Langeais

LANGEAIS, 23km west of Tours, is utterly dominated by its forbidding
château, which rises up, sheer, at the end of the town’s main street. Otherwise,
the small town is peaceful but fairly insipid, though a few fifteenth-century
houses are dotted about the centre, notably one immediately opposite the
château’s drawbridge. Even if you’re not stopping in Langeais, it’s worth taking
a good look at the bridge over the Loire, a 1930s construction whose bizarre
concrete towers are intended to mimic the château.
North of Langeais lies the beautifully wooded landes country of Castelvalérie;
the tourist office (see opposite) can provide recommendations of
signposted walks and horse-riding centres.

The château
Any hints of luxury and welcome provided by the elegant windows of the
château (daily: Feb–June & Sept to mid-Nov 9.30am–6.30pm; July & Aug
9am–7pm; mid-Nov to Jan 10am–5pm; e7.20) are obliterated by the combined
effect of drawbridge, stone walls and massive towers. The most extraordinary
feature of the exterior is the chemin-de-ronde, or guard-walk, which smoothly
wraps its way round the topmost level of the walls, resting on perfect stone
machicolations. On closer inspection, the warlike impression is moderated by
subtle details: between each machicolation is a carved trefoil, and the sheer
regularity of the structure puts it in a different league from the average medieval
fortress built higgledy-piggledy for war.
The château is sometimes described as one of the first stirrings of a new
architectural age. It was the work of one Jean Bourré, who, as a bourgeois
lawyer in the service of Louis XI, was himself a sign of the new era. He built
numerous châteaux, including Le Plessis-Bourré, in Anjou (see p.292), but
Langeais was particularly important: its construction was at the king’s command,
and it had the power to stop incursions up the Loire by the Bretons. This threat
ended with Charles VIII and Anne de Bretagne’s marriage in December 1491,
which was celebrated at Langeais (see box opposite).
If you’re tired of the bare rooms or misplaced eighteenth-century furnishings
of so many châteaux, Langeais is a relief: for once, the furnishings are mostly
fifteenth century, to match the building, even if the other decorations are mostly
reconstructions. The château is owned by the Institut de France, the wealthy
and powerful state foundation which encompasses the Académie Française,
among other august bodies. When it was bequeathed the château by the
nineteenth-century collector Jacques Siegfried, it also took over his unrivalled
and exceptionally valuable collection of furniture. This creates a lived-in
impression that’s rare even in châteaux a century or two younger. There are
fascinating tapestries, some rare paintings and polychrome Madonnas, cots and
beds, and a number of imposing chaires, or seigneurial thrones.
The chambre de parement contains a true four-poster bed and one of the
most precious objects in the collection, a tapestry of the Crucifixion from the
workshop of Rogier van der Weyden. The best is saved for the huge marriage
chamber, whose centrepiece is Anne’s gilded and bejewelled wedding coffer.

Figures of the apostles, as well as the wise and foolish virgins, are depicted on
the lid, while the main body is carved with a miniature Annunciation – an
ironic choice, with hindsight, as none of Charles and Anne’s four children
survived them, thus bringing the Valois dynasty to an end. A diptych of the
couple portrays them looking less than joyous at their union, while on the walls
is a set of tapestries showing seven of the “Nine Prow Knights”, models of
chivalric virtue drawn from the Bible, antiquity and early Christianity. The
upper-floor chapel room – which isn’t in fact a chapel, though it has a marvellous,
church-like wooden ceiling – has a waxwork recreation of the royal
wedding, along with piped music and a histrionic French commentary. From
here you can access the guard-walk, which you can follow all the way round
the château – as long as you’re not put off by the dizzy views over the rooftops
and out to the river. In summer, swarms of swallows and house martins take up
residence, swooping and darting around the machicolations.
The gardens are overlooked by the grim remnants of a keep, one of the first
strategic constructions of the warlike count, Foulque Nerra. Built in around 1000
– which makes it one of the earliest keeps in France – the tower marks Foulque’s
determination not to relinquish the territories he had wrested from the counts of
Blois, who held the rest of Touraine. His grip may not have been as strong as he
thought: a contemporary recounts him trying to win back the castle in 1038.

