A visit to Woudrichem’s ‘Mustard Pot’

Historically speaking, many Dutch towns and villages depended on fish and fishing for their livelihoods, and fish still play a big part of the Dutch psyche. There’s a reason the national dish is a pickled herring washed down with chopped raw onions and gherkins. Some of my colleagues claim this is the ideal hangover cure, but frankly I’d need to be drunk rather than hungover to eat that particular national delicacy.

As I walked around the charming medieval town of Woudrichem, it was clear fish were big here too. The coat of arms is two fish on a gold shield, and the town’s flag also features a fish. Head to the lovely compact old harbour, now a national monument, and you’ll find it packed with traditional Dutch fishing boats, including Aak, Stijlsteven, Skûtsje and Katwijker.

Sint-Martinuskerk, Woudrichem, Netherlands

Sint-Martinuskerk, Woudrichem, Netherlands

Old Harbour, Woudrichem, Netherlands

Old Harbour, Woudrichem, Netherlands

Old Harbour, Woudrichem, Netherlands

Old Harbour, Woudrichem, Netherlands

Old Harbour, Woudrichem, Netherlands

Old Harbour, Woudrichem, Netherlands

Woudrichem is a place of fewer than 5,000 people. It sits at the confluence of the Waal and Maas Rivers and, along with the nearby medieval castle of Slot Loevestein and the fortified town of Gorinchem, formed a key part of The Dutch Waterline defences. As part of the Waterline, the town had to be prepared to flood the surrounding countryside, and only a little recent development has taken place outside the original walls.

To reach Woudrichem I’d cycled the short distance from Slot Loevestein, and taken a small passenger boat across the Bergsche Maas. In this region of many waterways, boats are a common form of transport and this was my second, but not final, boat of this cycle ride.

En route to Woudrichem, Netherlands

En route to Woudrichem, Netherlands

Beach on the river,en route to Woudrichem, Netherlands

Beach on the river,en route to Woudrichem, Netherlands

En route to Woudrichem, Netherlands

En route to Woudrichem, Netherlands

Crossing the Maas River to reach Woudrichem, Netherlands

Crossing the Maas River to reach Woudrichem, Netherlands

Crossing the Maas River to reach Woudrichem, Netherlands

Crossing the Maas River to reach Woudrichem, Netherlands

Crossing the Maas River to reach Woudrichem, Netherlands

Crossing the Maas River to reach Woudrichem, Netherlands

The town was probably founded some time in the 9th century, changing hands over the centuries as the fortunes of the feudal nobility fluctuated. One remarkable incident, more for its name than anything else, took place in 1419. The Zoen van Woudrichem, or Kiss of Woudrichem, was a peace treaty negotiated between the female ruler of Woudrichem, Jacoba of Bavaria, and her uncle, John VI of Bavaria.

Technically there was no kissing involved, for some reason the use of the word ‘kiss’ meant ‘reconciliation’. Even then the reconciliation didn’t last long. The two warring factions of the same family were soon at loggerheads again, forcing another ‘kiss’ to take place in Delft a few years later.

Woudrichem, Netherlands

Woudrichem, Netherlands

Woudrichem, Netherlands

Woudrichem, Netherlands

Sint-Martinuskerk, Woudrichem, Netherlands

Sint-Martinuskerk, Woudrichem, Netherlands

Woudrichem, Netherlands

Woudrichem, Netherlands

Woudrichem, Netherlands

Woudrichem, Netherlands

At least that dispute didn’t result in Woudrichem being burned to the ground, which is what happened during the Eighty Years’ War. In 1572, Woudrichem sided with William of Orange against the Spanish in the opening salvos of the struggle for Dutch independence. When Dutch Forces arrived in the city in 1573 they realised that it was indefensible. Instead of allowing it to fall into Spanish hands, they burnt it down.

The town was rebuilt and the defensive walls strengthened once the Netherlands became independent. Most of what you see today is from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, but Sint-Martinuskerk (St. Martin’s Church) is older than that, and it is the church that has gained the nickname, the Mustard Pot. During a storm in 1717 the church lost its spire, leaving the stump which has become known as the Mustard Pot.

Old Harbour, Woudrichem, Netherlands

Old Harbour, Woudrichem, Netherlands

Old Harbour, Woudrichem, Netherlands

Old Harbour, Woudrichem, Netherlands

Old Harbour, Woudrichem, Netherlands

Old Harbour, Woudrichem, Netherlands

Woudrichem, Netherlands

Woudrichem, Netherlands

The ferry to Dordrecht, Netherlands

The ferry to Dordrecht, Netherlands

After strolling the quiet streets and stopping for a drink in one of the central cafes, I got back on my bike and headed along the Groenendijk, taking me on a beautiful journey along the banks of the Merwede river to a ferry crossing south of  Dordrecht. Once over the river it was a quick 30 minute journey to Dordrecht’s railway station for the train back to The Hague.

