 2–6pm; t02.47.93.17.85, wwww.chinon.com), and
can provide addresses of local vineyards where you can taste Chinon’s famous
red wine.
If you plan to visit a number of sights in the region, consider buying the Pass’
Découverte Ouest Touraine, a leaflet that gives reductions of a euro or two off
the entry tickets to many châteaux and other sites in western Touraine,
especially in the Chinon region. You can pick it up free at any participating
attraction, though you pay the first entry fee at the full rate.
An antiques and flea market takes place on the third Sunday of every month,
while regular market day is Thursday. On the south bank of the Vienne, just
beside the campsite, Chinon Loisirs Activités Nature (t06.23.82.96.33) rents
out canoes and kayaks from April to September, and runs half-day and full-day
guided trips. Bathing in the Vienne near Chinon is discouraged, as it’s potentially
dangerous due to collapsing sandbanks and freak currents.

 

The Town
The spectacular line of towers and ramparts rearing up on the high ridge
behind town look as if they must enclose one of the best of this region’s
châteaux, but for centuries now, almost all has been ruined within, the result of
neglect – and local borrowing of ready-dressed masonry. At the time of writing,
however, the most important section of the château, the Logis Royal was being
partially rebuilt. During the works, which are expected to continue until 2008
at least, the château’s skyline won’t be as romantic as it once was, but you will
be able to access the site and watch traditional craftsmen at work. It should be
fascinating, but if a building site isn’t high on your wishlist there’ll still be the
château’s dramatic history to ponder, and the fine view of the grey walls and
roofs of the medieval town below, crammed in between the heights of the cliffs
and the broad River Vienne.

 

The château
A fortress of one kind or another has existed at Chinon since the Stone Age,
but it was under the overlordship of Henri Plantagenet, who became king of
England as Henry II, that the heart of the medieval château was built. Henry
also added the Fort St-Georges to the east, isolating it from the main body of the château by a dry moat, and the round Tour du Moulin, at the far west end
of the escarpment. Chinon became the setting for the most tragic events of
Henry’s life. It was from here that his son Henry, the “Young King”, fled to the
court of the French king Louis VII, an act which kickstarted the rebellion of
Henry’s wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (see box on p.256) and their younger son
Richard the Lionheart. When Henry crushed the rebels in 1174, he is thought
to have imprisoned Eleanor at Chinon. Fifteen years later, the wheel had
turned: defeated by the unholy alliance of Louis VII’s son Philippe-Auguste and
his own son Richard, Henry died at Chinon in 1189 (see box on p.102). It
didn’t take long for Richard to fall out with his French ally, and local legend
claims that he breathed his last in Chinon after being wounded in a battle in
1199, though he was probably dead on arrival.
The Plantagenet lands passed to Henry’s youngest son, John, who presided over
the final humiliation: after a year’s siege in 1204–05, Philippe Auguste finally
took the castle and put an end to Plantagenet rule over Touraine and Anjou. To
assert his mastery, he bolstered the exterior walls with towers and erected the
central Donjon du Coudray. He also dug a deep, dry moat between the main
body of the château and the fortifications on the west side, which thus became
the separate Fort du Coudray. Chinon now seemed truly impregnable: a castle
sandwiched between two satellite fortresses. Apparently, the defences still weren’t
enough: in the middle of the fourteenth century, the exceptionally tall, narrow
Tour de l’Horloge was added to guard the east gate.
When Charles VII met Joan of Arc in the grande salle of the Plantagenet-era
Logis Royal, in 1429, (see box below), Chinon’s defensive security must have
been welcome: Charles was a king on the run. By the time he and Joan had
finished with the English (see box on p.191), however, the château’s role could
change. In the second half of the fifteenth century the Logis Royal was enlarged
and improved with a second storey and high, Gothic windows. Sadly, few monarchs thereafter chose to enjoy it, and Chinon fell into disuse, becoming
little more than a military arsenal. Successive rulers tried to have it demolished,
including Henri III, who feared it would be occupied by Huguenot rebels, and
Cardinal Richelieu, who became the owner of the château in 1632. Contrary
to the local legend that he promptly stole the stone for his own château (see
p.125), Richelieu seems to have done little more than dismantle the grande salle
– which remains ruined – and lop the tops off the defensive towers.
Ever since locals started carting off the stone in the early nineteenth century,
the château (during works opening times may vary, but the standard hours are
daily: April–Sept 9am–7pm; Oct–March 9.30–11.30am & 2–5.30pm; e3) has
been little more than a ring of tumbledown walls and broken towers – albeit
one of the most impressive such rings in France, if not Europe. The finest and
most intact building, the Logis Royal, is being partially rebuilt under a new
roof, with works expected to continue at least until the end of 2008. The
grands and petits comblés will recover their fifteenth-century appearance,
complete with brand-new roofs built in local, seasoned oak and tiled in Angevin
slate. The famous grande salle will remain a ruin, however, its generous firstfloor
fireplace continuing to project futilely over empty space. The Fort
St-George, to the east, is being rebuilt as a modern visitor centre.
Access will be permitted throughout the restoration works, so you will be able
to watch stonemasons shaping shining new tufa, and roofers and other traditional
artisans at work alongside the cranes and diggers. An exhibition will
explain the techniques involved. All in all, it’s likely to be more interesting than
the peaceful but rather heartless shell that existed before, though the success of
the plans for the interiors remains to be judged: the current project imagines an
interactive medieval experience complete with sound-effects and wafting
odours of spices.
The interior walls of Philippe-Auguste’s Donjon du Coudray, over to the
west, are covered with intricate thirteenth-century graffiti carved by imprisoned
Knights Templar, who awaited burning here after their dangerously
wealthy and powerful quasi-monastic order was smashed by Philippe IV “le
Bel”, in 1307. Works are in progress to reconstruct the original first-floor
entrance, and allow access to the topmost, defensive level – which should offer
excellent views. The grim lower-ground level, with its stone-vaulted roof, will
be accessed once more by a staircase in the thickness of the wall. To the east,
over the main gate, the Tour de l’Horloge looks set to continue to house an
eccentric little museum of Joan-related odds and ends.

