Guide to the Loire regions

Touraine Azay-le-Rideau


Château d’Azay-le-Rideau
Serene and beautiful, for many admirers Azay-le-Rideau remains the perfect example of a Renaissance Loire château, with Balzac famously describing it as ‘a many faceted diamond, set in the Indre’. Conceived as the mansion of a country gentleman rather than some fortified stronghold, the château is located at the very heart of the town but is so well hidden within its own parkland that it is all but impossible to view without accessing the grounds. From the leafy avenue that leads to the gates one gets a distant glimpse of the exterior staircase which, on close inspection has detailed carvings of salamanders (the emblem of François I) on two of its flights.

Built on the edge of an island on a loop in the river, the château is built on top of a series of piles driven deep into the riverbed. Construction began in 1518, making it one of the earliest examples dating from this flamboyant period of architecture. But whatever stands here today, however, is likely to be just half of what was originally planned; the original intention was to build two return wings so encompassing what would have been the central courtyard. It is still possible to see the rough edges on one of the walls where work finally stopped in 1529. It was commissioned by the wealthy and ambitious financier, Gilles Berthelot, who held the position of General Tax Collector and was later Treasurer of France. The remains of the original fortified castle had come to Berthelot in 1515 when he acquired the title of Lord of Azay. 

With Gilles distracted with running the business of the State (he also became the mayor of Tours in 1519), it was left to his wife Philippa Lesbahy, the daughter of a rich family from Blois, to supervise the construction with the help of two master masons, Denis Guillourt and Étienne Rousseau. The Azay accounts, which have been preserved along with the château, mention that there were 110 full-time employees in the workshop during this period. But in 1527 the Berhelot’s fortunes changed when he was implicated in fraud and the couple fled France for exile in Belgium. At this point (as records in the accounts attest) their logis still wasn’t complete, with timber acquired from the forest of Chinon for the construction of beams never being utilized. François I, working on the assumption that the château had been built from funds stolen from his own chest, duly confiscated the property and, not entirely sure what to do with it, offered it to Antoine Raffin, the king’s own Captain of the Guard and a favoured companion during the Italian campaigns of Pavia and Marignan.

The English-style landscaped gardens date from the 19th Century when the château was owned by the Marquis de Biencourt who purchased the estate in 1787. It passed through three successive generations of Biencourts, but during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, it was occupied by Prince Frederick Charles of Prussia. One story recorded from this period was that one evening, over a staff dinner, a huge chandelier came crashing down onto the table. Fearing he was at the centre of some assassination attempt, the Prince swore that he would annihilate the whole village, until one of his dining companions convinced him otherwise.

After a period of neglect when a large amount of the adjoining land was sold off along with the original furniture, the French government stepped in to purchase it for the State, paying 200,000 Francs in 1905.
Château d’Azay-le-Rideau
19 Rue Balzac
T: + 33 2 47 45 42 04 

Church of Saint-Symphorien
Relatively few visitors to Azay appear to take the short walk from the château to the church which is a shame given that it’s the oldest remaining structure in the town following the razing of the town by Charles VII in 1418. The most interesting aspect is the unusual double gabled façade that was carved out of the stone in the 9th Century. The introduction of a centre window at some point in its history which clearly resulted in the loss of some of the sculptures can only be described as authorized vandalism.

Château de Islette
Whilst playing supporting role to the château of Azay-le-Rideau, this 16th Century Renaissance property is smaller yet still reminiscent of its more illustrious neighbour. Also located on the banks of the river Indre, just a little further downstream, it also has the added attraction of an ancient watermill. Open everyday between mid-July and the end of August.
Château de Islette
9 Route de Langeais
T: + 33 2 47 45 40 10

La Vallée Troglodytique des Goupillières
Not far from Azay-le-Rideau, on the road towards La Sablonnière, is a collection of three troglodyte small-holdings. Riddled with a series of old caves excavated out of the soft, friable chalk by hand, these caverns have been used since the Middle Ages as a place of work and refuge. Vinous anoraks will also be interested to learn that there is a loge des vignes to discover whilst others would certainly have doubled up as wine cellars. The site was abandoned about 100 years ago, but has been ambitiously restored by the local owners who now offer guided tours of their subterranean farm.
La Vallée Troglodytique des Goupillières
T: + 33 2 47 96 60 84
F: + 33 2 47 96 50 25 

Château de Fontenay
This small fortified castle, dating from the 15th Century, is built on the vestiges of a Gallo-Roman villa. Its square structure features two buildings at right-angles to each other enclosing an attractive garden (which is believed to have been designed by Joachim Carvallo who also responsible for those at nearby Villandry) within its crenellated walls. Opposite the property there are the remains of a Roman wall and an ancient cemetery. The current owners, the Marko family, have opened their human-sized château for visits since 2004. Opening times vary depending on the season, so it’s best to phone ahead. There is a modest charge.
Château de Fontenay
5 Fontenay
Route de Villandry
T/F: + 33 2 47 96 67 62

Les Jardins du Château de La Chatonnière
Located three kilometres from the town, these formal terraced gardens spread across 12 hectares of land within a hidden valley. Surrounded by woods and orchards, the château itself was built during the Wars of Religion and has six towers around a central courtyard. Open every day between March and November.
Les Jardins du Château de La Chatonnière
T: + 33 2 47 45 40 29
F: + 33 2 47 45 91 40 