Medieval Slot Loevestein

Sitting strategically at the confluence of the Waal and Maas (Meuse) Rivers, the moated medieval castle of Slot Loevestein is a beautiful sight glimpsed between the trees. The first castle to stand here was built between 1357 and 1368; it has been added to over the centuries until the building that you see today emerged in the 16th century. It evokes the era of chivalry like little else I’ve seen in the Netherlands.

Castle Loevestein aerial view, Netherlands (courtesy of dogsfamilypark.blogspot.nl)

Castle Loevestein aerial view, Netherlands (courtesy of dogsfamilypark.blogspot.nl)

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

After a morning in the fortified town of Gorinchem, which sits downstream on the opposite bank of the Waal, I took a boat to reach Slot Loevestein. As we powered out into mid-river, a Dutch man started chatting to me. He told me that my fellow passengers were refugees from Syria, who’d braved the sea crossing to reach Greece before finding safety in the Netherlands.

His wife was teaching them Dutch to help their integration. There were two families, with young children, and this was the first boat they’d been on since they’d risked their lives to escape the brutal war in Syria. They were enjoying themselves enormously, and I couldn’t help but think that for every piece of hateful anti-immigrant, anti-muslim propaganda, there were good people doing good deeds. It was an uplifting encounter.

Woudrichem from the river en route to Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Woudrichem from the river en route to Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Woudrichem from the river en route to Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Woudrichem from the river en route to Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

In the medieval period, whoever controlled Slot Loevestein controlled both the Mass and the Waal Rivers, as well as swathes of the countryside around this area. This allowed the castle’s owners to extract tolls from ships, a very lucrative business. Its early owner, for which it’s still named, was Dirc Loef van Horne, who was granted the castle and lands by Count Willem V of Holland.

In the aristocratic politics of the medieval Europe, the castle saw sieges and battles, and changed hands several times as the fortunes of its owners fluctuated. Things got even more exciting during The Dutch Rebellion in 16th century, when the castle and the nearby fortified towns of Gorinchem and Woudrichem were critical to wrestling control of the Lowlands from the Spanish.

The Dutch Rebellion is also regarded as part of the larger religious wars that erupted across Europe following the Reformation. In 1570, the religious wars came to Slot Loevestein during an extraordinary incident involving eight Calvinists who gained access to the castle dressed as Catholic monks. Once inside they killed the defenders loyal to King Philip II of Spain and waited for reinforcements.

Reinforcements never came and the Spanish retook the castle shortly afterwards. The fate of those Dutch rebels who survived the assault was grim. Many were broken on the rack before being beheaded, while the corpse of the Dutch leader, Herman de Ruijter, was burned and beheaded posthumously. The castle fell to the Dutch once again in 1572 and would never be under Spanish control again.

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

While Slot Loevestein remained an important military outpost with a garrison and a large gunpowder store, it also became a prison in the 17th century and was home to numerous ‘enemies of the state’, particularly religious dissidents. Most famously, it became the prison for Hugo de Groot and his family – famous because Groot escaped the prison by hiding in a book chest and being carried to freedom inside it.

As military technology evolved, Slot Loevestein became obsolete for anything other than storage or as a prison, but it stayed in military hands until 1952. Today it’s in private hands and is a popular destination for tourists. The day I arrived it was hosting an antiques fair which filled the grounds surrounding the castle. One of the stalls was selling old regional maps of Britain, including one of the place I went to school.

Antiques fair at Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Antiques fair at Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Antiques fair at Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Antiques fair at Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Antiques fair at Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Antiques fair at Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Antiques fair at Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Antiques fair at Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

The castle is part of the excellent Museumkaart scheme, which meant it was free and I was given the ‘Keys to the Kingdom’, an electronic key that gives access to the museum and triggers numerous digital information points around the castle. It’s a great idea, especially if you’re a child … which all adult males become when walking around a medieval castle.

The fortress town of Gorinchem

Something extraordinary happened on my way to Gorinchem. I’d taken the train to Dordrecht and was cycling down a quiet tree lined road when I was suddenly hit heavily on the back of the head. Turning around while trying not to fall off my bike, a large Crow was descending upon me for a second attack. It looked angry. Very angry. I waved my arm around my head and peddled faster. It was enough to scare it off.

Crows have large and powerful beaks, and the back of my head had taken the full impact. I cycled a little further before stopping to check whether my attacker had drawn blood. Thankfully, it hadn’t. Still it was an unsettling experience, although I have to admit that this was not the first time a bird has attacked me.

Many years ago I was walking in the English countryside when a Buzzard descended upon me. I knew nothing about it until the heavy beating of wings above my head made me spin around. I didn’t know, but it was nesting about 300 metres away and saw me as trouble. Similarly, crows regularly attack humans if they see them as a threat to their young. Once again, it seems like I was a victim of bird-related circumstance.

