You have probably heard of the 4 great C’s of Loire: Cheverny, immortalised in Tintin’s Château de Moulinsart. Chenonceau, the elegant castle of the ladies. Chaumont, with its medieval suspension bridge and Chambord, with its 400 rooms and almost just as many chimneys.
This story is not about them. Instead, it’s the story about 5 other castles, that all have a unique story to tell. One castle is filled with alchemist signs, another has its own theatre and a third has a Marble Lounge, that’s worth of Versailles.
Let’s discover these five fabulous – or rather underrated – castles of the Loire Valley
Loire Valley = Castle Country
If Czechoslovakia is the country with the highest density of castles per square kilometre, the Loire valley must come in a close second. No less than 42 castles make up this Unesco World Heritage classified landscape and Chambord, the biggest castle in the world, is part of the list.
The area is perfect for a romantic getaway. Cruising with the car along the lazy Loire river, discovering castle after castle, dining al fresco in medieval towns, where illuminated cathedrals and shrieks of swallows serve as backdrop.
You can enjoy the terroir of the wines: sparkling wines from the cool cellars of Saumur, crisp whites from Savennieres or dark reds from Anjou together with excellent food and turn your castle roadtrip into a gastronomic one as well.
Welcome to France!
Alchemist signs and a style in transition
Château Plessis-Bourré was built in less than 5 years from 1468 to 1472 by Finance Minister Jean Bourré, the principal advisor to King Louis XI. This was a curious time for building castles. The architects had one foot in the Medieval past and the other in the Renaissance future, and thus Château Plessis-Bourré is a perfect example of the so-called transition style.
Double drawbridges, large moats, a parapet walk and dungeons classified it as a medieval fortresses, yet the arcaded gallery, stately courtyard, rich decorations and the comfort of the interiors classifies it as a Renaissance palace.
Jean Bourré was an alchemist and that was considered a dark art in medieval times, where science was in embryo. So he had to hide the signs, that would be recognized by fellow alchemists. And he hid them in plain sight, in the decorations and ornamentations of the rooms.
Especially the guardroom, which follows the taste of the medieval society for symbolism in images, seems to declare Jean Bourré’s interest in alchemy. The ceiling is composed of 24 sections and 16 of them symbolize the search of the Philosopher’s Stone, the alchemistic symbol of richness and eternal life, while the other 8 represent the laws, that the alchemist had to follow during his quest. This iconography is completed by other decorations everywhere in the castle, especially on the doors, façades and the main stairway.
Visit Château Plessis-Bourré yourself and go on your own alchemist symbol treasure-hunt!
Study in Light and Marble
Château de la Lorie was built as a Renaissance castle in 1650 and was so luxuriously decorated, that the developer, René le Pelletier, ran out of money and was forced to sell his castle to his son-in-law, Gabriel Constantin. Stables were added and the castle was modernized through the next hundred years.
The large marble lounge from 1780 is the pièce de résistance of the castle and is exceptional, since the techniques used were usually dedicated to royal palaces. Built in the Age of Enlightenment, where the style of Neoclassicism drew inspiration from the classical art and culture of Ancient Greece or Ancient Rome, it’s no surprise that the masterpiece looks like a hall from a Greek palace.
The room is similar to the opulent Salon de la Guerre et de la Paix in Versailles, but more pure in its Greek expression, whereas Versailles is just ridiculously lavish. The pieces of furniture, by Parisian cabinetmaker Pluvinet from 1779, are still used in the marble room and the collection is so complete and well preserved, that it has been lent out to several museums over the years.
Outside, a wonderfully wrought old Catalpa tree – probably one of the first trees of its kind in Anjoy back when it was planted around 1790 – beside the terrasse, still watches over this study in light and marble.
Medieval mansion turned Renaissance residence
Almost every medieval castle underwent renovations and rejuvenations in the Renaissance. With peace and prosperity diminishing the need for fortifications, the nobility instead was looking for a way to show of their wealth and enjoy life in a comfortable castle. As is the story of Château de Montreuil-Bellay.
