Houses of the Loire

I’m looking out of the window at the relentless rain. Sometimes our mild wet Atlantic climate gets me down, but then I allow my mind to wander back to better days.

Only a few weeks ago Mrs Dookes and I enjoyed a wonderful break in the Val de la Loire (The Loire Valley). Talk to many people about the Val de la Loire and often two themes spring to mind; wonderful Chateaux and delightful wines.

I’ll get back to the wines in another post, but for now I want to focus on the Chateaux.

The region of the Val de la Loire is located in the middle stretch of the river Loire in Central France and covers around 800 square kilometres. It is often referred to as the Garden of France due to the abundance of vineyards, orchards and fertile arable land.

The architectural heritage in the region is particularly notable, I wrote about the town of Richelieu in a previous post.

There are more than 300 châteaux, these range from simple fortified farmhouses of the 10th century to the splendour of the former country palaces of French Kings. Apparently there are a core of 42 chateaux that form a UNESCO World Heritage Site and these alone attract nearly three and a half million visitors a year!

Now regular blogonauts will probably recall that I don’t really do “visitors,” I like space and I like to be away from the crowds, but sometimes you just have to suck it up and go with the flow….like when Mrs Dookes says, “Let’s go visit a château or two.”

This was no random thing, Mrs D had carefully selected the targets, partly for their proximity and partly for their historical interest. I was happy if she was happy.

First up was Chateau du Rival near the tiny and almost inconsequential village of Lémeré not far South of Chinon.

Chateau du Rival


The castle dates from the early 1300, though over the centuries, as is often the case, it has been extended and modified.

The present owners purchased the property in the early 1990’s and have extensively renovated since. It must be a real labour of love as work on the scale that they have undertaken doesn’t come cheap!

I had mixed feelings about the place, the fabric of the buildings was fascinating, but …. and this is a big but, nearly the whole place had been turned into a cross between a somewhat bizarre art gallery and theme park. Many of the rooms had a weird mix of the sort of period interior décor that one would expect from a property of it’s history and avant garde artworks and piped music that frankly baffled me. At this point I need to confess that I don’t really understand art, I just like some nice pictures, but don’t ask me to explain them!

I thought the recreated medieval kitchen gardens within the Château walls, were fascinating, but the “Fairy Story” themed external gardens left me a tad underwhelmed; the planting could have been spectacular by itself, without the distraction of plastic objects and figures!

The productive medieval garden.


Probably the most notable thing that ever occurred at Chateau du Rival was that in 1429, during the Hundred Years War, it supplied Joan of Arc with horses.

In contrast Château d’Azay le Rideau was much more my thing.

Located bang in the middle of the town of the same name this delightful place is exactly what I feel a “proper” château should be! Built between 1518 and 1527 d’Azay le Rideau is considered one of the finest examples of early French renaissance architecture. The château is built on an island in the Indre river and surely must be one of the most picturesque in the whole of France.

Château d’Azay le Rideau

Internally the chateau still contains much of it’s historic décor and works of art, but for me the highlight was found in the attics, where the hand crafted wooden roof frame work was exposed for inspection.

Roof beam details, just awesome!

There were very informative interpretation panels explaining the techniques and detail of it’s construction. I spent ages in there, just marvelling at the skills needed to make something of not only brilliant functionality, but also to my eye, great beauty. I guess that sort of sums me up, show me a beautiful building and all I want to know about is how it was made and by who!

Life would be boring if we were all the same eh?

Catch you soon,

Dookes

The Cardinal’s Town

Mention the name “Cardinal Richelieu” to many people and probably they will immediately think of him as a villainous figure in André Dumas’ swashbuckling tales of the “Three Musketeers.” I have to admit that I was one of those folk too.

The reality is however somewhat different, so lets have a little history lesson:

He was born, Armand du Plessis in Paris in 1585, the fourth of five children. His father was a soldier and courtier to King Henry III of France who for Du Plessis’ assistance in the Wars of Religion granted the family the Bishopric of Luçon. This not only had religious significance, but also was an important source of income for the family, particularly as du Plessis senior also died in said war!

In an inspired move to protect the important income stream, young du Plessis’ mother decided that one of her sons had to become a priest and in a way Armand drew the short straw, however he embraced the academic side of his new life and enthusiastically threw himself into the role.

In 1607 du Plessis was consecrated Bishop of Luçon and set about implementing a program of church reform. His political career began when in 1614 he was asked by the clergymen of Poitou to be their representative in the Estates General, one of the advisory bodies to King Louis XIII’s of France; du Plessis began to get further noticed and soon entered the service of the King’s wife Anne of Austria.

Du Plessis then began a further upward progression.

The King nominated him as a Cardinal and in 1622 Pope Gregory XV duly approved the appointment. The new Cardinal became a prominent advisor to the King and was appointed to the Royal Council of Ministers in 1624, becoming effective Principal Minister in August of that year and the President of the Council in 1629 when he was also granted the Dukedom of Richelieu and adopted the title “Cardinal Richelieu.”