Gorichem, Netherlands

Gorichem, Netherlands

Fortifications, Gorichem, Netherlands

Fortifications, Gorichem, Netherlands

Leaving Gorichem by boat, Netherlands

Leaving Gorichem by boat, Netherlands

Far more aware of the threat of arial attack, I cycled on alongside the Beneden Merwede. The river was heavily swollen by recent heavy rains, but there was still a lot of river traffic on this main trade route between the Port of Rotterdam and Germany. This is a region of water, where there are more water taxis and ferries than there are bridges; on a bright sunny Sunday the 25km cycle to Gorinchem was fabulous.

Virtually unknown outside of the Netherlands, Gorinchem is yet another lovely Dutch town with a beautiful centre and dramatic history. Founded over a thousand years ago, it developed into a strategically important fortress town. In the 17th and 18th centuries it formed a vital link in the Dutch Water Line, a series of fortified towns that protected the newly independent Dutch Republic.

Today, the star shaped fortifications that protrude into the surrounding water from the old town walls, are a sure sign that this was once a place of military importance. Across the water from Gorinchem are two other key parts of the defences which I was planning to visit as well: Woudrichem, and the medieval castle of Slot Loevestein. First I had to explore Gorinchem and work out how to get a boat across the river.

It was still early and little was open in the town, but there was a steady trickle of people going to the Sunday service in the massive Grote Kerk. I decided to join the town’s dog walkers on a stroll around the old defensive walls, which have been turned into a public park. The old defences have fantastic views over Boven Merwede river, and take you past a couple of windmills and the old harbour.

Walking the old fortifications, Gorichem, Netherlands

Walking the old fortifications, Gorichem, Netherlands

Walking the old fortifications, Gorichem, Netherlands

Walking the old fortifications, Gorichem, Netherlands

Man and fish statue, Gorichem, Netherlands

Man and fish statue, Gorichem, Netherlands

Old harbour, Gorichem, Netherlands

Old harbour, Gorichem, Netherlands

As I made my way back into the town, the streets were slowly coming back to life. A few of the restaurants in the picturesque Groenmarkt had opened, so I had a coffee and asked the waiter where I could get the boat to Slot Loevestein.

Gorinchem’s an attractive place, but this facade hides some grim historical realities. During the 16th century religious wars that pitched Dutch Calvinists against their Spanish Catholic rulers, Gorinchem was captured by Dutch rebels known as the Sea Beggars. The year was 1572, the height of the Dutch Revolt which started the Eighty Years’ War for Dutch independence.

Grote Kerk, Gorichem, Netherlands

Grote Kerk, Gorichem, Netherlands

Grote Kerk, Gorichem, Netherlands

Grote Kerk, Gorichem, Netherlands

Building poem, Gorichem, Netherlands

Building poem, Gorichem, Netherlands

These were brutal times, the massacre of Dutch towns at the hands of Spanish troops wasn’t uncommon. So when the Sea Beggars found Catholic clergy in Gorinchem they were rounded up and put in prison. The Martyrs of Gorinchem, as these eighteen people would become known, were transported down the river to Brielle where they were executed.

Beer, beer everywhere … and quite a lot to drink

I have to admit to being a fan of beer festivals. Hardly a revelation, I’m from the British Isles where, if beer drinking were an Olympic sport, we’d be a nation of medal winners. These are heady days to be a beer devotee though. There has been a flourishing of innovation and creativity in beer making over the last decade or so, with dozens of ‘micro-breweries’ breaking into a market place desperate for variety and quality.

In the Netherlands, where for centuries they’ve had to endure the sneers of Belgian beer makers, the uninspiring market leaders, Heineken, are giving way to a new breed of brewers with a different vision of Dutch beer. These are great days to be a beer drinker in the Netherlands.

Dutch Beer Tasting Festival, Grote Kerk, The Hague, Netherlands

Dutch Beer Tasting Festival, Grote Kerk, The Hague, Netherlands

Love Beer, Dutch Beer Tasting Festival, Grote Kerk, The Hague, Netherlands

Love Beer, Dutch Beer Tasting Festival, Grote Kerk, The Hague, Netherlands

Dutch Beer Tasting Festival, Grote Kerk, The Hague, Netherlands

Dutch Beer Tasting Festival, Grote Kerk, The Hague, Netherlands

To celebrate this revolution in drinking habits, The Hague is the venue for an annual Dutch Beer Tasting Festival – I think they add the word ‘tasting’ to give it an air of class, as if beer drinkers are just misguided wine aficionados. One of the highlights of the festival isn’t beer-related though, it’s the venue itself. It’s one of the few times of the year when The Hague’s Grote Kerk opens its doors to the great unwashed.

The Grote Kerk is no longer used for worship except, that is, for three days of beer idolatry every year. Still, holding a beer festival inside a 15th century church that has hosted royal weddings, and even the baptism of the current King of the Netherlands, is a bit surprising. King Willem-Alexander would probably approve though, he had a reputation for hard drinking and wild partying before he took the throne.

