On a hot summer’s night, after dinner at the lovely Hotel Le Grand Monarque in the bijou town of Azay-le-Rideau, I decided to stroll through the town’s pretty little streets. I was sure I could take a peek at the famous Chateau through its ornate iron gates, ahead of a visit planned for the next day. To my surprise, though it was 10 pm, the gates were open, and visitors were welcomed in for free to wander the fragrant gardens. It is impossible not to ooh and ah at the sight of the fairy-tale castle lit up against a twilight sky. Its reflection shimmers in the moat, perfectly still except for ripples caused by a dipping dragonfly, a lazy fish or an amorous frog looking for company.
A full moon hovered over the castle, a glowing homage to its beauty as the silhouettes of small bats flitted about in the moonlight. The attic of the chateau is home to a bat colony of rare Great Mouse-Eared bats, and with 60 species of dragonfly in the area, there’s plenty of action. The scent of lavender was heady. It was like a dream chateau come to life…
History of the Chateau of Azay-le-Rideau
Standing on an island in the middle of the Indre River, the Château of Azay-le-Rideau was built during the reign of François I. The design combined the latest technical innovations from Italy and the art of French architecture.
In around 1510, Gilles Berthelot, adviser to King Louis XII, Treasurer of France and Mayor of nearby Tours became owner of the ruins of a fortress in Azay-le-Rideau. He had plans drawn up for a château in the style of the day, putting his wife Philippe (in those days it was a name for both men and women) in charge of the construction. By 1522, the year Francois I came to the throne, most of the structural work was complete. Philippe proved to be an excellent project manager, ordering slate from Anjou, ensuring masons, carpenters and workmen were on site at the right time. Most deliveries were transported by river, castles were almost always built next to a river for that reason.
Gilles paid homage to King Francois and his wife Queen Claude by having their initials carved on the walls. Flattery did no good, the proud owners never had time to enjoy their home. A general investigation ordered by Francis I revealed embezzlement. Berthelot fled, abandoning his wife Philippe and his château, he died in 1529. Francis I seized the unfinished Château and gave it to one of his loyal followers. In places you can see carvings begun and doomed to never to be finished, it adds to the romance.
Chateau d’Azay-le-Rideau today
The Chateau today is under state ownership and it is one of the absolute jewels of the Loire Valley. Incredibly pretty inside and out, the river that surrounds it reflects its beauty in a thousand ripples.
Recent renovations (completed in 2017) revealed some of the chateau’s secrets, for instance the practice of bulrush matting for the walls. The tradition was spotted by an eagle-eyed historian in a 16th century tapestry of a man getting dressed. You’ll now see this in the bedroom that was Philippe’s. In her day, it wasn’t just a place to sleep but to live, she would receive visitors there, eat and work in the room so keeping it warm in winter and cool in summer was essential and the wall coverings helped as did raising the bed off the floor on a platform. It was also believed that the smell of the reeds expelled bad moods and cleansed the air!
Centuries of pigeons roosting on the roof had left the famously white castle a rather dull grey – not any more. Artisans and craftsmen have repaired and restored the chateau to glory using authentic methods, creating a new path which goes all around the castle and giving it a whole new lease of life.
The turrets, moat and cobbled sentry walk are token gestures towards the look of a fortress because this is in reality a dream home of the 16th century. The staircase was incredibly innovative for its day, inside (a novelty then), running centrally through the chateau and giving fabulous views at every level.
Like a water mirror, the reflections of the chateau in the River Indre are famous. Honoré de Balzac said it was like “a faceted diamond set in the Indre bathing in the river like a princely creature”.
Enchanting and exquisite
Inside the rooms are exquisitely furnished and decorated with tapestries and paintings – it’s all very fairy-tale like and perfectly suits this most romantic and elegant of chateaux. You sort of expect Harry Potter to pop out at any moment.
The château of Azay-le-Rideau, in the Loire Valley, opens its doors until 11pm every evening of July and August. A truly spectacular chance for visitors to discover this 16th century architectural masterpiece, sitting on an island formed by the Indre river and surrounded by a romantic park. So, if you can time your visit for then, you’ll see it in a totally different light – literally.
Chateaux to visit nearby:
Hotel Grand Monarque a former 18th century post house in the centre of Azay-le-Rideau is charming – lovely restaurant too.
Tourist office info: www.touraineloirevalley.com; www.loirevalley-france.co.uk; www.azay-le-rideau.fr/en/
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