The first castle was built by Foulque Nerra, The Black Falcon, in the 11th century. He was count of Anjou, a warrior, a builder, a pilgrim and benefactor for monasteries and schools. Through this noble warrior, the House of Plantagenet descended and held the English throne for more than 300 years.
The castle was given to Foulque’s vassal, Giraud Berlay, also known as Bellay. Montreuil-Bellay could now begin its history. The Château of today was constructed between the 13th and 15th centuries. The end of the Hundred Years War in 1475 put an end to the English influence and ushered in a period of peace. This means, that the castle became a residence of leisure, not just a fortress for survival. Elegant additions replaced the defensive characteristics and turned the castle into a Renaissance residence.
As a part of a castle’s Renaissance evolution is also the addition of toilets and bathrooms. A rare example of this, is the Steam Bath system, that was installed in the former Canon’s quarters in the 15th century. A waiter would boil a large basin of water in the room at the bottom of the building and the steam then rose up through a pipe to a small room, where the bather would enjoy a hot steam bath.
Montreuil-Bellay also make their own wine and the guided tour will take you to the cellar, where the wine was made and the Wine Brotherhood in the beginning of the 20th century should swear to a portrait of Rabelais: “When my glass is full, I empty it. When it is empty, I complain.”
Giant of the Loire Valley
While Château de Brissac, like most other castles, has a medieval history, the castle we see today is a Baroque behemoth built in the 17th century and the tallest in France. It has been in the possession of the same family since 1502 and now, in 2016, 514 years later, the descendants, the Marquess and the Marchioness still live in this grand Château with their four children.
This so-called “Giant of the Loire Valley” boasts 7 floors and more than 200 rooms. Not all are open to the public, but those who are, are lavishly decorated and furnitured. The Dining Hall with its walls covered with antlers and the Hunting Room with its massive 4-poster bed and 5 giant tapestries depicting hunting scenes. The dark red bedchamber of King Louis XIII and The Golden Lounge with its amazing coffered ceiling are just some of the highlight of tour through the castle.
The beautiful Art Nouveau theatre is an intimate yet large hall with 200 seats, born of the ambitious dream of Jeanne Say, Marchioness of Brissac and music lover at the end of the 19th century. The decadent addition is a testament to the tremendous transition the castle has undergone, from it’s construction by the tireless builder Foulque Nerra to the castle of today.
The tour of the castle ends in the cellar, where you can taste and purchase wines from the property. Here, the red Anjou Villages Brissac and pink Rose d’Anjou are aging in silence of stone vaults.
Home of princes
Château de Serrant is a Renaissance castle, built on the foundations of a medieval fortress and the private residence of the Prince of Merode. The Château distinguishes itself by the richly furnished rooms with unique characters and especially its precious library with 12.000 old books.
The austere and desolate exterior of the chateau shouldn’t put you off. This study in schist and tuffeau stone emerged from its medieval foundations to a Renaissance palace in the 16th century. The huge kitchen still rests under the medieval aches of the old fortress, while the rest of the castle has been rebuilt.
A guided tour will take you through wonderful rooms, original furniture and display wonderful craftsmanship, like the Ebony Cabinet, a cabinet-making masterpiece conserved for more than 300 years inside the castle. It’s elaborately carved, reveals mirrors, rocaille, precious marquetry works and numerous secret drawers.
The highlight of the tour and castle is the extraordinary library with 12.000 old books. Treasures like the Encyclopedia of Diderot, Napoleon’s Egyptian Descriptions with illustrations made by Piranesi and La Fontaine’s Fables with drawings of J.B Oudry are all jewels, that crown this welcoming and unique room.
Château de Serrant is still a private estate and the current owners, the Prince and Princess de Merode, are descendant of the Dukes of La Trémoïlle.