The problem, as always when offered a large number of choices, is how you’re going to rationalise which beers to sample. Should you approach it by brewery, style, strength or, my particular favourite, by name. The latter being something of a lucky dip and not really approved of by beer connoisseurs. With over 200 beers on offer from forty-four different breweries, this was never going to be easy.

The organisers had handily grouped all beers by style: Saison, Blond, Zwaar Blond, Meibock, Pale Ale, Licht Donker, Dubbel Bock, Gerstewijn and Houtgelagerd, to name just some of the bewildering options. Some of the more outlandish beer names included Sergeant Pepper, Pussycat, Pulp Fiction, Storm & Bliksem and Greatefull Deaf Queill. This confirmed for me that the culture of modern beer drinking has evolved its own language.

Dutch Beer Tasting Festival, Grote Kerk, The Hague, Netherlands

Dutch Beer Tasting Festival, Grote Kerk, The Hague, Netherlands

Dutch Beer Tasting Festival, Grote Kerk, The Hague, Netherlands

Dutch Beer Tasting Festival, Grote Kerk, The Hague, Netherlands

Dutch Beer Tasting Festival, Grote Kerk, The Hague, Netherlands

Dutch Beer Tasting Festival, Grote Kerk, The Hague, Netherlands

There were even half a dozen alcohol free beers, which an amusing poster in the venue implied was for pregnant women – pregnant women who clearly couldn’t face missing out on a beer festival even if they weren’t drinking alcohol. I can’t imagine anything worse than being sober at a beer festival, having to listen to the exaggerated stories of the drinkers.

The Hague has some great breweries, including the Kompaan, Brouwerij Kwartje, Animal Army Brewery and Brouwerij Scheveningen, from The Hague’s beachside district, all of which were represented. More interesting though, was to try some breweries from further afield that don’t have a market in The Hague.

Dutch Beer Tasting Festival, Grote Kerk, The Hague, Netherlands

Dutch Beer Tasting Festival, Grote Kerk, The Hague, Netherlands

Dutch Beer Tasting Festival, Grote Kerk, The Hague, Netherlands

Dutch Beer Tasting Festival, Grote Kerk, The Hague, Netherlands

Dutch Beer Tasting Festival, Grote Kerk, The Hague, Netherlands

There were big breweries like Heineken at the festival, as well as some tiny, one man band operations. It meant some variability in the quality, but it was great to try beers from as far afield as Bierbrouwerij Maallust near Groningen in the north; the Duits & Lauret Brouwerij from a tiny village near Utrecht; Trappistenbrouwerij Zundert near the Belgian border; and Brouwerij De Blauwe IJsbeer from the banks of the De Lek river … all providing reasons for a few trips over the summer.

The glories of medieval Arras

At first sight, it was difficult to know whether we were still in France or had mistakenly crossed the border into Belgium. Arras, in the heart of French Flanders, could easily be mistaken for an errant sibling of Ghent, Bruges or Antwerp. Standing in the centre of Arras’ Grand Place, we were surrounded by a magnificent quadrangle of gabled houses that wouldn’t be out of place in Belgium.

The Grand Place is extraordinary for its size and beauty. Sadly, its charms are spoiled by the fact that it seems to be Arras’ main car park. It’s a huge shame, as a feature of the town it could compete with Bruges or Antwerp. Instead it has a forlorn and slightly abandoned feel. The real action takes place in the Place des Héros, which is partially pedestrianised.

Grand Place, Arras, France

Grand Place, Arras, France

Place des Héros, Arras, France

Place des Héros, Arras, France

Grand Place, Arras, France

Grand Place, Arras, France

It may look grand, but Arras is very much a provincial town and hub for the surrounding rural area. We decided to break our journey back to the Netherlands here and, arriving late on a Saturday afternoon, we found our way to the buzzing Place des Héros. The square was full of people drinking under a bright sun in the many outdoor cafes. It seemed appropriate to join them. Belgium beer is, unsurprisingly, popular here.

Looking out over this magnificent square, surrounded by gabled houses, it’s possible to drink in the history of Arras – a history that dates back over 2,000 years. Arras spent a couple of hundred years as part of the Spanish Low Countries, becoming French only in 1714 when Louis XIV claimed it after the War of Spanish Succession. This may explain why it felt less ‘French’ than anywhere else we’d been on this trip.

It was a wealthy town, famed across Europe for its fine wool and tapestries, which generated the wealth needed to pay for the town’s gorgeous 17th and 18th century buildings. The buildings you see today were largely rebuilt following the near complete destruction of Arras in the First World War. For most of the war Arras was on the front line, repeatedly fought over and bombarded to rubble. There are war cemeteries all across this region.