 

The miracle at Chinon
During the Lenten fast of 1429, the Dauphin Charles was sequestered at Chinon, one
of the few strongholds left to him by the English in the disastrous aftermath of
Agincourt. It was a bleak time for the French cause, but everything changed at a
stroke with the arrival of a peasant girl from Lorraine, Joan of Arc, who somehow
talked her way into meeting Charles. The usual story, repeated everywhere, is that
Charles’s courtiers set up a test by concealing him anonymously among the assembled
nobles, but Joan miraculously picked him out straight away. It sounds more like
a conjuring trick than an epoch-changing miracle and turns out to be based only on
an eyewitness report that “when the king learned that she was approaching, he
withdrew behind the others, but Joan recognized him perfectly, bowed to him and
spoke to him for some minutes”. Another tale claims that Joan revealed herself as
Charles’s illegitimate half-sister, and revealed details of a dream he’d had about his
own legitimacy – but this is just royalist fantasy.
Joan herself told a different and far more powerful story. Interrogated in prison, she
claimed that the king received a sign that made him believe in her. Under pressure
from her inquisitors, she revealed that the sign was “beautiful, honourable and
good”, and later confessed that an angel appeared – a real one that “stepped on the
ground” and “entered the room by the door” – and gave a golden crown to the
archbishop of Reims, who in turn gave it to Charles. Perhaps she was talking about
herself. In any case, the symbolism could hardly have been clearer, and it wasn’t lost
on Charles, who finally set about recovering his kingdom.

 

