We were troglodytes living in a cozy partial-cave, once a part of Chinon Castle’s corner tower.
Leaving Lille, France by train, we headed southeast, passing near Paris then moving south toward Tours. In Tours we had time to enjoy a picnic lunch in the sunshine before boarding our last train of the day and heading southwest to our destination of the little town of Chinon.
Chinon is a beautiful and quiet UNESCO World Heritage town with ~8,600 residents, located in the regional area of Touraine. Chinon attracts visitors for its Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc wineries and wine tasting, its narrow and attractive medieval streets and its dominating medieval castle, that sits on a cliff overlooking the pretty little town at its base and the winding River Vienne beyond.
We were not the only cave dwellers in Chinon. We walked along the high narrow roads, east of the castle, that lead us past semi-troglodytic homes of years gone by and caves that would have enjoyed panoramic views of the historic town and the valley beyond the river.
The churches and buildings in this once fortified town are mostly made from tuffeau stone or brick but there are many half timber homes as well that date from the end of the 14th and 15th centuries. We saw houses with graceful turrets and winding staircase towers from the 16th century as well as the classical style of home commonly built in the 17th and 18th centuries. Today the old-town center continues to be restored to preserve this valuable architectural history. Also currently being restored in Chinon is one of the oldest tennis courts in France.
The town may be peaceful today but we discovered there is a long and intriguing history here. There is evidence of prehistoric settlements, the early Romans, the towns important and strategic role for both the French and the English during the Middle Ages. Chinon had much more to offer than we anticipated.
Fortresses Royale de Chinon and Château de Chinon
Perched on its rocky ridge at the meeting point between Anjou, Poitou and Touraine regions, the Fortress of Chinon played a leading role in the Middle Ages. (the Fortress of Chinon was the 12th out of 13 châteaux we visited in the Loire Valley).
The Counts of Blois built the first castle on the site in the 10th century before losing it to their bitter rivals the Counts of Anjou in 1044. In the 12th century, it would become one of the main strongholds of King Henry II (Henry Plantagenêt, Count of Anjou-the Angevin King and crowned King of England in 1154). Once the fortress was rebuilt and enlarged and the Château added, it became the center of his continental empire, where he stored his royal treasure and was both Henry II and his wife Eleanor d’Aquitaine’s favorite residence.
The Templar Knights have fascinated us for years, so to discover the chateau has a strong connection to the Knights Templar was fortuitous.
In 1118 the Knights Templar began, initially pledging to protect Christians and pilgrims visiting Jerusalem. By 1129 they received a formal endorsement by the Catholic Church and they would carry out military operations against the Muslims in the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries. In 1139, Pope Innocent II issued a Papal Bull that granted the Knights Templar special rights. The Templars would be exempt from paying taxes, able to build their own chapels and reported only to the Pope.
The order became known for its strict code of conduct. A Templar knight would swear an oath of poverty, chastity and obedience; agree to no drinking and no gambling and would wear a simple style of dress that included a white habit emblazoned with a single red cross.
The Knights Templar created a very prosperous network of banks and gained enormous financial influence. At the peak of their success, the Templars owned a large fleet of ships, owned the entire island of Cyprus, and served as a primary bank and lending institution to European monarchs and nobles. Royalty and the nobility were not always known to repay their loans and that dishonesty would lead to the downfall of the Knights Templar.
Between June and August 1308, the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, Jacques de Molay, was imprisoned in the westerly part of the Chinon fortress in the Tower of Coudray as part of the trial of the Knights Templars. Inscriptions on the walls of Coudray Tower bear witness to the knights presence. Friday the 13th of October, 1307 was the day Pope Clement V and King Phillip IV of France had scores of Knights Templar massacred (forever after Friday the 13th has been thought of as an unlucky day). The Pope disbanded the order of the Knights Templars in 1312 and two years later in 1314, their Grand Master, Jacques de Molay was burned at the stake in Paris.
Joan of Arc
A century later, Chinon again played a significant role in the struggle for the French throne between the French and the English during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453). The Dauphin Charles set up his court in Chinon in 1425 and in March 1429, he welcomed 17-year-old Joan of Arc to the fortress. She came to meet him and to acknowledge him as the rightful heir to the throne. She explained she had repeated visions from two Saints that had appointed her as savior of France and they told her to meet with Charles and to ask his permission that she lead an army, oust the English and install him as the rightful king of France.
After convincing the dauphin, Charles granted Joan of Arc armor, supplies and an army to relieve the siege of Orléans. In battles in May 1429, Joan led her troops and they retook the English fortifications. Joan was wounded, but returned to the front to encourage a final assault. By mid-June, the French had ousted the English.
She encouraged Charles to quickly travel to Reims. He was crowned King Charles VII in mid-July 1429 with Joan of Arc by his side.
In the spring of 1430, King Charles VII asked Joan of Arc to battle once more, this time against the Burgundian English coalition. During the battle, she was thrown from her horse and taken captive. Charles VII, not convinced of Joan’s divine inspiration, made no attempt to rescue her.