Photographs from that period show the utter destruction that engulfed Arras, barely a building seemed untouched. The painstaking reconstruction after 1918 was hugely expensive, but the town was rebuilt exactly as it was before the war. It was definitely worth it. There may not be much to do in the town, but it’s a beautiful and relaxed place for wandering. It also has some good restaurants.

Arras, France

Arras, France

Arras, France

Arras, France

Arras, France

Arras, France

Arras, France

Arras, France

Arras, France

Arras, France

After a fun Saturday night in the town, we spent the morning walking around and then visited the extraordinary Town Hall and Belfry. You can go all the way to the top of the UNESCO listed Belfry for spectacular views over the city and surrounding countryside. It’s quite a vista, and thankfully there’s a lift most of the way to the top.

Originally built in the 15th century, the Belfry stands at a magnificent 75 metres in height, and survived for 500 years until the First World War. It’s incredible to think that these two buildings were literally rubble in 1918. They were rebuilt almost brick by brick over a period of 14 years, reopening in 1932 … just in time to become a German administrative centre in the Second World War.

Town Hall and Belfry, Place des Héros, Arras, France

Town Hall and Belfry, Place des Héros, Arras, France

Place des Héros seen from the Belfry, Arras, France

Place des Héros seen from the Belfry, Arras, France

Town Hall and Belfry, Place des Héros, Arras, France

Town Hall and Belfry, Place des Héros, Arras, France

Grand Place, Arras, France

Grand Place, Arras, France

Place des Héros, Arras, France

Place des Héros, Arras, France

Intriguingly, beneath the Town Hall and Belfry is a hidden, secret world that you can only discover on a guided tour. Les Boves – a series of man-made tunnels – date from as early as the 10th century. The extensive tunnels run underneath the Place des Héros, and were built by merchants who owned the houses around the square as storage space for their goods.

We didn’t have time for much else in Arras, as we had to head back to the Netherlands. We’ll be back though, this is the perfect base from which to explore the nearby First World War sites.

Grumpy cat in window, Arras, France

Grumpy cat in window, Arras, France

Château d’Ussé and the legend of Sleeping Beauty

We hadn’t planned to visit the Château d’Ussé. Instead we’d headed to the more famous and picturesque Château d’Azay-le-Rideau, only to find that it was undergoing major restoration work – always check the website before setting off. In this part of the Loire you need never worry about finding an alternative château to visit though, there seems to be one every few kilometres.

We hopped back into the car, looked at the map, and decided the Château d’Ussé ticked all the right boxes: it was nearby and was generally in the same direction as the Netherlands. We drove down quiet country lanes through beautiful Loire landscapes following the course of the Indre River, until we reached the tiny hamlet of Rigny-Ussé, above which towers the fantastical looking Château d’Ussé.

Château d'Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d'Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d'Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d'Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Ussé, Loire Valley, France

The château sits on the edge of the Forest of Chinon on a terrace that overlooks the vast sweep of the Indre Valley below. It makes a dramatic sight, white Gothic towers built in the 15th century rising into the blue sky. This is the ultimate fairytale castle, and is credited with inspiring Charles Perrault’s classic tale of La Belle au Bois Dormant, or Sleeping Beauty as it’s better known in English.

It’s also one of several château that lays claim to being the inspiration behind Walt Disney’s ‘Cinderella Castle’, an actual fairytale castle which has become an iconic global brand. We could see the resemblance as we waited with a large group of leather clad bikers for the château to open – providing a nice juxtaposition between the home of Sleeping Beauty and the modern world.

Château d'Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d'Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d'Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d'Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Our guidebook was a bit ‘sniffy’ about the château, going as far as to imply it wasn’t really worth visiting. In the wrong mood you might think it was a bit kitsch, but we loved it for that very reason. Walking through the main house the rooms are populated with wax mannequins in period dress from La Belle Époque. I can imagine that it’s a little creepy at night.

The route through the château ends in The King’s Chambers, a fabulous room where the Sun King, Louis XIV stayed. Other luminaries to have stayed here include, Haile Selassie, the Last Emperor of Ethiopia. To be honest we were a bit disappointed, for a €14 entry fee not much of the château is open to the public. We found ourselves back outside in the courtyard with only one more thing to visit … the Sleeping Beauty tower.

Château d'Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d'Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Sleeping Beauty rooms, Château d'Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Sleeping Beauty rooms, Château d’Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Sleeping Beauty rooms, Château d'Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Sleeping Beauty rooms, Château d’Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Sleeping Beauty rooms, Château d'Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Sleeping Beauty rooms, Château d’Ussé, Loire Valley, France

It’s difficult to imagine the level of kitsch on display in the Sleeping Beauty rooms, in fact, I think only Disney have managed more kitsch. There are rooms with dubious looking wax figures representing the most famous scenes from the story. My favourite was the scene when the wicked witch curses Sleeping Beauty while the great and the good look on helpless.

At first it was just a normal scene, but then the room darkened and was bathed in flashing red lights for added drama. Blood curdling.