Rue Voltaire to the river
The heart of town is place du Général de Gaulle, overlooked by the town
hall and set out with café tables under the false acacias. At its foot is the river
and the town’s statue of local hero Rabelais (see p.121), slumped louchely atop
his marble pillar. At the top end of the square is place de la Fontaine – named
after a cast-iron statue of the three Graces – which gives onto steep stone stairs
leading up to the château.
Leading east, rue Voltaire is lined with half-timbered and sculpted townhouses
– look out for nos. 10 and 12, which date from the fifteenth century, and the
old salt-storage house at no. 20. It’s best to skip the tacky wine- and barrelmaking
museum, the Musée du Vin, with its second-rate animated coopers, but
the tour of the so-called Caves Painctes, just off rue Voltaire (July to mid-Sept
Tues–Sun 11am, 3pm, 4.30pm & 6pm; e3) is moderately diverting, though the
paintings suggested by the name are long vanished, if they ever existed – no
one’s sure. There’s little inside now except a dark tunnel, a fountain lined with two thousand-odd empty bottles and a huge, hollowed-out space used for local
weddings and the functions of the local wine guild, but you get a glass of wine
at the end of the tour.
At the end of rue Voltaire, beyond a series of beautiful fourteenth- and
fifteenth-century houses, is the lovingly kept Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de
Chinon, 44 rue Haute St-Maurice (June–Sept daily 10.30am–12.30pm &
2–6pm; Oct–May Mon–Fri 2.15–6pm; e3), where the Etats Généraux met in
1428 to raise the funds for Joan of Arc’s mission of reconquest. The highlights
of the museum’s small collection are the Chape de St-Mexme, a chasuble-like
Sassanid (Persian, roughly sixth-century) garment with a design of multiple
leopards that was probably spoil from the Crusades, and a powerful bas-relief of
the Crucifixion from the eleventh-century, with Christ’s head framed by images
of the sun and moon. Stairs lead up to a vaulted upper room where Delacroix’s
portrait of a fruity-looking Rabelais looks down on a collection of nineteenthcentury
crockery – faïence, to be exact – from Langeais.
Ancient rue Haute St-Maurice – though this section of the road is still
known locally as rue Voltaire – passes below the walls of the château’s logis as it
gradually slopes its way down towards the river. Just set back from the riverbank,
at the western limits of town, the summer-only Maison de la Rivière, 2 quai
Minster (July & Aug Tues–Fri 10am–12.30pm & 2–5.30pm, Sat & Sun
3–5.30pm; e3; t02.47.93.21.34, wwww.cpie-val-de-loire.org) celebrates the
once-thriving Loire shipping industry with lots of detailed models of the many
kinds of strange, narrow sailboats and steamships, and a full-size cutaway fûtreau
– a traditional kind of sailboat built by a local craftsman. On weekend afternoons
in summer, you can even take a 45-minute trip (e6) on a traditional
fûtreau or toue (large punt), and staff lead regular guided nature walks.
St-Mexme and the Chapelle Ste-Radegonde
The eastern side of town is much quieter and less touristy. Rue Jean-Jacques-
Rousseau, with more half-timbered houses, leads past the tourist office and the
église St-Etienne, a fifteenth-century affair with a beautiful Flamboyant
Gothic portal, on its way to the collégiale St-Mexme. Only the west tower
and a half-shell of the nave remain of what was once an important Romanesque
church, and it’s only just possible to make out heavily weathered geometric and
floral patterns, and what may be a figure of Christ. Rue Hoche runs down to
the river at place Jeanne d’Arc, an expanse of tarmac designed in the nineteenth
century to accommodate the weekly market, which still takes place here on
Thursdays, with delicious fresh food stalls open till midday and lots of less enticing
stands selling cheap clothing, accordion music, hunting hats and the like right through the day. The square is dominated by an extraordinary equestrian
sculpture of Joan of Arc in mid-charge, all flying hooves, sword and standard,
which was given to the town by its sculptor, Jules Roulleau, in 1893.
Evidence of Chinon’s renowned sunny micro-climate can be seen on the
north side of the square, where one of the town’s many palm trees flourishes
behind the high walls of the odd-looking Lycée St-Mexme. A lane, rue Pitoche,
leads east past this school, climbing slowly and then contouring along the cliffs
past numerous troglodyte dwellings, some of which are still inhabited. After
a kilometre or so the path peters out at the chapelle Ste-Radegonde, a rockcut
church which is part of a complex of cave dwellings once occupied by
hermits. Sainte Radegonde was a sixth-century German princess who
renounced the world and her husband – probably not a great sacrifice, since he
eventually murdered her brother – in order to devote her life to God. The
chapel’s guardian has lived in the troglodyte house next door for nearly thirty
years and often takes visitors into the chapel and caves behind – check with the
tourist office in advance, or ask politely. High on one wall of the chapel, a
captivating painting depicts a horseback cortege of regal figures, probably the
Plantagenet royal family. It’s uncertain whether it celebrates the marriage of
King John in 1200 or marks the end of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s captivity in
Chinon (see box on p.256). The leading figure is probably Henry II, followed
by his wife Eleanor (crowned, centre) and their daughter Jeanne, followed in
turn by their sons Richard the Lionheart (receiving a falcon, which may
symbolize his succession to the duchy of Aquitaine) and John Lackland. Dated
to the end of the twelfth century, it may be the only contemporary portrait of
Eleanor in the world – not counting the effigy on her tomb in Fontevraud.

Рестораны:

Les Années 30 78 rue Haute St-Maurice, aka rue
Voltaire t02.47.93.37.18. Tiny, cosy restaurant
with a bar in the corner in the old-fashioned way.
Serves reliable cuisine bourgeoise, with one or two
more adventurous dishes. Menus at e23 and e36.
Closed Wed.
Café des Arts place du Général de Gaulle. The
food isn’t anything special – salads and brasserie
fare, mostly – but it’s a pleasant place to have a
drink or a simple meal out on the square.
La Bonne France 4 place de la Victoire de Verdun
t02.47.98.01.34. Something of a local secret,
tucked away on a tiny old square just behind the
bridge. Offers good-value menus at e14.50, and has
a nice terrace out on the square. There’s also an
excellent value weekday lunch menu at e9 and an
evening menu at e22. Closed Thurs evening & Wed.
Au Chapeau Rouge 49 place du Général
de Gaulle, t02.47.98.08.08. One of the
best restaurants in Chinon, with an inviting situation
on the “place Fontaine” part of the main
square and lots of outside tables. Indoors is a bit
more formal, with white tablecloths. Specializes in
local ingredients, including fresh, wild Loire fish,
poires tapées from Rivarennes and of course
Chinon wines. Menus at e26, e37 and e55.
Closed Sun evening & Mon.
Côté Jardin place de la Victoire de Verdun,
t02.47.93.10.97. Menus e13–25. The food isn’t
terribly special – big, hearty salads and classic
French meat dishes, mostly – but the courtyard
garden setting makes it very popular with foreign
visitors.
Jeanne de France 12 place du Général de
Gaulle. Sometimes you don’t want eel stewed in
Chinon wine, you want pizza – and this pizzeriacrêperie
at the lower end of the main square (with
outside tables) does good ones. Prices range from
e8 to e11.
La Treille 4 place Jeanne d’Arc t02.47.93.07.71.
Utterly old-fashioned hotel restaurant with wooden
tables and a sparse but homely decor. The speciality
is wild plants, and you may find your salad laced with
flower petals and herb-like leaves. Otherwise the
cooking is careful and homely. Expect to pay around
e30, plus wine. Closed Wed, and Thurs evening.