The marriage of Anne de Bretagne
On December 6, 1491, a deal was made at the château de Langeais which secured
the future of the French kingdom and finally ended Brittany’s independence: Charles
VIII married Anne, duchess of Brittany. The ceremony was conducted under tight
security, and the couple travelled separately to Langeais under cover of night.
Secrecy was necessary because of the marriage’s enormous significance and its
shady political circumstances. Anne was technically already married to Maximilian,
the Habsburg emperor, who ruled over Austria, the Netherlands, Franche-Comté,
Alsace and parts of Burgundy. If he were to inherit Anne’s Breton lands, the French
kingdom would be all but surrounded by an implacable enemy. Mindful of the threat,
France invaded Brittany in December 1488, and by June 1491 Anne was besieged at
Rennes. When the city finally fell in October, Anne was forced to give up either her
duchy or her marriage to Maximilian. She chose the latter, and Pope Innocent VIII
granted a dispensation annulling her unconsummated marriage to Maximilian (she
was only 15). For his part, Charles was already engaged to Maximilian’s daughter,
Margaret of Austria. Unusually, the couple seem to have been deeply in love – Margaret
is known to have wept on hearing of Charles’s marriage, and kept his portrait with
her until she died – but political necessity prevailed.
The marriage stipulated that Charles would not become duke of Brittany, but it was
the end of the duchy’s independence anyway, as if Charles were to die before Anne,
she would be obliged to marry his successor. Having apparently secured his future,
Charles decided to create a fabulous new home for Anne in Amboise.

 

Practicalities
The gare SNCF, which has good connections to Tours, Saumur and Angers, is
practically in the middle of town. The tourist office is next door on place du
14 Juillet (July & Aug Mon–Sat 9.30am–7pm, Sun 10am–12.30pm & 3.30–
6pm; rest of year Mon–Sat 9.30am–12.30pm & 2.30–6pm, Sun 10am–12.30pm;
t02.47.96.58.22, wwww.tourisme-langeais.com).
Langeais is a peaceful place to overnight, and it has a pleasant, thoroughly oldfashioned
three-star hotel, the Errard-Hosten, 2 rue Gambetta (t02.47.96.82.12, wwww.errard.com; 5), which offers plain but spacious rooms as an adjunct to
its excellent restaurant (menus e27–49). There’s also a decent, two-star Logis
de France hotel, La Duchesse Anne (t02.47.96.82.03; 3), which has a relatively
inexpensive but good restaurant. Best of all, there’s the A Anne de Bretagne, 27
rue Anne de Bretagne (t02.47.96.08.52; 3), which offers some genuinely
exceptional chambres d’hôtes in a beautifully restored early-nineteenthcentury
home almost under the walls of the château. If you’re not up for the
Errard-Hosten, you can enjoy simple bruschettas and Italian dishes in the garden
of Au Coin des Halles, 20m short of the château at 9 rue Gambetta (closed Tues
eve & Wed).
For a really refined place to stay, head 16km north along the D57 to the Vieux
Château d’Hommes, just outside the village of Hommes (t02.47.24.95.13,
wwww.le-vieux-chateau-de-hommes.com; 7), where the well-furnished
rooms are in a fifteenth-century outhouse of the main château; one room even
occupies a pepper-pot tower, and there’s a good-sized pool. Six kilometres west
of Langeais along the main road to Bourgeuil, at St-Patrice, the sumptuous
Château de Rochecotte, 43 rue Dorothée de Dino (t02.47.96.16.16, wwww
.chateau-de-rochecotte.fr; 8) offers a taste of eighteenth-century luxury in
modern, four-star guise: the rooms are beautifully furnished (well, they cost
from e139 to over e200), the restaurant is serious, and there’s a terrace
overlooking the Loire, a large swimming pool and extensive grounds. The
attractive municipal campsite is 1km from town, off the main road to Tours
(t02.47.96.85.80; closed mid-Sept to May).