Château d'Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d'Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d'Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d'Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Ussé, Loire Valley, France

The kitsch didn’t stop there though, after we visited the beautiful small church in the grounds, we went to the wine caves where there were yet more mannequins depicting typical scenes of country life. This included a rather debauched looking group of drunks in one of the cellars. Truly wonderful. After all that excitement we got back in the car and headed north east, our destination … Arras.

Chinon, a Royal English castle in France

Imposingly built on an rocky hill, and towering over the Vienne River and the medieval town below, the fabulous Château de Chinon is an impressive and picturesque sight viewed from the banks of the river. The views from its ramparts and towers are even more impressive, with sweeping vistas over the surrounding valley and down the Vienne as it stretches into the distance.

More than its location, the history of Chinon is the history of the bitter Anglo-French rivalry that consumed this region for hundreds of years. This was the main residence of Henry II, the Plantagenet King of England, Count of Anjou, Count of Maine, Duke of Normandy, Duke of Aquitaine, Count of Nantes, Lord of Ireland, and ruler of Wales, Scotland and Brittany. It represents the high watermark of ‘English’ power in France.

Château de Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chinon, Loire Valley, France

After three decades of fighting Louis VII, the King of France, and having successfully defeated an alliance of his own sons against him, Henry died at Chinon in 1189. At the time of his death, the Angevin Empire that he’d founded stretched across four countries, including the western half of modern-day France. It wasn’t to last.

Henry’s crown and titles passed to Richard I, the Lionheart, who spent most of his time crusading in the Holy Lands, as a prisoner of Saladin, or fighting to hold on to his French possessions. Richard’s rebellious brother John inherited his title as King of England, but his French possessions refused to recognise his claim on them. Bit by bit, the Angevin Empire fell apart, and Chinon was lost to French King, Philip II in 1205.

Château de Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chinon, Loire Valley, France

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Château de Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chinon, Loire Valley, France

This wasn’t the last time Chinon played a role in the rivalry between England and France. During the Hundred Years’ War, the future Charles VII of France installed his court here – Paris and much of north-west France was under English control. Here, in 1429, Joan of Arc visited Charles for the first time to persuade him that she was God’s messenger. She went on to lead the King’s army to defeat the English at Orléans.

Today, this history is inventively told through a combination of video and written text throughout the castle and grounds. It’s a really pleasant place to wander around, with a nice cafe in the grounds, before either walking or taking a free lift down the hill to the medieval town below. The staff at the castle were really friendly, and you’ll find lots of activities taking place throughout the day.

Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Vineyard, Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Vineyard, Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Vineyard, Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Vineyard, Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Vineyard, Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Vineyard, Chinon, Loire Valley, France

From the castle’s battlements you can see vineyards stretching off into the distance. This is one of the Loire’s main wine regions, rightly famed for the Chinon Rouge wine made from Cabernet Franc grapes. Around the town, and throughout the region, are plenty of wine caves and cellars; had I not been driving I’d definitely have been tempted to try a glass or two.

The town of Chinon, home to around 8,000 people, is a sleepy place that exudes history. It’s full of ancient buildings, some dating from the medieval period, other from the 17th and 18th centuries. We wandered around, exploring the narrow streets, churches and squares, but couldn’t stay for too long as we were at the start of our trip back to the Netherlands and had another Loire château to visit.

Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Chinon, Loire Valley, France

A confluence of history in Tours

It was during our fifth circuit of its tightly packed city centre that I began to regret coming to Tours. How hard can it be to find a parking space? To be fair, our sat nav’s determination to take us down pedestrianised streets wasn’t helping, but it really shouldn’t be this tricky. We finally found an underground car park and, emerging from the stairwell into a fantastic food market, all was quickly forgiven.

Walking through the streets on the way to our hotel, it was clear that Tours was a vibrant and attractive place. Around 25,000 students add to the vibrancy, and painstaking reconstruction following the Second World War has restored Tours’ architectural splendour. No mean feat, around a quarter of Tours was destroyed during the German offensive in 1940 and the Allies’ counter offensive in 1944.

Cathedral of Saint Gatien, Tours, France

Cathedral of Saint Gatien, Tours, France

In June 1940, Tours was briefly home to the French government, led by Paul Reynaud, as it retreated south in the face of the German advance. It saw an extraordinary meeting between Reynaud and Winston Churchill. Fearing isolation, Churchill was desperate to ensure that France remained in the war and didn’t negotiate a deal with Germany.

Taking place only a few days after the Dunkirk Evacuation, with the victorious German army bearing down upon Tours, those must have been tense, chaotic days. Paris fell to the Germans during Churchill’s conference with Reynaud, on June 14. Eight days later France had no choice but to surrender, but not before much of Tours had been burned to the ground by incendiary bombs.

