Tourangeaux describe their town: “C’est le mini-Paris” and in the past it has acted as the temporary capital.
Tours (pronounced Toor, silent s) is a city located southwest of Paris with ~140,000 inhabitants, 30,000 of which are college students. It is in the province of Touraine and is known as a University town, for its many city parks, the Château de Tours (our 13th) and for the well-known Vouvray wines. The french spoken in Tours is claimed to be the purest, accent free french spoken anywhere. What a great environment in which to learn French if you are inclined.
The first thing we saw as we walked out of the train station was this statue created by a talented local sculptor, Michel Audiard, of an endangered life-sized white bull rhinoceros. Perhaps the unofficial Tours greeter?
A Brief History
In the 1st century CE, Tours was a part of the Roman Empire and by 380–388 it had become a Roman metropolis dominating Gaul (today’s Loire Valley, Maine and Brittany).
In 732 a large Muslim army from Al-Andalus advanced into France and engaged Charles Martel (Charlemagne’s grandfather) and his infantry in battle. Called the Battle of Tours, the French succeeded in defeating the Muslims and prevented an Islamic takeover. Nearly 100 years later the French repulsed the first Viking attack but in 852 the Vikings attacked again sacking Tours.
Tours became the capital of the County of Touraine in the 11th century and was the capital of France when Louis XI, King of France was in power from 1461 to 1483. Tours remained the permanent residence of Kings until the 16th century. This was the time that châteaux of the Loire Valley began to be built or the existing old castles and fortresses, redesigned and rebuilt. The valleys silk industry began at this same time and continues to survive to this day.
Between 1763-1798 the Royal Court moved permanently to Paris and Versailles, effectively ending the importance and influence of Tours.
In 1917, 25,000 American soldiers arrived in Tours, setting up textile factories to make uniforms, repair shops for military equipment, munitions dumps, an army post office and an American military hospital. There is a bridge named the Woodrow Wilson bridge to remember the American presence during WWI.
Tours was severely damaged in WWII as well. In 1940 the city suffered massive destruction not only from the German occupation, encampments and fortification, but also from their bombs and the uncontrollable fires that blazed for days destroying a number of 16th and 17th century architectural masterpieces. Then in 1944, heavy air raids by the Allied forces this time, caused many deaths and more destruction around the railway station.
In Tours we learned of the Charlemagne tower so had to explore further. This tower was a part of the former Saint Martin church and owes its name to the fact that Charlemagne’s wife was buried there in the year 800.
We knew of Charlemagne but felt we needed to refresh who he was. He is called the Father of Europe. His descendants include several royal dynasties: the Habsburg, Capetian and Plantagenet dynasties and nearly every current European noble family can genealogically trace their background to Charlemagne.
Charlemagne (742-814) was King of the Franks (French) and King of the Lombards (Germans) from 774 CE. He also became the Holy Roman Emperor in 800 and he held all titles until his death in 814. He is credited with uniting much of western and central Europe and was the first emperor to rule Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire centuries earlier.
In 1165 he was canonized by the Antipope Paschal III. However, this was during a split in the Vatican when there was a Pope and an Antipope. When the church finally healed itself in 1179, the new Pope declared all canonizations made by the antipope were null and void. However in Charlemagne’s case he is considered beatified. He cannot be referred to as a saint but instead as the Blessed Charlemagne.
So, in general we were amazed to stumble across this piece of the Blessed Charlemagne’s history.
Cathédrale Saint-Gatien de Tours
The towering Saint Gatien Cathedral, the seat of the Archbishops of Tours, took so long to build – from 1170 to 1547 – it created the local saying “…not until the cathedral is finished,” referring to something particularly long and difficult to achieve.
The twin towers are ~225 feet tall (69 meters) and the first thing we noticed were the ‘owl-eyes’ looking down at us.
In 1882, the American-British author, Henry James (1843-1916), during his visit to Tours said of Saint Gatien: “There are many grander cathedrals, but there are probably few more pleasing.” Indeed!
We thought the stained glass windows inside rival the glorious stained glass windows of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.
Basilique Saint Martin de Tours
Gregory of Tours (538-594) was both a historian and a Bishop of Tours. He wrote the Decem Libri Historiarum (Ten Books of Histories) that later became known as the History of the Franks. He is also known for his books of the miracles of saints and especially the many accounts of miracles attributed to Martin. The brief story of Saint Martin is this:
Born in 316 CE, and at the age of 15, Martin became a cavalry officer in the Roman Army. One extremely cold night Martin met a near naked beggar at the gates of the City of Amiens and taking his sword, he cut his cloak in two and gave half to the beggar. That night, Martin had a dream in which Christ was wearing half a cloak and telling his angels that Martin had given it to him.