Musée de Maurice Dufresne
Set in a former early 18th Century paper mill, this giant collection of motorized vehicles, with a particular emphasis on farm machinery, was brought together over a thirty year period by Maurice Dufresne, a former blacksmith, journeyman and ultimately a successful local manufacturer of agricultural equipment. It acts as a reference to 150 years of human advancement in mechanical engineering.
Musée de Maurice Dufresne
Moulin de Marnay
T: + 33 2 47 45 36 18
F: + 33 2 47 45 28 62

Along with the town of Azay-le-Rideau, Saché (and its satellite hamlet of Pont-de-Ruan) are the only two of the eight wine-related communes that are worth visiting in their own right. Apart from the Château de Saché and its connection to the novelist, Balzac (see below), there are a couple of other attractions. The first, and obvious draw, is the Auberge du XIIe Siècle, a Michelin lauded restaurant in the centre which also claims to be one of the oldest hostelries in the land. The second, and rather more bizarrely, is the striking toy-like mobile (or anti-sculpture, as it is known) painted in black, red and blue by the late American sculptor, Alexander Calder (1898-1976), who donated it to the inhabitants of Saché in 1974. The white haired Sandy set up his home and studio here in 1962 and would often be seen behind the wheel of an old Citroën, setting up his vast metal mobiles in strategic locations around the valley. Today his studio is the home of transient international artists who come to complete their projects here. 

Musée Balzac - Château de Saché
This Renaissance château was built on the foundations of an earlier fortified castle of which today only a single watchtower and part of the moat still remain. Set in three hectares of parkland, it was converted into a comfortable gentilhommière in the early 19th Century and retains many of its original features and furnishings, including the writing desk said to have been used by its most famous visitor, the novelist Honoré de Balzac (1799-1859). The writer, who is held in the same esteem by the French as we English revere Charles Dickens (their lives overlapped by some 47 years in the early to mid 1800s), made many long visits to the château between 1823 and 1848 since the owners, M. Margonne and his wife, were friends of Balzac’s parents. The château became the source of the inspiration for La Comédie Humaine, Le Père Goriot and, of most local interest, Le lys dans la vallée (The lily of the valley) and is set almost entirely along the three kilometre stretch of the Indre that connects Saché to Port-de-Ruan.

The château is open to the public everyday except at Christmas and New Year.

Close by is the Château de la Chevrière which was chosen by Balzac as the model for Clochegourde, the residence of his heroine, Henriette, the Madame de Mortsauf, in Le lys dans la vallée. 
Musée Balzac
Château de Saché
T: + 33 2 47 26 86 50
F: + 33 2 47 26 80 28 

Musée de l’Osier et de la Vannerie
Tucked into an isolated and enclosed valley, every house in Villaines seems to have a sign proffering their wares. The village is filled with caves allowing these artisan workers to cut and strip their willow and store it in ideal conditions, ensuring that it remains supple enough to be woven. The legacy of the wickerwork that originates from here is so strong that even Balzac made reference to the ‘country baskets of Villaines’ in Le lys dans la vallée. At the heart of this troglodytic community is the wicker and basketwork museum which helps complement the work of both the independent weavers as well as the co-operative (see below) which is also located here.
Musée de l’Osier et de la Vannerie
7 Place de la Marie
T: + 33 2 47 45 23 19

Co-operative de Vannerie de Villaines
The co-operative was founded in 1849 by the local curate, Abbé Chicoine, after he came up with the original initiative of a workers collective to help keep local basket weavers in business. Unknowingly at the time, the priest had also just created France’s oldest agricultural co-operative. Today, the scheme brings together around sixty basket weavers who grow, strip and craft their own wicker.
Co-operative de Vannerie de Villaines
1 Rue de la Cheneillère
T: + 33 2 47 45 43 03
F: + 33 2 47 45 27 48

Musée de la Poire Tapée
Poire Tapées are a local speciality and hark back to a time when the only method of preserving pears (and apples) was to dry them. Baked slowly in oven and then ‘tapped’ with a platissoire, a utensil used for flattening the fruit and to check on the remaining moisture content, once dehydrated, the pears can be kept for many years before eating. For this reason, they became a valuable source of income for these otherwise paysan farmers as they were widely exported around northern Europe.

The technique practically died out in the 1930s, but a couple of local arborist-entrepreneurs revived the production in 1987, establishing the poire tapée association and opening this small museum the same year. Two local producers who sell their production direct to the public are listed below.
Musée de la Poire Tapée
7 Chemin de la Buronnière
T/F: + 33 2 47 95 47 78

Reines de Touraine
27 Rue du Commerce
T: + 33 2 47 95 47 46
F: + 33 2 47 95 54 49 
Open Tuesday to Saturday (closed for lunch) and until 13h00 on Sundays.

Poires Tapées À L’Ancienne de Riverennes
Christine & Yves Herin
Rue de Quinçay
T/F: + 33 2 47 95 45 19 
The other notable producer with their operation set in a series of caves in the hamlet of Quinçay.

Tourist Information Offices:

Office de Tourisme
Pays d’Azay-le-Rideau
4 Rue du Château
Azay-le Rideau
T: + 33 2 47 45 44 40  

Syndicat des Vins d’Azay-le-Rideau
Mairie de Azay-le-Rideau
T: + 33 2 47 45 44 40
F: + 33 2 47 45 31 46  

Syndicat des Vins d’Azay-le-Rideau et de sa Région
68 Rue Langeais
T: + 33 2 47 45 27 58


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