Tours was also central to another major turning point in Western European history, the Battle of Tours in 732. It was here that Charles Martel, the ruler of the Christian Frankish Kingdoms defeated invading Muslim armies advancing from their Spanish heartland. Although it would be a long time before the Reconquista in Spain, it’s considered the battle that prevented the further advance of Islam across Europe.

The outstanding sight in Tours is undoubtedly the Cathedral of Saint Gatien, a truly magnificent building begun in the 13th century and completed in the 16th century. The overwrought Gothic frontage towers over the surrounding streets. The interior is equally glorious, with fabulous stained glass windows and ornate tombs, including that of two children of King Charles VIII and Anne of Brittany.

The cathedral is considered to be one of the finest in France. Perhaps not quite on a par with Reims or Notre-Dame de Paris, it’s an astonishing building all the same and alone worth the effort of making the trip to Tours. Plus, it only attracts a fraction of the number of tourists, which makes the experience far more rewarding.

Tours, France

Tours, France

Tours, France

Tours, France

Tours, France

Tours, France

Ancient buildings, Tours, France

Ancient buildings, Tours, France

Tours, France

Tours, France

The heart of the old city is Place Plumereau, a small square surrounded by wonderful half-timbered 18th century houses. It’s home to several good cafes and had a lively atmosphere day and night. The Friday night we were there seemed particularly lively. Spiralling off Place Plumereau, several streets lead you further into the warren of the historic old town. This area, the Vieille Ville, is pedestrianised and great for leisurely strolling.

We only had a day in Tours, so we didn’t see everything we’d hoped to. That said, wandering the city streets was a genuine pleasure, and it’s a place that we’d definitely go back to, if for no other reason than that it’s the perfect base from which to explore the villages and château dotted around the western Loire Valley.

Place Plumereau, Tours, France

Place Plumereau, Tours, France

Place Plumereau, Tours, France

Place Plumereau, Tours, France

Tours, France

Tours, France

The Royal Citadel of Loches

The plan had been a morning exploring the delights of the Château de Chenonceau, followed by a drive through beautiful Loire Valley countryside, and a leisurely lunch in the ancient royal town of Loches. We managed most things except lunch, which had to be postponed due to the sudden onset of a 24-hour stomach bug. It was a great shame, Loches’ narrow cobbled streets are home to some good restaurants.

Undeterred, but somewhat less enthusiastic than usual, we walked through a lovely public park alongside the River Indre with views over the town and citadel; then we plunged into the winding streets and made our way uphill towards the imposing walls of the medieval citadel.

Loches, France

Loches, France

Loches, France

Loches, France

Loches, France (courtesy of Ville Loches)

Loches, France (courtesy of Ville Loches)

Loches is something of a backwater in the Loire region and, comparatively, doesn’t receive so many tourists. After the craziness of the Château de Chenonceau this came as a relief. Walking through the quiet streets was a real pleasure. We found our way uphill and passed through one the imposing gateways into the citadel; it was a hot day but at least at the top of the hill there was a breeze.

Loches is a sleepy place today but, standing looking out over the Loire valley from inside the citadel, it’s possible to appreciate the turbulent history that has swept over the town. It’s a place that played a critical role in the centuries-long conflict between the royal houses of England and France.

In 1194 Richard the Lionheart, the King of England who spoke French and very little English, captured the town from Philip II of France. In the 12th century the Kingdom of France was a small feudal state, and this was less an English attack on France than a power struggle between French nobles. Richard Coeur de Lion was also Duke of Normandy, Aquitaine and Gascony, Count of Poitiers, Anjou, Maine and Nantes, as well as Overlord of Brittany. A job title that wouldn’t easily fit on a business card.

Jardin Public, Loches, France

Jardin Public, Loches, France

River Indre, Loches, France

River Indre, Loches, France

Loches, France

Loches, France

The English only controlled Loches for a decade before it fell to Philip II after a year-long siege. Loches would play another, far more significant, role in Anglo-French relations 235-years later. It was here, in 1429, that Joan of Arc sought a meeting with King Charles VII of France to persuade him march north to fight the English, and to be crowned King of France in Reims – a symbolically important act.

Loches was also home to the stunningly beautiful Agnes Sorel, mistress of the same Charles VII. At one time religious and ascetic, Charles fell head-over-heels for Agnes, who is credited with turning Charles onto a path of lust and debauchery. He gave her the Château de Loches as a gift, presumably a gift that had great significance given this was where he’d met with Joan of Arc.

Loches, France

Loches, France

Loches, France

Loches, France

Church of St. Ours, Loches, France

Church of St. Ours, Loches, France

Church of St. Ours, Loches, France

Church of St. Ours, Loches, France

Agnes is regarded as the first official royal mistress in France’s history – a true trail blazer. She was clearly ahead of her time in many ways, pioneering naked shoulders as a fashion statement – something that shocked society and one of the reasons she was despised by many in the royal court. She died tragically young, almost certainly poisoned.