Richelieu is credited with establishing an authoritative monarchy and effectively dissolving the previous feudal control that had been enjoyed by regional nobility. He ordered all fortified castles, except those needed for national defence to be razed, as a result he became hated by many Princes, Dukes and lesser nobility by removing their strongholds that potentially could have been used against the King in times of rebellion. He did much to cement the basis of France as one cohesive and united nation, a country with with centralised power that was able to spread influence far beyond it’s own borders.

He is remembered for an authoritarian approach; he demonstrated early control of the press, built a network of internal spies and banned public assemblies for the discussion of political matters.

Is legacy was well summed up by Canadian historian John Ralston Paul who referred to Richelieu as “the father of the modern nation state, modern centralised power and modern secret service.” I like that!

So why did the Cardinal adopt the small village of Richelieu, in the South of the Val de Loire, as the seat of his Dukedom?

Well, the young du Plessis spent his youth there, it was, in fact, the village of his ancestors and now he was a Cardinal he could afford to buy the place, pretty cool for a lad that was effectively forced into the priesthood!

The Cardinal didn’t stop there, in fact he was only just getting going….

He engaged Paris architect Jacques Lemercier, who had worked for him on various project in the capital, and together they set about creating a new town from scratch.

One of the town’s gateways.

With the Kings permission they built a walled town on a grid pattern with an adjacent grand palace, the Château de Richelieu.

The whole lot was surrounded by a moat, that was not only decorative but served as an ingenious sewer system taking away the towns effluent.

Remains of the moat, still flowing.

I love that the thoughtful Cardinal had a slightly smaller Château built about three miles away for his mistress; nice one Armand!

Today the grand Château is long gone, but the small town, population 1800, remains and very interesting it is too. I love the place, but as a French friend of mine observed, it’s one of those places that you either love or can’t wait to get out of!

The main square, Place de Cardinal.

The other day Mrs Dookes and I had a very enjoyable couple of hours wandering through the town, visiting the market and discovering part of the grand château’s park.

Richelieu Park


If you are ever in the area it’s definitely worth dropping by, if only for a coffee and to wish the old Cardinal well!

Not looking bad for his age!

Catch you soon.

Dookes

Rest, Preparation and Cooking

I feel that my recent posts have been more than a little spasmodic and a bit disjointed. My posts of my latest trip sort of ended mid travels and I haven’t got going since…there is a reason for this and as I assured folks previously, it isn’t because I fell of a motorbike!

Harls on the coast in Brittany, near the end of our trip to the Pyrenees in June.


No, it’s much more mundane, yet even more stressful, we have been moving house!

The legal process was well underway when I went off on my travels, but I hope that you’ll understand, my mind was a time caught up in the whole nonsense that moving house entails.

Now, some three months later, the dust is finally settling and life is returning to a degree of normality. I still can’t find things in the kitchen and my new workshop resembles a cross between a rummage sale and a direct hit from a medium sized bomb, other than that, life is normal!

It must be, Mrs Dookes is now mentioning the “D” word, “Decorating” and I can foresee what the coming autumn months will entail!

So why the move from our lovely 300 year old house with two acres of garden to something more modern and compact? I think I just answered the question.

300 year old historic buildings are great, but they also take up a great deal of time (and money) to maintain and two acres of garden of which a lot was wooded are, I find as I advance in years, bloody hard work too! So we’ve downsized a little bit and yes, apart from the imminent decorating; removing a fireplace, installing a new wood burning stove, installing a new kitchen, building bedroom wardrobes, re-roofing a garage, repairing a log cabin and finally sorting my workshop…we should be able to take things a bit easier!

To prepare for the imminent onslaught of such delights, Mrs Dookes and I have slipped away to France for a couple of week’s relaxation and self-indulgence of a gastronomic nature.

No two-wheeled vehicles are involved this time, I get away with a lot as it is, no need to push the envelope too much!

Mrs D has found a lovely and well equipped gîte for us in the middle of a forest in the Touraine National Park. It’s about as far away from civilisation as you can get, our only neighbours are the wild animals and trees.

Over the coming days we don’t intend to do much; other than to watch the Rugby World Cup, which started well for Wales today, cook, walk and relax….I may also do the odd blog post!

Cooking wise, I delight in preparing traditional French dishes in France, using fresh local ingredients. It’s one of my great passions and something that I caught from my late lamented mate Floyd. His mantra of avoiding the complex over-thought stuff and sticking to traditional recipes and methods has stood me well over the years. My two favourite cookery books are one of Floyd’s own and a very well thumbed French one, both of which I have with me and if you’ll excuse me I’m now off to the kitchen!

Boeuf Bourguignon with a damn fine St Emilion!


Catch you soon.

Dookes