The Loire Valley is known as the garden of France. It is a green, smiling land of verdant pastures and orchards growing on the rich alluvial soils of the flood plains. On the limestone plateau large areas of vines struggle to obtain the moisture they need to produce their precious fruit. There are also great stretches of woodland, some of it suitable for hunting. In other places the forest is so dense that it is difficult to penetrate. It is in area like this that the duel takes place in The Eighth Child.
In the vineyards the vines have sometimes been found to have tap-roots more than 50 metres (165 feet) long as they fight through the fissured rock in search of water. The visitor to the caves will see roots trailing out of the ceilings even though they are 20/30 metres below the surface of the plateau. It is this battle for moisture which gives the wine its treasured flavour.
Several centuries ago the French royalty and nobility recognised the advantages of owning properties in this favoured area. The result was they acquired estates and built splendid country houses in the region. The high period for this development was the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries. As a result there are about twenty grand chateaux within a hundred kilometre (60 mile) radius of the city of Tours in addition to several dozen minor castles and fortified manor houses.
Many of these lovely buildings have been located on cliff edges above the rivers or in the middle of lakes. The most beautiful is claimed to be Chenonceau which bridges the River Cher on seven arches (see photo). Nearly as fine is Azay-le-Rideau which stands on an island in the River Indre, partly surrounded by a lake formed out of one of the side channels. Ussé chateau, as well as being the fabled setting of the tale of the Sleeping Beauty, has been used as the back-drop for many films and television series (the latest as Camelot in Merlin).
One of the oldest castles is perched above the town of Chinon. The remains which can still be seen were mainly built by Henry Plantagenet who became king of England in 1154. At that time a substantial part of modern France was in English hands. Much was lost by King John (nicknamed ‘lackland’). The Angevin lands, including Chinon, were taken from him in 1214. In 1420 the castle at Chinon was the setting for Joan of Arc’s meeting with the Dauphin Charles VII when the young shepherdess persuaded him to appoint her to lead an army which finally drove the English out of nearly all of France in 1453.
To walk round these ancient buildings is to rub shoulders with history.
Next week I will be telling you more about the layout of the medieval town of Chinon.