Paintings of Agnes often show her with bared breast, including Jean Fouquet’s exquisite Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels, which I was lucky enough to see last year in Antwerp. Noted for its ‘icy eroticism’ by some critics, it’s still pretty risqué today. Agnes is depicted Venus-like, and she wears a crown as if she’s Queen.

Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels, painting of Agnes Sorel, Antwerp, Belgium

Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels, painting of Agnes Sorel, Antwerp, Belgium

Church of St. Ours, Loches, France

Church of St. Ours, Loches, France

Loches, France

Loches, France

Loches, France

Loches, France

Loches, France

Loches, France

Loches, France

Loches, France

While we were discovering this epic history, I was getting progressively sicker and had developed a fever. I sat in the cool interior of the Church of St. Ours hoping for a miracle, none was forthcoming. Dragging myself back into the sunlight, I felt like I couldn’t walk another step, unless it was towards a bathroom. This meant we wouldn’t be visiting the Château de Loches.

Now, anyone who knows me, or has had the misfortune to follow this blog for any time, will be painfully aware of my great love of castles, forts and other old ruins. I would never willingly turn down the opportunity to spend time wandering around an historic pile of rocks, but the Château de Loches was beyond me. I was clearly at death’s door … time to beat a hasty retreat to our hotel in Tours.

Château de Chenonceau, the castle of the six ladies

If there is a more exquisite sight anywhere in the Loire Valley than the Château de Chenonceau in the early morning sunlight, I don’t know what it might be. Draped across the tranquil River Cher, its white stone brilliantly reflected in the slow moving water, this has to be one of the most sublime and graceful château to be found anywhere in France … and that’s saying something.

You approach it along a tree lined avenue that culminates in beautiful formal gardens. A path through the flower garden brings you to a riverside walk along the Cher, and leads into sun-dappled woodland where more paths diverge amongst the trees. It is as perfect as it is possible to get … at least if you get here before the tour buses start arriving.

Château de Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France

Chenonceau’s spectacular location alone would be reason to visit, but this is also a castle with a history to match its magical location. The peaceful surroundings belie five centuries of intrigue, revenge and decadence. Its also unusual for the fact that its most influential inhabitants were all women, which is why it’s nicknamed the “castle of the six women”.

Chenonceau was built in 1515 by Thomas Bohier, the finance minister to French King Charles VIII. It was his wife, Katherine, who tore down the original castle, chose the new design and oversaw the building work. Chenonceau became a royal château when King Francis I seized it upon the death of Bohier. Francis was quickly succeeded by King Henri II who indulgently gave the château to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers.

Unfortunately for Diane, Henri II was married to one of the Medici’s, not a family with which to trifle. Catherine de Medici was a woman of iron will who clearly subscribed to the theory that revenge is best served cold. One of her favourite sayings was “hate and wait”. Which is precisely what she did to get her hands on Chenonceau and dispossess Diane.

Vibrant, fun and renowned for her athleticism, Diane de Poitiers was everything Catherine wasn’t. She had been Henri II’s governess when he was a child and, although 20 years his senior, Henri was clearly obsessed with her. God only knows what this says about his state of mind. Catherine despised her, but powerless to challenge her while Henri lived she waited.

In the meantime, Diane became a successful businesswoman and turned the estate into a financial success. The profits were used to add the bridge across the river – so she could go hunting in the woods on the far bank. Then Henri died in a jousting accident and Catherine made her move, forced Diane out and took Chenonceau for herself.

Château de Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France

Donkey, Château de Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France

Donkey, Château de Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France

It was Catherine who added the two galleries on top of the bridge that completed the building you see today. She was making a fortune from farming silk and used the profits to build the house and to throw some of the most decadent parties the 16th century ever saw. Catherine was the first person in France to have a fireworks display, but her parties also included naked ‘nymphs’ and transvestites.

When Catherine’s third son, King Henry III, was assassinated in 1589 Chenonceau passed to his wife, Louise de Lorraine. Filled with grief, she turned the castle into a living mausoleum. She had her bedroom decorated in black and took to roaming the corridors in white mourning clothes. When she died in 1601 she was the last royal resident Chenonceau would have.

During the French Revolution the castle was in the possession of Louise Dupin. It was Louise who made the château fashionable for Parisian society darlings, including the Enlightenment’s most famous thinkers, Voltaire and Rousseau. Aged 83-years old when the Revolution erupted, she managed to save the castle from the mob.

One final historical footnote, during the Second World War the River Cher formed the boundary between German-controlled France and Vichy France. Chenonceau, and its galleried bridge, were used to smuggle Jews and French Resistance fighters across the river away from Nazi hands.

It’s a glorious place. The only down side is its popularity. In summer up to 6000 souls – groups, families and individuals – pour into the house and grounds. It wasn’t that bad when we were there, but the house was uncomfortably crowded and we almost didn’t visit the kitchens due to a long queue. Go early.

Château de Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France