The Burgundians held her for nearly a year and though Joan’s actions were against the English occupation army, she instead was turned over to Burgundian church officials who charged her with heresy, witchcraft and for dressing like a man.
She was interrogated nearly a dozen times by a biased tribunal, and frustrated they could not break her, the tribunal eventually used her military clothes against her, charging that she dressed like a man.
May 29, 1431, the tribunal announced Joan of Arc was guilty of heresy and the following morning, May 30, she was taken to the marketplace in Rouen and burned at the stake. She was 19 nineteen years old.
In 1456 King Charles VII ordered an investigation. A retrial declared Joan of Arc officially innocent of all charges and she was declared a martyr. 489 after her death in 1920 she was canonized by Pope Benedict XV. Joan of Arc is the patron saint of France.
The square used for the Thursday market in Chinon hosts a monumental equestrian statue of Joan of Arc.
A final note on our tour of Chinon castle: The HistoPad is the new generation digital tablet that is handed out to visitors at a number of châteaux we visited. The HistoPad we used in Chinon was, by far, the most comprehensive of the ones we used anywhere and it was included in the entrance fee. The HistoPad displays an interactive map that uses GPS data to display images and information about the room you are currently viewing. It displayed pictures on all 3 floors of the Château de Chinon as well as interactive objects in 3D. You can ‘touch’ the tablet to a specific marker in a room to bring up historical data, stories and objects or ‘point and shoot’ the tablet at a wall, for example, and a 3D photo of how the wall or room looked fully decorated 600 years ago will display on the tablet. It was extremely well done and dramatically enriched our tour.
Saumur is ~20 miles from Chinon so we opted to pay the town a visit. In addition to visiting the Château de Saumur that we talked about in our ‘Châteaux of the Loire Valley‘ posting last week, we also stopped by these two sites.
Pierre et Lumière
Inside a cave, Pierre et Lumière, is an underground museum displaying heritage sculptures of the Loire Valley. There were 20 sculptures of villages, towns, churches and castles inside the cave. More than 100 tons of tuffeau stone was used. Each small replica was sculpted to scale from the local tuffeau stone, a soft luminous white limestone. It is considered easy to carve and was extensively used as both the building blocks of châteaux as well as for the ornamental sculpted decorations during the late Gothic and early Renaissance period.
The details and workmanship are outstanding and each sculpture is imaginatively lit in this cool subterranean museum.
Musée du Champignon
As we had never visited a mushroom museum we thought, why not? The Musée du Champignon, set below ground in prehistoric troglodyte caves, was a fascinating world of sights, colors and smells.
Mycology is the branch of biology concerned with the study of fungi and mushrooms. Saumur provides France with 80% of its white button variety so who better to have a museum. And this mushroom museum / workshop was loaded with information. Their brochure says they harvest 12 million tons of various mushrooms a year and have the largest mycological collection in Europe.
We learned about the 500 edible species of wild mushroom as well as a few inedible types. We were able to view a few dozen types of mushrooms growing in a variety of mediums but also many types from around the world that were preserved specimens in jars. We admit to enjoying, as well as being surprised at, the quality and quantity of good information in this unique museum. There was a shop at the end where freshly picked mushrooms were for sale. It was indeed a worthwhile and fun stop.
When living and cooking in Europe, visiting the fresh open air markets is not only a lot of fun but the quality and variety of fruits and vegetables are far greater and fresher than what a grocery store may offer. Chinon’s Thursday market was amazing especially knowing that Chinon is such a small town. This market even had a bakery baking fragrant croissants, baguettes, gougères (cheese puff pastries) and other temptations on the spot. How can one pass a fresh bakery without stopping?
We, like most villagers, attended every week. On our last visit we stocked up on a few wonderful cheeses to take with us before we left Chinon and France.
We discovered a local charcuterie (Aux Délices du Terroir) as well that offered delicious prepared or semi-prepared meats and vegetables. French food in general, in our humble opinion, cannot be matched for its quality and flavor. Our favorite charcuterie had a couple of fantastic versions of gratin dauphinois as well as delicious pâtés and a delicate salmon terrine that came with a side of seafood sauce. Yum! We also selected marinated chicken that we cooked ourselves. It was full of flavor and very tender. French food is similar to chocolate, the better the quality, the less you need to satiate your appetite.
And good food needs good wine. Carved into the banks along the Vienne River are a few wine caves and wine cellars. Although open to the public, in September and close to harvest season, it was hit or miss for us to find them open. Chinon’s most well-known wines are Cabernet Franc-based red wines.
According to Wine Enthusiast: Four appellations, often organic or biodynamic, Saumur-Champigny, Chinon, Bourgueil and Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil are appellations producing red wines made from Cabernet Franc that are increasingly impressive. They offer smoky perfumes, rich berry fruits and fine structures.
We also enjoyed the areas popular white wine, Chenin Blanc.
To wrap our restful and catch-up month in Chinon we wanted to share this photo of an amusing sculpture and print from a talented local Chinon artist, Jean-Pierre Blanchard. We strolled passed his workshop a few times and always enjoyed seeing what was displayed in the windows.
Santé from these Chinonais,
Ted and Julia