15 – 19 April – Tours/Loire Valley – 5 nights (Easter)
Azay le Rideau
Built between 1518 and1527, Azay-le-Rideau is an early French Renaissance mansion set on an island in the middle of the Indre River; it appears to float on its own image. The writer Balzac lived nearby, was often a visitor there, and described it as 'a faceted diamond, set in the Indre." Like a lot of these places, this one began as a fortress, Then, it suffered from factional rivalry at the end of the 100 Years' War. It was burned to the ground with all its soldiers in it, so it was locally known crudely as Azay-le-Brûlé (as in creme brûlée) until the 18th C.
Starting in 1518, a finance minister of Francis I and his wife started building Azay to the latest four-sided Renaissance style but there were difficulties getting stone and installing it on damp ground. The minister ran afoul of the king and fled. His wife tried to complete the chateau but the king took it over and gave it to one of his knights-at-arms, with only the south and west wings completed. And so it distinctively remains to this day.
Succesive aristocrats renovated the interior, and both Louis XIII and Louis XIV visited. There was once an extensive portrait collection; some, like those of Francis I, Henry III and Catherine de Medici, remain, as does some interior woodworking, Flemish tapestries from the 1500s-1600s, a huge fireplace topped with a stone-carved salamander (Francis I's symbol; we saw many instances of it in Sarlat), and a grand central staircase, the oldest of its kind that survives in France, that rises in straight flghts rather than in a spiral that was popular when it was built, and is decorated Italian Renaissance-style with medallions, shells, etc. The place is still stately, with lovely French conical turrets and a steep pointed slate roof thanks to renovations in a neo-Renaissance style that was popular in the 1800s.
We drove through part of the Loire Valley but actually visited six chateaux over two days with small van excursions offered by the tourist office out of the town of Tours, France, which is a convenient, charming gateway to the area.
Believe Usse is the oldest but, by far, our favorite was Chenonceau. Its age, setting and the fact that it has most of its original interiors, wall coverings and furnishings makes it a stunning place to visit. So many places were ravaged by the French Revolution, but Chenonceau was blessed with a mistress/friend who was George Sand's grandmother. Her friends in Republican circles and her charm kept the place from irreparable harm. Classy lady!