Shortly after this incident Martin was baptised and he left the army. He instead entered into monastic life and in 361 CE he founded a monastery at Poitiers. The story goes that when the neighboring first Bishop of Tours, died, the people of Tours, tricked Martin to come to Tours whereby they basically kidnapped him until he agreed to become their Bishop; the second Bishop of Tours. He lived to be over 80 years old and when he died, more than 2000 monks accompanied his body to the chapel where he was buried.
Martin quickly thereafter became one of the most important Catholic saints and by 470 CE a larger church had been built and his remains were moved to it. Over the years larger and larger churches and extensions were built over his shrine. Like so many others, the medieval basilica was completely destroyed in the French Revolution.(1789-99) The present church was built between 1886 – 1924 and dedicated in 1925 and pilgrims and visitors still can and do visit Saint Martin’s tomb in the crypt below.
In the early Middle Ages St. Martin’s shrine was considered the third most important pilgrimage site in Christendom, after Jerusalem and Rome. To acquire the great wealth of the basilica of Saint Martin was the goal of the Muslim army. As mentioned above, they were defeated by Charles Martel – Charlemagne’s grandfather – in 732 in the Battle of Tours.
Château de Tours
Of the baker’s dozen of Châteaux in the Loire Valley we visited, Château de Tours was our 13th and final stop.
Recent excavations beneath the château have discovered evidence of buildings occupying this same site since the 1st century CE.
The oldest excavations found a very large room with an underfloor heating system used in Roman baths and, that it had been used for more than 200 years. Around 300 CE the spa was removed and residential buildings were built on the site. In 1042-43, Touraine fell into the hands of the unpleasant Geoffroy II, known as Martel, the Count of Anjou and he built a large residence and complex. Between 1270-1280, under the reign of King Philip III, a castle was built around the former residence of the count and his dungeon.
Two of the original towers still survive to this day. The castle became the scene of royal life where engagements, weddings and celebrations were held. However, by the end of the 15th century Château de Tours was abandoned by the kings.
It may no longer be the romantic and prestigious château of medieval times, but like the history of the ground it sits upon, it has evolved with the times. After the French Revolution, this state owned chateau has been used for more practical purposes like a garrison, a prison, a historical museum, a tropical aquarian and currently, the château is used as an art gallery hosting permanent and temporary exhibitions of paintings, sculptures, pottery and photography. One floor is used as a historical museum of Tours.
Honoré de Balzac
He is seen everywhere is Tours. Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), born in Tours, was a French writer. He wrote one of the more important novels of French literature, called La Comédie Humaine or The Human Comedy. He was a prolific writer who published more than 90 novels and stories of his own creation between the years 1829-1855. (3 of his books were published after his death) He also wrote additional novels using pseudonyms. Balzac was read and admired throughout Europe, strongly influencing the writers of his time and the next century.
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Tours
A short walk from Saint Gatien Cathédrale is the Musée des Beaux-Arts, established in 1795 and currently located in the garden of the former Palace of the Archbishops. There is an enormous 215-year-old cedar tree in the center of the courtyard, that is said to have been planted by Napoleon Boneparte.
The museum houses over 12,000 works with approximately 1,000 on display at any time. We found a surprisingly rich collection of paintings and some of our favorite pieces were: Rembrandt’s beautiful painting of 1627, ‘The Flight to Egypt’,
Adèle Riché’s outstanding painting called ‘Flowers, white and black grapes’
We especially liked Francois-Alexandre Pernot’s, ‘The Royal Castle of Plessis-lès-Tours in 1480’, painted in 1850 and ‘Panoramic view of Tours in 1787’ by Pierre-Antoine Demachy, both we have included in the above paragraphs. And finally the oh-so-crisp details in ‘Landscape at the rising sun’, 1759 by Jacques-Nicolas Julliard were exceptional. The whole painting can be viewed in our gallery listed below.
The museum not only houses paintings, but it also displays furniture pieces and a small collection of sculptures. There was a statue by Auguste Rodin of the novelist Honoré de Balzac but one of our favorites was a 1912 “The Bowlers” by a Tours sculptor, Marcel Gaumont.
This mansion was built in the 15th century and was once the property of a local family of silk merchants. Although all we could do was peek through the locked wrought iron gates to get our photos, the 16th century facade was incredible.
Hôtel de Ville
This beautiful Town Hall in Tours was built between 1896 and 1904. It was closed for the day by the time we arrived so weren’t able to view the triptych of the life of Joan of Arc by Jean-Paul Laurens inside.
We spotted a Starbucks in the square and as it was getting quite cool we stopped and picked up a Chai Tea Latte to share. When we emerged it was deep dusk and all the lights in the fountains in front of the town hall were on. What a gorgeous gift!
Our day in Tours and France was a wonderfully full day. We learn such interesting history everywhere and have the opportunity to visit and view the treasures of each location we stop at. Tours’ history and attractions are worth spending time discovering.
Santé from these Tourangeaux
Ted + Julia