Chinonais

The countryside around Chinon, the Chinonais, was made famous by Rabelais
as the setting for the Picrocholine wars of his satirical epic, Gargantua. It’s the
epitome of a Loire landscape: northeast of Chinon lies the ancient Forêt de
Chinon while to the west is the soft Pays du Véron, a slice of rural land
squeezed between the Loire and Vienne. Over on the southern bank of the
Vienne lies the rich countryside made mythical by Rabelais, whose birthplace
you can visit at La Devinière. But the main sights of the Chinonais lie to the
east, up the Vienne, whose northern bank rises to low tufa cliffs riddled with
caves, some of them still used as wine cellars, storage rooms or even houses. The
ruined churches at Tavant, with its Romanesque wall-paintings, and L’Ile
Bouchard may draw you upstream, and you could continue up the peaceful
Manse valley towards the relatively bleak plateau of Ste-Maure-de-Touraine,
which divides the western and eastern parts of southern Touraine. Just north of
Ste-Maure, the impressive church at Ste-Catherine-de-Fierbois is a littleknown
stop on the Joan of Arc circuit.

Forêt de Chinon and Pays du Véron
Northeast of Chinon, the elevated terrain of the landes is covered by the ancient
Forêt de Chinon, crisscrossed by roads and forest alleys that make for delightful
cycling or walking – the GR3 long-distance footpath runs right through
from Chinon to Azay-le-Rideau (see p.104). Even the rail route from Azay is
superb. If you want to stay in the area, there’s a good chambres d’hôtes near
Rigny-Ussé (see p.110). Just outside St-Benoît-la-Forêt, the village in the heart
of the forest, is a woodland adventure park, Saint-Benoît Aventure (Easter
school holidays daily 1.30–7pm; May & June Sat & Sun 10am–7pm; July & Aug
daily 10am–8pm; Sept & Oct Sat & Sun 1.30–7pm; children under 8 years e8,
under 13 years e13, under 16 years e16; adults e20; t06.89.07.18.96, wwww
.stbenoitaventure.new.fr). It offers a chance to let kids off the leash – or rather
attach them to it, in the form of an alarming aerial ropeway assault course that
threads its way through the trees. There’s also a mountain bike circuit and a
nature walk.
The west is far more tranquil. The Pays du Véron, between the Loire and
Vienne rivers, feels like the softly beating heart of the Loire landscape. It’s an
especially lovely corner of the region, characterized in the east, between
Huismes and Chinon, by fields and vineyards interspersed with puys, or low,
rounded chalk hills. The relatively dry soil of these puys – they’re raised above
the flood plain – allows them to be topped with stands of oak and pine, with
orchids, anemones and Mediterranean-type herbs like rosemary and sage
growing among the grasses. In the west, towards Savigny-en-Véron and the
confluence of the Loire and Vienne, the narrow meadows of the floodplain are
fringed by hedgerows of ash and pedunculate oak – a classic Loire landscape
known as bocage. Unfortunately, this rich ecological idyll is somewhat overshadowed
by the nuclear power station near Avoine, a nightmarish vision of futuristic
1960s design. As if to compensate, Avoine does have one of the better
outdoor swimming pools in the region, complete with water-slide.
In the furthest corner of the Pays du Véron, the sleepy village of SAVIGNYEN-
VERON, 7km west of Chinon, hosts the Ecomusée du Véron (April–
Sept daily except Tues 10am–12.30pm & 2–6pm; Oct–March 9am–12.30pm &
2–5pm, Sat & Sun 2–7pm; e3.50; wwww.cc-veron.fr/ecomusee), a museum
with exhibitions on local wine-making in history, traditional lace caps and the ecology of the Loire’s flood zone. It also runs excellent guided nature walks in
summer, and gives out leaflets showing the routes of the many signposted
walking circuits in the area.